Technology Addiction, Technophobia, and Kids These Days

I’m in my mid-thirties, which means my social media feed is full of pictures of tonight’s dinner, links to obituaries for 80’s celebrities, and angst-filled articles about how kids these days are terrible because they are addicted to screens, sugar, and apathy. Leaving aside defunct celebrities and the culinary habits of middle-aged middle class America, these “save the children/the children are terrible!” articles resonate with classical antiquity both intentionally and ironically.

In the first place, they all take as their first principle the idea that things are terrible now and were better then. This nostalgia obtains, regardless of the debate: New Math beats Common Core, The Oregon Trail beats Minecraft, sugar beats HFCS, paper beats screen (and rock). In this sense all of the anxiety about the current generation(s) of kids is only one manifestation of the general attitude that the past was better and today’s kids suck. It’s no surprise that Classics-based curricula, in both private and homeschool settings, are experiencing a renaissance.

The technophobia that often seems to go hand-in-hand with this type of nostalgia, however, is a topic that would particularly benefit from a classical lens, if only to highlight how irrational this response often is. Classicists might be dead language pushers, but the ancient texts that we promote were once new; and when they were first written people were also shaking their fists at the youth of the day and were terrified of contemporaneous cutting-edge technologies — in their case, paper, reading, and formal education.

Yet it is the purity of this same past that Dr. Andrew Doan, the former head of addiction research for the US Navy and researcher of video game addiction — evokes when he labels video games and screen technologies “digital pharmakeia.” His pointed use of an Ancient Greek term (pharmakeia = “drug use”) to describe these technologies is both a legitimizing and a nostalgic move.

The irony is that all of these modern Luddites, in drawing on the authority of the past both to legitimize their ideas about technology and to tap into the knee-jerk nostalgia that tells us the past must have been better, safer, more wholesome, than the present, are in fact terrible practitioners of ancient wisdom. If they really wanted to follow the advice of the Ancient Greeks they would read their Plato (Republic Bk. 3) and be sure to burn every non-hymnal book on their short Montessori-style bookshelves.

I don’t think we should burn books. And I think most people would agree that we shouldn’t take Plato at his literal word and demonize reading, writing, and the majority of the literary canon. Why is it, then, that parenting experts and their fist-shaking followers are so eager to take Plato at his figurative word and demonize writing and stories that are transmitted via digital ink and melatonin-disrupting blue lights? The answer would seem to be that most people really do believe that video games and other screen-transmitted technologies are addictive, and that Dr. Doan is right to call them “pharmakeia” … and, for what it’s worth, I agree: he is completely—if accidentally—right to use the term.

φάρμακον, τό: A.1. drug, whether healing or noxious 2. healing remedy, medicine …A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ)

Doan certainly knows his audience. One of the best ways to convince a layperson that you have bona fide science to back up your claims is to use a Greek- or Latin-derived term. After all, our actual medical and scientific terminology is almost exclusively prefixed, suffixed, and rooted in this fossilized jargon. “Patient suffers from hematochezia” just has more gravitas than “You have blood in your shit.”

This use of pharmakeia is not just official-sounding, it recalls enough cognate terminology (pharmacy, pharmaceutical, Big Pharma) to be recognizable to most laypeople. It brings to mind almost immediately the idea of “prescription-strength drug.” Sure enough, if you haul out a Greek dictionary and look up the term from which pharmakeia is derived (pharmakon, quoted above) you will find that the first two definitions seem to encompass the same semantic field as our modern “drug.” And the way that layparents talk about screens surely does seem to reflect this idea that—much like prescription drugs—digital technology is dangerous and ought to be a controlled substance.

On any given day you could dip your toe into any online parenting community (careful! they bite!) or eavesdrop on pretty much any playdate or school drop-off conversation and learn how screens, or television, or video games are physically and psychologically damaging to kids in terrible and terrifying ways. Their very eyes—nay, souls—could be incurably corrupted by the briefest glance at the blue light emissions of a solar eclipse—I mean iPad. These devices even light up children’s brains in the very same centers that heroin (!) and sex (!) activate. And we can all agree that heroin and sex are bad for kids.

Doan’s use of the term pharmakeia, despite its classicizing bent, completely reverses the classical view on “addictive substances.” I have not found any evidence that the Ancient Greeks or Romans believed in anything like the modern concept of addiction. Excess itself was moralized, but drugs weren’t: if someone consumed too much wine, for example, he should make better choices and drink less. Conversely, if someone were a teetotaler he too should exercise better self control and drink moderately. In drinking, as in most other “vices,” the best option was for one to shoot for the “golden mean.” Being able to handle one’s booze was a hallmark of “self-regulation” (sôphrosunê) and was considered an especially manly virtue; too much wine made a man irrational, sloppy, and emotional, like a woman. In short, if a person consumed “too much” of a substance, that was indicative of a defect in the person (or his body), not in the substance.

