Digital detox: Lessons from addiction treatment
Addiction treatment involves addressing, counteracting and rebalancing the biochemical, behavioural, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the disorder – and the nature and severity of the withdrawal symptoms. Abstinence, opiate substitution treatment, counselling, group therapy, social engagement and support groups are common standards of treatment regimes.
Previously, we broadly categorized addictions into two types: substance addictions (alcohol, nicotine) and process addictions (gambling, consumerism), and determined that internet addiction fell into the later category, though with biochemical aspects that could have a lasting neurological effect. While ruling out psychotropic treatment, we should recognise that the withdrawal symptoms from over-mediation might be physically manifest – for instance, an inability to concentrate on long-passages of text might actually be due to one’s naturally neuroplastic brain having physically re-wired itself after extended mis-use. As it relates to IAD, detoxification – which refers to the process of withdrawal that the individual’s body experiences when the formerly abused substance is withheld – could be experienced both mentally and physically as the brain’s neural activity returns to a more balanced state.
Part of why the internet can be so addictive is its inherent lack of limits and relative absence of accountability. Some of the corrective strategies currently being used by internet addiction treatment centres include content-control software, counselling, and cognitive behavioural therapy. Group and family therapy programs for internet addicts often involve interventionist events to confront computer addicts with their disorders and help them wean themselves away from pathological computer use. Another potential lesson from traditional addiction treatment is the necessity of a treatment regime to be of a minimum set duration, in order to avoid early drop-outs during the onset of withdrawal symptoms. An example from American pop culture would be the infamous celebrity Betty Ford Centre, where most programs have a minimum stay of at least 30 days and an average recommended length that is significantly longer.
Ultimately, as regular usage of networked digital media is now a non-negotiable requirement to thrive in contemporary society, both socially and professionally, abstinence is not a long-term solution: responsible internet usage must be self-administered and over-exposure should be voluntarily monitored and managed at a personal level. However, it is also possible that a repurposing and repositioning of the technology – both software and hardware – itself could assist in this aim. Informed by an analysis of related socio-theoretical and historical counter-strategies, and preconditioned on a willing personal commitment from the maladjusted user, this could potentially happen through re-sensitizing the ‘smartness’ and ‘responsiveness’ of the technology itself. The functionality, responsiveness and very nature of the technology could potentially respond appropriately to prevent its own misuse..
Significant cultural and social change inevitably involves resistance. An early anti-technology example is represented by the Luddites, a protest movement in early 19th-century England, against the textile factories that had brought in mechanized looms to replace craft-workers during the Industrial Revolution. In contemporary usage, the term ‘luddite’ generally refers to a person who is unfamiliar with or opposed to technology and technological change. But a more nuanced definition is also possible. A luddite could refer to one who supports a more critical examination of the excessive role technology plays in our lives as individuals and as communities, and maintains a certain skepticism towards the currently dominate trend of technophilia.
Closely related to over-mediation in that it is openly encouraged and normalized by corporate interests is the widely unrecognized and untreated social phenomenon known as ‘consumerism’ – which involves an individual unsuccessfully attempting to achieve happiness though the never-ending purchase and accumulation of material goods.
The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901–91) is good representative of the neo-marxist critique of the urban-industrial condition, which causes an individual to feel alienated and shackled the false consciousness of popular and consumer culture. His design space was the city – a complex collection of social interactions and exchanges to which every citizen has a right. Lefebvre despaired the ‘quotidienneté’ or ‘everydayness’ of modern city life as soul-destroying, within a context of banal social lives and the materialist environment. He conceived of most urbanites as workaholic sleepwalkers, lost in an endless ‘metro-boulot-dodo’ or ‘subway-work-sleep’ routine.
On the topic of the design of urban spaces, Lefebvre noted the attempts at “formal-functional transparency” and observed that “the impression of intelligibility conceals far more than it reveals,” meaning the spaces we think of as most transparent and accessible should be suspect because it is precisely that illusion of transparency that conceals hidden agendas and political aims – a notion that could readily be applied to the popular digital spaces of today. Just as the functionalism-formalism built into supposedly intelligible urban space conceals ideology, so does the functionalism of information networks and the digital devices we use to access them. Users choose the information to display but there is always the implicit implication that the information mapped by these services give a true representation of all the information that could be possibly be present in that space. Lefebvre would most certainly have interpreted today’s communication technologies as continuing the push towards a increasingly commodified space that defines the negative affects of late capitalist production on our society.
