'Digitopian' or 'Dystopian'? Thinking About the 'Connected Life'

By Peter Bernstein November 30, 2012

It turns out that the question above is not that fanciful. Two items on the Internet in just the past few days, in fact, raise some real food for thought about whether we are rapidly heading into a world where we really need to be careful what we wish for. 

The first was a posting from the Associated Press writer Youkyung Lee with the disturbing title, "Wired SKorea to stem digital addiction from age 3." The survey provides some granularity as to how U.S. cell phone users have a love/hate relationship with their devices which for the moment is a case of “all you need is love,” and points out some interesting differences in attitudes between what they call “smartphone owners” and “cell-mostly internet users.”  As noted, both shed some light on the larger question at hand, which appeared on phys.org. The second was the latest release survey done by the Pew (News - Alert) Internet Project, The Best (and Worst) of Mobile Connectivity.

Are we all going to be like South Korea?

For those of you unaware, South Korea is already what the rest of the world hopes to be in the distant future (i.e., it is a “digitopia). This is a country where 98 percent of households have broadband access and over two-thirds of its citizens have smartphones. Plus, the government plans to digitize all textbooks in the country from 2015 and base all primary schooling around the use of tablet computers. In short, South Korea is fully wired and very nearly fully wirelessed (fixed as well as mobile). 

What do we know from the grand leap into the future other nations aspire to in terms of its impacted on the average citizens “connected life”? Here are a few factoids to mull over:

  • The South Korean government has estimated that 2.55 million people are addicted to their smartphones, meaning they use them more than eight hours per day.
  • The National Information Society Agency (NIA), estimates 160,000 South Korean children between ages five and nine are addicted to the Internet either through smartphones, tablet computers or personal computers.

As the article points out, many South Korean children become addicted to the Internet through gaming before they can read or write. The habit is hard to break, and while heavily broadband covered Asia-Pacific countries are leading the way on trying to figure out if Internet addition should be recognized as a mental illness, the South Korean government as the article points out is already implementing efforts to prevent digital addition.

In fact, starting next year, it will be requiring that children as young as three be taught to protect themselves from overusing personal devices and the Internet. The Ministry of Public Administration and Security is revising laws so that teaching the danger of Internet addiction becomes mandatory from pre-school institutions to high schools.  

As the anecdotal information in the article illustrates, the actions by the South Korean government likely align with the seriousness of the problem. Children who are “addicted” have trouble with human interactions that are online, are easily distracted, and can ultimately suffer physical disabilities caused by excessive repetitive stress from device usage. 

Addiction to devices that are “distractions” are nothing new in terms of being viewed as detrimental to the human condition. This has been the dark side of technology since the introduction of the radio, and has been echoed through the decades with the advent of the television (aka “the idiot box”), the personal computer, game consoles and not smartphones. What is different about the present is that the digital platforms as well as their ability to be always on and keeping us connected, is that we have amped up the distraction level by making the devices we use for work and learning the same ones we use for the rest of our lives. Boundaries that are contextual are certainly in order.

A big “phew!” from Pew: not so dire but food for thought   

If you are not familiar with the work done by Pew Research Center on a variety of social trends you might wish to bookmark their home page. They never disappoint when it comes to creating food for thought. With 85 percent of Americans now owning a cell phone of some type, Pew wanted to find out what U.S. cell phone users liked and did not like about their devices, and how they relate to them and how this impacts relationships with others. 

I won’t spoil all the fun of looking at their survey, but thought readers would be interested in a few findings and the chart below from the survey.

First, and not surprisingly Pew found that:

  • 67 percent of cell owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating. Some 18 percent of cell owners say that they do this “frequently.”
  • 44 percent of cell owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night.
  • 29 percent of cell owners describe their cell phone as “something they can’t imagine living without.”

Pew added that “despite this connection to their devices, most cell owners don’t worry too much (or get many complaints from their friends) about spending too much time with their phones,” and had some interesting data to back this up. 

The chart is a nice summation of the answers to the questions Pew posed.

The last two seem to point to the issue that South Korea is grappling with and trying to head off so that dystopia as a result of spending too much time in the ether, as opposed to under its spell in a medical setting, does not become a major societal problem. 

As noted above, this is not actually a new problem. Indeed, the television is a nice analog here. This is especially apt given that much of the time spent online is eating into the over eight hours per day people have traditionally watched TV, although getting a true fix on this is hard based on people multi-tasking on multiple devices that are interconnected. Television has always been loved because of its entertainment value (in fact, its value as a non-human baby sitter for harried parents), and despised to the point where detractors have written memes about Sesame Street being a major cause of attention deficit disorder (ADD). The answer regarding the TV has always been the same, i.e., “there is an off switch.” Indeed, the idea of “parental controls’ on viewing were harbingers of such capabilities on protecting young adults from viewing unsavory content or interacting with bad actors on the Internet.

As with most things in life moderation and balance are the goals, but to use a biblical reference getting us humans not to bite the apple when offered by the snake can be simply irresistible. Whether digitopia becomes dystopia is a matter of free will and choice. That is a good thing. However, we all need to keep a close watch on what is going on in South Korea. The old axiom that “bad habits are hard to break,” is old for a reason – it is accurate. 

The younger generation not just in South Korea but in growing portions of the plant, live or soon will live in a totally broadband connected world. In that world, they can/may/will literally live most of their lives online in an alternative reality that I hesitate to call “distorted” at the risk of being identified as a modern Luddite. Actions have consequences. Given the power of addictions, South Korea is smart to follow the McDonald’s approach to marketing which is to “get them while they are young.” Smartphones, tablets, PCs and game consoles when connected to the Internet are powerful aphrodisiacs indeed. 

This may be worrying too much on my part because of the similarity to the concerns being raised to those of prevision generations over other technology distractions. However, I stick to what I said, the ubiquity of access, the pervasiveness of the allure and the fact that the attraction never sleeps wherever you may be, makes this different.     

It will be interesting to see in the next Pew report how the U.S. is doing on balance regarding the love/hate relationship with personal devices. I do not believe there is some type of tipping point ahead where there will be no turning back on a precipitous slide into dystopia. However, we should all take what is going on in South Korea as a reason to start thinking about what we want to do, personally and as a society. One can only hope that balance and moderation prevail.   

Edited by Allison Boccamazzo
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