By contrast, the modern discourse on addiction usually emphasizes the bewitching power of an addictive substance to infect a person. The D.A.R.E. program that I grew up with made it seem like the time between one’s first puff of marijuana and craven addiction to cocaine or crack (depending, of course, on one’s race) was about a week. An addict may make a bad choice to begin taking drugs, but, once hooked, he is powerless to fight the substance, or the disease of addiction. The answer for any addict wishing to overcome this disease is to surrender completely to his powerlessness and to completely and totally abstain from
the addictive substance. This transfer of responsibility and power from the addict to the substance thus represents a reversal of the ancient view.

So in one sense Doan’s forced connection between antiquity and modern addiction is predicated on a falsehood: the Greeks labelled anyone who drank too much wine or smoked too much opium as someone who exceeded the bounds of moderation. They did not label a particular substance (like wine, marijuana, or opium) a pharmakon, unless they considered it an actual medical treatment. And if something was considered (part of) pharmakon, the substance was considered “healing or noxious” depending on preparation, application, quantity given, and—most importantly for this discussion—the type of body (i.e. person) to whom the drug was administered. The addictive capability, in other words, was not inherent to the substance, it was encoded in the person.

φάρμακον, τό: … 3. enchanted potion, philtre: hence, charm, spell …
A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ)

For what it’s worth, this ancient idea that—in the case of deadly addiction—substances are not at the root of addiction so much as some pathologic feature in the addict’s brain or psyche is actually an idea that is gaining traction in the scientific community. Studies have shown that psychological issues, often caused by pain or unmet needs in childhood, are far more likely to lead to an addiction to something than that something (whatever it is—heroin, sugar, sex) is likely to cause an addiction in a psychologically healthy, happy person who has the skills to cope with the stuff life constantly throws at us. But it’s a lot harder to declare a war on unmet childhood needs.

Leaving aside the fact that scientific studies themselves are produced within a cultural framework and are, for all their rational posturing, subject to cultural influence (I ask you, how many studies are there that investigate whether or not the sex/heroin centers of the brain are activated by hugging your child, walking to school uphill both ways, or getting another star on your chore chart? How many studies investigate the damage that reading a paperback inflicts on one’s eyes? Does the game Monopoly promote antisocial pro-capitalistic behavior? Give us the pure truth unmediated by cultural frameworks!), the actual scientific studies that have investigated the effects of screens on the human body—not the reporting of the studies, but the actual studies—are much less conclusive than parenting message boards would lead one to expect.

So if actual scientists and their studies don’t point to the harrowing side effects of technologic drugs, why are there so many pop-sci articles at hand to justify our culture’s technophobia? Because fear sells, and science editorsknow that laypeople eat this stuff up. So they run these articles, based on misrepresented studies, and parents can rest easy that their kids won’t become addicts. And this is where we can, again, learn from the Greeks. From our 2500-year vantage point we can see how ridiculous fear-mongering science- or logic-backed technophobia such as this can be.

Doan may think his pharmakeia jargon brings to mind the idea of giving your kid his own personal supply of oxy, but to those of us who know our Plato, it is perhaps more evocative of the LSJ’s third definition of the term: a magical philtre or charm. To whichever generation hasn’t grown up with a new technology, it will always seem sinisterly magical.

And sure enough, this is exactly how Plato (in The Phaedrus) described the new, terrifying technology of … crafting persuasive speeches and writing them down. Plato’s Socrates is “sick,” he claims, with a need to hear speeches and begs his friend Phaedrus to tell him about a speech on love that he missed. It just so happens that Phaedrus has a written copy of said speech hidden in the folds of his cloak (yes, the subtext is also in the original) which he proceeds to read. Socrates can’t seem to get enough of this dope and exclaims that Phaedrus has discovered a drug (pharmakon) that can manage to entice even him out of the house (Socrates was the ur-millennial, it seems):

For as people lead hungry animals by shaking in front of them a branch of leaves or some fruit, just so, I think, you, by holding before me discourses in books, will lead me all over Attica and wherever else you please.

Socrates is basically saying that he will get in a weird stranger’s van for books. Throughout the remainder of this dialogue, Plato continues to use the term “drug” as a metaphor when describing love, books, writing, and speeches. Surely this all seems silly to us, for whom writing is such an old technology we don’t even consider it a technology, but for this generation, this stuff was a powerful hallucinogenic whose effects had been severely understudied.

Predictably, Socrates goes on to suggest that things were better in the past: writing is a poor contribution to society that only serves to weaken the mind’s power of memory. Discourse—that older practice of actually talking with other humans—is nobler, more accurate, and better in every way. Writing is just an imperfect substitution for discourse, since words “always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak.”

