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If Frodo Owned an iPhone, Could He Have Destroyed It?

Googling “iPhone addiction” brings up several results (and by several I mean 1.8 million).

 

Some of these results are YouTube videos, in which filmmakers chronicle and parody an addiction to the iPhone or other portable digital assistant (PDA) like the Blackberry or Treo.

 

“I will not let you control my life,” says a group of iPhone addicts in unison in one funny video.

 

Other search results are discussion forums, in which people discuss their PDA habits and addictions, reminding us of why the Blackberry was dubbed the Crackberry in the first place.

 

There’s even a Web site, www.iphoneaddicts.com, though it was basically a blog that began and ended on Jan. 9, 2007, when Apple honcho Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. The person responsible for the blog also ran a much more robust site, www.treoaddicts.com.

 

When the iPhone finally hit the market in June 2007, the Freakonomics blog at the New York Times speculated about the kinds of studies that the new gadget would induce. One, the blogger speculated, would be “iPhone Addiction: A Legitimate Disorder?”

 

No doubt many feel like software developer Albert from Canada, who blogged in April 2008 about his iPhone addiction, saying “this phone is special to me.” That blog entry ran nearly 400 words—not much shorter than a typical news story on the Internet—and was posted from his iPhone.

 

Not a surprise. “Working from phone” is how a new ad for the Treo Pro describes what you could be doing.

 

I teach mass media and society, and I always ask students to bring in two media “artifacts.” One should be something they love, and the other something they loathe. Increasingly, students who bring in their iPhones or Blackberrys say the gadget really represents a love-hate relationship: They love the phone and what it can do, but they hate that they’ve become so attached to it. One student told of sleeping with it on his pillow and the compulsion he felt to respond immediately to any message.

 

It’s not a huge leap, if one at all, from PDA addiction to Internet addiction. Both involve digitized information consumption and distribution via complex networks.

 

The journal CyberPsychology and Behavior included a study as early as 1998 that examined “Internet addiction” and posited its status as a new clinical disorder akin to pathological gambling. Other such studies have followed, tackling the issue from a variety of angles: Internet use and academic performance, Internet use and alcohol consumption, Internet use and online shopping, and on and on.

 

Googling “Facebook addiction” reveals a similar line of inquiry regarding the popular social media Web site. Now, Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is a line of research that takes into account familiar addictive patterns like tolerance build-up and withdrawal symptoms.

 

Looking for a moral foothold on the issue of PDA/Internet addictions, I recalled Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

 

In his book “Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age,” Schultze wrote: “Coping with the pace of messaging is enough trouble for the day. In the information age, who has time and energy to cobble together a moral vision?”

 

Now for the scary part: The book was published in 2002—a full five years before the iPhone hit the market. We thought information was moving fast in 2002. It was, and whatever we had then is now old-school.

 

In my class, as the PDA junkies were describing their habit, another student said, “It’s like the ring in Lord of the Rings.”

 

It drew a laugh, but the observation was quite relevant. In The Lord of the Rings, a magic ring is attractive and powerful, but it subdues the psyches of too many who try to possess it.

 

The difference, though, is that Frodo—tasked with destroying the ring once and for all—could actually do so in the Fires of Mordor. But a PDA isn’t a singular magic ring; it’s a mass-produced gadget and replaceable.

 

So in an age of information—and information addiction—what is required of us?

 

First, we must be realistic. There is no going back in terms of technology. PDAs as we know them will only be replaced when a newer technology arrives, and that technology will likely tether outside information to our minute-to-minute consciousness in ways most of us now can barely imagine.

 

Second, we must be pragmatic. What technology do we really need to accomplish our goals or tasks in a day or week? What is actually helpful?

 

Third, and most importantly, we must be honest with and about ourselves when it comes to technology. If a blessing in the form of a PDA has become a curse because it controls me instead of the other way around, I must acknowledge that.

 

Communication is amoral; it is inherently neither moral nor immoral. Our communication must necessarily be judged not only by what we send across our evolving communications networks, but how—and how often—we use them.

 

Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.