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Book Review of: iDisorder

Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold On Us

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Review of iDisorder, by Dr. Larry Rosen, PhD.,  (Hardcover, 2012). With Dr. Nancy A. Cheever, PhD and Dr. L. Mark Carrier, PhD.

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


This is the best book I've read in a while. When I say "best," I mean in terms of its execution rather than by some subjective measure such as whether I "liked" it or how I feel about the subject. Rosen takes on an increasingly important subject and clearly communicates the issues involved. He puts those issues into a context that allows the reader to make sense of them and see the implications. Rosen also provides some guidance for readers in stepping back from the precipice. This last part was an unexpected bonus; I had expected merely an analysis of the problem.

Many authors tackle subjects that are important, timely, interesting, or some combination thereof. Typically, the work doesn't deliver on the promise of its title, its subtitle, the potential of the subject, or some combination thereof. And typically, the work needs copy-editing. Rosen's work didn't suffer from these problems.

So that's my commentary on the quality of the work. What about its substance? What is Rosen talking about, and why should you care?

First, it may help frame the discussion with a comment on my own phone usage. A few years back, I made the decision to stop carrying a cell phone with me. It dawned on me that if I'm out doing something (especially driving a car), then answering the phone simply diminishes what I'm doing. I also made the decision not to answer the phone just because it rings.

It simply is not true that I am of so little value and my activities have so little meaning that I should go through the whole stop/restart cycle just because someone else decides to use a synchronous communication method without seeking permission in advance. My e-mail system isn't set up to let me know when there's new e-mail, either. I find that out when I decide to check e-mail. And that is only when I'm between tasks. Texting? I do not do it. Period.

This is a bit of insight into my whole approach to media. I stopped watching television in 1990. I don't do "news," which is IMO mind pollution (look at the content of what passes for news). I don't do Facebook or other (anti)social media. The reason is mainly because life is too short to consume it with activities that essentially make me a zombie.

Now with this framework established, let's look at why Rosen's work is important. Very few people take my approach to media. And that's OK; most people manage media and don't need to shut it off. But "most" is increasingly changing to "few" and it will soon be normal to let media control you instead of the other way around. For millions of people already, that's the situation. It means giving up what makes you human. And that's a terrible loss.

It's not the technology that's the problem. It's how people increasingly misallocate time to using it that's the problem. The extent of the misallocation crosses the threshold into presenting the symptoms of mental disorders as defined by the mental health standards. The main standard Rosen refers to is the merican Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM).

As this misallocation spreads, so does the disorder problem. And it's becoming the new normal. That is the reason you should care about this book. You may not be able to save others (but then again, you may save those closest to you), but you can save yourself by understanding the causes and adjusting for them.

So, what is Rosen talking about? Let's go back about a decade, when the term "Crackberry" first came into vogue. That term came about because of the way Blackberry users were so addicted to their devices. This addiction, like an addiction to crack, also had severe implications for the mental acuity of the addicted. With the advent of smart phone texting, this same set of problems began to appear in users of other devices. Desktop users are not immune, either. Computer usage behaviors classified as obsessive, compulsive, or addictive were once limited mainly to gamers. The rest of us used computers to accomplish tasks. But along came social media and other interactive uses that can easily feed an addiction.

Today, the iDisorder problem is no longer limited to a few groups such as Crackberry users and gamers. It's gone mainstream and is especially pernicious among youth. Those are tomorrow's leaders, thinkers (maybe), and doers (maybe). The majority of them are exhibit symptoms of mental illness (more about that in a moment), and many have full-blown conditions that wreak havoc in their lives.

The addiction to digital produces certain behaviors. Rosen compares the behaviors to those described in the DSM for particular disorders. The first disorder he looks at is narcissism. This disorder gets disproportionate coverage, to the extent that his coverage initially gives the impression that this is the only disorder related to the media addiction. It should be noted that there's a big difference between the layman's use of "narcissist" and the clinical usage. It doesn't mean the person is merely vain; there's far more going on in the clinical view that Rosen uses.