Debord and the Situationists
One of the most celebrated movements to challenge the status quo of urban life through creative engagement with the city was the Situationist Internationale in Paris (1957–72), notably articulated by Guy Debord. The key to understanding the movement is its opposition to “the society of the spectacle.” According to Debord, “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” The concept of “spectacle” originates in the all-encompassing, controlling nature of modern industrial and “post-industrial” capitalist culture, which manufactures desire and subsumes all into representation, including social relations. Ideas that certainly have continued resonance in the digital era of social networks and online identity commodification.
Seeking to combat the usual list of oppressors they shared with other post-Marxist, Frankfurt School, anti-establishment movements – alienation under capitalism, the culture industry and commodity fetishism, false consciousness and, of course, the aesthetic tyranny of capitalism – the Situationists used techniques that could be described as Ludic design public interventions, activities intended to unleash an awakened, passionate reconnection with ‘the real.’
Their techniques included Psychogeography, which was the “study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment … on the emotions and behaviour of individuals;” and the Dérive, a “drifting” walk through urban space during which one could seek the unexpected, freedom from bureaucratic control, and a dream up a utopia projection of an alternate reality.
According to Debord, who seems almost Lucy Suchmanesque at times, a situation was defined as an “integrated ensemble of behaviour in time.” He continues: "Our central idea is the construction of situations, that is to say, the concrete construction of momentary ambiances of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality. [A situation] contains its own negation and moves inevitably toward its own reversal."
To many, Debord and the Situationalists represent an ideal merger of art and life in active, subversive practice, and the movement occupies an almost mythical status in the contemporary art world, by - as the artist Martha Rosler explains – “embodying every aspiring artist/revolutionary’s deepest wish – to be in both the political and the artistic vanguard simultaneously.”
Baudrillard and the simulacrum: Death of the real
The post-structuralist French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) theorized on the effects of media over-exposure on society and our perception of reality through his notion of the simulacrum, which has direct resonance on the issues of hybrid space and problematic internet usage. Baudrillard pointed out that corporate culture and media so saturate every aspect of our lives that they actually construct perceived reality, and as individuals we depend on these simulations of reality to render our shared existence legible and meaningful.
We have become so involved in and connected to things that merely simulate reality and culture is so dominated by media consumption (and the internet), that the image has lost any connection to real things. All we have left is ‘hyperreality’ – a ‘death of the real’ that destroys the very idea of something true or a false copy – simulations of reality, which aren't any more or less "real" than the reality they simulate. It is an infinitely mutable and layered "precession of simulacra.” Baudrillard called this situation a third order simulacrum – a layered simulation in which every discourse is rendered inarticulate.
Baudrillard wrote of how modernity has committed to linear, spatialized time – time with a sense of linear direction time that allows the past to be forgotten, the present to be lamented, and endless hope for a better future. A concept of time that implies an end – a time of final judgement and no return. It is a society that diametrically rejected the cycles of nature that surrounded them to embrace a canonical morality of progress, much as corporate interests seek to impose order and control on the nebulous tangle of the web.
Deleuze: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
In the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Anti-Oedipus, 1972 and A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) and Félix Guattari presented a free-from and controversial theory on the nature of liberated thinking. They postulated that society's innate herd instinct has allowed the government, the media, and corporations to take advantage of each person's unwillingness to be cut off from the group, and effectively use infantilizing commodification to produce neurotic and repressed individuals who suppress their individuality and alienate themselves from one another. Furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari provocatively propose that those who have been diagnosed as suffering from mental disorders such as schizophrenia may not actually be insane, but may instead be individuals in the purest sense, because they are by nature psychologically isolated from society and its harmful, conformist effects. Reality is in fact a flux of change and difference – and ought to be affirmed by individuals rediscovering their innate creativity, and overturning established identities imposed by society in order to reach their fuller potentials. Heady stuff. And something that seems unlikely to be possible within the confines of Facebook.
Realtechnik: Contemporary community-building
Sherry Turkle has coined the phrase, realtechnik – by which she means to reflect the contextual pragmatism that is needed to tactfully respond to the worrying trends in our relationships with technologies and hyper-mediation. She urges that “we take a step back when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology.” Of course, we haven’t quite made real the extremist, futuristic visions represented by the marching worker-drones of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the obese space barge citizens of Pixar’s Wall-E, who are mediated to the point of being barely-mobile without robotic assistance. In fact, there is significant evidence to support the dominant, distinctly optimistic, perspective on how the web and information technology have been for the betterment of society. This view is succinctly represented in the titles of recent popular publications by Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010). From this perspective, the internet positively buzzes with virtual conversations and ideas being freely exchanged and developed across the globe, non-stop and at a frantic pace. With justification, online phenomena including open source software, open data, crowd sourcing, web economics and social computing have all been lauded as representing a massive benefit to humanity’s collective intelligence.
