I can get to the other side of the world in one day. I can connect to the other side of the world in seconds. Human ingenuity is amazing. We are connected in previously unimaginable ways.
And yet, we’ve never been so disconnected, It is killing us.
Auto racing originated at the turn of the last century from the test tracks used by automotive companies to see how fast their horseless inventions would go and for how long. Drivers died on a regular basis because the engines blew up and the wheels fell off the axles. Race car drivers were less skilled athletes and more fearless guinea pigs.
We are the guinea pigs of modern technology, risking our lives to test concepts in cranial manipulation and reward pathway hijacking. We aren’t testing to see if the technology works. We are testing to see how it warps us into techno-zombies driven by emotional brainwashing to generate revenue at our considerable detriment.
The first step in defending ourselves is to understand what is happening to us. I’m hardly the first person to set off alarm bells about the dangers of social media. But what exactly is the danger? What is it about how our brains interact with technology that makes it dangerous?
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that technology addiction isn’t really about technology anymore than alcohol addiction is about alcohol. It goes deeper. It is more complex than that. The good news is we are all in this together. This isn’t an “us” versus “them” problem as addiction has been inaccurately portrayed for centuries.
You know what I’m talking about. Alcohol is great, and is the answer in times of celebration, mourning, gathering, boredom, partying and stress relief, until you drink too much, and then it is a problem. Your problem, not my problem, to be precise. There isn’t some line drawn invisibly in our psyche which once crossed automatically transfers our membership from normal to broken. We are all broken. Or at least we are all bent a little. Alcohol just gets the headlines because of the behaviors that the toxin elicits in so many of us.
Think about this comparison between alcohol and the toxin so many people readily transfer their addiction to, marijuana. This is why so many people naively think you can’t get addicted to weed. When we consume mass quantities of alcohol, or consume moderate quantities of alcohol on a consistent basis, many of us get depressed and anxious, and the toxin that is alcohol encourages us to demonstrate our depression and anxiety in the form of anger – yelling at our families, making irrational declarations and needlessly breaking shit on occasion. When we consume mass quantities of marijuana, or consume moderate quantities of marijuana on a consistent basis, we also get depressed and anxious. The toxin that is marijuana encourages us to demonstrate our depression and anxiety in the form of lethargy, hunger and irrational laughter. The personification of the addiction doesn’t look as dangerous or cause as much damage, but it is still rooted in depression, anxiety, isolation, and nervous system dysfunction. All of that happens because marijuana is a maladaptive coping mechanism. So is alcohol.
I bet most of you are still with me. Alcohol and marijuana are known toxins with both legal and illegal classifications across the United States and most of the civilized world. They are sometimes legal and sometimes dangerous. We have accepted the risks as a society.
Here is where I might lose many of you. Chocolate cake is also a maladaptive coping mechanism that has the same impact on our reward pathways in our brains as alcohol. And other drugs. And technology and shopping and porn and sex and gambling and exercise and sports and politics and reading. Yes, even exercise and reading make this woefully incomplete list of potentially maladaptive coping mechanisms. What? Am I completely stark raving mad? Why would you keep reading these ravings of a lunatic?
Dr. Anna Lembke is a psychiatrist and a Stanford researcher who is an expert in the neurochemistry of addiction and wrote the 2021 book, Dopamine Nation. Everyone who works in addiction has suffered from addiction, either first or second hand. So what is Dr. Lembke’s story? She was addicted to vampire romance novels.
See! Reading. I told you.
Dr. Lembke is a pioneer in this field and is helping us understand that addiction isn’t an “us” versus “them” phenomenon as we’ve believed forever. Screaming, illogical alcoholics who break table lamps and feature prominently on the hit Fox Television series, Cops, and heroin addicts who die in public bathroom stalls slumped under a toilet at the local Denny’s – those people catch all the attention. Those people have worked hard to help the term “addiction” earn an ingrained and lasting stigma that lets “us” turn away in disgust at “them.” But don’t let the superstars of addiction convince you that you aren’t playing the same game. Not everyone is Tiger Woods, but lots of people spend their weekends chasing a little white ball around several acres of grass, trees, water and sand. I’m not afraid to keep playing mediocre soccer just because I’m not Leo Messi.
