Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hug It But Not Too Much (5Cs of Tech Addictions)

Hug It but not too much
We have it in our cell phones. We use it daily to send emails and extract information. We drive them and it brings us to faraway places in quick time, in comfort and in style. Taking the shape of machines, technology has become so much a part of our lives that we cannot do without them. ABC has a news article on this.

In this article, I shall argue that there are 5Cs of addiction we need to take note of. It makes people susceptible in a high-tech electronic age. Firstly, people have taken more to calculations as a form of identity. Quantifiable means have replaced and subsumed the qualitative. Secondly, many people cannot do without cellphones, and they will feel largely incomplete and unfulfilled in case somebody tries to contact them. Thirdly, lots of people are addicted to their computers, so much so that they are not able to properly function without one. Too much information are stored in their computers already. Fourthly, throughout the nation, even the world, the convenience of information at one’s fingertips is driving people to the keyboards rather than to a community center or a place where people gladly meet. Finally, addiction to cyberspace is something that affects all of us, especially the younger people who are more tech-savvy and cyber-groovy who can easily become online junkies. In conclusion, I shall assert that there is hope to address these 5 addictions. The first step to any recovery process is in the recognition that the addict is indeed addicted and needs help. In all of these addictions, the core reason is due to the lack of self identity one experiences, and any efforts to use addictions to the 5Cs as a way to define one’s self-worth is useless. Instead, a healthy relationship with God is utterly essential to escaping the tempting clutches of the addictions of modern society.

1) Addicted to Calculations
Technology is both a friend as well as an enemy, says Neil Postman, a 20th century cultural critic. He warns us about the tyranny of machines over man. What is particularly insightful in Technopoly is his view of the mathematical representation of reality. He argues that the human society has essentially reduced reality into a set of numbers. Our worth in education is based on the grades we get, or our GPA score. Our heart pressure is measured in terms of the systolic and diastolic heart rate numbers. Our identity is measured according to our height, weight, date of birth, social security number, driver’s license number, insurance number, etc. Our economic worth is measured based on how many years of working experience, how much we earn, how many degrees we have, how many awards and certificates we collect, etc. Our IQ can also be measured. Governments have tried to conduct multiple censuses over the years, collecting data and processing them, compressing, compiling and eventually distilling all the information and reducing humankind into a miserable statistic. Can we do that to relationships? Can our friendliness be measured by how many friends we have? Can a quality of a friendship be based on how much a friend is willing to lend us money, and by how much cash?

Neil Postman writes powerfully:
To a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list.
To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image.
To a man with a computer, everything looks like data.
To a man with a grade sheet, everything looks like a number.
” (Neil Postman, Technopoly, New York: Vintage Books, 1992, p14)
If I can add, to a man with an addiction, everything looks like gas to FUEL their obsession. People have unconsciously placed quantity over quality in their quest to measure something that cannot be measured. They have attempted to use numbers to bring a ‘standard’ meaning to non-measurables. I argue that relationships have to be seen in their own light and we must not take the lazy man’s way to try to simplify things in the name of making it ‘easier’ to understand. Every relationship is unique and we must be careful to preserve it and enhance it according to how much we understand of the relationship, not using the world to explain the person, but to understand how the person sees the world. Technology accelerates this calculation phenomena.

2) Addicted to Cellphones
An ABC survey was done recently where: “40 percent of people surveyed can't cope without a cell phone, 35 percent of people used cell phones to escape their problems and 7 percent blamed the cell phone for a lost relationship or job.” When I was a teenager in the 70s, cell-phones were unheard of. Those who owns one must be very rich. The wireless phenomena slowly spreads. Popularized by the Hong-Kong ‘mafia’ style movies, gangsters in those gang shows were seen coolly using bulky Motorola ‘brick’ hand-phones called “Tai-Kor-Tai” which literally means ‘big brother big.’ The larger the phone, the bigger the significance of the status of the gang leader. Sometimes, it is an arm’s show of strength and prestige to be able to hold on tightly to a gigantic and heavy handphone in the 80s (see left). It has much more uses than the small cellphones we have nowadays. You can use it as a door-stopper, you can pound it on the table to prove your point, and you can even use it as a cockroach-killer. When that monster device rings, there is such a wow ring that everybody in the coffee shop knows you have that status symbol. A loud ring then needs a booming ‘HELLO’ to sync the whole talk experience.

