It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. – Jonathan Franzen
Self control is something most of us struggle with from time to time. I’m struggling with it right now. The groceries got delivered today and Carrie had ordered two meringues as a treat. She decided she wanted hers right after lunch and so, as I can’t see green cheese, I had mine. The thing is I’m not (oddly enough—see below) that big of a fan of meringues—with the exception of some mint ones my mum used to buy back in the nineteen-sixties—and I wasn’t that hungry, having just had my sandwich, but if she was having one I was going to have one too, which I did and didn’t really enjoy. Now it’s nearly three o’clock and about the time I would have a fresh cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits, which I want and will go and get as soon as I’ve finished this paragraph, but I don’t really need them.
(Three minutes and two (I really wanted three) Lotus caramelised biscuits later…)
Okay I can think now. And I’m trying to think of an excuse to go back into the kitchen to get that third biscuit. (If you’ve ever tried them you’ll appreciate how incredibly moreish they are.) I admit it. I have an addictive personality. I discovered that when I hit puberty. I’ve always been a collector and enjoy seeing (but especially owning) sets of things. I’ve never developed a drink or drug habit though. I never got hooked on cigarettes but since I didn’t inhale (I never realised you were supposed to) I guess that explains that. I do have a sweet tooth and I’m frankly amazed that I’m not built like the side of a house now considering all the junk we Scots consume.
Then again maybe I don’t have an addictive personality. Maybe I’m just a greedy bugger.
When I think of an addiction I think about someone who has passed control of their happiness onto a third party. I use the term ‘happiness’ loosely and make no apologies for reminding everyone of this absolutely wonderful quote from Brave New World:
Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensation for misery. And of course stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.
Not being unhappy is not the same as being happy: happiness is not a toggle. A drug addict will indeed be miserable if he or she is in need of a fix but are they genuinely happy once the drug begins coursing through their veins?
One of my guilty pleasures is Ugly Americans, an animated cartoon set in an America where demons and freaks are all a part of everyday life. In this particular episode (Season 2 Episode 7, ‘Wail Street’) Randall (Mark’s zombie roommate) tries to put Mark's oversized soul up for sale. Lots of people apparently have been selling their souls and replacing them with NuvaSoul™ , an artificial soul that’s almost as good as the real thing if you don’t mind the diarrhoea. And that’s all fine and well in a cartoon even if it is being satirical. And then today I learned that you could replace your self-control with SelfControl, well, at least if you run a Mac. From the website:
SelfControl is an OS X application which blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and websites for a predetermined period of time.
For example, you could block access to your email, Facebook, and twitter for 90 minutes, but still have access to the rest of the web. Once started, it cannot be undone by the application, by deleting the application, or by restarting the computer – you must wait for the timer to run out.
It’s a simple enough concept. I suppose it would be like me putting locks on the cookie jar and the biscuit drawer (and I would probably need locks on the tin with the chocolate bars in it and one on the fridge where I keep the Maltesers to keep them cold). You see it’s never just the one thing is it? It used to be just phone calls and then it was e-mails and then it was text messaging, Facebook and RSS feeds and now it’s tweets and Pinterest and Christ knows what’s coming next to steal a wee bit of your happiness away from you. Read me! Look at me! Click on me! Poke me! Like me! Think of something witty and write me a comment. Retweet me! Retweet me now!
- Addictive behaviour is maladaptive or counter-productive to the individual. Instead of helping a person adapt to situations or overcome problems, it tends to undermine these abilities.
- The behaviour is persistent. When someone is addicted, they will continue to engage in the addictive behaviour, despite it causing them trouble.
If you have a bad habit this is an addiction. There are worse things to be addicted to than biting your fingernails (which I have never done although I did use to bite the edge of my index finger on my left hand when I was a kid) but that’s what it is. The Internet is something all of us use habitually. It is my habit to get up in the morning, perform my ablutions, eat my breakfast whilst watching BBC Breakfast and then I pick up my tablet, check my e-mails, my news feeds and Facebook messages in that order—this is a weeding process rather than a reading one—before moving to my laptop where I check my other e-mail where I have forwarded things I actually intend to action. That’s not an addiction; that’s a routine. At lunchtime I do the same and again in the evening. Other than that I virtually never open Facebook or Feedreader during my workday although I do tend to leave my e-mail open, but only because I don’t get very many e-mails to my laptop.
