You might have seen articles recently on a case of a man with Google Glass addiction. It’s been written about in the Guardian, BBC, Fast Company, io9, and many other places. They all refer (through each other) to an article to be published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. But if you look a little closer, and read the piece, you find there are both a couple striking details, and some background that makes this story less of a “wearables technology will eat your brain” cautionary tale than first appears.
First, the report comes out of a Navy Substance Abuse and Recovery Program (SARP) based in southern California. The patient was a 31 year-old man who had been wearing Google Glass for up to 18 hours a day for two months, and had to give it up when he entered the SARP program. He "noted significant frustration and irritability related to not being able to use the device during treatment,” and even declared, “The withdrawal from this is much worse than the withdrawal I went through from alcohol.”
But it gets even better:
He noted that when he dreamed during his residential treatment, he envisioned the dream through the device. He would experience the dream through a small gray window, which was consistent with what he saw when wearing the device while awake.
Finally, "When asked questions by the examiner, the patient… [would] reach his right hand up to his temple area and tap it with his forefinger,” automatically turning to Glass to help him answer questions.
As a writer, I can recognize super-evocative details when I see them. The dreaming in a little screen, the complaints about being separated from it, the hyper-reliance on the device for everything—these are awesome details.
But before we jump from this patient to World War Z, it’s worth noting a couple other things.
First, this was the second time he’d been through the SARP program, and the doctors note that
The patient has a history of a mood disorder most consistent with a substance induced hypomania overlaying a depressive disorder, anxiety disorder with characteristics of social phobia and obsessive compulsive disorder, and severe alcohol and tobacco use disorders.
So Google Glass didn’t corrupt a previously-innocent mind; rather, this was someone who already had a lot of issues, technology addiction ranking kind of low on that list.
It’s also worth noting that the authors don’t really make the “man reduced to compulsively-clicking dopamine addict by the Internet” argument that you might see from someone channeling Nicholas Carr or Susan Greenfield. Rather, they take a more, well, clinical view of the problem, and relate it to other examples of addiction. In particular, they note that
Individuals consume alcohol for social motivations, as a coping modality, and for enhancement motives. Similarly, problematic use of technology, and in our case Google Glass, may be driven by similar motives for social motivations, as a coping modality to escape personal deficiencies, and for a desire to improve personal performance. In our patient, he exhibited all of these characteristics.
This is especially notable given that the patient told doctors that “Google Glass increased his confidence with social situations, as the device frequently became an initial topic of discussion."
I think we often talk about the Internet and information technologies as completely autonomous forces, like viruses or radiation: mere exposure is all you need in order to be affected by them. What the authors of this study are arguing is that it’s more complicated than that: in reality, addictions have a social dimension, and they can be pushed along by other psychological issues.
That’s what happened here. It’s not that Glass literally rewired the patient’s brain (it’s a variant of what I call the vitamin theory of interaction), or that these changes are beyond our capacity to resist or change. Rather, like so many other addictions, it sounds it arose in someone who’s fought other addictions, who used it as a coping mechanism, and got some extrinsic reward for doing so.