I love new technologies and gadgets that promise new and better ways of doing things.

I have many such gadgets myself and I even manage to use a few of them (though not without some pain). A new piece of technology is like a new relationship, fun and exciting at first, but eventually it requires some hard work to maintain, usually in the form of time and energy. I do doubt technologies promise to improve the quality of life and I am still surprised how time-distorting and dissociating the computer and the Internet can be for me, along with the thousands of people I’ve interviewed, studied and treated in my clinical practice.

Technology, and most especially, computers and the Internet, seem to be at best easily overused/abused, and at worst, addictive. The combination of available stimulating content, ease of access, convenience, low cost, visual stimulation, autonomy, and anonymity—all contribute to a highly psychoactive experience. By psychoactive, that is to say mood altering, and potentially behaviorally impactful. In other words these technologies affect the manner in which we live and love. It is my contention that some of these effects are indeed less than positive, and may contribute to various negative psychological effects.

The Internet and other digital technologies are only the latest in a series of “improvements” to our world which may have unintended negative effects.

The experience of the negative effects of new and unknown technologies is far from new; we have seen countless examples of new and better things that have had unintended and unexpected deleterious effects. Remember Thalidomide, PVC/PCB’s, Atomic power, carbon fossil fuels, even television, along with other seemingly innocuous conveniences which have been shown to be helpful, but on other levels harmful. Some of these harmful effects are obvious and tragic, while others are more subtle and insidious. Even seemingly innocuous advances such as the elevator, remote controls, credit card gas pumps, dishwashers,  and drive-through everything, all have unintended negative effects. They all save time and energy, but the energy they save may prevent us from using our physical bodies as they were designed to be used. In short we have convenienced ourselves to a sedentary lifestyle.

Technology is amoral; it is not inherently good or evil, but it is impactful on the manner in which we live our lives. American’s love technology and for some of us this trust and blind faith almost parallels a religious fanaticism. Perhaps most of all, we love it because of the hope for the future it promises; it is this promise of a better today and a longer tomorrow that captivates us to attend to the call for new better things to come.

We live in the age were computer and digital technology are always on the cusp of great things– Newer, better ways of doing things (which in some ways is indeed true). The old becomes obsolete within a year or two. Newer is always better. Computers and the Internet purport to make our lives easier, simpler, and therefore more fulfilling, but it may not be that simple.

What attracts to us to Computers and the Internet?

Why do we love technology so much? What does it do for us? Why do we have such an intense interest in wireless communication? Who do we want to connect to and why? When do we have the time to develop and experience all these digital connections into expanded opportunities and relationships? Is it a good thing that we can email round the world but don’t know our neighbors name?

The positive educational valance that surrounds the computer is still lingering, in spite of the fact that there are many negative uses/abuses from this technology. Digital technology promises a better life and computers and the Internet promise greater work efficiency and life satisfaction, but the jury is still out. I have my doubts as to whether any technology can solve the socio-psychological and biologic ills that are caused by a myopic belief that we can conquer all of our ills through better technology. Tech Stress syndrome is the result of having to learn and relearn technology with no possibility to master it as it never stays around long enough to become familiar with it. There is always a better, faster processor to obtain, or a new PDA to upgrade to. It is a road that has no end. We become burnt-out trying to figure out how all this stuff works and we still can’t set our VCR clock! Even if you manage to master most of your technology, then it changes or you become stressed from the mastery process or worse yet you forget how you did it the last time! We respond to the hype and advertising that promised a better tomorrow today if you only buy the latest processor that you’re really don’t need. We all have processor envy. While I am typing this I am toggling to the Dell website to see if I can get a laptop with two gigs of RAM so I can do my work yet even faster, as if faster is better. Technology and is definitely supported by a “More is Better” approach to living. In addition, the whole expansion and rapid change cycle of communicational technology creates the experience of never being up to date and never being quite good enough. You are always one step behind. We are constantly encouraged to upgrade, update, and upload our selves that we never have the sense that what we have is good enough.

Communication technologies (including the Internet) are all about connecting, and that we are genetically predisposed to connect inter-personally. We need to connect and communicate. Our physical and psychological survival and health depends on this innate behavior.  Along with our desire to connect (which is natural) is the partially misguided desire for convenience which drives the wireless connectivity. But it isn’t that simple. It is questionable whether communicational technologies really bring us closer together at all or improve our relationships and life quality. As a practicing psychologist/technologist it is my contention that I rarely see any forms of technology positively impact the major areas of life satisfaction for people. I see people looking for newer distractions, and more efficient methods to achieve, but none of them impact the hard and, at times, painful work of life and relationships. We often look for easy answers to hard and painful questions. Technology can only truly serve us if it enhances the best of our humanity at a reasonable cost of time, energy, and money.

