Technology is Heroin

In 1850 people didn’t know how their favorite symphony sounded.

Bottle of Heroin from the 1900s produced by Bayer

Back then, it was common for musicians to work hectic schedules and perform multiple shows in a row. Instruments were frequently out of tune and good, consistent timing was fairly new. In addition, going to the symphony was a big deal: you dressed up, you hitched up the horses, you went into town.

You might only hear your favorite symphony 5 or 6 times in your life. Each time it was probably slightly in a different key, with a slightly different tempo, played with slightly different instruments, and each time you actively strained to hear and remember how it all sounded.

You would sit very attentively, absorbing each and every note and drumbeat of the symphony. It was a play, a painting, an imaginary world come to life, and you were living in it. It was magic.

Want some fun diversion? That was different too. You could read, which required an above average education and concentration. The more you read, however, the more you could read, so it was a self-reinforcing pastime. You could perform music, which also took years of study and was self-reinforcing. Then there were games, which mostly either involved physical exercise or concentration.

Everything back then took work and time. In rural America, it wasn’t unusual to walk five miles to a friend’s house to play a few games of checkers. Life was monotonous and physically challenging. In the countryside there was no plumbing and electricity hadn’t been invented yet. You spent a lot of time hauling around water, chopping firewood, planting and tending crops. It took nearly continuous physical activity. Leisure was no different: it took time, work, and active minds.

Want to socialize, hang out with the buds? It was a big deal, a special day. You’d either walk a ways or get on your horse and ride. If it were a really big day, like election, you’d hitch the wagon up to the plow team. It was a lot of work and hassle, but eventually you’d end up at the dance, the election, the church, the pub, or wherever. There would be drinking and story-telling ugoing on for hours on end. Hey — these were your friends and it took a lot of hassle to spend time with them. For instance, when the American Colonies were formed, Ben Franklin and a few other delegates threw a kegger before everybody else arrived that went on for several days.

The chemical diversion for the vast majority of people was alcohol. Who can forget Franklin’s famous quote about wine?

“Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”

It wasn’t an ideal life by any means, but by contrast within 50 years the devil himself paid a visit to western society and it made those days look like a picnic.

Cocaine drops to fix tooth aches

Fast forward. It’s 1900 and you’re in pain. As a Civil War vet and in your late 50s, most of the time you spend lamenting how lazy and dumb the current bunch of youngsters are. But you’re old: Being 55 then is like being 75 today. Death was a very familiar sight. For most of history, toothaches were a common cause of death. You’d get an infected gum, then sepsis would set in. A few days later you’re dead.

Help is on the way, however. The American Civil War saw the first use of morphine for pain relief. It’s impossible to overstate what a difference it made. The opiates were truly miracle drugs. Got a bad war injury? Morphine could make you feel like you were floating in the clouds. Got a bad toothache? Put a little bit of cocaine on there and the dentist could pull it out while you laughed the whole time. How about a bad cough? Nothing like Heroin to fix up a coughing fit.

People who led dank, miserable lives because pain kept them suffering suddenly felt wonderful. They felt engaged, energized, and plugged into society. Heroin comes from the German eroisch, which means heroic, because in field studies people using the medicine felt “heroic” Women were encouraged to use opiates for “female problems”, marital issues, boredom, and just for something fun to do. Nothing like a little blow to liven up a Victorian tea party, right? And you could buy the stuff anywhere. It was legal and cheap.

The wildly popular Thomas DeQuincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater” described how good opium was:

I do not readily believe that any man, having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium, will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol.

I take it for granted That those eat now who never ate before, and those who always ate now eat the more…. What I contemplated in these Confessions was to emblazon the power of opium — not over bodily disease and pain, but over the grander and more shadowy world of dreams

Then people woke up. They looked around and found large sections of society were hooked on dope. People spent their time zonked out. Work in the fields didn’t get done. People who were high didn’t socialize like they used to.

DeQuincey wrote a later book called “Miseries of Opium” in which he went on at length about how opium completely destroyed his life. But nobody bought that one.

You’d think that people would be pretty quick to recognize that opiates were a problem, but that’s not how it actually happened. It took decades of zonked out Civil War vets, housewives who were so stoned they couldn’t walk around the house, and professional doctors and lawyers — professionals — who were completely unable to perform for people to take notice. What finally drove change was the fact that life then was much more time-intensive. Nobody cared if you spent your days zonked out, but if you didn’t plant your crops and your family was starving the community had to step in whether it wanted to or not.

The problem was that nobody had ever dealt with something like that before. People just assumed that new drugs — the new technology — was something that performed miracles. It was progress. It was the natural course of things. Sure, there might be some side effects, but we’ll eventually figure it all out. Eventually, people thought, we’d work it out. Like everything else, it was simply a matter of moderation. There would be some new drug that would treat addiction in general and that would be that.

One of the uses of morphine, after all, was to treat alcoholism. And one of the uses of Heroin was to treat morphine addiction.

By 1910 it was becoming apparent that while opiates were a miracle cure, we had to get them out of the hands of a public which was terribly hooked on them. Either that or start a generational pattern of addiction that would destroy the country and waste hundreds of millions of lives. Heroin was strangling out time, our productivity — our souls.

It was a terrible, gut-wrenching decision that we still argue about to this day. Who is the government to tell me what I can and can’t put into my own body? And in the end, people just did as they wanted anyway. Making drugs illegal probably saved the country, but it also brought on organized crime, a drug subculture, and made generations of pill-poppers since look like hypocrites. It changed our definition of what a productive, good life is all about. What it meant to be human.

Collage of the logos from a lot of social networking sites on the internet

If it hadn’t been for the record player, it might not have happened again.

On a warm summer’s day in 1877 Thomas Alva Edison began shouting “Mary had a little lamb” into a strange contraption that would change the world. For the first time, a voice was recorded on a medium that allowed it to be played back, either a few or a million times. This meant that you could experience music — wonderful, glorious music — simply by placing a cylinder into this machine and starting it up.

