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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Is phone 'addiction' really an addiction?

December 03. 2017 9:28PM

As soon as last week’s installment reached readers, emails started arriving. It wasn’t the number of responses that surprised me, but how deeply disturbed readers seem to be by the spreading cellphone addiction that is engulfing society.

“I read with interest your article in this morning’s paper regarding electronic addiction,” said Martha Wilkerson of Amherst. “I would only comment that a degree in sociology is not required to recognize the addictive qualities of electronic devices of all types. We see it around us all the time.

“It is one thing to carry a cell phone for convenience and safety as I do at 82; it is quite another to depend upon it as an extra appendage. You were indeed fortunate to have been able to interview an educated young man on your trip to Medford who recognized his addiction for what it is. The question to be asked then, is what as a society are we to do about it?  How can we challenge our young people to develop a healthier life style? Or is it too late, and the phenomenon will just have to run its course until we become a world of zombies? Or do we have to develop ‘help’ centers to help folks with this addiction? 

“I would love to see this option put in place at some local level and study the response.  I leave it to you to ponder.”

Ray Littlefield of Manchester said he found the cellphone phenomena very disturbing.

“I exercise frequently in a local Planet Fitness, and many members have their phones in the workout area. Some appear to be listening to music through headphones, but many are reading and pushing buttons between exercises,” Littlefield said. “I believe the use of personal cellphones (or personal use of business computers) in the workplace is costing businesses huge dollars in lost productivity.”

I have received many similar comments over the past two weeks. Guessing from their contents as well as the stated age of the reader, they all came from people older than 60.

In fact, I have not received any comments, pro or con, from the younger generation. Perhaps they were too busy manipulating their cellphones and had no time to respond to an old person’s accusation.

On the issue of addiction, I do have a question. An addiction normally causes a high price to the addicted. Addictions, be they chemical or monetary (gambling), bring forth tragic high costs on the life of the addicted. Basically, they destroy that person’s life if the addicted doesn’t stop totally and abstain for the rest of their life, a very difficult thing to do.

Now let us discuss cellphone addiction. Is it really an addiction?

I am not convinced.

The graduate student I sat next to on the airplane going from San Francisco to Medford, Ore., did volunteer to call himself as addicted to his cellphone.

However, the price he pays as the result of his addiction is not clearly defined.

The important question is: What does he lose by cellphone addiction?

Is his grade point average plunging? Is his desire to lead an active and intellectual life diminishing? Is the relationship with his girlfriend fast disappearing?

These negative results are not as serious or dangerous as other forms of addictions, and nearly impossible to quantify.

The people who belong to the old school of thinking (and they are indeed old as well) seem to claim that the youth today do not and cannot think for themselves, and are in the process of becoming zombies. And they are worried our society may be declining rapidly to the world of morons.

They seem to say Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and many others who led the science into a brilliant new world of 19th to 21st centuries will not be born in such a world.

They have a point. I cannot totally disagree.

In fact, a part of me in some way wishes the human world made up of cellphone addicts would corrupt and fall apart.

However, in our history many innovations were roundly criticized as poisonous to society at the onset. Automobiles took some time until they were accepted. In that process humans didn’t lose anything such as the destruction of society, or everyone becoming moron.

As an inventor before Google appeared, I used to go to the library and spent much time researching various prior art documents, which took a large amount of time.

Today, I Google without ever leaving my office and get my work done fast. In that process, have I ruined my ability to think deeply and fundamentally? I am not aware if that happened.

Ray Littlefield of Manchester states our workplace must be losing a huge amount in productivity.

As a sarcastic old man, I would like to agree with him. But is there accurate accounting of that “lost productivity” by cellphones? I would like very much to read about it.

As I was closing this installment for the week, an email from Robert Myrick of Milton arrived. His key points were:

1) Risk averse people with higher addictive tendency, there are many, tend to go for apparatus that demands nothing but their attention — cellphones.

2) We must study deeper aspects of ergonomics of cellphones, not just physical aspects, but physiological, psychological and sociological. What would happen to us in say 30 years if we continue?

3) Now that technological advances outpace our societal digestion, perhaps we should add a new category of choices in addition to “How do we?” and “Can we?” to “Should we?”

These three people I quoted today were just a small sample of readers’ comments. They were articulating in observation and far-seeing in their vision.

I thank you very much for writing.

Shintaro “Sam” Asano of New Castle was named by MIT as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century. Write to him at

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