Internet addiction and cell phone sociability

A picture of a restaurant’s cell phone policy posted to Reddit led me to a back-and-forth with another Redditor about cell phone etiquette. His(?) take was that using your cell phone while out to dinner with someone is unconditionally rude. It’s been my experience that no taboo is universal. The person I was talking to didn’t seem to understand this. “Of course, if every participant doing it, it might be acceptable, though I still wouldn’t agree with their choice. But it is disrespectful that your partner takes his time to spend with you and you just succumb to your addiction.” My point is that if everyone you’re with has no problem with it, then there is no problem. Certainly there’s some context required, too. Spending the entire meal playing Angry Birds is not the same as checking for updates on a loved one undergoing surgery.

Conveniently, Ben Johnson had a story on Marketplace Tech just a few days later. An inpatient treatment center for Internet addiction opened earlier this month in Pennsylvania. The director talked about how Internet addiction progressed from chat rooms and porn to day trading (and porn) to auction sites and social media (and porn). At one point, she referred to the Internet as a tool, which it is, but then went on to ascribe goodness and badness to it. Tools are not inherently good or bad; it’s the application of a tool that is good or bad. We don’t talk about “magazine addictions” because some people get addicted to Playboy or to Reader’s Digest.

Both of these cases strike me as examples of how our society has not yet caught up to the technology we use. Social norms, medical understanding, legal structures, and so on all need time to catch up to a world where communication is instantaneous and geographically-unbound. There’s a tendency to wring hands and say “this generation blah blah blah,” but people aren’t really any different than they were 100 years ago. The world we live in is different, and changing. But we change to fit it.