DIY: From isolated engagement to communal experience
They are sketchbooks for the digital age, using code and hacked prototypes and enable learning-by-doing in an pragmatic ethos that can be tracked from John Dewey and Donald Schön: Community members as self-empowered participants in the process of exploration, self-education and discovery. It has popularized technology in the arts and using play and experiments to realise ideas and innovation.
The social web
Not everyone agrees with Sherry Turkle’s assessment that: “the lure of internet relationships, constantly available but inherently superficial, might make both genuine connection and genuine solitude impossible.” The social web is far more than Facebook and Twitter – there are numerous counter-initiatives to isolation that enable real-world activities, encourage group interactions and enrich lives. Organizations such craigslist.com, meetup.org, couchsurfing.org, airbnb.com and gidsy.com are all examples of successful online initiatives that have encouraged a non-corporate, human-to-human exchange, whether for various social activities and common interests, to stay with and meet new people when travelling instead choosing a bland hotel experience, or to trade directly with artisans and craftspeople.
Raising awareness through media art and critical design
Socially-engaged art and technology hybrid initiatives have lineage beyond what can summarized here, so let it be suffice to have it represented by projects such as Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing kinetic sculpture Homage to New York and Billy Kluver’s Electronic Art and Technology collective with esteemed creatives such as John Cage. Numerous contemporary media artists and designers, continue this tradition and are involved in exploring how society is being reconceptualized through the onslaught of digital media. Innovating as technology itself evolves, and to inform and perhaps even contribute to that process in their attempts to re-imagine the ways individuals interact within hybrid space.
The space of public creative expression has been technologized, and while this cannot be ignored, media arts are often equally informed by both returning to, and redefining, the approaches of their predecessors, and the concept of the gallery space itself being physical, experiential, performative and often more materialist than digital, but not always, as media art itself has at least a half century long lineage.
There have been a number of projects that address our changing, and in some respects dysfunctional, relationships with mediating technologies. What follows is a short selection of notable media art and design projects that have recast technologies in unfamiliar roles to address these fluctuating relationships – often with the explicit agenda to disrupt the status quo and provoke a reconsideration.
Dunne & Raby
Anthony Dunne and Fionna Raby have created a number critical design projects that challenge a social, cultural or ethical issues, including the installation S.O.C.D. (Sexual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, created with Michael Anastassiades) which requires a participant to hold an unusual dildo-shaped video controller with sensors that detect the user’s arousal level, and then distort/pixelate a video in direct proportion: “The more aroused you become, the bigger the pixel size, and the more distorted the sound gets. If you let go the film goes blank. To enjoy your video, you need to hold on but try to de-arouse yourself.” Apparently, it’s designed for “for people who enjoy porn but feel a bit guilty watching it.” Another project of theirs, GPS Table, consists of a needy table embedded with a screen and a GPS system. The table is displays a status of ‘lost’ when its GPS sensor cannot locate itself, provoking a nurturing instinct in people to adopt it and help find itself again.
Bill Gaver, who leads the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths, University of London and is also an advocate of design probes and ludic design, has worked closely with participants to create a number of projects that personalize and de-corporatize screens and cameras, including Video Window (2006–ongoing), which involves an always-on indoor screen that displays a live feed from a video camera mounted on a pole high above the home.
Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen: Immaterials
Immaterials (2009–ongoing) is a hertzian space investigation by a team of Norwegian designers, who built a rod that indicates the strength of invisible wi-fi signals through a bar of lights. The project is then presented as a series of long-exposure photographs of the light rod moving across the landscape, thus revealing a ubiquitous, fragmented topography of wireless networks in the physical environment, as the password-protected private networks extend into public spaces.
Gordan Savicic’s project Constraint City (2007–10) is quite literally a Hertzian space straight-jacket. In an artist performed public intervention, Savicic wears a technically-customized sensor-jacket with chest straps that tighten and cause discomfort in response to the electromagnetic waves of the urban environment. The long-established Australian media artist Stelarc has also done similar projects in which the internet controlled his body.