Apparently Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith are among a growing group of novelists who struggle with Internet addiction. Whether they’ve been formally diagnosed with IAD I don’t know. IAD stands for Internet addiction disorder which some claim is a real thing. Although it’s not to be found in DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) it will now be included in the appendix in the upcoming revision of the DSM-V.
It’s official, at least according to researchers at Norway’s University of Bergen: Facebook is addictive.
This may not come as a terrific surprise when you stop to think that the site claims some 500 million users on a daily basis.
But what is surprising is the researchers’ conclusion that Facebook addiction produces symptoms similar to those observed in substance and alcohol addiction. Some studies have found that heavy internet use has actually led to a “rewiring” of the brain with striking similarity to drug and alcohol addicts. – Studies find Internet Addiction Disorder exists!, Centre for Internet Addiction, 18 July 2012
Whether it’s an addiction proper or a symptom of another existing disorder I’m not going to try to argue. What I can say is that any time anyone feels that they’re not in complete control of their lives then something isn’t right. IAD comes in a variety of flavours apparently:
- Cybersex Addiction – compulsive use of Internet pornography, adult chat rooms, or adult fantasy role-play sites impacting negatively on real-life intimate relationships.
- Cyber-Relationship Addiction – addiction to social networking, chat rooms, and messaging to the point where virtual, online friends become more important than real-life relationships with family and friends.
- Net Compulsions – such as compulsive online gaming, gambling, stock trading, or compulsive use of online auction sites such as eBay, often resulting in financial and job-related problems.
- Information Overload – compulsive web surfing or database searching, leading to lower work productivity and less social interaction with family and friends.
- Computer Addiction – obsessive playing of off-line computer games, such as Solitaire or Minesweeper, or obsessive computer programming.
Tucked away in the acknowledgements at the back of her new novel NW, along with the names of friends, family, editors and publishers who have helped her, Zadie Smith thanks freedom and self-control “for creating the time”.
Every writer needs the freedom to be creative and the self-control to stick with a project until completion, but Smith has something rather more 21st century in mind: Freedom [which works with both PCs and Macs] and SelfControl are computer applications that can be downloaded and configured to increase productivity by blocking access to the internet.
Just like SelfControl, Freedom works by disabling your Internet connections for the time period you specify. When you run Freedom, you’re not able to get online. Freedom makes no permanent changes to your computer. If you need to get back online, just reboot.
Ned Beauman goes even further than Smith:
There are five layers of technological solutions I use. I edit my host file to block some websites, but that’s too coarse grain. I use K9, which is a parental control application, to block certain pages within websites, and I use an ad-blocker, not to block adverts, but to block the comment sections of many sites. And when I’m working I use Nanny for Google Chrome and SelfControl to block certain websites.
It’s all to do with importance. Let me tell you what I hate: the BBC News Channel. I don’t hate it all the time but I do hate it at 11:30 on a Saturday morning which is when my wife and I generally sit down to watch their technology programme Click except when there is some breaking news and we either get the truncated fifteen minute version or the whole thing is cancelled. And not once let me tell you has there ever been any news that critical that I have to watch it as soon as it has happened. There was one day when poor ol’ Nick Robinson was hanging around outside No. 10 Downing Street trying to grab a word with a load of politicians as they were going in for a meeting. What could they possibly have to say before the meeting? And I had to miss my Click whilst all that was going on. Could it not have waited thirty minutes? I honestly can’t see people writing into Points of View outraged because the Beeb neglected to cover that momentous non-event.
