Nick Carr, talking about our collective move to Internet immersion, makes some excellent points about the way we talk about technological change, the first of them similar to a point I made recently about how the ways we talk about the real and potential social impacts of new technologies allow us to distance ourselves from thinking they apply to us:

The problem with the addiction metaphor [to describe Internet use] … is that it presents the normal as abnormal and hence makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from our own behavior and its consequences. By dismissing talk of “Internet addiction” as rhetorical overkill, which it is, we also avoid undertaking an honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse….
The addiction metaphor also distorts the nature of technological change by suggesting that our use of a technology stems from a purely personal choice — like the choice to smoke or to drink. An inability to control that choice becomes, in this view, simply a personal failing. But while it’s true that, in the end, we’re all responsible for how we spend our time, it’s an oversimplification to argue that we’re free “to choose” whether and how we use computers and cell phones, as if social norms, job expectations, familial responsibilities, and other external pressures had nothing to do with it. The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.


  1. " The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology." — I wonder if that second clause might not better read, "the more costly will be any choice not to use it." The distinction between "having no choice" and "having costly choices is really important, I think.

  2. Good point, Alan, though I think the point Carr was getting at is that the language of "personal choice" is by itself inadequate to describe the way we adopt new technologies, whether we talk about it in terms of the level of freedom we have in making those choices or in terms of their associated costs.

  3. I also commend to readers' attentions the quotations from students Carr reproduces in his post. By way of replying to Mr. Jacobs, being a college professor (or student) without email is now effectively impossible. This is a choice that is now for all intents and purposes gone. The technology is developed and presented as a convenience to be accepted or declined according to the needs, wishes, and judgment of the individual. Indeed, on those occasions when it is questioned, say because it threatens to introduce deep and difficult to foresee consequences including new forms of dependence, it is defended in the language of freedom of choice and expanding of the range of options. But this 'free choice' scenario is a myth, based on a simple 'tool-user' 'cost-benefit' model, which as such, abstracts from the broader social and political setting. If we were to take seriously the task of making intelligent judgments about technological innovations we would need to break out of this simple-minded individualism.

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