Addiction is for all of us. We all play the game. It’s just that some are better than others.
If addiction is too stigmatized a word for you to possibly lower yourself to relating to, let’s go back to talking about maladaptive coping mechanisms. Buddy, we’ve all got them to varying degrees.
I want to give a special warning to anyone who reads this blog because you have a loved one who suffers from alcoholism. This post is about you. It isn’t just part of your research so you can better understand his affliction. One of the most supportive things you can do for your alcoholic is to recognize that we are all in this together. Sure, he is way out in the deep end with cinder blocks tied around his ankles, and you might just be sitting on the edge of the shallow end sticking your toes in to test the water temperature. But it’s the same pool. We are all in the same pool of maladaptive coping mechanisms trying to deal with feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation, loneliness, boredom, disconnection, despair, unworthiness, low self-esteem, hopelessness and insomnia. Whoever you are, whatever your deal, your “thing” is almost certainly in that list (if I missed yours, put it in the comments and I’ll add it to that last sentence).
When you see someone who is overweight, you probably think, “Oh, that poor person has no willpower around sugar or carbs.” What people who get it think is, “Oh, that person is struggling with childhood trauma or nervous system dysregulation.” When you see someone who bravely owns a porn addiction on social media, you probably think, “Oh, that degenerate is so lust-filled that he would rather masterbate than be with his wife,” What people who get it think is, “It must be really lonely to be afraid of connection and intimacy because of past relationships, in childhood or adulthood, where his needs were not met.” And when you see someone with a closet full of dozens of shoes, you probably think, “I am jealous. I wish I had her taste for fashion and her disposable income.” What people who get it think is, “I wonder what wound she is trying in vain to soothe each time she adds a pair to the collection.”
Maladaptive coping mechanisms are everywhere. We look past most of them because of our stigmatized “us” versus “them” mentality. My thoughts aren’t meant to drag everyone into a cycle of shame or guilt. To the contrary. My thoughts are intended to lift us all onto the same team fighting the same demons, even if our weapons of choice are vastly different with varying capacities for destruction.
In a 2015 TED Talk, Johann Hari famously said, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” I think the solution goes one iteration deeper. I think the solution for humanity is self-esteem. But there might be no tool more vital to self-esteem than connection. So for the very most part, I think Johann Hari is right.
Which brings us back to our eager participation in the global experiment to determine what infinite technological connection will do to our brains. I watched a TV news magazine story over the weekend about how life like robotic sex dolls will, in the very near future, not only do anything we desire physically, but will learn our likes and dislikes, and reinforce our assertions without counterarguments, or even amendments to our thinking, so that we will have the ability to live in the ultimate echo chambers of intellectual, emotional and physical obedience with things that so resemble humans that we will hardly be able to tell the difference. No alternative perspective. No resistance. No conflict. Just compliance and consent 24/7. As long as we don’t let the battery die.
Let’s say you recognize the dangers in a sex doll with a perfect body, no boundaries and programming to help it learn your opinions and desires. Let’s say you can see that red flag. Good. That’s a start.
But you are still an eager and willing participant in the great techno-experiment on our human brains. Even as the word, “algorithm,” has become a common part of our shared conversation, we still spend hours a day swiping up, down, right and left. We let the techno-masterminds make us angry enough to react, feel deprived enough to shop, feel jealous enough to book travel, feel hungry enough to eat, feel bored enough to drink, and feel lonely enough to bypass emotional connection and bump uglies with strangers. That list is hardly exhaustive. One of the superpowers of technology is that whatever your particular weakness is, the algorithm can identify it and exploit it without you even knowing it is happening. If I Google information about car tires, and then advertisements for tire stores appear in my feed, the subliminality of that messaging is obvious. I might be frustrated by it, but I see it. I pick up what’s being laid down. So somehow I think I understand what the technology companies and advertisers are doing to me. I feel powerful to resist. Let me tell you something. That obvious product or service placement is just the tip of the iceberg. We are all being manipulated in ways we cannot fathom.
