children are our future: resistance, addiction and the digital natives

It’s easy enough to amass anecdotal evidence of rising internet addiction. The marathon Asian gamers who prefer to starve rather than leave their terminal; the couples at restaurants, ignoring each other as they engage with their iPhones; the compulsive sharers on social networks who leave no private experience unmediated and recapitulated online; our own restless oscillation between email accounts and Twitter and RSS readers looking for a personalized jolt of novelty; the sheer volume of content on YouTube — where did it come from and who is watching it? And as recommendation engines improve and become ubiquitous, the promise of more and better becomes inescapable. As a number of critics have noted, neurological research suggests we are powerless to resist the allure of novel stimuli, and the internet has developed accordingly, offering endless opportunities for distraction.

This seems to fit with the argument made in July by pioneering computer programmer Paul Graham, who notes that “most people I know have problems with internet addiction. We’re all trying to figure out our own customs for getting free of it.” Graham claims that technological innovation is always inherently geared toward enhancing the addictive properties of any given good, so as a result, “increasing numbers of things we like will be transformed into things we like too much.” Technology, Graham suggests, works primarily to scuttle our self-awareness of how much we want, and makes it so that we can’t trust our desires. In other words, it throws our reflexive sense of self into question, even though many online tools ostensibly afford us the opportunity to develop and express identity. Consequently, Graham suspects that “we’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.”

But saying no to the internet is not a simple exercise of willpower. The encroachment of the internet into our everyday lives often seems irresistible not merely because we like it “too much” but because we palpably risk social exclusion if we can’t keep up, if we lack online presence. It can make us seem vaguely suspicious, as though we have something to hide. Thus the vaunted network effects that the Web harnesses begin to come at the expense of our autonomy: We have to maintain a Facebook page. We have to shop through We have to Google ourselves to check up on our reputation. We must get a smart phone. We must yearn for unlimited data plans.

All of this suggests the dissolution of boundaries that many would have thought impervious even five years ago. Lines that once separated, say, public from indiscreet, consumers from connoisseurs, sharing from stealing, enthusiasm from compulsion, have been progressively blurred. We can’t trust the horizon to stay fixed, which distorts our own sense of limits. Just when it seems possible to keep up with the information flow, new torrents flood into focus. Just when we think we have mastered the breadth of our desires, other temptations emerge and we spread ourselves thinner. We think we are presenting a coherent picture of who we are online, only to recognize suddenly that we are not so sure of that identity ourselves. We become afraid of missing out on things at the same time we dread the ramifications of becoming clued in. Prodded by the awareness of plenitude within reach, we end up with insatiable appetite for disappointment. Pleasure becomes coextensive with unbounded connectivity, but moral intuition would seem to suggest that unbounded pleasures cannot be sustainable. We end up both wanting and not wanting what technology can provide simultaneously, another reason why the metaphor of addiction seems applicable.

But by expediting our access to ever more data, technology isn’t merely overwhelming our moral or neurological capabilities to resist. Instead, its chief ideological accomplishment is to complement preexisting assumptions about our shared values that are already built into consumerism — that quantity is synonymous with quality, that more is automatically better, that contentment is a mirage, that it’s normal to be ostentatious and to conceive the scope of our ambitions and our identity as limitless (which, incidentally, promises to make us limitlessly productive as we pursue these dreams). It may be that the extent to which we are indoctrinated into those values determines the degree to which we find technology addictive, and nothing inherent in technology makes us compulsive about it.

That would help explain what researchers at the Hans Bredow Institute have recently discovered in a study of so-called digital natives, as detailed in this articlefrom Der Spiegel. According to the article, the Bredlow study finds that “the netizens of the future couldn’t care less about the collaborative delights of Web 2.0.” Among the teens surveyed, 31 percent rarely or never visit social-networking sites, the report stated. Research leader Ingrid Paus-Hasebrink summed up, “We found no evidence whatsoever that the Internet is the dominating influence in the lives of young people.”

Part of this may be because they take being online for granted, which inoculates them from certain types of media hype for new Web platforms and services. They are able to resist the internet’s vortical pull through sheer indifference. It wouldn’t occur to them to consider themselves addicted to being online anymore than being addicted to riding the bus to school everyday. It is simply part of the mundane and necessary infrastructure of social life.

But the article suggests also that kids must be trained to view the Web as a site for immaterial labor and for anxious self-production. The teens in the study seem to prioritize their social life in the real world and use internet-facilitated communication merely to supplement it. They have not yet become aware of themselves as a brand. The teens in the study seem intuitively aware that using Web 2.0 applications to participate in a broader cultural conversation is a form of work rather than leisure, and that such self-expression is alienated from the more organic forms inherent in friendship. They must be induced to make their Web use productive.

A few schools have now realized that the time has come to act. One of them is Kaiserin Augusta School in Cologne, the high school that Jetlir, Tom, Pia, and Anna attend. “We want our pupils to learn how to use the Internet productively,” says music teacher André Spang, “Not just for clicking around in.”

Spang makes students blog about music and compile pertinent content — videos and links and so on. As the article details, this prompts an educational and productive surveillance: “Everyone can access the project online, see what the others are doing and comment on each other’s work. The fact that the material is public also helps to promote healthy competition and ambition among the participants.” With education relocated in the realm of online publicity, students learn to harbor ambitions for fame; they bind their self-development with the elaboration of that self in publicly accessible ways. Identity ceases to be a matter of friendship experienced fleetingly and given over as an ineffable gift to the moment. Instead it becomes the grind of calculating self-display in a medium that can mobilize self-conceptions and make them play, get them ranked.

Thus students are indoctrinated into the social factory, where their personal anxieties and inadequacies can be harvested as free labor. And perhaps they even learn to become addicted to them.