There have been some attempts to dissuade people from greater phone usage. Some of them are medical, where some reports showed a higher radiation risk due to the wireless signals that could fry the brain. Others are plainly due to cost. I think the biggest problem is addiction. In Korea, some have taken on the fight against mobile phone addiction. An Australian talk show highlights this problem. In Japan, many are worried about children’s addiction to the mobile phone that the government is asking manufacturers to make phones with mainly the talk and location function. Click here to read more. To compound the problem, almost every form that I fill, every registration application for anything, ranging from product warranty cards to various service registrations, almost always, there is a small space for one to include their cellphone number. Can we really do without the cell phone? It is possible but increasingly difficult.

3) Addicted to Computers
When Bill Gates first entered the computer scene, his vision for his company is to have a computer on every desk at every home. His vision has tremendous success. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to have households with more than one computer. It will seem that with the wireless router popularity, every household will have a network or more to link all these computers together. As a technology guy, I network several computers very easily, doing load balancing among the different computers and different operating systems and trying to make the best use of old hardware and software while they are still useful. Upgrading unnecessarily can also be an addiction to fight against. With an increasingly networked environment and the ubiquity of information sharing via the Internet, the computer is fast becoming an indispensable tool. We use it to search for recipes for home cooked meals, we use it to read newspapers online, we use it to check TV programming for the day, watch sports, read digital books, communicate via email and update our lives on the blogspace. Advertisements are helping to make people think that they needed newer, faster and better machines all the time. There is a saying that the moment one buys a computer, it is already outdated. Some will venture to say that the moment a new computer rolls out of the manufacturing line, it is obsolete. This increases the volume of e-waste that creates havoc to landfills and environmental concerns. Some have argued for ending obsolescence by sticking to standard guidelines for saving information. You can read the white paper in pdf here. After-all, isn’t it true that information and data remain largely similar, only the format and the means to creating and keeping it has changed. For example, save the document on TEXT format or Rich-Text (RTF). We will then be able to avoid worries about whether it is compatible with Microsoft Word 2008, 2004, or OpenOffice, or Wordperfect, or MacOffice, or different kinds of different word processors. Of course, different manufacturers will claim to have their unique features, and claim to adhere to a certain standard. Often such moves are streamlined to ensure their dominance in the market. One can be addicted to so many things under the umbrella of computers.
  • Addicted to Upgrading
  • Addicted to Speed
  • Addicted to Constant paranoia of disk fragmentation/defragmentation
  • Addicted to NOT having the latest and the greatest
  • Addicted to worry over sounds coming from the hard drive
  • Addicted to eliminating all pixel malfunctions on the LCD monitor
  • Addicted to a slow mouse movement
  • Addicted to multiple windows / widgets that MUST appear at a particular moment and time.
  • Addicted to the proper functioning of the random photo images display as Wallpaper
  • Addicted to programs that HAS to function at a certain speed
  • ……..
What drives such addictions? It is due in large part to something more internal.

4) Addicted to Convenience
Having technological tools around us is convenient. It is fast to check the nearest convenience store to drive to. We can even order food and grocery online. It is also convenient to drive our car to the nearby grocery store, provided the traffic is light and there is a parking spot available. With the advent of online maps like Google Maps, and GPS units, petrol stations employees will find lesser people asking for directions. Is that a boon or a bane? Well, we all know that working alone can be kind of boring, especially waiting for a customer to pop in. I worked in a service line before and I am always excited whenever there is a customer wanting to buy something. Not only does it makes good business for the organization I work with, it takes the monotony away.

