Andrew Brown: When the seven deadly sins are just a click away

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The Independent Online

Whatever did we do before internet addiction? Computer addiction, of course. In the memoirs of Richard Feynman, the physicist describes how the first computers came to the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bomb was being designed. Immediately, he says, some of the most gifted scientists became far more preoccupied with the machines supposed to help them than with the work they needed helping with; and they never really recovered their interest in life.

Whatever did we do before internet addiction? Computer addiction, of course. In the memoirs of Richard Feynman, the physicist describes how the first computers came to the Manhattan Project, where the atomic bomb was being designed. Immediately, he says, some of the most gifted scientists became far more preoccupied with the machines supposed to help them than with the work they needed helping with; and they never really recovered their interest in life.

The latest study to claim that internet addiction is aproblem says 10 per cent of American users are addicted, which is defined as spending more than 400 minutes a day on-line. This is the most bogus of all the definitions I have ever read.

Any figure would be wrong, but 400 minutes is spectacularly absurd. It manages to be wrong in both directions, both by suggesting that anyone who spends only six hours of every day on-line of their own free will is behaving sensibly, and by ignoring the fact that having a Net connection open tells nothing about where your attention is actually directed. I have caught myself on-line when I should be working, but am actually playing solitaire because the connection left itself open after my original procrastination was exhausted. Does that count as internet addiction or old-fashioned idleness?

Every bad habit is now described as an addiction because it sounds more urgent and perhaps more sexualised. There is something extremely odd when perfumes are marketed with names such as "Obsession" and "Compulsion", as if these were pleasurable sensations in real life. What next, an aftershave called "Psychotic Delusion"?

But anyone tempted to think that the internet is a real addiction should compare giving up e-mail with giving up cigarettes. Better yet: compare the sensation of your first cigarette after a day of abstinence with the first e-mail after a week's holiday. No serious ex-smoker ever asks "why on earth did I ever find cigarettes enjoyable?"; whereas the first glimpse of an inbox full of spam, work, and hilarious websites forwarded by friends with nothing better to do is enough to make one long for a rainy caravan park in Scunthorpe.

It's true that the internet can be damaging. It caters for almost every weakness and folly. But that's because it's run by people, who know what other people want. All of the seven deadly sins are only a mouse-twitch away, even gluttony: going berserk in a virtual Tesco store and ordering a cupboard full of canned soup may not seem very attractive; but I am assured by my theological advisers that spending a fortune in on-line wine merchants certainly counts as gluttony.

In fact, computers were more harmful before the world-wide web, because they were more solipsistic then, and they demanded more effort to do anything interesting. You needed never interact with anyone who was not a figment of some programmer's imagination. For a writer, the charm of the internet is that it is a way to make words that you did not have to write yourself appear on screen; but, attractive though this is, it is much less destructive of productivity than playing games off-line or reading magazines.

And worse than magazines are books: as a child, and even as an unhappy adult, I would read for six hours at a stretch, day after day until the words clattered round in my head like helicopter blades that might lift me away from the world. But we know too much to be afraid of "book addiction", even if it's possible to read too much.

The difference between addiction and obsession is that while both the addict and the obsessive can have too much of a good thing, the addict has the additional problem that he can never have enough of it either. acb@darwinwars.com

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