The American creative technologist Eric Paulos has equipped mobile devices with custom sensors to crowd-source the collection of geolocated environmental data – such things as air quality, noise pollution, UV levels, water quality, etc. – so as to create heat-map visualizations of, for instance, carbon-monoxide levels, at the level of the exposed individual participant. Paulos has defined the term Participatory Urbanism as “(the) open authoring, sharing, and remixing of new or existing urban technologies marked by, requiring, or involving participation, especially affording the opportunity for individual citizen participation, sharing, and voice.” Previously, with projects like Jaberwocky, Paulos was investigating ideas of using mobile phones to create passive network awareness, of for instance, other Bluetooth users, with the intention of maintaining consciousness in hyper mediated urban commuters of subtle social phenomena such as the “familiar stranger.”
We Feel Fine, co-created by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, is an online project that uses large-scale social media blog data to visually analyse the emotional state of the collected internet-using anglosphere, by collecting sentences containing the phrase “I feel” or “I am feeling.” The project comprises of short texts, photos and demographic information and has collected over 13 million feelings since 2005. Jonathan Harris’ other projects address issues related to how humans relate to technology and to each other, online dating, modern mythology, anonymity, news and language.
Christian Nold is an American artist, community activist and teacher whose projects address similar issues, but with more emphasis on specific communities and user groups. Biomapping (2004 – ongoing) is a community mapping project that visualizes the emotional, sensory and experiential topography of cities from the level of individual participants. Using techniques such as biometrics and sensory deprivation, individuals experiences are re-contextualized and the results depict an urban experience that has been dehumanized at an individual level.
The American creative technologist and professor Mark Shepard has created projects that address issues related to re-humanizing technology from the perspective of the individual, often in opposition to perceived corporate or state interests. The project Tactical Soundgarden (2004 – ongoing) allowed participants to use mobile devices to record, listen and edit audio files in the setting of the community park, thereby using technology to refamiliarize participants with their auditory surroundings and recontextualize the proximate experience of nature in the urban context.
His Sentient City Survival Kit (2010) initiative comprised of a number of projects which recast technology as enabling individual resistance to encroaching corporate and state control. One of the projects was Serendipitor, an alternative navigation mobile app designed to help the user to “find something by looking for something else,” and to “maintain consciousness” in a sentient urban environment of the near future and Enter an origin and a destination, and the app provides several possible routes, as well as suggestions for possible actions and public interventions, intended to introduce “small slippages and minor displacements.” The project also included an RFID tag scanner detecting system alerts the user when they are being electronically probed as they walk by stores, an offline, closed network of wirelessly connected Coffee mugs surreptitious communication, an umbrella equipped with an LED system that algorithmically frustrates night surveillance tracking systems.
The German artist Aram Bartholl has addressed the issues of the growing importance of the web on our physical reality, and contemporary culture’s inflated obsession with information technology through a variety of public projects. His project Map (2006–10) involved the creation of a giant-sized sculptural version of the familiar red map pin icon Google maps uses to mark locative search results, which was then publicly installed in the centre of various towns – the centre as decided by Google map algorithms. Since on the online interface of the map, the pin is visually depicted as casting a physical shadow, the transition seems almost evolutionary. As Bartholl states: “Transferred to physical space the map marker questions the relation of the digital information space to every day life public city space.” Another one of his projects, Dead Drops, re-imagines the city as a physical manifestation of a peer-to-peer file sharing anti-network – in the most low-tech way possible: USB flash storage thumb drives are embedded into the walls of buildings at various locations, which anyone can use to transfer files to or from.
Steve has created numerous projects that challenge internet conventions – such as an extended, awkward video explanation for a 404 not found page. He has also collaborated with the “Yes Men” activist performance artists to create a duplicate New York Times website with fake announcements about the end of war, and created browser plug-ins that replace online advertising with art, as well as SelfControl, a browser plug-in that allows users to block access to distracting websites for timed durations so they can get work done.
Sander Veenhof’s Infiltrations (2010–present) is a series of projects involving GPS-based augmented reality mobile apps (created using LayAR) that place interactive virtual art in unauthorized locations, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pentagon and the White House.
Julian Oliver’s The Artvertiser (2010–present) involves providing participants with custom-built binoculars through which existing billboard advertisements are augmented with superimposed artistic messages and visuals.
Keiichi Matsuda’s short film Augmented City presents a realistic vision of the near future, in which people use advanced augmented reality to completely customize their surroundings by interacting with floating interfaces.