It is convenient to simply pick up the phone and call someone, even our neighbour. It is convenient to throw in a few quarters to get our coca-cola pop-fix without having to wait in line for a convenience store cashier to serve you one. People in generally like convenience without risk or with minimal cost. Unfortunately, convenience stores are rarely cheaper than the larger supermarket chains. There is a price to pay for convenience. A 7-11 that opens 24 hours a day at a neighbourhood near us will normally charge us about 10-30% (or more) extra. Does it ever occur to anyone that:
  • If everyone were to conveniently click on the computer, are we removing opportunities for face to face interactions? Will it spell the demise of a society who does not know anybody at all who is working at the nearby stores? Who is my neighbour will thus become a more difficult question each day as we embark upon the pursuit of convenience.
  • Driving a car merely for the sake of convenience may clog the road system for other more needy users, like ambulances, bikers, pedestrians, even adding extra carbon waste to the air we breathe?
  • Convenience very often comes at the expense of additional packaging (and waste!)?
  • Convenience may become the primary consideration over care and goodwill to one another? (I have seen people fighting over a parking lot just outside the grocery store)

Sometimes I tend to think that the addiction to convenience brings out the worst in people. People offer rides only if it is on the way. Rare is the chivalry that one will send another home, in spite of the inconvenience. Is society getting more addicted to convenience or to the fear of inconvenience? I think it is both.

It is more convenient nowadays to resort to a search on the Internet for all kinds of information. The trouble is, the more we spend time online, the less we have offline. Information conveniently located at web storage pages have also allowed companies to spend LESS on human resources and MORE on machines and equipment. Of course, some people will argue that human resources have been diverted to ‘more productive use.’ I have worked in the high-tech industry before and I know such an argument is like a leaking bag. With cut-throat competition, the fastest way to cut costs is to reduce headcount for the largest expense in any corporation is salaries.

5) Addicted to Cyberspace
I guess a lot of people would have known that those who are addicted to cyberspace and the online world are people who struggle with offline reality. Their lack of connection to family, friends and God pushes them toward an inferior alternative via clicks on the Internet. It is much quicker and requires no need for extended patience to wait for a traditional human response. A HTTP address command gives one the web page one desires, which does not rebel or speak back against you. It responds quickly based on commands on the keypad giving one a sense of control. No requirement for human wait time. No need to allow human idiosyncrasies. No obligation to depend on other people’s moods. You want the news, go to, ABCnews, and any of the thousands of web pages that parades the breaking news. You want the time or weather, check it out with a widget or a tiny electronic banner. You want the latest currency rates? Click the nearest financial website. You want to play games with a machine, or to look for online games, simply log in and play away! Even sexual fantasies are played out anytime, anywhere and any manner the online addict desires. Cyberspace companionship and computerized fellowship has been digitized into a Me-Tarzan-You-Machine relationship.

All of these addictions I believe are part of the human condition of sin. Jan Kern, a mother and author of several books tries to reach out to teens and young people in this electronic age. Her latest book, “Eyes Online: Eyes on Life” is a timely reminder for anyone addicted to online devices, that young people of this age are fast exchanging real life with online life. She writes:
Names changed. That happens often online. Roles are played. Identities are masked. The Internet is a huge part of our lives, but I hope you won’t ever feel you have to hide your identity when it comes to being honest with God about your online activities. He cares deeply about you—the real you with all your hurts, struggles, and longings. ” (Jan Kern, Eyes Online: Eyes On Life, Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2008, p18)
Jan argues that contrary to external perceptions that the dangers of the Internet are due to the content (pornography, violence, language, etc), the hidden menace lies in the process. It is a zero sum game. An hour spent online means an hour lost not able to connect meaningfully with another human person using our ears, our hands, our eyes and even our noses! For Jan, the first step to recovery is to recognize that he/she has a problem and needs help. Without this first stride, there will not be any meaningful healing way at all. The prayer she offers is certainly one that is helpful:
“God, being online is a part of my daily life. It’s really easy to spend time there and get caught up in activities that keep me from being all you created me to be, from doing all that you created me to do. It’s especially easy to slide into believing what I do on the Internet doesn’t matter so much. Give me the courage to consider where you are leading me about my online choices, and give me the strength to go there. Amen.” (Jan Kern, p18)
A friend of mine works with an organization in Singapore that reaches out to teens and helps them to avoid the pitfalls and dangers of cyberspace activities. He says: “Some play to escape from real life, some to achieve what they can't get in real life and others to simply meet their social needs.” Escapism is long a channel for people to cope with a stressful and lonely society. Young people especially are prone to such acts. They need help.