And it’s the same with e-mails and tweets and all that crap: none of it is so desperately important that it could not wait an hour or two. You’re not missing out on anything. I belong to a writers’ group on Facebook and I keep seeing these exchanges going on and I wonder to myself: How the hell do they get any writing done? Yes, it’s important that we show face every now and then but it’s not that important. It’s a matter of weighing up the return on your investment. Time is valuable.
In the comments thread to the Guardian article M. K. Hajdin has this to say:
Accusing someone of being "addicted to the internet" is like accusing them of "being addicted to family and friends".
Anything that provides any kind of stimulation whatsoever can become "addictive" or distracting.
The internet's a tool. Like any tool, it has no moral value of its own, and depends entirely on the person who uses it.
She makes a fair comment. I can only work in the living room along with my wife because she’s so quiet. If she nattered away to me all day long I’d pack up and relocate to my office. If the bird gets too squawky he gets shifted to a shelf in the bathroom until he’s got whatever’s bothering him out of his system.
When I came online all those years ago I cannot pretend that I wasn’t distracted. Everything was fascinating and you simply could not get me off my PC. I was the same with colour TV when it arrived although I can’t say that I’ve been as impressed by Hi Def. But back in 1967 we’d just sit and stare at the test card. It took a while but I now think of the Internet as something very ordinary. I know it’s not—it’s incredible when you think about it—but that’s what happens with all technology. I like that I can get answers immediately. It changes how I write. When I wrote my first two novels there was no Internet and research involved trips to the library. I could go back to that but I’d rather not.
So what are the signs of IAD? Dr. Kimberly Young has likened Internet addiction to addictive syndromes similar to impulse-control disorders on the Axis I Scale of the DSM:
- Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?
- Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
- Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?
- Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
- Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
- Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
- Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
- Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?
Meeting five of the above symptoms were considered necessary to be diagnosed. There is a test of Internet addiction that you can take online over at netaddiction.com which is where I copied that table from. My score was 27. That means, according to the site:
You are an average on-line user. You may surf the Web a bit too long at times, but you have control over your usage.
You see that’s the thing, the Internet is a great tool and my life does revolve around it, but I don’t depend on it for happiness. It can and does make me happy—when I get an e-mail telling me a poem or a story has been accepted for publication I’m happy—but I’d be just as happy if they sent me a letter or phoned me up. I think if I were more of a social person and relied on interactions with people to make me happy I might have more of a problem. My best friends I interact with maybe once or twice a week. They have online presences but they don’t hang out online if I can draw the distinction. Anyone who doesn’t take advantage of the Internet in this day and age is an idiot. New technology needs to be embraced. That said I don’t own a Smartphone and barely use the mobile I do have. I watch Click every week but frankly I wonder about the lifestyles of the people who would use most of the apps they promote. The Internet hasn’t really changed me; I’ve cherry picked.
If I’m addicted to anything it’s writing. The longer I go without writing the unhappier I am. The thing is I don’t think about my need to write as any different to my need to eat, sleep or breathe. For me writing is a natural thing. I can barely go a minute without breathing but to suggest I’m addicted to air is preposterous. I can go for days on end without writing. And yet you should see Carrie and me if we lose our Internet connection for more than a few minutes. I have got so used to looking things up there and then that I get very frustrated when the option is taken away from me but I see no difference here to being able to make a cup of hot coffee whenever I want if only as an excuse to have a couple more of those scrummy biscuits. I’m used to that but I’m not addicted to it. Electricity is a part of my life as is the Internet. I don’t go through withdrawal symptoms without coffee—I’ve been drinking decaffeinated for years—but it is an inconvenience because the scrummy biscuits taste better with a cup of coffee. And that’s all the Internet is, a convenience. When I first gave up driving—I’ve not owned a car for over fifteen years—it was a pain because I’d got used to zipping here and vrooming there; I left everything to the last minute and crammed my life to bursting point. The relief I felt simply not being able to do that was incredible. So if something happened—some alien virus, I don’t know, use your imaginations—and the World Wide Web disappeared overnight I’d cope a helluva lot easier than most. I have the addresses of my best friends and we’d just start writing the old-fashioned way. Personally I miss letters. I’m a practical person so I don’t send them but I do miss them.
