Asleep in Azeroth

The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat...

It’s 6 pm. Offices are emptying, cars are pulling in to driveways, and the world is settling down to sleep.

Light glows out of windows. Some people are in front of televisions. Others look at their smartphones. Others are pointing and clicking.

It’s 1991. I’m a teenager at boarding school. I think of myself as an intellectual. I go to the library and read Sartre and Paradise Lost. A friend gives me The Archaeology of Knowedge. But I have another, shameful side that I don’t want anyone to know about. I sneak to the computer room, and spend as much time playing Football Manager on the BBC Micro as I do on Milton.

How much of our time do we spend in this half-sleep? Estimates vary: 7.5 hours a day for teenagers and older children, more if they are poor; 3.5 hours according to Screen Time on iPhones.

Nature made human desires locally optimal. It got us to want sugar and fat, because sugar and fat are rare for hunter-gatherers. These desires were like arrows pointing us up a hill in the fitness landscape. Now, collectively, we have travelled to the top of that hill. We have all the sugar and fat we need. The arrows still point in the same direction, but that bearing leads downhill from here.

It’s 1986. I live with my mother in what used to be the weekend cottage. We have a hand-me-down black and white television. There’s no aerial on the house. We can pick up two or three channels, of the four available. We watch No Sex Please, We’re British through a hissing snowstorm.

Since information is a human need, curiosity is one of our wants. Hobbes called it “a lust of the mind”. It’s a wellspring of scientific progress, but like our sweet tooth, it can be hijacked. At a basic level, when things move, we look at them. We also look at bright lights. This is part of what physiologists call the orienting response. Screens are a source of bright light and fast-moving images, which is why it is harder to put down your smartphone than a book or a Kindle.

Survival in the marketplace requires satisfying human wants. Nature has made some of our wants limited. Others have few limits or none. It was not chance that the marketplace would seek out the wants with the fewest limits. That’s where the money is.

It’s 2010. My stepfather used to walk every day for hours, up to Croft Castle’s fish pools and through the woods there. He’s too old to walk now. He sits in an armchair in the front room, watching whatever’s on TV. My mother never watches. “It’s awful, isn’t it?” she says. She means the situation, not the content. When I come home to visit, I hide in my room with my laptop, working or browsing.

The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,
The prizes given at the children’s party…

There is a long-running debate about whether screens are addictive, just as there is for food, gambling and sex. Doesn’t that stretch the concept of addiction to the level of “anything people enjoy”? On the other hand, why should we put alcohol, drugs and tobacco in a “dangerous substances” ghetto, while our other desires get a free pass? The scientific literature opens up an empirical path out of this debate. We can look at the behaviour of affected people. As two television researchers put it:

Psychologists and psychiatrists formally define substance dependence as a disorder characterized by criteria that include spending a great deal of time using the substance; using it more often than one intends; thinking about reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use; giving up important social, family or occupational activities to use it; and reporting withdrawal symptoms when one stops using it. All these criteria can apply to people who watch a lot of television.1

Or, if we look at physiology, screens use the same dopamine pathway in the brain as drug addiction.

I settle down to write this newsletter. I write a paragraph. Then it’s time to check Hacker News. Oh, a new programming language! Also, Big Tech has committed a misdemeanour. After that there’s Reddit. Half an hour later, I write another paragraph. I should look at my email. The Morning Brew has a funny story about characters on old breakfast cereal packets. Click this link to subscribe.

Later tonight I’ll stare at the screen. I’ll click through the same few websites and read whatever appears. I don’t need to memorize anything, I haven’t got the energy for mental work. This is downtime. Sometimes I come out at 10 pm, after two hours in a kind of grey space. Then I go to bed.

And for some:

The fantasy for me when I look at porn is that the people are going to rise off the page. But what happens is that I become two-dimensional as well, until I'm not here any more, I'm flat.

Part of our “addiction” is collective. It is harder to send your children outdoors to play, if no other children are outdoors for them to play with. It is harder to find real company if noone else is looking.

The great addictions of human history have woven themselves into our culture. Nothing is more central to twentieth-century culture than the screen, starting with the silver one of the cinema, which was recognized early as a place of dreams. From there, screens have spread to our homes, desks and pockets. They are now symbiotic with us. We could not work without them. Politics is dominated by screens, and they provide the central dilemmas for today’s societies, both free and unfree.

In the 1980s, my father spent his weekends under a set of second hand Austin 1300s, cursing and trying to fix the engine. It was a good way to avoid the family. Today, I spend my weekends cursing in front of a screenful of R code. My not very well-executed hobby project has been downloaded about 160,000 times: guessing an hour each, it may have saved a lifetime or two of work. Multipliers like these concentrate the mind, and explain why software is eating the world.

It’s 2005. My friend has become addicted to World of Warcraft. He can spend whole days in the world of Azeroth. He isn’t mostly fighting trolls or balrogs. It’s more mundane than that. In this virtual world, he hunts through the woods. He finds a squirrel, kills it and skins it. Then he hunts for another squirrel. When he has sixty squirrel skins, he can make something out of squirrel leather. It’s a living.

The prize awarded for the English essay
The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration…

The sleep woven into our society exacts a tax. We get less done. But it has benefits too. The waking world of ordinary life is not the real world. The ambitions and desires we spend our time pursuing lead us, as individuals, into increasingly absurd postures, and collectively they create a kind of human pyramid as we scramble up each others’ backs. If you dislike it enough, it might remind you of the photographs from Abu Ghraib. When waking life is absurd, why not retreat into dreams?

All things become less real.

And if the world of dreams starts to invade the waking world… trolls from Azeroth flooding into politics… well, at least there’ll be humour.

Sleep has spread through our society. It is mixed into the waking world like aspirin in water. Some individuals may opt out. On a collective level, this is impossible. You are partly asleep as you read this, and I am partly asleep as I write it.

It’s Christmas 1983. I unwrap a present from my father. It’s a ZX spectrum. To load programmes, you connect the computer to a tape recorder. I spend hours typing in lines of BASIC, copied from the paper manual.

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Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Television addiction is no mere metaphor”, Scientific American 286, 2 (2002), pp. 74-80.