The Net Effect

The Internet is unique in that it is a place to communicate to and a means by which to communicate. However, the form and quality of that communication is not equivalent to real-time social interaction. The necessary forms of social and emotional intelligence that we need to survive in healthy relationships may be lacking in cyber-communications. When you spend time on-line then you are not doing other things that create a well balanced life. That is not to say that the Net is bad place, nor is it to say that we cannot utilize its vast resources and efficiency for productive means, but there a potential for the addictive aspect of the Net to detract for those who become lost in cyberspace.

Because the Internet feels like a real place we have anthropomorphized it, and there is a tendency to imbue it with powers, qualities, and attributes it cannot really have. People have qualities, not machines.  Communicating on the Net is also a paradox in that it is used to connect socially, but the technology is often socially isolating.

We are genetically predisposed to socially and physically connect and communicate;

The question is whether virtual communications are an analogous representation of real-time relationships. Is it indeed a psychologically (and socially) healthy behavior to be able to e-mail or chat with someone in mainland china but not their neighbors name? The Net afford a certain sense of disconnection and buffer from the reality of human relationships.

I believe all communication technologies (Internet, telephone, cell phone, PDA, and even television) are all less than direct attempts connect to others; technology appears to be more efficient, but it doesn’t actually work that way, many times the technology seems to intrude, distract or otherwise detract from the general communicational experience. In the case of connecting to other human being in any context, more may actually be less and certainly with less depth and quality.

The Internet: The next Best thing to being there.

The Internet has outpaced the growth and popular acceptance most previous forms of technology. We like the Internet. It seems to provide a sense of Dot. comfort which is why it is out latest E-ddiction! In the study I did in collaboration with ABC News we found the following key points:

  1. 17% report feeling preoccupied with the Internet.
  2. Nearly 6% meet the criteria for Compulsive use of the Internet.
  3. Over 11% of those surveyed report feeling restless or irritable when attempting to decrease or stop their Net use.
  4. 72% of those surveyed use the Internet at work and about 33% of the time spent online is during work hours.
  5. Nearly 30% admit to using regularly using the Internet to alter their mood. They use the Net like a Drug to elevate their mood, combat boredom, or reduce stress.

Why is the Internet addictive and easily over-used and abused? Any behavior that is pleasurable can be abused or used compulsively. Most addictive or compulsive-prone behaviors operate on an intermittent ratio reinforcement schedule and are therefore highly resistant to extinction. The Internet is no exception. All pleasurable behaviors change our mood and brain chemistry. The Internet probably does this as well. The anonymity, time distortion, accessibility, ease of access, intensity, and affordability all contribute to the attractiveness of Internet communication. The internet is a means to communicate and a place to communicate to and the medium itself is a highly potent and stimulating means of connection. This, combined with potentially stimulating content, can produce a synergistically powerful and mood-altering experience. The Internet affords easy access to stimulating and previously unavailable content, and can lower use/abuse thresholds for previously inaccessible information, images, and activities (many of which are sexual in nature). We like the power and intensity of connecting to the world and something bigger than ourselves. Combine all this stimulation with the anonymity and ease of access and you’ve got Television on steroids.

Love @ Light Speed.

The Internet is very popular in sexual areas due to accelerated intimacy or Love @ Light Speed. Often, the progression of virtual cyber-sexual relationships toward real-time sexual contact move quite rapidly; and about thirty-one percent of the time people who engage in cyber sexual contact will eventually meet for old-fashioned, real-time sexual activity. Is cybersex a new form of Virtual Gratification? And can it take the place of other (more traditional) forms of sexual behavior? Perhaps the more important question is whether it provides the same healthy psychosocial experience as real-time interaction or is a new type of intimacy? Clearly, the Net is a Petri dish for the development and enactment of various forms of sexual behavior. It represents a virtual sexual smorgasbord of activity and opportunity. It also encourages the ease of extramarital contact and infidelity. Morality aside—is it a good thing that we can so easily have sex, gamble, shop, by stocks without the buffer of human contact and interaction? We clearly see a phenomenon of threshold reduction where it is far easier to cross the line online and engage in many behaviors that might otherwise not occur. In the vast majority of cybersex and sexual addiction problems I see involve people who clearly would not have engaged in the behavior where it not for the Internet! Currently cyber sexual infidelity is a common reason for seeking advice or marriage counseling and is the most upsetting aspect of Internet-based sexual infidelity because of the perceived violation of the marital and family space!

Technology, and especially, computers and the Internet, seem to be at best easily overused or abused, and at worst, are addictive. It is very clear that the Internet has produced a host of Internet-enabled problems. The combination of available content, ease of access, convenience, low cost, visual stimulation, autonomy, and anonymity—all contribute to a highly mood altering experience which can affect many aspects of life. All technologies affect the manner in which we live and love. It should be remembered that unless technology improves the quality of our lives, it of no benefit. Simply because we can create and provide brilliant new technologies, does not mean they are without a negative impact.