At first, people used the phonograph like the concert hall. There were “phonograph parlors” where people would dress up to go hear phonographs “performed”. Later, however, the technology improved, as it always does. Everybody got their own home phonograph.

Robert Greenberg, lecturer, composer, pianists, and currently Music Historian-in-residence with San Francisco Performances, notes that music went from being an active endeavor to a passive endeavor.

This bears repeating. Music went from being something where you actively paid close attention to a complex piece of art to just another sound in your environment. Music is all around us now — though we take it completely for granted. It’s background noise. But this is a very recent thing. It used to be that you went to the music. Now the music comes to you, whether you’re paying attention or not.

That means that music, instead of getting more and more complex and intricate, is now evolving along a different line. It’s sonic evolution: survival of the fittest. Music competes with all sorts of other things for your attention. For a song to make money, it has to cut through the clutter and instill in you a “quick hit” of something that feels good. That’s why rock-n-roll and other drum-heavy music beat out the big bands. In general, the beat wins out over the tune. I can hear a guy playing hip-hop coming from 200 yards away. The beat cuts through the sonic clutter. Creating music now is a survival of the fittest contest. The goal is to take a mind engaged in something else, capture its attention, and “turn it on” to some cool grooves and lyrics for a while. The more you can engage distracted listeners and the happier they feel, the better the music.

The phonograph was followed by radio, which was a big hit because it could take live music and put it anywhere. At first it was the rebirth of live music. But that only lasted a short while.

Then came television, which promised not only to compete for our aural senses but also to compete with sight as well. “Don’t turn that dial!” has become cliche: whatever you do, keep your eyes peeled on this station.

Evolution is a wonderful thing. Start with some initial conditions, put in a need to survive, and evolution will find some of the best solutions possible for survival. If the initial conditions are “I have a product. The audience is not paying attention. Unless they pay attention I will die,” then I will find the most optimum way of taking a non-participating audience and make them involved, make them happy. If not in this generation and this technology then in the next one.

When I was a kid people lamented the fact that folks spent too much time on TV. Like every generation, the old folks told us that we were lazy and stupid, and wasted our time a lot. But hey — it’s not like TV gave you the shakes, or made you sick or killed you. It’s just a bunch of images on a box. Hell, it’s educational. And it’s all voluntary. Nobody makes you spend your time there. If I remember correctly, I spent just as much time out in the yard running around as I did watching TV. But the evolution of media was still young.

Then came video games. Cool little pieces of programming designed to let you spend as much time as possible having fun. Once again, the games that were short or non-addictive died off. Evolution kept evolving games better and better at taking your time and turning it into joy.

Then came the internet. It was like radio was to music — it allowed all of this fun game time to be spent with other people. We can now play dynamic multi-player games with millions of other people around the earth. Instead of hitching the horses to go to the dance, we can flip a switch and see all of our “friends” of FaceBook, MySpace, or a dozen other social networking sites.

Meanwhile, entertainment technology keeps evolving. The sites and games get more and more intricate, fun, time-intensive, and immersive. Rational, normal people have a harder and harder time putting these things down and doing other things. That’s by evolutionary design: the most addictive online content site wins. If it doesn’t keep you attentive even when you should be doing something else, no matter how important the other thing is, another site will come along that will be able to.

Very young children sitting in lounge chairs attentively playing video games

Technology is Heroin.

It’s still very early. We’re still in the phase of expecting some even better technology to come along and save us from this problem. Programmers are creating “no procrastinate” options for their web sites in order to help users not spend so much time there. Programs are being written to track online time to show users where they are spending all of their energy. The new addictive program will eliminate the ills of the old one.

Meanwhile, people get fatter and fatter, unable to get around or physically accomplish normal chores from a 100 years ago. Intelligence is going down as fewer and fewer books are being read (news flash: the printed book industry is on the way out unless this trend stops), and social organizations like churches and civic clubs see fewer and fewer members attend their meetings. The skills that are increasing? Reflex time. Ability to solve abstract, short-timespan problems. Basically the skills we need to interact with our entertainment. More and more, Indians and Chinese — people coming from cultures who have been shut out of the technical world until recently — are writing software for hardcore western appetites to consume.

Now that sight and sound are covered, new internet appliances promise to offer touch, smell. Locomotion is old hat. Eventually there will be a direct brain interface. There has to be: competitors will become so strong that only by direct brain stimulation will technology be able to continue to evolve.

People say that this is a good thing — as technology evolves we will become trans-human: we will integrate in with machines and be able to process and work a thousand times faster than before.

This may be true. But if so, it would be a side-effect, not a direct result. That’s like saying it’d be great to get hit by a train because you’ve always wanted a train ride. The driver here is the competition between various pieces of technology and brain-time. Whatever controls the most brain-time wins out evolutionarily over any other product, not matter how valuable it might be. World of Warcraft beats Wikipedia hands down. That driver will continue. It’s foolish and pollyannish to think that somehow it’ll all work out. Unless the conditions for the evolving threat cease, it will keep growing and adapting, no matter how much better, stronger, and faster we are.

It’s all happening slowly, much slower than it did with heroin. We don’t have the time-intensive life we once did. Heroin was a simple substance that had immediate, clear effects; this is a process of adaptation and survival that is taking generations. Heroin hit you in the face and still it took 50 years for us to figure it out. This is slowly creeping up our leg and strangling our minds, our souls, millimeter by millimeter, year by year. By the time we figure this one out, it might be too late.

No matter what, it will once again change our definition of what it means to be human.

