Our New Opium
The Internet as an Addictive Narcotic
By Rod Turick
April 26, 2021
Nineteenth-century philosopher Karl Marx opined that religion is the opium of the masses. Yet with the decline in religious practice in the twenty-first century, the alleged tranquilizing qualities of religious adherence have been replaced with a new opium: The Internet. The comparison between a highly addictive narcotic and the Internet is unfortunately not hyperbole. Numerous studies show that some of the most harmful aspects of online activity have become so addictive that our quality of life has been reduced to that of a digital heroin junkie, always looking for the next Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube fix. (Insert your digital vice here; most people have one these days.) In an article published at Harvard University entitled “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time,” Trevor Haynes explores how the compulsive aspects of digital culture share startling similarities to that of more traditional vices. He writes that the neurological pathways rewarding addictive behaviour (found in compulsive gamblers, for example), which “are responsible for the release of dopamine in various parts of the brain,” can be associated to the same dopamine rush we feel when scrolling through social media (Haynes, 2018, para. 5). For those who will disavow such research, ask yourself this question: Has social media, YouTube, and inflammatory political memes made your life better or worse? Think carefully. While such media might provide fleeting entertainment, there is little evidence to suggest that they enrich public discourse, let alone impart any knowledge. Indeed, the opposite is true: cyberspace is awash in hucksters and “fake news” (one of the most significant social threats of our time); complex arguments have been reduced to trivial soundbites and have divided rather than united the public; social media platforms have caused an epidemic of unhappiness; and content sharing sites such as YouTube have become a morass of vapid, empty, unsophisticated entertainment that wastes time, fosters narcissism, and leaves the audience less educated than before they indulged.
While the Internet appears to be a sumptuous buffet where one can choose their epistemological fare, it is a feast of fools for a public who has demonstrated a lack of portion control and gone back for the dessert tray rather than the more wholesome cuisine. Yes, cyberspace provides access to unlimited knowledge, and some of it is academic knowledge. In fact, the Internet had its conceptual origins in the 1960s as a digital forum to share academic and scientific data, to enrich the knowledgebase of humanity through a mutually beneficial epistemological collaboration. When it first began, we were told that the Internet would provide everyone with access to information and a place to connect with people all over the world. Fast-forward to today: cat videos, frivolous memes, and self-indulgent photos (selfies) are the saturated fats of the mind ingested by an aloof and overfed public. Let’s take the term of our day—“fake news”—as one of the more flagrant examples of cyber-slough. Apart from the obvious misinformation floating about in the form of clickbait headlines, misleading advertising, and Russian bots trying to convince your grandmother that lizard people run the United States, there is so much disinformation disguised as “fact” that the goal of an “informed” electorate—the gold standard in any democratic nation—has become wishful thinking. What is the solution to this lack of portion control and willingness to indulge addictive brain candy rather than something nourishing for the mind? Well, as for any addict who needs treatment, the taps need to be turned off. How can this genie be put back in the bottle? We already know how. Twitter, Google, and Facebook all employ algorithms that curate which searches appear and which do not. Our lawmakers can enact legislation that holds these companies accountable for what’s published on their search engines and forums. In a perfect world, we might even enlist their help in devising a new type of search interface that checks for fake news—information whose intent is to mislead with malice. We already have these rigorous standards for traditional advertising, so why not for the Internet? It has become the public square of our time, and as such needs the same regulation that we would apply to, say, a billboard on the side of the highway, or a commercial on television. Now, before you become enraged, dear reader, I’m not suggesting that we get rid of all the “epic fail” videos and other clearly humorous or satirical content on the Internet. Satire websites such as The Onion have an important function in a democracy to hold truth to power, and cat videos, while a waste of time, are generally harmless. However, anything designed to intentionally and injuriously mislead should be cast into the abyss where it belongs. And if you think I am overreacting, consider this: that quip I made about trying to convince one’s grandmother that lizard people run the United States is true. In an article published in The Atlantic, Philip Bump (2013) reports that while “90 million Americans believe aliens exist,” about 4% of the US population (12 million in 2013) believe “Lizard people control politics” (p. 1). Need I say more?
Let’s consider another corroding aspect of Internet culture: memes. While memes about benign, everyday life are harmless enough, political memes that reduce complex topics to trifling soundbites are Twinkies for the mind (like the off-yellow sponge cakes, you may think you want them at first, but once the empty calories are consumed they leave you feeling bloated and emotional). In essence, communication removed from an in-person interface has reduced topics of sophistication to juvenile insult battles, a race to the bottom that usually ends with the invocation of Nazi Germany or the comparison of one’s interlocutor to Hitler. There’s even a new logical fallacy that’s been coined in our digital age: “Reductio ad Hitlerum,” Latin for “reduction to Hitler,” “also known as playing the Nazi card… [as] an attempt to invalidate someone else's position on the basis that the same view was held by Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party” (Wikipedia). As an example of how this absurd fallacy works, consider the following: because Hitler was against immigration, should you hold any views that critique immigration, you must be a Nazi. If we follow this brand of “logic,” one could also argue that because Hitler was anti-tobacco, it must follow that anyone who is against smoking subscribes to Nazi ideology (paraphrased from Wikipedia definition). Unfortunately, such reductionist and absurd demonstrations of critical thinking are part and parcel of what the Internet has become. I would like to coin another logical fallacy for our age: “Reductio ad Memeum” or “reduction to Meme.” Take any complex subject that requires nuanced, careful, logical contemplation, slop it around the muck of cyberspace, and watch it be hacked to bits by pathetic Twitter trolls, e-thugs, and keyboard warriors who reduce it to some ridiculous and oversimplified curd of what the subject represents. This is the meme. It does not expand our understanding of complex topics, but rather reduces them to a bolus of pure fat that is then consumed by a naïve public. This is the effect social media and the dregs of the cyberverse have on all topics of importance.
