Sunday, June 29, 2008

When Your Number's Up

This NPR story tells how some psychiatrists and psychologists are arguing that "Internet addiction" should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to categorize mental illnesses in their profession. One of the chief advocates for this change in policy is interviewed in the piece, Dr. Jerald Block. Although Block obviously takes pride in his knowledge of the practices of digital culture, his rhetoric indicates that he may not actually understand the norms of participants as well as he claims. For example, by choosing to EVE Online as an exemplary case of the heartbreak of betrayal, Block shows himself to be a much less knowledgeable gamer than he presents himself to be, since cheating and deception are key parts of the collectively understood rules of a game and much less likely to cause trauma than say, Julian Dibbell's example of a rape in a part of cyberspace that is understood to be nonviolent. "entertainment purposes" and "significant other" To his credit, at least he emphasizes reduction rather than elimination of use.

His argument for the category focuses on institutional discourses about pathological computer use that are taking place in South Korea and China. On his web page, however, his five indicators of compulsive behavior in relation to computer-mediated communication could just as easily be applied to voracious reading, something that literacy advocates would champion rather than condemn:

• Sleep-pattern disturbance (delay of onset)
• Irritability before and after computer use
• Guilt and attempts to hide/purge computer use
• Nightmares and dreams about computer use
• Social avoidance

After all, on this YouTube video I made you can listen to these two children talking about their "addiction" to books.

Digression about my previous life as a state-sponsored creative writer:

As this excerpt shows, I actually wrote about DSM categories in a story called "Mother's Milk" that was published many years ago.

Jeremy covered his eyes. He knew that Esther's sister was a mental case. In and out of hospitals. On and off medication. Very smart, went to the best schools, and good looking enough, but nervous and impulsive and subject to strange maladies. She carried a hardcover DSM IV, the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, with her everywhere she went and could point to a dozen different diagnoses that had been given her. When she talked about how sick she was, she could be almost charming.

The diagnostic numbers were laid out like numbers on a radio dial, as though illnesses were a part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The particular part of the illness spectrum that interested her was the numbers between 290 and 319, all the numbers for mental illness. On the imaginary radio dial one of these numbers should have belonged to a classical music station or an all news station. But these were the pirate stations: dangerous, unregulated, inflammatory wavelengths. Nobody knew where the signal was coming from. The doctors said that her number was 300.81. Somatization Disorder. It's the frequency they thought she was tuned to.

A few decades earlier the number would have been 300.1, "hysteria," from the Greek word for womb. The ancients apparently thought that the uterus was a separate organism that could cause mischief when it moved around in the body. Early medical authorities thought that an errant womb could be coaxed higher by foul smelling ingredients in the vagina or lower by foul tasting potions in the mouth. Now, in the days of the DSM-IV, what had once been the whole freak show of female mental illness was reclassified under the less-gendered heading of "somatization disorder.” You could assemble the illness like a recipe from individual symptoms: four pain symptoms, two gastrointestinal symptoms, one sexual symptom, and one pseudoneurological symptom.

If hysteria is now recognized to be a product of the cultural attitudes of a particular period, could Internet addiction, wherever it goes on this spectrum, be equally subject to historical revisionism?

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