φάρμακον, τό. … 4. poison
A Greek-English Lexicon (LSJ)

In the Phaedrus, Plato uses the term “drug” (pharmakon) as a metaphor for the bewitching and ensnaring properties of artificially-constructed speeches and the written word. His accusations against writing may be valid, but the comparison to pharmaka is ultimately light-hearted. What happens, however, when Plato thinks there is an actual psychological—even biological—threat to children?

In his utopic work The Republic, Plato suggests that children are especially morally susceptible to what they see, hear and read. He goes so far as to suggest that the only works of literature that are at all appropriate to expose to children are solemn religious hymns.

Plato doesn’t elaborate on the mechanisms behind the dangers of viewing something terrible on stage (i.e. on screen), or hearing about how the gods were all serial adulterers with low self-esteem, but we can guess what he would have said if we were to ask him. He had his own versions of “heroin-centers” and “melatonin-disruptors” to point to. His scientific worldview posited that everything was made up of different elements, and each bodily organ had its own type of elemental receptor. In the Timaeus, for example, he explains that vision works because the eyes contain the element of fire, therefore:

whenever the stream of vision is surrounded by midday light, it flows out like unto like, and coalescing therewith it forms one kindred substance along the path of the eyes’ vision, wheresoever the fire which streams from within collides with an obstructing object without. And this substance, having all become similar in its properties because of its similar nature, distributes the motions of every object it touches, or whereby it is touched, throughout all the body even unto the Soul, and brings about that sensation which we now term “seeing.”

For Plato, sight was a physical, and (potentially) physically corrupting process. (In this, he was not alone: see Lucretius for the most scientifically kind-of-accurate explanation of this process whereby the object of sight releases invisible atomic films that hit us in our eye-atom-receptacles and leave a physical imprint on our soul; see Soranus, on the other hand, for perhaps the silliest example of the supposed consequences of looking at things, where a woman who looks at apes during sex risks giving birth to an ape-child). The risks are not just to the body: the soul itself was also a partly physical substance that could be literally corrupted or diseased by bad ideas or images (see especially Republic 4).

The “science” might seem bonkers, but the principles here are identical to ours. We have either inherited Plato’s views, or he hit upon some kind of universal human superstition of the physically corrupting effects of practices we deem immoral. In any case, it seems that when people are convinced that there is a certain quantum logic that supports their technophobia, backed by their imperfect science—or by their imperfect understanding of science—they can justify all sorts of arbitrary limitations. Plato probably would have approved of Waldorf- or oppressive-Religious-homeschooling-style extremism—hell, he kind of invented it—and if we want to follow in his great tradition we should not only ban all screens but also all forms of writing and most literature. Or at the very least not ever let our children read Plato.

At this point, I feel compelled to state outright that I’m being sarcastic. One of my greatest fears in writing this article—besides exposing myself to the angry online mob of righteous parents—is that some people will actually see my facetious arguments as compelling reasons to restrict and censor their children’s reading. So, please, dear readers, don’t raise your children in a world without books, even the ones written by Plato.

φαρμακός, ὁ:… II. one who is sacrificed as an atonement for others, a scape-goat.
-A Greek-English Lexicon (Middle Liddell)

In ancient Ancient Greece, whenever plague, or famine, or disaster befell the community, the people would pick one or two people to drive out of town in order to appease the gods and bring about healing to the city. It’s unclear what the “driving out” actually entailed, but some ancient commentators insist that these scapegoats were definitely beaten or stoned and probably killed.

This poor guy was called a pharmakos. This is the term—meaning “scapegoat”—from which pharmakon, in all of its myriad drug-medicine-poison-charm meanings is derived. A pharmakon, then, is the quasi-mystical thing you give someone to help them (but it could also hurt them) and you don’t really know how or why it works, but maybe, just maybe, it will fix some stuff.

So far I’ve connected this blue-screens-of-death fear-mongering to technophobia, but I think the root cause of this phenomenon is more complicated than that. What we see in this “blame screens for how terrible the world is now” stance is nothing new. Returning again to the Greeks: the crotchety old dad Strepsiades in Aristophanes’ Clouds can’t stop bitching about the kids these days with their newfangled chariot-racing obsessionBut in the Clouds, as in real life, bitching about new technology is just something people do when they are actually worried about something else.

Technology, in our case, is the scapegoat. And the more we learn about the actual mechanisms behind addiction, the more we can—hopefully—get to the root cause of this societal scourge, rather than scapegoating the substance without which an addict cannot function.

After all, if we cling to this primitive idea that an addictive substance must be eradicated, and if we live in a world in which sex and food are considered addictive, where does that leave us as a species? Demonizing the substance, rather than the impulse, behind addiction is what leads us away from true healing and towards damaging narratives. Technophobia isn’t a soothing ointment, it’s pushing some guy you don’t like off a cliff and hoping your pustules magically disappear.

Author: Sarah Scullin
Sarah Scullin is Managing Editor of Eidolon. She received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.


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