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38 thoughts on “Technology is Heroin

  1. Melissa O. Markham

    I agree that we have to be thoughtful of where we spend our time and we need to make an effort to make sure it is not all spent in front of a tv or a computer monitor. When I was growing up, my father growled and groaned about the hours, and I do mean hours that I spent each day watching television. I was also an avid reader at the time and due to an English assignment, I know that during my senior year alone, I read over 150 books for pleasure. Nowadays, I don’t watch much t.v. I don’t have the time or the desire to spend the time in front of the passive entertainment. My dad was sure that I would spend the rest of my life in front of the television, but it turns out he was wrong.
    Like it or not, computers are here to stay. They are part of the way we live. You can look at the negative aspects of them, or you can look at the positive. For the inquiring mind, there is so much you can learn about the world at your fingertips. I don’t really believe the printed book industry is on the way out (maybe magazines and newspapers, but not books), but the less books we have out there, the less trees we are cutting down to make them. I know from experience that tons of books end up in the landfill because no one wants them anymore (have seen them thrown away at library book sales). Instead of paying 30.00 for a hard back book, we can often find the same book for free on the Internet. I see that as a step forward.
    I watched the movie Idiocracy with you and it hit me in the face as to one potential out come for the human race. But talking about the fact that we don’t do physical chores that were done a hundred years ago, doesn’t make a lot of sense. After all, things have changed. Those chores are no longer an issue. It is hard to make up ‘chores’ to do now to come anywhere near the level of chores done back then because there is technology (vacuum cleaners, cars, etc) that makes everything so much easier. Lots of people then take it upon themselves to do recreational sports so that they can get up and at’em. WE have more recreational time on our hands now that at any time in history. Personally, I would rather people spend it doing things like socializing on the Internet or playing games where you can learn things than I would see them sitting in front of a television just watching. Of course, the best possible option would be more time out and about living, but income and location of residence and even physical abilities don’t always make that possible.
    Look at the Wii for instance. This game system has opened up a whole new world for a lot of people. Retirement homes and nursing homes find it is great entertainment for the residents. They can’t lift a bowling bowl to bowl anymore, but they can move that Wii remote and enjoy a game they perhaps played in real life for decades. Going to the bowling alley can be an expensive proposition, but for a family, getting the Wii game can save money, gas and encourage the family to do something together.
    Every advance has its good points and bad points. There is nothing in this world that doesn’t have the ability to become addictive. Food, alcohol, Facebook, video games, religion… and there are people with addictive personalities who will find something to be addicted to no matter what. Your argument reminds me a lot of the people who say these horrible movies give people ideas to go out and do horrible acts. Well, there probably are some instances where that is true, but as a whole, people who watch Fridy the 13th, aren’t rushing out to buy hockey masks and become serial killers.
    I hope the gaming technology continues to evolve in a way that gets us up and moving and interacting. I remember 18 years ago sitting down with a certain someone (yes, you) and playing backgammon with a person on the other side of the world. There was a black screen and ‘x’s and ‘o’s, and we were thrilled because we were interacting with someone we never would have been able to otherwise.
    Things like Facebook, You Tube, etc give us the same opportunity. We can make new friends, find old friends and have a social network that was denied to our ancestors. Not to mention, the possibility of a professional network. I have only joined Facebook recently, but there is probably a way I could find other paralegals out there. Get to know some. Learn from them and perhaps somewhere down the road get a job because of that networking.
    Okay…now my comment is as long as your post, so I’ll hush now.

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  2. Melissa O. Markham

    LOL! That’s all you have to say after all of that typing I did????
    BTW, what I didn’t say was that your article was well written as always and you never cease to amaze me with your vast store of knowledge!

    Reply
  3. SubAstute

    In conclusion, heroin didn’t completely destroy society 100 years ago, and technology probably won’t destroy society over the course of the next 100 years. Even though there are a lot of lazy people who don’t exercise their bodies or their brains, life spans are longer than ever due to medical advances, and we have more opportunities for physical improvement and mental enrichment than ever before. I think the human race is much more intelligent and resilient than you suspect. Maybe you’ve been reading too much existentialist philosophy? :-)

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  4. Bruce Markham

    Not as full of yoda-isms as your normal posts, but I found the outlook enriching.
    Personally, I don’t mind having a heroin addiction. What scares me is that people more typically apart from it are either religious zealots or spiritual nuts. But maybe that’s just the evolution of society in action.

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  5. Not For Public Consumption

    I know I’m using one vague assertion to counter another, but something feels wrong about this. Perhaps because it doesn’t really propose a solution to a non-problem, or maybe it’s because of the comparison between heroin, TV and WoW. I know that kind of comparison is commonplace analogy in these circles, but it still feels misplaced.
    Heroin is a drug that physically affects your brain. It’s physically addictive. It’s physically hard to come off of — like trying to walk again after shattering the bones in your legs.
    TV and WoW, IMO, are not like this. The only reason people are glued to their viewing devices is because of various mostly temporary, personal human shortcomings. Except for a relative few highly publicized mentally ill examples, it takes approximately 5 mins to stop watching/playing and never come back again, once you’ve made that decision. Society isn’t on the verge of collapse — people are fat because they choose not to exercise and eat right, not because of WoW and TV. You don’t need a replacement to come off of TV, you just have to decide to stop watching and instead go walking.
    So, while it seems like reading blogs and playig WoW are like heroin to people who have never had experience outside of these kind of venues, it’s not. There’s a reason heroin was restricted, and it has nothing to do with human foibles and personal self-control — it has a lot to do with the nature of the substance in question.

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  6. DanielBMarkham

    Thanks for the ocmment.
    I think you might have missed the point, however. Heroin is a _passive_ addictive substance. You take some kind of action — smoking, snorting, injecting — and heroin takes your time and gives you joy.
    Technology, on the other hand, is actively addictive. There’s nothing for you to do to get “hooked” You just carry on in your regular life while virtual worlds, games, and other life-sapping technologies continue to evolve to actively make you use them.
    That’s what so insiduous about it: whereas with normal addictions some culpability is placed on the junkie, here people stay the same and it’s the technology that comes after THEM, not the other way around.
    As far as the physical differences: heroin being a substance, having to be injested to take effect, causing measurable physical changes: I think we’re beginning to see real brain differences in people who are involved in imaginary worlds versus people who are not. Can you put down TV? Forever? A lot of people talk about it. They say things like “Just turn it off”. But TV in general? If anything, people “trade up” from TV to the internet, which is even more of a time and energy sink. There is a very small percentage of people who actually stop watching TV. It’s like the old joke about asking the wino if he’s quit drinking. He’ll say “Sure. I quit late last night about 3 am. I do every night about that time.
    It’s easy to quit technology — we do it all the time. Meanwhile kids sit around in McDonald’s SMS-ing each other while they sit at the same table.
    Thanks again for the comment.

