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IN THE WEB
Internet Addiction and the Electronic Threat to Reality BY MATEUSZ
The setting: an anarchic citadel somewhere in the Middle East. Tim Wilde, the only surviving member of an elite counter-terrorist force, crouches behind a crate, holding tight the one remaining friend he has left: his Colt carbine sub-machine gun. The rest of his crew have already fallen, their bodies lining the passageway that together they fought through to get this far. Now, it’s up to Tim alone to defuse the bomb – and he’s got almost no time left. In a fraction of a second, he springs up from behind the crate and, with lightning-fast reflexes and eagle-eye precision, guns down the two terrorists creeping along the passageway towards him. Before they even hit the ground, he grabs a grenade from his belt and hurls it towards the end of the passageway. BOOM!!! The force of the explosion propels the body of the last defending terrorist from around the corner. Without a moment’s hesitation, Tim dashes into the thick cloud of smoke and, with only seconds to go before detonation, successfully deactivates the terrorist bomb.
“Yes!!!” Tim leans back in his chair, triumphant, and wipes his hands on his shirt. “Eight kills, zero deaths” he reads off the screen proudly. TimWilde isn’t really part of a counter-terrorist force, and he’s nowhere near the Middle East. In fact, he’s just another mouse-happy teenager sitting in his messy, stale-smelling bedroom in Brighton; blinds drawn, computer whirring quietly in the darkness. He looks like he hasn’t been in the sun for days, let alone the Arabian desert, and in reality, he wouldn’t even know how to get the safety lock off a Colt carbine. Online however, Tim is ranked as the fourth best CounterStrike player in Australia – no mean feat considering we’re talking a 30,000-member community of some of the most nimble-fingered geeks in the country. Having flawlessly accomplished his mission, Tim takes a sip from the Coke can stationed next to his mousepad. “I used to play this every night, for hours on end,” he confesses. “I was addicted. I guess I still am.”
Forget weed, booze and cigarettes – computer games are the most popular drug among young males today and, some would argue, the most addictive. Since ID Software released their first three-dimensional shoot-’em-up in 1992, teenagers have been up all hours of the night slaughtering Nazis in Wolfenstein, then demons in Doom, and pretty much everything else since – these days, online, they shoot at each other. But in a computer game, of course, you don’t really take over the world, or marry the beautiful princess, or suppress the terrorist bomb threat. You don’t even get a friendly handshake to say, Congratulations. So what’s the big deal? “Computer games let you do things you normally couldn’t do,” explains Tim, as he commences another round of counter-terrorism. “You can fire guns, throw grenades, plant bombs…” – and, sure enough, it’s all right there on the screen, in stunningly realistic, highly detailed graphics. However, watching Tim himself, it’s painfully obvious that he isn’t actually doing anything – he’s just sitting in his chair, hair still messed up from sleep, staring at a screen while frantically clicking his mouse, his speakers drumming out loud and very realistic bullet sounds as he does so. In the near-blackness of his bedroom, it strikes me as even somewhat surreal. So, how often does he do this? “I don’t know how much time,” he admits, standing on a balcony with a sniper rifle, “but basically, when I’m at home, I’m online.” This – “Internet addiction disorder”, as one sociologist calls it – is rapidly becoming recognized as one of the major social problems of the twenty-first century. The problem isn’t getting people connected to the Net anymore – it’s getting them disconnected. According to a 2002 survey, 94% of Australian teenagers use the Internet, 39% of which use it predominantly for online gaming – at the expense of their studies, their social life and their physical health. Yet online gaming is just one example of “Internet addiction disorder” – even more potent, particularly for female users, is online chat. Go back 24 hours and I’m talking about this with Hakon Andersson, a second-year Information Systems student at Melbourne University. Sitting opposite me, unshaven and dressed in earthy colours, he doesn’t give the impression of being much of a technohead, but, being one of the few Australians to adopt the Net in the early 1990s, he has observed many of the changes that have taken place both in and as a result of the medium. As we sit in a cafeteria near Melbourne University’s I.T. faculty, he makes some interesting and revealing observations.
