I was as skeptical as the next iPad-lover when I saw the cover of the July 16 Newsweek, a screaming woman’s shattered face under the banner: “iCrazy. Panic. Depression, Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is Rewiring Our Brains.” Without reading a single word of the piece, I knew to be wary (and just a bit weary) – we’ve read scarifying screeds like this so often in the last ten year, after all, and some of us are old enough to remember analogous screeds about earlier waves of new technology. Such hackwork is self-evidently designed to sell copies to the perpetually gullible, the same ‘readers’ who’ll clear out the contents of their refrigerators after reading some article warns them about how protein causes face cancer, or some such nonsense. I ordinarily tend to steer clear of Time and Newsweek precisely because they tend to favor such pieces, but this issue of Newsweek was thrust upon me (I was told, on dubious authority, that reading such stuff is “part of the travel experience,” but I’m reserving judgement).
And this particular piece has an additional and much more important claim on my attention: it’s written by Newsweek staffer Tony Dokoupil, who, when he was helming the online manifestation of The Columbia Journal of American Studies, accepted a book review from yours truly. Given the rather large number of such reviews now available from a moment’s Google-search (from right here on Stevereads to the far reaches of that gorgeous pleasure-city of Abu Dhabi on the other side of the world), this might not seem like much of a distinction – but the fact is, Tony took that book review before any of that modern Steve-proliferation happened … the first such review I’d written after a very long fallow period of raising dogs and selling books and writing unreadable historical novels. It was Tony Dokoupil who, quite unknowingly, got me back in the game, as it were, and for that favor (how on Earth could I have gone all those years without doing this every day? The mind boggles) I’ll always feel a partisan soft spot for the guy, and a predisposition to give him the benefit of the doubt. And of course the working professional in me only wants to applaud when even so distant an acquaintance lands the cover story of a national magazine – that should get a round of glasses hoisted in any writers’ bar in the world, just on general principle.
I read the piece (apparently, it’s what one does on vacation – that, and egg-whisking …), and it was tough going. Not for its complexity, but quite the opposite. I’m guessing an outfit like Newsweek has a fairly heavy-handed house style, and naturally, if you’re going to write a scare-tactic warning-bell piece like this, you’re probably not going to be allowed to do it by half-measures. So in the course of examining whether or not “the onslaught” of electronic devices and media – iPhones, iPods, iPads, Facebook, Twitter, etc – is shortening attention spans, rewiring cognitive pathways, and, in the magazine’s hyperbole, making us crazy, Tony is encouraged to employ the usual talismans that get hung from the rafters of all such pieces. “Experts” are consulted; “recent studies” are summarized; “survey findings” are tarted up for maximum effect. I suspect that if Tony had been commissioned simply to write a personal essay on the worrying, problematic role the Internet plays in our modern lives, the resulting piece would have been very different (more balanced, more entertaining, and above all more thoughtful, since this is a very reliably thoughtful writer) – but here he was commissioned not to write an article on Internet addiction but to write a Newsweek article on Internet addiction. The difference is key.
In this piece, we get the story of the kid in Japan who had to be institutionalized once his Internet use went from ten hours a day to the full 24; we get study-results saying compulsive Internet use makes people depressed or antisocial, that it shapes portions of their brains into a gumbo resembling that scanned in drug addicts; we get jeremiad-writers warning that young people seem physically unable to disconnect from their iLives. And along the way, we get paragraphs like this:
While brain scans don’t reveal which came first, the abuse or the brain changes, many clinicians feel their own observations confirmed. “There’s little doubt we’re becoming more impulsive,” says Stanford’s [Elias] Aboujaoude, and one reason for this is technology use. He points to the rise in OCD and ADHD diagnosis, the latter of which has risen 66 percent in the last decade. “There is a cause and effect.”
It doesn’t take an Oxford graduate student in logic to spot the many flaws in such a passage, the torturous mis-connections, the circular posturing (quite aside from my oft-repeated contention that there is in fact, neurochemically speaking, no such thing as ADHD). This piece is full of such passages, designed more to provoke comment than to elicit thought. Thus, absolutely no “studies” or “experts” are brought on-stage to point out any of the good cognitive changes the Internet might be causing in the young people who are the main focus of the article. The whole thing is designed for the Newsweek-sought purpose of generating controversy, of getting people talking. Tony may have conceived the piece with some genuine concerns in mind, but he’s also smart enough to know how much such controversy can help a writing career. As Van Wyck Brooks pointed out many, many years ago, “You write such articles when you’re young specifically so as to gain the freedom from writing them when you’re older.”
And my, my – the article certainly is generating controversy! And a good chunk of that controversy comes to us in the form of that priceless gadfly Ed Champion, of whose very existence I’ve only just recently been made aware. Champion is a cheerful pit bull, an omnivorous ongoing autodidact of the type every literary scene badly needs and not all of them are lucky enough to get. He can generate lots of snappy prose very quickly (not necessarily a bad quality … ulp …), he reads or tries to read everything, and he’s easily irritated – in other words, the next time he’s in Jamaica Plain, he’ll just have to stop by the house for a bottle of wine and some laugh-our-asses-off book-talk (provided he has a constitution strong enough to endure the, um, gaseous anomalies of a certain basset hound).
On his Twitter feed, Champion has picked up the dog-bone of Tony’s article and is worrying it to splinters, and that inevitably produces a slightly schizophrenic reaction in somebody like me. On the one hand, seeing the kind of uninhibited rhetorical blood-sport Champion can make when the mood strikes him is a source of pure joy for an old trouble-maker such as myself. It might be a painful thing for an author to have hisNewsweek piece scorched and scraped the way Champion’s doing it to Tony, but in the larger picture, the republic of letters is incontestably stronger with such blood-sport than without it.
But on the other hand, I’m an unapologetic Dokoupilophile, and not just because of that back-in-the-game book review, either: as mentioned, this is a smart, thoughtful author, somebody with a vast and important career in front of him. And some of the big-picture concerns he raises in this scare-piece are very much worth raising:
Overwhelmed by the velocity of our lives, we turn to prescription drugs, which helps explain why America runs on Xanax (and why rehab admissions for benzodiazepines, the ingredient in Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs, have tripled since the late 1990s). We also spring for the false rescue of multitasking, which saps attention even when the computer is off. And all of us, since the relationship with the Internet began, have tended to accept it as is, without much conscious thought about how we want it to be or what we want to avoid. Those days of complacency should end. The Internet is still ours to shape. Or minds are in the balance.
That concluding note of optimism is important – maybe ultimately more important than whether or not the article parses a research finding with 100% accuracy. My advice to Newsweek would be to let Tony write the personal essays I mentioned – give him a regular page for them, and watch the incredible body of work he generates in short order. But in all likelihood, neither Newsweek nor Tony himself would especially like that advice – readership of this article is through the proverbial roof, and Tony can write many more such articles, and that arrangement works just fine for both him and Newsweek. And for all its somewhat shrill popularism, journalism like this raises interesting points, things worth talking about. On one level, that’s always been a prime function of magazines like Time and Newsweek, and although it’s never appealed to me (I don’t need any pointers on what’s important to think about, thanks)(except, apparently, while on vacation …), its worth shouldn’t be underestimated.
And my advice for Ed Champion? It’s pretty simple: keep up the great work.