Travers Scott

Travers Scott is an associate professor and director of graduate studies for Clemson’s communication department. His new book tackles the history of people perceiving technology to cause or worsen mental and physical illnesses.
Image Credit: Travers Scott

CLEMSON, South Carolina — The World Health Organization recently listed gaming addiction as a mental health condition in its 11th International Classification of Diseases. “Social media addiction” has become such a common phrase it’s made it to Congressional hearings. Articles containing tips for people compulsively attached to their smartphones are rampant.

Technology-induced sicknesses fall under the umbrella of what Travers Scott calls “technopathologies,” which are conditions in which technologies are perceived to have caused or worsened mental and physical illnesses. Scott, a Clemson University communication faculty member, has just published a new book, “Pathology and Technology: Killer Apps & Sick Users,” which explores these ideas.

How long has this concept existed?

Technopathologies have probably been around as long as technology, according to Scott. In other words, they’ve been around since the written word and arguably since people started creating new and easier ways of connecting with one another. He argues that technopathologies almost always say more about bad users, not bad technologies.

“I’ve looked back at over 150 years of cases documented in everything from tabloid journalism and medical journals to popular entertainment,” said Scott. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that people have this same conversation again and again. Books, photography, electricity, these are all things that people mistrusted and thought would be harmful. They rarely took the user or the social climate into account.”

What would qualify as technology addiction?

Scott said if the technology interferes with relationships or work it might be a sign that a person is venturing into addictive territory. However, he said people tend to be too quick to pathologize gaming or usage of the internet or phones. Other activities that aren’t related to technology can be just as addictive while somehow being stigma-proof.

“People can become addicted to running, but that’s not viewed in the same negative light as technology use,” Scott said. “That’s what’s fascinating to me; what makes these things acceptable? You don’t see people who compulsively work on cars being diagnosed with ‘gearhead-itis.’”

Travers Scott book

“Pathology and Technology: Killer Apps & Sick Users” is the culmination of over a decade of study by Scott.
Image Credit: Travers Scott

If most technology isn’t harmful in and of itself, why the panic?

Scott said people often project their own fears and concerns onto new technologies. These fears can come from a changing social climate or when gender norms are challenged. While scholars typically lay the blame of these panics on new media, Scott’s research has shown that these types of panics occur with old and contemporary media alike.

In the past, this clearly manifested in what was known as neurasthenia, an ill-defined medical term used during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that described an “overstimulated” nervous system.

“Men — President Teddy Roosevelt among them — who suffered from it were prescribed time outdoors in the woods; it’s basically the equivalent of butch camp for sissy kids,” Scott said. “Women were treated very differently. They were prescribed isolation, bed rest and limited communication, so it’s pretty clear these reactions reinforced gender expectations.”

Scott said the telegraph and new forms of transportation made for a faster moving urban American, so the fear of this change in society gave rise to a blanket diagnosis like neurasthenia. The very different approaches to defining or “curing” this disease revealed a great deal about society at the time. This is why Scott takes any current hysteria with a grain of salt.

“People swear up and down that social media is killing people or turning them into robots, but science doesn’t support that. Users in some situations may have health impacts, but you can’t just cast blanket blame on screen time or social media. A piece of paper is a social medium, but when paper cuts happen you would normally blame the user, not the paper.”

Do people always criticize the technology first and user second?

That’s generally the case, according to Scott. He cites Google Glass as a rare example of people opting to target users over technology. Those who wore the optical, head-mounted display were frequently the objects of criticism rather than the technology itself. Scott said this could be because of concerns regarding how people could use the product to record others without their knowledge, but the criticisms got surprisingly personal.

“People weren’t concerned about the technology making wearers so distracted they walk into traffic, which is what we saw with the Walkman and iPods,” Scott said. “Google Glass was a case of focusing on the user: you saw people in coffee shops demanding that Google Glass wearers leave. Some even got attacked. Having the person become the object of scorn instead of the technology was the opposite of what usually happened.”

Are there any examples of technology that was proven to cause physical harm?

The most clear-cut examples relate to repetitive motion on products such as a telegraph or iPod wheel, according to Scott. Physical stress injuries like carpal tunnel are hard to debate, but the things get much murkier when people claim proximity to technology can be harmful.

“There are whole communities of people claiming to get sick from being close to electricity, much like the main character’s brother on ‘Better Call Saul,’” Scott said. “While there’s no strict scientific evidence validating that type of effect, medical science can be wrong, much like it was with neurasthenia. I’m less interested in whether these conditions are real; I’m much more interested in how we talk about technology and classify users as healthy or sick, good or bad.”