As he goes through his discussion of how the symptoms are presented and what this means, he also offers help in determining if you exhibit these symptoms. For example, he provides the neurotic personality inventory (NPI) for that purpose. Of course, one problem with self-diagnosing these conditions is denial typically contributes to their emergence. So a self-test that comes out negative (for the condition) isn't conclusive. I would suggest asking a friend to grade you, on the condition that you won't argue with the results.

While Rosen and his contributors are mostly objective, they do insert an opinion I disagree with. Where the book covers the problem of people who obsess over their physical condition, Rosen seems to indicate that people should consider this unimportant. That's taking things to the other extreme. Making your physical fitness a priority that receives ongoing attention (every meal can move you forward or backwards) is not a sign of a disorder. It's a sign of sanity.

As I write this, there's a big hooplah over the Supreme Court's decision on Obamacare (which has a medical services payment focus). An actual health care plan would focus on health care, something very different from medical care. The vast majority of the illnesses the medical system treats would have been prevented with actual health care, thus slashing demand dramatically. People make poor choices; look at the cereal aisle in the grocery store for evidence of that (most of what's sold contains HFC and other toxins). In a book that covers media addiction so well, this point is relatively insignificant. Still, it seemed worth raising.

iDisorder provides a badly needed analysis of what's going horribly wrong with our society today. It doesn't present any "government solutions" (typically an oxymoron) or a grand plan that would instantly solve the problem if we would just execute it. The truth is there isn't a simple solution. Individuals need to learn how to manage the way they interact with technology, and they need to be continually vigilant about it. There will always be people who suffer because they can't do this.

But long before smart phones came along, we had couch potatoes, newspaper addicts, television addicts, and music addicts. When I was a teen, a youth minister asked everyone to go on an "electronic fast." I thought he was nuts. And this was in the days of the 8-track tape. He was, however, a voice of sanity. His advice has occurred to me many times over the years and has caused me to look at my behavior in relation to media. Regardless of the technology involved.

Today, as Rosen points out, the temptations are stronger than they have ever been. The sounds and colors and other "flames" we moths detect can lure us in very easily.

My neighbors have pre-teen daughters who are demanding cell phones and their own computers in their bedrooms. The answer has always been no. This kind of parenting is what's needed to break the addiction. Kids may say "Everyone else...." but the reality is it's not everyone else putting their brains into a freefall. It's only those kids whose parents are unaware of the damage being done. The solution is exactly this kind of book being circulated among parents. It occurred to me that if every school district budgeted for purchase of this book for each child's parent(s) and the parents had to pass a quiz on it before the child could move on to the next grade, public education would be far more effective. The effectiveness would jump because the teachers would no longer be competing for their students' attention.

What about adults? We spend big bucks getting an education. Why throw that away with a media addiction? Rosen didn't go into the IQ studies, but there have been several. I've seen numbers along the lines of a 20 point IQ drop. My personal experience tells me this is an average; quite often the IQ drops to zero. Having the mental acuity of a carrot isn't conducive to a successful career, especially if that condition manifests at a critical time.

As a martial artist and a climber, I value focus. Walk into any martial arts school, and you'll notice nobody is multitasking during training. Ever wonder why? Similarly, if you pull out a cell phone while climbing that could literally be your downfall. Do this while belaying, and you'll have a tough time finding anyone willing to go climbing with you ever again. It's not that these extreme sports are the only activities that require a person to be fully present. Any social activity does, also. As does anything that you want to do well, rather than do poorly.

Unfortunately, the typical multitasker is in denial about his/her poor performance (testing has repeatedly shown that multitasking reduces performance quality). If you've had job problems and can't understand why, it's probably because you've been trying to do it all instead of asking your boss to choose what needs to be done so that you can do it well. Have a friend or coworker read this book, and then have a few frank discussions about it. With your gadgets turned off, of course.

This book consists of 12 chapters and runs 212 pages. The bibliography/notes section, in fine print, runs 21 pages. It's worth noting that Rosen and his contributors drew on primary and secondary sources, all of which appear to be highly authoritative. What you read here is an expertly researched scholarly work with comments and insight from an author who is a subject matter expert.

Amazingly enough, this work, which "should" be dense and difficult to read, is not. It's highly accessible and extremely interesting. Of course, its real value lies in the fact it could be life-changing for many readers.


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