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  7. Ken

    I like part of what you’re saying here, but a few points seem strained:
    - You kind of shy away from discussing what happened after drug laws began. You claim they “probably saved the country”, but then enumerate symptoms that suggest this ‘solution’ is worse than the problem. And after all this, we still have the same drugs (or even better ones), and we’re still using them. There are certainly countries with very permissive drug laws that are doing just fine.
    I don’t think it would detract from your point at all to show that the move away from drugs was more a social change than a legal one.
    - You take a swipe at computers killing printed books, but neglect to point out that the printing press killed hand-copied books, and that hand-copied books killed oral tradition. (I’ve heard arguments that alphabetic writing hurt us, too.) By going only one step back in this chain, it smells of “when I was a kid…”. (Disclaimer: big fan of ancient oral tradition here. :-)
    - I don’t get your train analogy. Having a brain that’s 1000 times more powerful like getting hit by a train? You lost me there. Maybe needs another short paragraph to get me across the rocks there.
    - “World of Warcraft beats Wikipedia hands down”. I’ve never played WOW, and I don’t even think I know any people who do. I don’t know you, but you seem to be a techie, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that us techies are not normal. :-) Most people are not on WOW and Facebook and whatnot.
    However, Wikipedia is zero-cost and open to all. In that, I’d say it’s like the folk culture of digital entertainment-education. It’s still not ideal that it encourages breadth rather than depth (and isn’t handwritten, and isn’t sung! whippersnappers…), but it’s encouraging that it’s both far more popular and educational than just about anything else online.

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  8. joe

    Interesting article.
    I do take issue with your statement “Making drugs illegal probably saved the country” for a different look at why and how drugs were made illegal see:
    http://www.mcwilliams.com/books/aint/303a.htm#illegal
    The entire book is online: http://www.mcwilliams.com/books/aint/toc.htm it’s a good read.
    You say: “Whatever controls the most brain-time wins out evolutionarily over any other product, not matter how valuable it might be”. I don’t understand why you add the “no matter how valuable it might be”. whatever has drawn the attention of that mind *is* ispo facto the most valuable thing to that mind at that time. whether it be WOW, designing quantum computers or reading a gossip rag. Have faith in your fellow man, man, it really *will* all work out. :-)

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  9. Barry Kelly

    From skimming this article, I think you’re indulging in a big exercise of bias confirmation. You’ve got luddite ideas about the world, and you’ve simply gone out looking for factoids to back them up.
    Just some of your bizarre non-points:
    “Being 55 then is like being 75 today. Death was a very familiar sight.”
    Increased life expectancy doesn’t decrease the rate of death, except temporarily during the period of expectancy growth. That’s distinct from the number of deaths though: because there are more people in the world today, there are *far* more deaths.
    “World of Warcraft beats Wikipedia hands down.”
    The only fact that could prove this statement true is a complete absence of edits on Wikipedia. Why are people still editing Wikipedia if they could be playing WoW instead? Could it be that they prefer one to the other? Or are you arrogant and dictatorial enough to think that you know better than everyone else?
    The trouble is, not all people have the same utility function when determining instrumental and intrinsic values. You seem to think that eudaemonic instrumental values will dominate the will of rational people. The trouble with that idea is that it tries to deny the mass of research on human motivation. Transitory achievements in virtual worlds that ebb and flow with fashion simply aren’t valued as much as tangible achievements in the physical world, and more importantly, the relational world of people. Mere entertainment does not substitute for self-actualization.
    “Whatever controls the most brain-time wins out evolutionarily over any other product, not matter how valuable it might be”
    This is exactly backwards. “Brain-time” is simply a metric, a score, that one can use to rank various activities to see how people are valuing them at any one moment. It does not follow that because something is popular, it has won in any evolutionary sense. Boredom cannot be asserted away: currently popular music, books, movies, games, all of these things individually fade with time, but “popular things” in themselves will always be with us, not least because they give us a route to self-actualization through identification with cultural objects recognized by our peers.
    And for what it’s worth, I don’t own a TV, I don’t play WoW, and I do occasionally edit Wikipedia, but only when I see vandalism, factual inaccuracies and spelling mistakes, because I consider Wikipedia editing largely a waste of time.
    I have my own values, and I’ll thank you not to impose your values on me, thanks.

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  10. Not For Public Consumption

    Sorry, you seem to be getting from all sides here :-) … I’m not trying to pile on, just trying to clarify what I mean (in my head as well as yours :-) ).
    I think got the active/passive point, but I didn’t think it was terribly relevant because the whole argument hinges on “technology == heroin”. Active or Passive, you’re still implying a level of addiction to… something.
    Maybe your restating hit the heart of the problem I have with this opinion. You seem to be implying in your response that someone who plays WoW or watches TV until their life falls apart isn’t culpable at any step in the process — that the technology is so good at anticipating their need for entertainment that they can’t help but take the first free hit and keep going.
    I think, like a lot of us technically inclined folks, you don’t give people due credit, and you’re giving technology too much. When you argue the noone gives up TVesque technology entirely — well, they don’t for the most part, but thats not really relevant, I guess. That’s kind of like saying most people don’t give up sex. The point is that they *can* give up tech without side-affects — and they do this *all the time* when other obligations surface. You just don’t *do* this with physically very addictive substances without a lot of effort. Comparing the two seems the height of silliness to me…
    Aside: WoW may change the brain, like juggling or sex, or excessive amounts of cheetos, but that has no really relevance to addictiveness at all.

