Evgeny Morozov and Nicholas Carr on how we're all addicted to the Web

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 12, 2013

From The News Desk

Evgeny Morozov and Nicholas Carr, authors of "The Net Delusion" and "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," respectively, have had an interesting back-and-forth on the lengths Morozov is willing to go to in his attempt to avoid the Internet.

Both writers have created an absurd-yet-prescient depiction of modern Internet usage, from Morozov's reliance on a safe, a lack of screwdrivers, and a WiFi-less laptop to avoid the Internet and Carr's depiction of Morozov's attempts as a technoholic avoiding and obfuscating his addiction, much as an alcoholic would.

Here's what Morozov had to say about his Internet usage in an interview with the Observer's Ian Tucker:

I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card – so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing. … To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me.
And here's Carr's response, posted to his blog:

Seriously, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the application of the term “addiction” to describe compulsive net use. But having read that, particularly the bit about the screwdrivers, I am now officially changing my mind. By all means, add an entry for “internet addiction” to the DSM — and hurry up about it. I mean, reread that passage, but replace “my phone” with “liter of vodka” or “router cable” with “crack pipe.” It’s textbook, right down to Morozov’s immediate attempt to deny what he’s just confessed: “It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself.” I’m surprised he didn’t say, “I never do more than a gigabit before breakfast.”

Now, where can I buy one of those safes? The discussion has continued in the comments section on Carr's blog post, with both writers flinging derision around like so much mud. This is unsurprising, given both writers' status as contrarians and hype-gatherers -- Carr wrote the infamous "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" cover story for the Atlantic -- but raises important questions: Should Internet addiction be officially recognized as a mental issue, and is going to such great lengths to avoid a connection to the Web really necessary?

So far as the "Internet addiction as mental illness" theory goes, there is evidence that Internet addicts suffer many of the same issues as people addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or illicit substances.

"Although we do not know exactly what Internet addiction is, our results show that around half of the young people we studied spend so much time on the net that it has negative consequences for the rest of their lives," writes Swansea University's Phil Reed after studying the issue. "When these people come off-line, they suffer increased negative mood – just like people coming off illegal drugs like ecstasy. These initial results, and related studies of brain function, suggest that there are some nasty surprises lurking on the net for people’s wellbeing.”

Every BuzzFeed article, Tweet, and reblog is another hit off the Internet's pipes, another reminder that our connected lives are less a product of our own boredom, as many may assume, and more a veritable disease that almost forces us to pull our smartphones out every time we feel as though we've gone too long without a drag from the Web.

"When compulsive behavior undermines our ability to function normally, it enters the realm of obsessive-compulsive disorder," writes Bill Davidow in an Atlantic article on the subject. "By some estimates around 2 to 4 percent of serious gamblers are addicted, and some 10 percent (it may be less or more since most people under-report addiction ) of Internet users have become so obsessed with the Internet that its use is undermining their social relationships, their family life and marriage, and their effectiveness at work."

As ridiculous as Morozov's attempts to avoid the Internet seem, then, he may be right to stow away the technological equivalent to drug paraphernalia where he won't be able to reach them. There are other ways to cut access to the Web -- such as, you know, turning the WiFi off on a laptop or downloading an app that will perform the same function without all the hassle -- but, hey, whatever works.

Some countries already recognize Internet addiction as a serious issue. The New York Times covered boot camps in China that hoped to "tackle" Internet addiction in afflicted youths, millions of whom reported withdrawal symptoms and physical and mental issues from being connected all the time.

"Addiction to the Internet is blamed for most juvenile crime in China, a number of suicides, and deaths from exhaustion by players unable to tear themselves away from marathon game sessions," writes the Times' Ian Ransom. He recounts the story of a 15-year-old who stabbed another player for stealing an in-game prize, and says that China has "no qualms" about putting Internet addiction "on a par" with alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling.

That's a far cry from the US's approach, which has been to warn about the dangers of Internet addiction without officially declaring it a mental illness. People, like Morozov, will go to great lengths to avoid the Web, but so far there isn't nationwide recognition of Internet addiction as a serious issue. Maybe it's because we don't see the Internet as something that can be abused like alcohol or drugs -- maybe it's because the nation's policymakers and psychologists are too busy Tweeting and checking Facebook to look up for their screens and enact change.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]