Always on

July 06, 2003

The New York Times is running a great article titled, The Lure of Data: Is It Addictive?. The article is about me. Alright, sure, I wasn't interviewed or anything, but I might as well have been. It's about the inability of those who have become indelibly attached to the Net to remove themselves from it. More generally, it's about workaholics who have found in the Net, another way to exploit their desire to constantly be doing something.

These speed demons say they will fall behind if they disconnect, but they also acknowledge feeling something much more powerful: they are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by incoming data. Call it O.C.D. — online compulsive disorder.

"It's like a dopamine squirt to be connected," said Dr. Ratey, who compares the sensations created by constantly being wired to those of narcotics — a hit of pleasure, stimulation and escape. "It takes the same pathway as our drugs of abuse and pleasure."

"It's an addiction," he said, adding that some people cannot deal with down time or quiet moments. "Without it, we are in withdrawal."

I have to agree with this 100%. It's the constant fear of becoming bored or complacent and the ever-present feeling that I need to learn as much as possible that drives me. Case in point: as I read said article I checked my e-mail three times, replied to two, began typing this post, and helped a friend setup a weblogging tool — all because of the slight delay incurred while going to the next page(s) of the article. Whether I'm reading a Harry Potter book on my PDA while waiting in the deli line, checking e-mail on my phone as soon as my date makes for the ladies room, or heading back to my computer each commercial break (no TiVo... yet) — I'm always checking something.

The article claims that the incessant multitasking might actually be counter-productive, citing a study that said that those who constantly traded their time and attention between two tasks were likely to spend up to 50% more time on each task. It goes on to say that multitasking begets a false productivity; a sense that one is accomplishing more than he or she actually is. While this no doubt holds true under certain conditions, I can't imagine it being too valid in the real world. Honestly, I think that the whole multitasking argument presented in the article is moot simply because different people operate, well, differently. The fact is, some jobs and lifestyles absolutely demand multitasking, in which case the word becomes a slight misnomer as it no longer evokes the idea of doing multiple jobs at once, but rather doing the job, which happens to require you to divide your attention. I say to hell with the research results, divide and conquer.

I think a lot of the confusion lies in the way that technology is allowing us to push ourselves further and further — to see how much information and responsibility we can juggle at one time — to find the point at which we have to say "enough." The article states:

They put themselves in situations where, if they don't perform at peak efficiency, they'll crash and burn. In the aftermath there is a rush of chemicals.

That one blurb sums up the entire idea: peak efficiency. I find a certain thrill in flirting with the deadline, in agreeing to help someone with task A even though it's going to impede task B, in seeing how much I can tack on and accomplish within a given time range. Computers are enabling us to simplify every part of our lives to the point that we seek out ways to bring more chaos into them, so that we can then find ways to tame it. I've spent a lot of time organizing, ordering, and otherwise automating certain tasks so that they cause me less strife in the future; so I don't have to think about them. That being said, the mind, as we well know, is a curious creature, and rather than allowing us to become less stressed, we find other things to fuss about. Though all the technology facilitates easier search and retrieval of relevant news and information while allowing us to seemingly better organize our lives, it inexorably leaves us craving some sort of disorder — something new, something more.

The Internet has a way of making us want to peer around the corner, to look over the edge, to click on the next link — in short, it exacerbates the human desire to learn and share. Russell Beattie commented on his information addiction in a blog entry titled, News Junkie, in which he writes:

Last night I spent at least 6 or 7 HOURS reading news. I didn't even notice... but I realized that as soon as Ana got home around 7 p.m., I started opening up links in different Moz tabs and just kept on going. Exclusively reading news. At the end, when I had read just about everything that could possibly have been said in the past week about mobile technology, I was casting about for more - opening up random Slashdot threads, doing searches on Google news, refreshing my aggregator cache every 5 minutes or so, and more.

I've done this very thing for years. This on top of monitoring IRC channels, usenet posts, e-mail lists, and myriad other news mediums. It used to be the case that I wouldn't let myself read the "news" for the day until a certain time at night, say 7PM. I looked at it sort of like a treat; a reward for getting other, more pertinent things done. Because of news aggregators, it is no longer the case that I have a certain time at which I allow myself to start checking the news, but I do have more news to check. This is because of the fact that adding a new feed to the aggregator is so simple and I easily convince myself that one more site isn't going to kill anyone. Meanwhile, my subscription list has grown to 110 feeds. I almost feel guilty to not take advantage of what is available to us and when something comes along that makes the collection of this information easier, it's practically impossible for me to turn the other cheek — I have to use/buy it.

But with all of these ways for us to stay more intricately connected and informed, we aren't offered many ways to decide what to leave out; what to ignore. I realize that most people will have no idea what I'm talking about, but there are some -- those like myself with a strong propensity for obsessive-compulsive behavior and a clue -- who realize that the limit to what we can learn is bound below only by our connected devices and above only by the time we can convince ourselves to allot to them. We are the first generation able to experience this connectedness and should take full advantage of our good fortune by stuffing our brains and schedules with all they can hold.

On a related note, my aggregator is telling me that there are 76 unread headlines waiting for me to peruse. So yes, to answer the NYT article, data is addictive.  :)

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