What can we do about these addictions?
Like the popular saying: “Prevention is better than cure,” any form of disease or addiction is best prevented rather than waiting for the problem to happen and get worse. Even pharmaceutical products work best at prevention rather than curing. Take the example of cancer. There are many meaningful steps that can be taken to prevent it from happening. It is the small little things that add up to one big eventual bang. The same thing can be said for addiction. If we do not contain any of the addictions at its infancy, once it becomes full blown, the challenges rise exponentially. Once it is declared an epidemic, it is almost always too late.

I am part of the Theology and Technology group at Regent College. In this group, there are monthly meetings and presentations that individual contributors will share with the group. The community does boasts of a wealth of experience in the technology industry as well as the depth in theological thinking. There is a “faith and technology blog” that highlights some of the concerns of the group. I think the group serves a very important platform for continued theological engagement with the technology world as machines and devices regularly tries to metamorphosise themselves into the next latest-and-greatest big thing.

Rodney Clapp writes:
“Our addictions to substances or experiences – to speed, noise, frantic activity, alcohol, shopping – are among other things consuming distractions. We embrace these addictions to be distracted from boredom, from a nagging sense of shallow meaninglessness, and not least from the fact of our mortality. Asceticism for our day would be a mortification of our pervasive and profuse capacities for addiction. This mortification would in turn be a liberation from our self-destructive addictions. It would take us beyond ourselves, since even self-denial and self-hate are ways on concentrating on the self. It would lead us to be caught up by, to have our attention absorbed by, God’s kingdom, and in that kingdom the needs and hopes of our neighbours and the world.” (Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004, p166-7)
Ditto. What makes the high-tech C's so tempting and attractive is that it fills a certain vacuum, one that is increasingly empty of meaning of life and desperately lonely. The failure to have meaningful connections with people have driven many to find a grossly inadequate alternative: online world.

One more observation. The eyes have a certain propensity to be distracted, at least much more than the ears. How many times have we learned to observe silence by closing our eyes and simply listen? Using our ears more is a way to address any unhealthy compulsion with our eyes. The eye is an amazing part of our body. It contains at least three different types of light-sensitive cells. The rods and cones are image forming a visual picture while the photosensitive cells detect light rhythms. With the ear, one learns to still the rest of the body in order to listen more attentively to any soft sounds. With the eye, a slightest flash from behind turns one to move away from any focal point in front, losing concentration in the process. Some advertisements try to play on this distractive element. For example, in one shampoo commercial, while a man is driving an elegant car with his wife, all it takes is the sight of a sexily dressed long-haired blonde waiting by the roadside to divert his eyes from the road. You know the rest of the story. The car gets smashed. Taxis and trucks behind creates a nasty pileup. The man gets slapped by his wife, and the blonde lady nonchalantly walks away. All it takes is one look and the whole world pays for insurance claims arising from the accidents.

Technology. You can hug it but not too much. Like what Forrest Gump say, "Life Is like a Box of Chocolates... You Never Know What You're Gonna Get!" I will add, too much of it and you will find it too sweet. Too much technology, you will find that you get hooked on addiction. May the Lord guide you the reader, even as you read this article online, that you beware of any addictions that lurk on the background.


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