“When I first got the Net,” he begins, “you’d e-mail someone and say, ‘Call me when you get this.’ Now, you wouldn’t bother talking to them on the phone – you’d use that e-mail to write out what you wanted to tell them.” This seemingly trivial change symbolizes a growing concern among sociologists that increasing Internet usage is resulting in people losing the ability to communicate – people are becoming, in the words of one observer, “comfortable only with machines and text talk.” Hakon agrees, and uses the highly popular MSN Messenger (a free chat program distributed by Microsoft) as an example. “There’s no close contact on MSN,” he says. “It’s distanced and heartless.” He pauses, takes a sip of his cappuccino, and continues, “I mean, this is what communication is about – talking here, in a nice atmosphere, with a coffee or a beer – not bent over your keyboard in your bedroom, typing away to someone you can’t even see, dozens of kilometres away from you.” Interestingly, Nathan Hartigan, a Monash Arts student majoring in Sociology, disagrees. “It’s good for getting to know new people,” he says, his mouth full of the pizza we’re sharing for lunch. “It’s a lot easier to talk to someone you don’t really know over MSN, because it’s more relaxed. People open up more when they’re writing.” That’s true. But perhaps that’s exactly the point: it makes communicating artificially easy by taking away the realities of human communication – such as eye contact, body language and tone of voice – so that when it comes to talking to strangers in real life, in a situation unmediated by machines, the experience is unfamiliar, awkward and even intimidating. As Nathan walks off to pay the bill, I wonder, in regards to a pretty blonde sitting a few tables away, how would I chat her up if I only knew how to interact through text? Are we meant to nod to each other, get our laptops out and start tapping away? I get my answer later that day, when I log on to check my e-mails. Upon signing into Hotmail, I’m presented with a large, luscious advert for LavaLife – “where singles click” (as opposed, presumably, to talk). Among my eight new messages there’s an e-mail from eMode.com, informing me (for the third or fourth time) that they’ve found my Perfect Partner. When I log out to NineMSN, I click on ‘Communities’ out of curiousity and, sure enough, there’s a ‘Love & Relationships’ section, where you can pick out the features of your ideal partner – rather like assembling a car – and, if you
find a match, you can forward them a “virtual kiss”. In short, here is the scenario I’d sarcastically envisaged earlier that day – and, not only is it being taken seriously, it is, quite clearly, thriving. Social commentator Avital Ronell believes that all this signifies a desire to recover some lost sense of community, long since replaced by atomized industrial society. However, doesn’t this sort of thing just serve to atomize us further? Don’t features like “flirting anonymously” threaten not only to render our faces irrelevant, but our very identities? Isn’t there a world of difference between logging onto a Web site and going out to a night club or bar? A recent U.S. study found that greater usage of the Internet is associated with a decline in social involvement and an increase in loneliness – its conclusion being that, far from offering a solution to atomization, the Internet threatens to accentuate our atomized state, turning us, in the words of Paul Virilio, into “a society of cocoons…where people hide away at home, linked into communication networks, inert.” Before going to Tim’s, I drop by my old school, Brighton Grammar, and talk to the Senior School’s computer lab assistant, Cameron Smith. Brighton Grammar has three computer labs, all equipped with Internet-connected Pentium 3 computers. Apart from being used to teach Info Tech – “a very popular subject,” Cameron informs me – the computers are freely available for use by students during spare periods, lunchtimes and after school. “It’s a great facility, the computer room,” Cameron enthuses. “The boys love it. This place is absolutely packed at lunchtime – everyone comes in here to check their e-mails, play online chess, whatever.” “At lunchtime?” I ask. “Yeah. It gets so full I have to lock the doors after the first ten minutes.” This certainly wasn’t the case two years ago, when I was at school. Students using computers is all well and good, but at lunchtime, every day? Shouldn’t they be out there, on the oval, playing soccer or brandy? Cameron is nonchalant. “In here or out there – what does it matter?” he shrugs. “At least this way,” he adds light-heartedly, “they don’t come back to class stinking of B.O.” Maybe so. But maybe boys should come back to class stinking of B.O. After all, what kind of generation are we rearing if it prefers the clinical silence and artificial lighting of a computer lab, to the rowdy noise and sunshine of the oval? All of a sudden, Clifford Stoll’s warning that “the
medium is luring us to surrender our time on Earth” seems alarmingly accurate. I ask Cameron to speculate on what would happen if he blocked the network, or if the network crashed. “I don’t know,” he replies, looking around the room as if trying to envisage the scenario. “There’d be chaos. I mean, what would they [the boys] do?” What would they do, indeed? I thought. Surely the oval or the quad would have something to offer – fresh air and blue sky, if nothing else? As I leave the school and walk to Tim’s house, I remember a Simpsons episode in which all of Springfield’s TV sets are simultaneously turned off. Disconnected from their boxes, all the children emerge from their houses like mice coming out of hibernation, and discover the long-forgotten joys of running through fields, building tree houses, flying kites and swimming in creeks. When they come home at the end of the day, they may stink of B.O., but at least they are flushed, happy and healthy. Shouldn’t we, I wonder, try to escape the hold the Internet is taking on our lives? Is life in the New Millennium destined to be “Nuthin’ but Net?” During our interview, Hakon had mentioned that in a decade’s time, we may be walking around with computers strapped to our heads. At first this had seemed like a bizarre statement to make, but as I watched all of the students around us – working away at laptops like bees at flowers, or talking into mobile phones seemingly glued to their heads – it didn’t seem so ridiculous after all. Forget ‘immersion technology’, I thought – this was technology immersion! And sitting here in Tim’s bedroom, it all starts to seem faintly ominous. Watching Tim immersed in CounterStrike, he reminds me of Neo in The Matrix – sitting in a chair, mentally plugged into a false, computerprogram world. As I watch him shoot virtual people with virtual guns in a virtual world, oblivious to the very real ringing of the phone downstairs, I’m reminded of a book – War of the Worlds by Mark Slouka – in which the author argues that, unless we keep in touch with the real world, which we need and to which we owe our humanity, we will unwittingly imprison ourselves in the infinite and meaningless void of cyberspace. “Hell, we’re already halfway there,” he had concluded – and, sadly, I’m tempted to agree. Here, perhaps, are the initial symptoms of our transition to the eternal NetRealm – perhaps, as Agent Smith says in The Matrix, “It is inevitable.”
It’s a frightening thought. Abruptly, Tim curses and turns off his computer with a kick. Immediately, the cacophony of gunfire and grenade explosions is silenced – the whirring stops; I can hear his dog barking at the next-door neighbour’s lawnmower outside. “You look a bit bored,” he says, drawing up the blind and flooding the room with sunlight. “You wanna get some lunch down at the beach?” I look back at him. “Yeah,” I say, feeling strangely relieved. “That sounds good.” We get up off our chairs; Tim grabs his wallet and we walk down the hallway, out of the house and into the warm, radiant world outside, blinking like mice coming out of hibernation. It’s a beautiful day. We may be halfway there, I think, as the sun beats down on our faces – but we can still choose to disconnect. For now, the real world goes on.