Psst – Want a Hot Spot Paisano?

First published August 24, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Surgeon General’s Warning: Prolonged exposure to the Internet can lead to physical dependency and addiction. Use of the Internet can increase levels of anxiety and reduce attention spans.Hello, my name is Gord, and I’m addicted to the Internet. I didn’t realize I was addicted until I recently spent three weeks in Europe and had to go through withdrawal. But after hanging around hotel lobbies trying to get a hit from a local hot spot, I’ve had to face up to the fact that I can’t kick the habit. I need my broadband, baby!

Fear and Loathing in l’Italia

I didn’t go totally cold turkey. I had my PDA to keep up on e-mails, but it just didn’t give me the rush I was looking for. Here I was, surrounded by the culmination of centuries of artistic achievement, and all I could think about was where my Google hook-up was coming from.

I speak somewhat facetiously, but there’s a lot of truth here. Here’s an online definition of addiction:

    1. Compulsive physiological and psychological need for a habit-forming substance.
    2. The condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or or involved in something.

It seems to me that going online qualifies on both counts. There’s no doubt that being online is habit forming. But it goes further than that. I realized in the last 20-plus days that it’s hard-wired into my physiology. Not having instant access was as foreign as not having my right hand.

I use online a lot, mainly to access and assimilate information. I enhance what I see in the real world by researching it online, letting me place it in context for myself. And for the past three weeks, every sense I have has been bombarded to the point of overload by input. Art, history, locations, music, literature, architecture, it was all right in front of me. Paris, Florence, Rome: cradles of civilization that I was standing in the center of, and it was if I couldn’t fully assimilate them, because I didn’t have access to an essential part of my cerebral hardware: the right brain, left brain and “wired” brain.

What’s it worth to you, amico?

The analogy carries even further. Accessing the Internet while traveling in Europe is rather like hunting for illicit substances, in that it can be difficult to find and notoriously expensive. Five euros (a little over six dollars U.S.) for fifteen minutes, thirteen euros for an hour, thirty euros for a day… I have a price list for hot spots around the continent imprinted in my memory.

I wasn’t the only one that went through withdrawal. My wife and two daughters showed similar symptoms, but for different reasons. For me, it was losing a logical and information-gathering extension of myself. For them, it was losing a communication channel. They have adopted e-mail as a primary way of keeping in touch (and instant messaging, in the case of my oldest daughter), and they felt somewhat cut off. This was somewhat demonstrative of the way men and women tend to use the Internet, something I talked about in a previous column.

This is your brain on high-speed

But addictions aren’t always harmful. One could argue that we’re addicted to oxygen. Breathing is certainly habit-forming. So is there anything wrong with developing a strong dependence on the Internet?

One theory that I have is that our brains tend to gear up a notch when we go online. There is so much we do through computers that we have difficulty  maintaining linear thinking when we’re online. Even if we’re focused on one task, there’s the knowledge that there’s e-mail to check, things to look up, a hundred other things that we could be doing. Being online seems to increase our level of both anxiety and distraction, just because it’s so damn useful in so many different ways. Focus is a tough thing to maintain.

We have seen manifestation of this trend in the way people act when online. It’s nothing short of frenetic, skipping all over the page, multi-tasking, grasping information in a hundred little forays around the screen. It’s a different interaction from much of what we do day to day. Is it harmful? I’m not sure, but it does seem to be making permanent changes in the way we learn and communicate.

Anyway, I’m back in the office tomorrow, and will once again have my cerebral cortex plugged back into the Matrix. I’ll be wired again. I guess that’s a good thing, but I’m sure going to miss the espressos, Chiantis and Calabrese salsiccia.

Oh, well, everything in life is a trade-off.

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