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  11. James

    Why no mention of Marshal McLuhan?? If you haven’t heard of him, or simply don’t realize that he talks about many of exactly the same things, you are missing out! He’s all about this sort of thing.

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  12. Albert Cardona

    Your concluding paragraph describes what the movie “Brasil” presents: a world in which everybody pretends to be working, but nobody does: they are all watching drama movies on their screens.

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  13. Peter

    “More and more I come to value charity and love of one’s fellow being above everything else… All our lauded technological progress–our very civilization–is like the axe in the hand of the pathological criminal.” – Albert Einstein.

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  14. Ivo Quartiroli

    Really interesting article. I feel technology, pushed to his extremes, is a mix of speed and cocaine. It mixes the restlessness of speed and the trance state of heroin. I agree, technology’s effects on our psyche are very subtle and it will take long time for society to be aware of them. It already happened with cigarettes, fatty foods or pollution. Those were all signs of “progress”.

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  15. DanielBMarkham

    Lots of great comments.
    First, Ken. Awesome comment. If I get a chance to do a rewrite of the post I will take all of your critques into consideration. I understand the tendency of the essay to drift towards “You young whippersnappers! I used to read REAL books, and they were made of paper too!” I was trying to cut that off by using examples. Heck, I’m as big a technie as anybody else. Spent the weekend wiring a rack and building a server. But a few of those points need honing/sharpening. Thanks for pointing that out.
    Second, Joe. I’m a libertarian and so believe in drug legalization. I know that sounds weird based on the tone of this article, but I don’t think the two are incompatible. The best thing we have is education, which will beat stricter laws any day. As far as the “well, whatever I’m thinking about _must_ be the most important thing” point, I have to disagree. Thinking (and consciousness) is not a hierarchical, single-agent deal: there are competing “yous” in your brain that are always vying for time. The thesis is that by external stimulation we can change the balance of your decision-making in much the same way heroin did in the 19th century. The only difference being that the current threat is an evolutionary one, while drugs were static. That’s my take on your comment, FWIW.
    Third, Barry. Read the article. From skimming your comment I didn’t find a lot of value either.
    Thanks for everybody else for helping out. Everybody that honestly tries to provide feedback either kills the idea or makes it stronger, and big ideas should get a lot of close examination.

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  16. Heinrich

    Great piece, David. Very thoughtful, much to contemplate, at the same time grounded so that you can hardly escape what you’ve read as often as you run into a pertinent situation, e. g. with the children.
    But afaik Heroin does not come from the German eroisch (in fact, there is no such word in German). Instead, it comes from the Greek Heros. Anyhow, the derivation is similar and there is a relation to Germany in that the pharmaceutical group Bayer used Heroin as a brand name for cough medicine back in the 19th century.

    Reply
  17. zach

    i must say while your article is written in a seemingly erudite fashion, you are showing yourself to be on the outside of a culture/community/generation. to those of us who are more actively engaged with technology and its ups and downs, you appear sophomoric and curmudgeonly. what is especially disappointing about your article is that it just says “here’s a problem”. people are already aware of the problems inherent in our technologies and the sedentary lifestyle they make easy to engage – this viewpoint is not new nor is it going to be proven irrevocable in 10 years or 100. it is simple to be discouraging and wag a finger and say you’ve picked up on the next insidious trend to invade humanity, but you offer nothing in the way of what you would perceive as a positive next step. this damages your argument in the end, as it appears your desired end-result was simply to whine and tell the world you’re on to this devilish ploy.
    i hope this doesn’t come across as too harsh or anything, i just feel that you could do a lot to improve this thesis and take it farther than what i feel amounts to a complaint – albeit well organized and written.

    Reply
  18. Ike

    Other than pointing out that technology can be, in effect, “addictive” and that it typically subjugates people to inactive lifestyles I’m not sure what the point is here, or what the significance of us not being as “physically fit” as people from the late 1800s is. Most of us living in America today enjoy lives that are far better than those of that time period, whether we’re fit and active or obese and inactive. If people from that generation could have found a way to skip out on all the manual labor, they would have.
    Physical fitness need not take more than 30 mins a day 4-5 times a week. So the real issue is not with technology but the inability of most people to understand the importance of even marginal exercise. Sure, if technology wasn’t around we’d have fewer things to distract us but I hardly think we’d all be running around in tip-top shape.
    Lastly, I don’t see how drugs are a passive addiction. If anything it is technology that is a passive addiction, as more and more we are being exposed to and making use of complex technology without being in the slightest aware of it. A simple example would be elevator doors, which have sensors. To us it otherwise seems like the doors simply open and close, as they go from floor to floor. But they are being controlled by a sensor that tells the doors not to close when people are coming through. The closest thing in drug use would be baking some weed brownies. But we know the weed is in there because we put it in there, and we must be actively engaged in administering the drugs when we want to get high. With the advent of nanotechnology we’ll have clothes that cool or heat themselves and any other number of things without us doing anything. This is truly a passive addiction to technology.

    Reply
  19. HS

    Good article, well written, but not very original. For example, have you read McLuhan, stuff from the 60s and 70s…

    Reply
  20. DanielBMarkham

    Thanks for the comment, HS.
    I’ve never heard of McLuhan, so while this material may seem old hat to you, it’s most definitely new to me.
    Looking him up on Wiki, I get the following synopsis: “The main concept of McLuhan’s argument (later elaborated upon in The Medium is the Massage) is that new technologies (like alphabets, printing presses, and even speech itself) exert a gravitational effect on cognition, which in turn affects social organization: print technology changes our perceptual habits (“visual homogenizing of experience”), which in turn affects social interactions (“fosters a mentality that gradually resists all but a… specialist outlook”).”
    I can see threads of similarity here, but I don’t see my essay as a rehash of those works — at least as I understand them. Please feel free to produce more detailed sources! I’m interested in the subject and would love to dig around some more.
    Perhaps, as the poet tells us, there is nothing new under the sun. If so, I’m a proud rehasher of old ideas. As long as they are good ones.

