Paul Graham has an interesting essay up about the Acceleration of Addictiveness, in which he argues that our ability to refine and improve things through technology is leaving us increasingly susceptible to addictions, many of which develop too quickly for cultural norms to temper:
As far as I know there’s no word for something we like too much. The closest is the colloquial sense of “addictive.” That usage has become increasingly common during my lifetime. And it’s clear why: there are an increasing number of things we need it for. At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth. Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook.
While I don’t agree that there’s no word for something we like too much, I think Graham comes to a more interesting place as he ends:
But if I’m right about the acceleration of addictiveness, then this kind of lonely squirming to avoid it will increasingly be the fate of anyone who wants to get things done. We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.
Here he says something really important, making a point one doesn’t encounter enough on the web, nor in the street. I’m talking about the seemingly irreconcilable link between freedom and personal renunciation. Illich discusses it length:
Christians who imitate him [Christ] soon discover that little practices of renunciation, of what I won’t do, even through it’s legitimate, are a necessary habit I have to form in order to practice freedom
…it reminds me of the things which, in the modern world, we can give up — not because we want a more beautiful life, but because we want to become aware of how much we are attached to the world as it is and how much we can get along without it. These unnecessary things have now multiplied to such an extent that you can’t easily give a social shape to them. Some people will give up writing letters on a computer — not because it’s bad, and not because they don’t like to have to answer letters at the speed of e-mail. Others will give up the services of physicians or, as somebody who I know has done, guaranteeing that each of his children will get a college degree.
The certainty that you can do without is one of the most efficacious ways of convincing yourself, no matter where you stand on the intellectual or emotional ladder, that you are free. Self-imposed limits provide a basis and a preparation for the discussion of what we can can renounce as a group of friends or a neighborhood. I have seen it, and I can witness to it. For many people who suffer from great fears and a sense of impotence and depersonalization, renunciation provides a very simple way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world. (Illich, “The Rivers North of the Future,” 101-2)
Graham writing about his refusal to own an iPhone, and further, his recognition of this act as a personal, and therefore inessential, move, is significant. We don’t lack for models of consumption, excess, and self-fulfillment online; what we need are more acts like this that are disengaged from the web yet which nevertheless exert an influence through it. Our need to learn to say no is not simply about addiction; it is more importantly about the possibility of the self.