Author’s note: First published this essay about 15 years ago. Still pretty timely. Let me know what you think…
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.” -- Carl Jung
Turns out that nothing we've been taught about addiction is true.
My theory on media addiction is disconcerting to just about everyone who reads my writing or hears me speak, not least for my claim that our meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital is now the default social condition, the rule rather than the exception.
It will become clear as you read my thoughts and convictions on addiction below that I’m no fan of the standard addiction-as-disease model, still dominant and still going strong after nine decades. First popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous back in the 1930s (and later adopted by the medical establishment, the justice system, the public schools and most private and public employers), the addiction-as-disease model has stigmatized generations of American citizens as incurable victims, helped justify a racist War Against Drugs and produced the world's largest prison population. All in the name of quasi-science, and all without moving the recovery-rate needle even a single notch. That said, I firmly believe that addicts in search of treatment should invest their time and money in whatever works for them and disregard what anyone else says.
Addiction, of course, is a loaded word, and few of us want to accept the fact that we’re addicted to anything. Much of our resistance, however, is borne from a legacy of lies and mistruths about the true nature of addiction, enduring lies and distortions promoted and fed to us for many decades by an immense addiction industry that zealously protects a yearly cash cow now measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.
The addiction industry tells us — decade after decade after decade — that addiction is a chronic, escalating, incurable and ultimately fatal disease of the brain that requires immediate and sustained professional and peer intervention. But despite the manufactured hysteria of headlines and sound bytes, the simple truth is that addiction isn’t a disease at all, isn’t necessarily chronic, most often plateaus before it renders us dysfunctional, can be cured, is almost always self-correcting and is rarely lethal. Yes, opportunistic diseases and pathologies often result from protracted addictive behavior. And yes, our brains re-wire themselves over time to accommodate and promote addictive behaviors repeated over and over again. But that’s a far cry from the definition of addiction itself as a chronic, escalating, incurable and ultimately fatal disease of the brain. Again, it’s not, and saying so for the past nine decades serves the interests of no one except those who work in and profit from the addiction business.
The truth: Our brains are chemically wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. In essence, we are wired for addiction, better and more truthfully defined as a largely self-correcting and perfectly normal lifestyle coping mechanism that sometimes goes awry. It tends to come and go over the course of a lifetime, to disappear and reappear in accordance with life events and exigencies. We frequently entertain more than one addiction at a time, and our drugs of choice often change to suit our current circumstance. We are sometimes more addicted, sometimes less, sometimes — far less frequently these days — not at all. And BTW, there is no addiction gene to blame.
Note: The inveterate college drunkard graduates, gets a job, gets married, has kids and buys a home. En route he matures out of his dependence on alcohol — almost always with no professional intervention.
Note: More than 40 million Americans have quit smoking over the past generation, almost all with no professional intervention or assistance whatsoever, despite the fact that nicotine is among the most addictive substances on the planet.
Note: The vast majority of GIs who returned from Vietnam as heroin addicts stopped taking heroin once they were reintegrated into their lives stateside, and almost all them stopped with little or no professional intervention at all.
Headlines talk ceaselessly about heroin addiction or cocaine addiction or crack addiction or social media addiction. But all the media discussion about drugs notwithstanding, addiction is never about the specific narcotic. Addiction is about behavior, and all addicts behave pretty much the same way, regardless of the narcotic. Thus heroin addicts behave pretty much like sex addicts, who behave pretty much like alcoholics, who behave pretty much like compulsive gamblers, who behave pretty much like cocaine addicts, who behave pretty much like social media addicts.
Year after year the addiction industry (via the media) portrays addicts as down-and-out misfits victimized by an insidious chronic and incurable disease in order to instill in us inordinate fear and anxiety about our own dismal prospects as addicts in lieu of professional intervention. The same media-induced fear compels us to hand our lives and bank accounts (often by court, employer or other mandate) over to outrageously expensive and invasive treatment regimens, almost all of which stigmatize us for life as damaged goods — and almost all of which ultimately fail.
The truth: The vast percentage of addicts are perfectly functional, with jobs and families and mortgages and plenty to smile about (hopefully).
The addiction industry tells us that we are victims of addiction, and that we become addicts in spite of our values.
The truth: We become addicts not in spite of our values but precisely because of our values, as reflected in how we choose to spend our time and money. Indeed, the only reliable diagnosis of addiction is the measure of how we spend our time and money in excess: exactly why addiction is almost always diagnosed first by a family member, friend or co-worker, not a doctor. Your family, friends and colleagues know where you spend your time and money. Your doctor doesn’t.
Moreover, we are not victims of our addictions. If anything, we’re entirely complicit in them, especially in our meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital. No one ever put a gun to your head and threatened to pull the trigger unless you binge on “Charles in Charge” over an entire weekend or camp out in line for days to buy the latest iPhone.
These are the simple facts about addiction. So why the fuss? If addiction is perfectly normal, what’s the problem? The problem is that addiction of any sort is a reflection of overt excess in our lives, and that late-stage addictions — like our meta-addiction to all things media and all things digital — eventually take over as moderators and arbiters of our thoughts and lives. Eventually they steal our time and money and freedom, regardless of the narcotic.
An individual addicted to one narcotic or another is one thing. But an entire society addicted to the same narcotic (think all things media and all things digital) is something quite different. The real question that confronts us as citizens of 21st-century America is, "What happens to our time and money and freedom when addiction emerges as the default social condition, the rule rather than the exception?" Simply stated, the establishment of addiction as the default social condition is the perfect Fascist tool in a Brave New Digital World, exactly per Aldous Huxley’s premonition (see my essay The Rise of Fascism in a Brave New Digital World). Look around and tell me otherwise…