    Reply
  21. James

    Just came across this article hence the late comments.
    Boarding School took away a chunk of TV watching opportunity for me as a boy (current age 44), so I believe I never became a “TV addict”. Plus in NZ we only had 3 channels for most of my childhood!
    My wife and I think TV is a bit dumb at best. Once upon a time, with the occassional documentaries and history type of shows, it could be vaguely educational. But generally speaking we have discouraged TV viewing in our house (DVDs are OK!).
    We have 2 teenage boys who have laptops and iPhones. Many folks would see them spending too much time on these devices. Our thinking was that the laptop + internet would enable them to learn something – get out there on the net and investigate, find stuff out, satisfy their inquisitiveness, and generally add to their ability to investigate, assess and understand context. Of course they also play games, download music, visit social sites and chat with friends.
    I think the key is to try and manage a balance (speaking as a parent this is easier said than done). We are fortunate enough to live in a country that offers a lot of outdoor pursuit opportunity. The boys also go to a local sports and cultural centre each week and have made good friends through that. We like to travel and have taken them to some 50+ different places around the world in the last 12 years.
    Hopefully we are managing the balance, but since all this technology is new and our generation is somewhat the trail-blazer for discovery of the social/societal effects of it, I often wonder if we are getting it right. Sometimes I look at them “glued” to the screen in an evening and I get a bit nervous – but their school and social progress seems pretty good, and at least they’re not watching TV!
    Time will tell if Daniel is correct. In the meantime, awareness of the pluses and minuses, and using a bit of old-fashioned human common-sense, is probably the best strategy to follow. Cheers!

    Reply
  22. Seo article writing

    This is such a good post. I got a lot of info from reading your article. I am glad i went through your post. Thank you for posting and keep up the good work.

    Reply
  23. tax preparer

    Wow this is a really good article. I m glad to have read it. I m looking forward for more of your articles…………. I really enjoyed reading it. It’s good to know that there is much more knowledge to gain on this topic. Just keep posting your good work and keep enlightening your readers. Thank you..

    Reply
  24. Mutuelle

    Techmology became an addiction since the first invention. I agree that intelligence is going down as fewer and fewer. Most of people better like to stay at home scotched at the tv, computers or video games. seeing young kid playing video game like that does not mean that they are more developed than other kids. they are not supposing to learn this sort of divertisement at this age. this make them addict and it will be difficult for the parents to diversify them in another educational distraction

    Reply
  25. Anonymous

    No I think you didn’t say it enough. This post is fantastic and I think you deserve a lot of congratulations. Please keep posting new posts.

    Reply
  26. Bryan

    Agree with that, we rely too much on technology, I had to go out to have fun 20 years ago and now we can pretty much get everything through the internet. And I’ve decided to quit world of warcraft after realizing I was spending more time in second life than real life, saddest part I had more friends in virtual life.

    Reply
  27. dan

    daniel:
    a very well reasoned article. The hyppocrites that pop pills are sometimes the loudest opponents of HARM reduction (methinks thou protesteth too much), another moral majority tendency…the bible even said it’s not what you put in your mouth that is bad, it’s what comes out, and that people should take a little wine for their aches…Proverbs (31:6,7) even says “give wine to those in bitter distress & let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.” I’m not on a religious bent here, but the Bible does say everything God put on this Earth is good…ergo, coca leaves, pot, opium, magic mushrooms…the moral majority never quotes that part of the Bible when again breaking Jesus’ law “judge not…” With the rich/poor gap and massive unemployment, drugs are a great escape – and for people in legitimate pain, doctors are miserly about handing out effective drugs. They give you Tylenol #3 when you need morphine, or, gasp, heroin. They hand out Methadone like Kool-aid, but keep heroin in the hands of organized crime. Used with discretion, it is a very effective drug. Cocaine has a few legitimate uses, but does cause psychoses and wacho behavior. The Swiss give heroin out by prescription, which should go for anything. The best sleeping pills are barbiturates, but they are strong, and the government/medical institutions all think we are like little children who can’t control our actions. So, they hand out weird meds, like Seroquil (an anti-schizoid) or trazadone (anti-depressant) just because their side effects are drowsiness. they don’t even hand out Valium, as it’s addictive…I have a friend that’s been on it for 30 years, no problems, he only takes one when he needs it. I take morphine, but only when I need it, and I know heroin would be more suitable, as I get really bad pain. They wait until you’re dying, when they don’t care anymore and still dole it out…nowadays, people take what they want…if they have to get what they want on the black market, it costs everyone, when it should be a person’s right to do whatever they want. Many people are into health and exercise and would never take illegal drugs, so who are they protecting? The addiction INDUSTRY? Look at all the jobs there…treatment centers, detox facilities, the D.E.A., huge expensive Narco squads…it’s now a huge source of income to a lot of people, and governments. Just legalize it, and take the taxes.
    That was a good analogy about the train…getting completely overwhelmed and hit over the head by something that you just wanted to experience…maybe like shooting yourself in the foot to see how well a gun hurts people? Well, something like that, I caught your drift. They say we should learn from history or we are destined to repeat it…maybe we should look at the history we still have the power to change rather than just live with old decisions. Look at America’s attempt to outlaw booze…that didn’t turn out so well. Maybe if more pwerful and important people wanted to bring heroin back, there would be change…as it is, those are probably the same people that are really making the money from the illicit drug trade. They are just really good at hiding their money. Who would lose if they legalized heroin, or made it available by prescription, created a controlled system of distribution? The government? (they’d be rolling in taxes), the destitute ghetto residents that society shuns anyway? The police? (they could solve murders, or real crime) Ultimately, no one would lose, on the surface. But, it makes you question what’s under the surface that makes them spend millions on a war even they admit is unwinable. I think the moral majority should actually read their bibles and understand what Jesus was really trying to say. He said the greatest law was to love God with all your heart, and then love your brother…and get along with everyone. And, to never judge your brother, lest you be judged, for we already have a judge, and He’s the one who put opium on this good earth to help those “in bitter distress”, and let them “forget their poverty and remember their misery no more”. I think the do-gooders who try and change society in their image should recall what Jesus hatred the most: the hypocrites and pharisees that had to draw attention to their good deeds, “and pray aloud so all could hear”, and remember “to do unto others what you would like them to do to you”. “and do good in secret, as your Father in Heaven sees in secret…let your right hand know not what your left hand does”. I challenge any Christian, and not some brainwashed church member, to try and understand the message Jesus really gave. And, worry about your own soul, and not impose restrictions on people who benefit from helpful substances. Get a facebook page and preach your drivel, if you must…
    Danae