There has been some recent talk about scientists finding an “internet-addiction gene”. Apparently it’s CHRNA4 in case you wondered.
Recent studies from Asia provided first evidence for a molecular genetic link between serotonergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission and Internet addiction. The present report offers data on a new candidate gene in the investigation of Internet addiction-the gene coding for the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit alpha 4 (CHRNA4). A case-control study was carried out. The participants were recruited from a large gene data bank, including people from the general population and from a university setting. A total of 132 participants with problematic Internet use and 132 age- and sex-matched controls participated in the study. Participants provided DNA samples and filled in the Internet Addiction Test Questionnaire. The T- variant (CC genotype) of the rs1044396 polymorphism on the CHRNA4 gene occurred significantly more frequently in the case group. Further analyses revealed that this effect was driven by females. Combined with the findings from other studies, the present data point in the direction that rs1044396 exerts pleiotropic effects on a vast range of behaviours, including cognition, emotion, and addiction. – C. Montag, P. Kirsch, C Sauer, S Markett, M Reuter, ‘The Role of the CHRNA4 Gene in Internet Addiction: A Case-control Study’, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, September 2012
It makes good press—the first sentence does anyway (I was lost after that)—but as Robert Wright pointed out in his article in The Atlantic in response to this report:
[T]he internet, like a pack of cigarettes or lots of cocaine, lets you just sit in a room and repeatedly trigger reward chemicals that, back in the environment of our evolution, you could trigger only with more work and only less frequently. That's why an internet habit, like a cocaine habit, can reach dysfunctional levels.
[All these] forms of internet dependence—porn, Facebook, TMZ [a new one on me], Twitter, YouTube—are just a few of the possible ingredients of any one case of internet "addiction." And each of these ingredients itself involves God-knows-which neurotransmitters and neuronal receptors and, by extension, God-knows-how-many genes. And all of us have lots and lots of these genes—genes that make us susceptible to internet addiction. Because what the internet does is take lots of things that natural selection designed us to find gratifying and make them much easier to get.
These genes are really just genes for being human. That's why using the internet well is a challenge for us all.
I have never gambled. I don’t see the point to it. I just don’t get it. I don’t get how one man can be sexually attracted toward another man. I don’t get that either. I don’t get how anyone can spend hours every day on Facebook. I don’t get opera or rap. Or deep-fried Mars Bars. Or paying more than five quid for a bottle of wine. Everyone is different. I do get hope and I suspect that’s one of the things that writers become addicted to and the Internet facilitates. Every time we open an e-mail we hope there’s going to be good news. Every time we open Google Analytics we hope our stats are going to be up. Every time we log into Smashwords or Amazon we hope people are going to have bought our book. Every time we post a blog or write a comment we hope that that one person is going to read it. We hope every day we’re going to be discovered. Hope is a hard thing to give up on or even to cut back on.
Aimee Mann said, “In the '70s, everybody thought drugs were just good times. People didn't really know about drug addiction, or that such a thing existed. When I grew up in the '70s I thought you had to take drugs. It was almost like I didn't think you had a choice.” You might think there’s a world of difference between taking drugs and using the Internet but there is one thing they both have in common: you have no idea what it’s like for anyone else. I look at the activity of some people and I am amazed. Where do they find the time or the energy? But they’re doing it so I need to try to keep up. That’s how most of my mates started smoking. All the cool kids were doing it and so soon everyone else was.
The Internet itself is not a fad or a fashion—it’s bigger than that—but a lot of the things it enables you to do are. The first step along the line to recovery from any form of addiction is acknowledging there’s a problem. It depends on who you are after that in how you cope with it. For me the best thing my wife ever bought me was that tablet. I wasn’t addicted but I was burdened. Now if I want to check in I need to physically get off my backside and go get the tablet and that’s all it took. I’ve recommended this to others too. Computers are relatively cheap. Have a writing machine and an all-other-things machine. Do something though.