So where has this medium for fake news, oversimplification and division left us in term of our happiness? An article published in Quartz in 2019 says it all. This article exhibits a series of images called “Removed” in which US photographer Eric Pickersgill edits the smartphones out of people’s hands as they go about their usual addictive behaviour. A description of the exhibit reads: “electronic devices have been ‘edited out’ (removed before the photo was taken, from people who’d been using them) so that people stare at their hands, or the empty space between their hands, often ignoring beautiful surroundings or opportunities for human connection.” It shows images of couples, some in intimate positions, staring vapidly at nothing while in bed or laying together on a couch. This series of images “remind[s] us of how strange that pose actually is. … The results are a bit sad and eerie…” (para. 2). “Sad” is an understatement. Suicide rates among youth in many technologically developed nations have skyrocketed: “Between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60%. … The same trends held when the researchers analyzed the data on suicides, attempted suicides and ‘serious psychological distress’—a term applied to people who score high on a test that measures feelings of sadness, nervousness and hopelessness. Among young people, rates of suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts all increased significantly, and in some cases more than doubled, between 2008 and 2017” (Heid, 2019, para. 2-3). While researchers are hesitant to name the culprit for this epidemic of depression, I am not. Instead of being a place of connection and collaboration, social media has left young people feeling inadequate and lonely, in part because of the pressures placed on them by “status” driven by “likes” and social media validation. A 2017 article called “Is Social Media Making Me Miserable?” published in Time Magazine by the same author offers more insight into this phenomenon. In it, Markham Heid asserts that “Social media… appears to be stressing people out.” A study in 2017 investigated “18- to 22-year-olds and how social media impacted their anxiety levels. The more time they spent on it per day, ‘the greater the association with anxiety symptoms and the greater likelihood of an anxiety disorder’’” (para. 8). So while people look happy on their Instagram pages, much of it is a veneer; addictive behaviour and competitiveness to appear happy become self-perpetuating obsessions that grind down the spirit and make one feel more alone than connected. The same could be said of the drug addict, who tends to withdrawal from family and friends, escaping instead into the short-lived and destructive euphoria of their dopamine fix. Withdrawal leads to isolation; isolation leads to inertia, apathy, laziness, and an unwillingness to take responsibility. And while the digital leviathan claims another soul, its henchmen—the vacuous hordes of narcissists who fancy themselves social influencers—contribute nothing to the greater good: no knowledge, no social utility, and no actual humanity.
If knowledge is power, then the Internet became a weak shadow of its former self sometime back in the mid 2000s with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and all the other dregs of the cyberverse that has turned humanity into ineffectual amoebas whiling their days away in their (sub)urban fattening pens. We need to go back to a time when truth was something ascertainable, when the airwaves of knowledge and discourse were not clouded by the airborne infection of disinformation. We should revisit the lessons taught by our World War and depression-era grandparents, who didn’t need a smartphone to find their way around a city, who didn’t need the empty validation of selfies and “likes” to feel confident in who they were and what they believed. Truth had more truth back then. Let’s face it: the Internet has failed. It has not advanced us; it has made us regress. It is time to de-vice from our devices. If I haven’t convinced you yet that the Internet needs to be unplugged or, at the very least, curtailed because of its insipidness and addictive qualities, I will leave you with this thought by comedian Bill Maher: “You think someone who’s 80 is hopeless because they can’t use an iPhone? Maybe the one who’s hopeless is the one who can’t stop using it. You think I’m out of it because I’m not on Twitch? Well, maybe I get Twitch, but I just think people watching other people play video games is a waste of #$@%* time” (“New Rule: OK Boomer” segment, Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO).
Bump, P. (2013, November 4). 12 Million Americans Believe Lizard People Run Our Country. The Atlantic.
Haynes, T. (2018). Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time. Harvard University: Science in the News.
Heid, M. (2019, March 14). Depression and Suicide Rates Are Rising Sharply in Young Americans, New Report Says. This May Be One Reason Why. Time.
Heid, M. (2017, August 2). You Asked: Is Social Media Making Me Miserable? Time.
Mollman, S. (2019, September 18). Eric Pickersgill photo series removes phones to show lonely world. Quartz.
Real Time with Bill Maher. (2021, April 24). New Rule: OK Boomer | Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO). YouTube.
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, March 30). Godwin’s Law. Wikipedia.
Wikipedia contributors. (2021b, April 22). Reductio ad Hitlerum. Wikipedia.