    Reply
  28. dan

    well reasoned Daniel.
    internet as the new opiate for the masses.
    What about what happens when we forget history…we’re doomed to repeat it. Perhaps this history is so recent we can still change the damage. The government has way too much control over our lives, as so many writers pointed out…Brave New World, 1984…et al.
    The moral majority needs to understand their bible, instead of banging people over the head with it. Jesus was very clear about what happens when we judge other people. He mentioned that it is what comes out of our mouths that is bad, not what we put into it. And, through an allegorical dream, Paul was taught that everything God put on this Earth is good…that would be coca leaves, pot, opium, mushrooms. Jesus also said we should take wine to ease our pains. Proverbs 31:6-7 to “give wine to those in bitter distress,” and “let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more”. The whole addiction problem has turned into an entire INDUSTRY…counsellors, treatment centers, DEA, detox units…it makes you wonder who is really benefiting from all the money they spend on drugs…if the right people wanted to legalize heroin, it would happen overnight. All these people that run around preaching about what others should do need to remember what Jesus actually said. He said the most important law was to love God with all your heart, and then love your neighbor as yourself. All the pill-popping hypocrites that are legally taking some version of what they publically denouce reminds me of Shakespeare…”I thinketh that they protest too much”. I mean, who would lose and who would benefit if they legalized heroin? The government? (they’d be rolling in taxes) the miserable ghetto inhabitants that barely get by? the cops? (they could solve murders and work on real crime). I think the people making the money from drugs are the ones keeping it illegal…they just know how to hide the money they rake in from illicit drug sales.
    Look what happened when the government tried to push prohibition on the U.S.? Lots of people got really rich, everyone kept right on drinking, and they finally wised up and legalized it…the same thing should happen to heroin. Make it available by prescription, put controls on it, do whatever they want, but make it available to those who want it. There are so many health conscious people around now that would never take it in a million years…it’s only by choice that someone would take it. Everything that’s good is outlawed. The best sleeping pills are barbiturates, but they don’t hand them out anymore. They’re even cutting back on Valium. The government thinks we are a bunch of reckless children that can’t control what we consume. I’ve got a friend who has been on Valium for 30 years…he takes one when he needs it, period. I get morphine for chonic pain, and only take it when I need it, but I think heroin would probably work much better. There’s too many people telling us what to do…don’t play too many video games…you could become a mass murderer. Once we give up our rights, it’s next to impossible to get them back. Look at the war on cigarette smokers…their considered pariahs now.
    The so-called war on pot is a joke. Washington and Jefferson both grew hemp/pot on their estates. The U.S. constitution is written on hemp paper. The first Levi’s jeans were made of hemp fiber. Then the moral majority did a fear-mongering campaign (reefer-madness), and it was outlawed in 1937. In 1941, with the loss of hemp from asia, the government insisted people should grow it “Grow hemp for the war”, was the slogan…for shoe laces in soldier’s boots, rope for the navy, fire-hoses and parachutes for the paratroopers. Then in 1955, it was outlawed again. Idiots. An acre of hemp produces 4 times as much paper as an acre of healthy trees…and grows back faster. There is too much power in the hands of too many people with the wrong agenda. I think drug lords pay off governments with some of the billions they make selling dope on the street.
    If all these do-gooders want to impose their beliefs on others, get a face-page and rant all you want…just leave stuff alone so the people can enjoy what God put on this earth for a good reason. Thomas Sydenham, a 17th century physician and church leader, said “there is nothing the almighty God has put on this earth that is so efficacious to relieve our sufferings as opium.” We should learn from the past…it seems this generation is afraid of its own shadow, and they outlaw everything they are afraid of…I grew up without baby seats, child-proof medicine bottles, got driven around on bald tires, went out and played with whatever the hell I wanted to, and I’m still alive. The only control we can ever have over addictions, whether it’s heroin or Warcraft, is our own self control. I think the moral do-gooders should read their bible and try to understand what Jesus really said…and don’t preach what they think it says…live and let live, and don’t wait until someone is dying before you give them heroin. The Swiss legalized it because they understood what it was all about. Zealots should look after their own souls, and judge not, for there is one judge for everyone. I understand your train analogy…you don’t have to be hit over the head with something to understand it, or overwhelmed by something just to try it…sort of like getting a gun and shooting yourself in the foot – just to see how well it can hurt someone. Thomas de Quincy said in “confessions of an Opium addict”…”people led dank and miserable lives because of pain and suffering…suddenly, they felt energized, plugged into society.” If properly done, legalizing heroin, or undoing what should not have been done, would greatly benefit this generation of homeless, jobless and depressed malcontents, and give them back the joy of living. Everything in moderation, nothing in excess. I think Socrates said that, or one of the epicurean philosophers. We should learn from history, indeed…we need it.