I watched a video recently that was sent to me by a reader. It featured a recovery community guru talking about our need to embrace boredom (I would love to give attribution, but I was not familiar with the person, and I can’t seem to track down the source – sorry). He kind of de-mystified meditation for me. He talked about doing mundane things without distraction as a form of meditation. For example, exercising without technology. I run a four-mile loop in my neighborhood two or three times a week. I have long done it while listening to music or a podcast. Well, this nameless guru’s timing was impeccable. My earbuds broke, and the cheap replacement pair I ordered from Amazon arrived quickly, but do not stay in my large listening holes. I had been growing increasingly frustrated with reinserting my earbuds as I plodded along the Denver city streets, so I took rando-guru’s advice, and started running in silence. At first, it was excruciating. My thoughts raced. I considered bringing a pen and paper on runs so I could capture and organize my ideas. The first few weeks were a miserable failure. But I kept going, and something unexpected happened. My brain seems to have settled into the silence. I find myself admiring the architecture of the homes of my neighbors, and listening for the chirping of birds. I get into a bit of a trance from the pounding of my size 9 1/2s or listening to my labored but rhythmic breathing. That which was agonizing and unsettling is now peaceful and energizing. Who knew (besides the guy who I can’t seem to give credit to)?
I co-host and produce a successful podcast, and I am pointing out the dangers of constant consumption of ear candy. I write and edit this blog, and I told you paragraphs ago that reading can morph into a maladaptive coping mechanism. While I believe in capitalism as the least bad economic system, I am not very good at it.
I’m not very greedy. I insult my listeners and readers on a regular basis. Michael Jordan once famously explained that he refused to comment on politics because both Republicans and Democrats buy shoes. He is as financially wise as he is competitive (competitive drive is a pretty obvious maladaptive coping mechanism, by the way). I’m not good at any of the stuff Michael Jordan is good at. But I am curious. I have lots of questions. Finding answers is way more interesting to me that counting or monetizing my readers or listeners. And before you acuse me of being a self-righteous, puritanical, know-it-all, please keep in mind that I once was a degenerate alcoholic.
Once I stopped drinking, I shifted to maladaptively coping with excessive work, excessive monogamous sex, and excessive food indulgences when I felt particularly bad about myself. I am just like you. Maybe my “things” aren’t your “things,” but we all have our “things.” If you think of the battle against your traditional “things” as playing chess, technology makes our “things” three dimensional. Our “things” are coming at us from directions we can hardly imagine. In fact, we have new and emerging “things” that don’t resemble our old “things,” and of which we might never become aware.
I divide addictions, or maladaptive coping mechanisms, into two categories. My division has nothing to do with chemical (alcohol and other drugs) and behavioral (gambling, shopping, porn) distinctions. My dividing line separates addictions we can abstain from, and those we must learn to moderate in order to have happy and productive lives.
We can abstain from alcohol and all other illicit drugs, and have fruitful and prosperous existences. We alcoholics are quite fortunate, really, because moderation is a bitch. I am glad I am done with the mental gymnastics that made alcohol moderation aspirational for a decade of my life. Zero alcohol is easy in comparison.
But there are things we have to moderate – things that have become maladaptive coping mechanisms. Food tops the list. If you have an unhealthy relationship with food, the solution cannot be to stop eating. Likewise, we have to learn to moderate sexual behavior, shopping, exercise and reading, because zero is not a healthy answer.
And technology falls into this moderation category. What a bummer. The most dangerous threat we face cannot be eliminated in our current society if we expect to survive as a species. We have to learn to live with what is, in many regards, the enemy.
Technology is dangerous, but it also brough some crappy earbuds to my doorstep in less than 24 hours. Technology is a threat, but it also exposes me to important ideas from across the globe so I can forget the name of the person who thought them up. Technology is manipulative, but it gives us questioners exponential ability to build on each other’s ideas in a way that will change the human experience.
Let’s just hope we recognize the danger and harness the power, as individuals, because we can’t expect companies or governments to protect us, before the threat wipes us out.
Wow. When I read that last part back, it sounds impossibly daunting. Maybe that is too big to consider.
Maybe just consider taking a walk or a run without your ear candy. Who knows where those first few miles might lead?
And if you’d like to consider exploring these big questions, and alcohol is one of your maladaptive coping mechanisms, please check out SHOUT Sobriety.