I have always seen myself as a man of few vices. I don’t smoke, shun illegal drugs of any kind, I drink now and then but never in any great quantity. I thought the most serious habit I had was a love of tea. But I count that as an Englishman’s perogative, and not one that’s likely to cause any great harm. But recently I’ve come to realise that isn’t quite the whole story. I have been secretly fostering a different kind of habit.
Addiction itself is often a personality trait that manifests in different ways, and in that case anything can be the object of addiction, playing games, doing sit-ups, playing instruments. The important thing is the sense of need, whether physical or psychological that comes from the removal of that activity. In my case it’s a very modern kind of addiction, a kind that could only exist in a world of fibre-optic broadband and wireless routers – a constant an unceasing need for information…
Back a bit, into the fog of memory – the moment of realisation. Me and Dante moved into a house about a week ago, and just before leaving my old house I registered a request to hook our new place up to broadband, they would send an email informing us of the date we’d be connected. We had to access our emails, we needed that information. We turned on the laptop – six or seven wireless networks in the area, every one of them locked.
“Shit,” hissed Dante, “people finally learned how to password their networks.”
A moment of desperate thinking.
“Let’s go upstairs, maybe we’ll get more.”
We dashed upstairs, refreshed the network detection programme. Yes! One lonesome network without a password. We cheered and pressed connect. The laptop registered zero bars of signal strength – not good enough, it was struggling to load the Google frontpage.
“The signal’s so weak, it must be accross the street.”
I grabbed the laptop and ran over to the window, perching it on the edge of the windowsill – one bar of signal strength.
The laptop kept toppling off the narrow ledge. “Hold it!” I said.
Dante supported the laptop and I typed. Hotmail – sign in – email address – password. We were in! Eight unread mail messages. No, I don’t want to enrol in a course at Phoenix University – no, I don’t want to take a free IQ test – and no, I like my wang the way it is thank you very much, aha! Broadband installation date – open.
We both stared, crestfallen. Fourth of October. Three weeks away.
“Nyoooooooo!” I said. what am I going to do? All those facebook notifications, email messages, Charlie Brooker articles, RPS posts and youtube videos would remain unread and unwatched. The thing is, all those little interactions – blog posts, comment posts, facebook wall posts, avatar images – they all constitute a kind of alternative self projected from a single keyboard into the sea of information. That self had just been bludgeoned into a coma for three weeks, and there wasn’t much that could be done about it.
What would we do if we wanted to know something? before we would just feed the words into Google’s all-knowing maw and watch it churn out answers. Now we’d have to, I dunno, look it up in a book or something. We would have to actually endure news broadcasts instead of scanning the BBC website. All those RSS feeds updating themselves, Twitter updates, all of it would continue without me. It was as though the world was dashing away at it’s normal breakneck speed, and I had just fallen off the pace, and was left choking on its dust.
So to recover we drank some whiskey and watched 1955 film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, which was whack.
I’ve calmed down since then long enough to reflect on things. It’s not a physical addiction of course, no cold sweats and stomach cramps, but there’s definitely a psychological element, a social element in fact.
I’m working for an NHS Mental Health Trust at the moment, and writing this hastily at work (fighting staunchly restrictive access which will only allow the BBC and, thankfully, WordPress). The NHS has schemes for its sectioned mental health patients, or Service-Users as they’re officially termed, which give them limited access to the Internet and email as a way of reintroducing them to society, hastening their recovery times by allowing them better access to friends and family and news of the outside world. It’s a form of reintegration that works without the risks and resources of supervised public excursions.
It’s still a risky business of course, the Internet is, after all, full of lies, with trusted sources few and far between. It’s lack of content restriction, relative to other media, leaves us with an unpredictable anarchy of the interesting and the unsavoury. It’s incomprehensible size also means that good quality information and good writing is hard to find. But despite all its drawbacks, it’s an environment that is becoming more and more important to the smooth running of everyday life. Banking, shopping and gaming can all operate exclusively online. For the Internet savvy, going to the shops becomes less and less useful. Companies accross the world can now communicate instantly without using paper. IP phones, skype and other services mean it’s fast becoming foolish to endure telephone bills. Last week I organised home insurance and Broadband for the new house in one hour on the net.
In this context, it’s not addiction, it’s adaptation. I use the Internet to keep abreast of a world that is always changing, and if I’m not online, I’m missing out on that. I can’t keep up with my friends in other countries, my virtual social life is on hold, and it makes sense for that to cause distress.
But then, it’s in the addict’s nature to justify his vices. Maybe I should stop worrying and go outside for a while, soak up some of that wintry British wet weather.