Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Line Between Habit and Addiction: Drawn by Society?

Humans are said to be creatures of habit. This is also seen in all other organisms as well: all living things fall into regular patterns of behavior or activity. With that said, some habits can be detrimental or ultimately self-defeating to the organism's health; these habits are called addictions. Technology can provide us with tools that we become habituated to; cell phones are just one example of a habituated tool (people complain they feel naked or missing a limb without their cell phone). What most fail to see, however, is how far the definition of tool, actually extends. Everything we use to accomplish a goal is done with a tool. Therefore, we can see our lives as a continuous series of habits with the various tools we use to accomplish tasks.

Some goals are not as practical as others; yet, that does not mean that there are fewer tools available, or willing to be made so, in order to accomplish these recreational or leisurely tasks. Recreational and other leisurely activities have tools which become habituated as well. For example, many would think that we eat fruits because they're innately good for us. But this isn’t the case at all. The fact is our primate ancestors who had no need for fruit, to maintain a healthy diet (this is because most mammals except for primates make their own vitamin c) developed a purely recreational sweet tooth for sugary fruit (a pollination/fertilization strategy for trees) which they became dependent on. Thus their bodies stopped making vitamin C in much the same way the body stops making endogenous opioids (what some refer to as endorphins) when heroin users are addicted. That is the origin of our dependence on fruits. It's plain to see how what was once done for pleasure becomes a necessity.

With the understanding of how technology provides us with tools to accomplish both practical and leisurely goals, one may ask: what makes some habits become defined as addictions, while others are regarded as socially acceptable? Some would like to think it would be those habits which are detrimental to the individual. However, what's there to say when a whole culture sanctions an otherwise detrimental or potentially dangerous activity (e.g. addiction to shopping, work, legal drugs, food, economic/political practices which support hegemony)? 

Ironically, because of certain potentially dangerous habits becoming culturally sanctioned, the activity becomes less dangerous. If people starting eating fruit (assuming we still made out own vitamin C), would it be seen as an addiction? One can imagine campaigns of politicians telling the public the horrors of citrus in the eye, or cavities, or even how apples can hurt teeth. But most now would see such an idea as ridiculous, although the idea of chemical dependence would still upset most of them (albeit the need for vitamin C being a chemical dependence). It seems that if the society institutionalizes a habit, its chance of harm goes dramatically down. There also seems to be a kind of asymmetry when it comes to illegal habits, they become so dangerous when condemned, relatively begin habits can become detrimental.

All in all, in understanding the line between addiction and habit provided by technology, we see the distinction being mostly defined by the attitude of the consensus. Addictions which are culturally sanctioned cease to be dangerous; and habits which are potentially dangerous become hazardous when made illegal.