    Reply
  29. dan

    well reasoned Daniel.
    internet as the new opiate for the masses.
    What about what happens when we forget history…we’re doomed to repeat it. Perhaps this history is so recent we can still change the damage. The government has way too much control over our lives, as so many writers pointed out…Brave New World, 1984…et al.
    The moral majority needs to understand their bible, instead of banging people over the head with it. Jesus was very clear about what happens when we judge other people. He mentioned that it is what comes out of our mouths that is bad, not what we put into it. And, through an allegorical dream, Paul was taught that everything God put on this Earth is good…that would be coca leaves, pot, opium, mushrooms. Jesus also said we should take wine to ease our pains. Proverbs 31:6-7 to “give wine to those in bitter distress,” and “let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more”. The whole addiction problem has turned into an entire INDUSTRY…counsellors, treatment centers, DEA, detox units…it makes you wonder who is really benefiting from all the money they spend on drugs…if the right people wanted to legalize heroin, it would happen overnight. All these people that run around preaching about what others should do need to remember what Jesus actually said. He said the most important law was to love God with all your heart, and then love your neighbor as yourself. All the pill-popping hypocrites that are legally taking some version of what they publically denouce reminds me of Shakespeare…”I thinketh that they protest too much”. I mean, who would lose and who would benefit if they legalized heroin? The government? (they’d be rolling in taxes) the miserable ghetto inhabitants that barely get by? the cops? (they could solve murders and work on real crime). I think the people making the money from drugs are the ones keeping it illegal…they just know how to hide the money they rake in from illicit drug sales.
    Look what happened when the government tried to push prohibition on the U.S.? Lots of people got really rich, everyone kept right on drinking, and they finally wised up and legalized it…the same thing should happen to heroin. Make it available by prescription, put controls on it, do whatever they want, but make it available to those who want it. There are so many health conscious people around now that would never take it in a million years…it’s only by choice that someone would take it. Everything that’s good is outlawed. The best sleeping pills are barbiturates, but they don’t hand them out anymore. They’re even cutting back on Valium. The government thinks we are a bunch of reckless children that can’t control what we consume. I’ve got a friend who has been on Valium for 30 years…he takes one when he needs it, period. I get morphine for chonic pain, and only take it when I need it, but I think heroin would probably work much better. There’s too many people telling us what to do…don’t play too many video games…you could become a mass murderer. Once we give up our rights, it’s next to impossible to get them back. Look at the war on cigarette smokers…their considered pariahs now.
    The so-called war on pot is a joke. Washington and Jefferson both grew hemp/pot on their estates. The U.S. constitution is written on hemp paper. The first Levi’s jeans were made of hemp fiber. Then the moral majority did a fear-mongering campaign (reefer-madness), and it was outlawed in 1937. In 1941, with the loss of hemp from asia, the government insisted people should grow it “Grow hemp for the war”, was the slogan…for shoe laces in soldier’s boots, rope for the navy, fire-hoses and parachutes for the paratroopers. Then in 1955, it was outlawed again. Idiots. An acre of hemp produces 4 times as much paper as an acre of healthy trees…and grows back faster. There is too much power in the hands of too many people with the wrong agenda. I think drug lords pay off governments with some of the billions they make selling dope on the street.
    If all these do-gooders want to impose their beliefs on others, get a face-page and rant all you want…just leave stuff alone so the people can enjoy what God put on this earth for a good reason. Thomas Sydenham, a 17th century physician and church leader, said “there is nothing the almighty God has put on this earth that is so efficacious to relieve our sufferings as opium.” We should learn from the past…it seems this generation is afraid of its own shadow, and they outlaw everything they are afraid of…I grew up without baby seats, child-proof medicine bottles, got driven around on bald tires, went out and played with whatever the hell I wanted to, and I’m still alive. The only control we can ever have over addictions, whether it’s heroin or Warcraft, is our own self control. I think the moral do-gooders should read their bible and try to understand what Jesus really said…and don’t preach what they think it says…live and let live, and don’t wait until someone is dying before you give them heroin. The Swiss legalized it because they understood what it was all about. Zealots should look after their own souls, and judge not, for there is one judge for everyone. I understand your train analogy…you don’t have to be hit over the head with something to understand it, or overwhelmed by something just to try it…sort of like getting a gun and shooting yourself in the foot – just to see how well it can hurt someone. Thomas de Quincy said in “confessions of an Opium addict”…”people led dank and miserable lives because of pain and suffering…suddenly, they felt energized, plugged into society.” If properly done, legalizing heroin, or undoing what should not have been done, would greatly benefit this generation of homeless, jobless and depressed malcontents, and give them back the joy of living. Everything in moderation, nothing in excess. I think Socrates said that, or one of the epicurean philosophers. We should learn from history, indeed…we need it.

    Reply
  30. Proud

    I think you’re hitting on the fact that every generation has its heroin, and that technology (the Internet and interactive computing devices in particular) is this generation’s heroin.

    Technology in a broad sense has always been heroin (opiates, music players, television), and that’s not the problem. The big difference is things like alcohol and drugs need to be taken in moderation, or not at all, and societies will continue to function if people abstain completely. However, we need people to use modern technology for many daily functions. Many jobs require e-mail and cellphones.

    Just as money is needed to buy food and rent, yet can also be used for gluttonous pursuits, we need to find a way to make technology work within our society. It doesn’t help that the addiction can be hard to quantify (when are we addicted versus using it as a tool, and as entertainment in moderation?).

    Until the behavior is deemed destructive, I don’t think it will get exposed as a heroin-like addiction. Additionally, I don’t think modern technology is the entire reason for the ills of societal behavior today, either. If anything, for many people, the technology is displacing other heroins (for me, Internet use almost entirely displaces my television use) and as long as we have societies, it’s virtually unavoidable, that we will have one form or anohter of heroin — the goal should be to limit the amount of destruction it carries.

    Reply
  31. Carl Youngblood

    Thanks for an insightful post. I would push back gently on your characterization of transhumanists. Most of the transhumanists I know are not claiming that these challenges will all take care of themselves. In fact, they are very concerned about the same points you have raised here and are actively discussing and debating how best to mitigate against these existential risks. The tranhumanist community in general is more concerned about these things than any other group I know of.

    Reply

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