Technology Dependence

June 13, 2018

Throughout childhood, I struggled a lot with writing. As is the norm, I was “taught” cursive through handwriting books that required you to trace over existing lines, and although I was comfortable enough participating in class discussions, I struggled quite a lot when it came to actual tests due to the fact I had to choose between clarity or completeness when completing clerical work.

It could either be legible and unfinished, or finished and barely readable.

It’s a minor issue when the expectations of you top out at a page or two for homework, but as the amount of work rose, so did my struggles. I started to favour quality over quantity - if I could say something better in less words, I hoped it would save me from whatever page or word limit was set.

Usually I got away with it.

Writing has always been an important part of my life. I was inspired to start from the amount I read as a child, ruining my eyes at night by reading in dim light. My bedroom was full of just two things - books or lego, and instead of attending a creche or hanging around my papa’s clothing factory I would spend hours in the library reading.

I took a hard break from writing when I hit Secondary School because I didn’t feel creative anymore, but returned to it afterwards when I started attending local NaNoWriMo meet-ups, which stands for National Novel Writing Month. It is self-imposed challenge to write a fifty thousand word novel during November.

If you can spare the time to write 250 words an hour for eight hours a day, you’ll finish a week early. It encourages good habits for productive work; have a plan ahead of time, but once you start, power on through. Editing can happen when you’re finished; trying to fix or improve your work as you go is a slow poison that leads to you falling behind the pace needed to finish on time.

The second story I wrote for NaNoWriMo was about a robot in a post-apocalyptic future whose purpose was to learn about the history of the world by consuming any media it could. The premise was that the character could piece together a snapshot of the world the moment before everything went dark by collating information from social media, including private messages and emails.

I started to rework the novel as an interactive game instead, where the player assumes the role of the robot reconstructing history by visiting different fake websites, intended to be analogs to existing ones such as facebook or twitter. I got to work on my writing skills as well as my website design ones concurrently.

In the end I dropped the project as I was blocked by my own lack of technical skill (which was an excuse to justify self-sabotage through perfectionism), but I realised that the entire work wasn’t an exercise in novel or game design for me. I wanted to make an interactive medium where someone could feel frustration as part of its explicit design. Computers are very fast, but very simple - they can only do exactly what they’re told to do, and I wanted to explore the perspective of a sentient robot brushing against their absolute potential as defined by what the game design let players do.

I wanted to see if I could make people feel what my Dyslexia feels like.

The Christmas of my 6th year of Secondary School, months before I was supposed to do the Leaving Certificate, I went through a psychological assessment after which I was told that I had Dyslexia, and the symptoms of Dysgraphia, which is a writing-specific form of Dyspraxia. You wouldn’t expect to leave any assessment happy to be told there was something “wrong” with you, but I was. And “wrong” isn’t really the right nomenclature either; Dyslexia is considered a learning disability, but for me it’s who I am.

I couldn’t and still can’t fully comprehend what the differences are. You’re tested in different ways to measure your cognitive, verbal, mathematical and writing skills, and the combination of results is used to compare you to the general population. It’s like being told that although you are breathing, you are breathing in a way other people do not. You have no frame of reference for how it’s supposed to feel otherwise, so you have no way of understanding how you think and process information compared to how others do.

I didn’t really suspect I might be Dyslexic until fourth year, but it's obvious in retrospect. During Primary School I met my friend Seva, and at his house I got to sit down and use a computer for the first time. My family couldn’t afford one for me, but I found them interesting; we had some at school, and I’d tried playing games briefly at another friends’ house, primarily Atomic Bomberman and Casino Inc.

My friends always noticed I held controllers differently from them, and teachers noticed an awkward grip whenever I wrote. My thumb would cramp after a short while from the angle I held pens and pencils with, but it was the only way that felt natural. Although getting used to a keyboard was challenging, I quickly realised it meant I could express myself easily. I didn’t have to contend with holding a pencil, bringing it down, dragging it precisely and lifting it up between words, while also contending with whatever constraints were expected.

I just had to push my finger down, and a perfectly designed, spaced and readable letter would appear on the screen. I begged and saved for a computer as soon as I could, and my first was an overpriced, slow Hewlett-Packard desktop that could run absolutely no games, but was enough to let me tinker and write.

I would continue to play videogames, and would later be unleashed onto the internet, starting by annoying people about Monster Hunter on Capcom Europe. I was cripplingly shy, and as I started to struggle with depression offline, I became more and more invested in my life online instead.

I've heard many people that they don’t understand how people can become addicted to videogames, or form meaningful relationships with people they’ve met online. It's not the case anymore for the latter with the popularity of dating websites and applications, but videogames addiction is still difficult to understand.

The crux is that real life doesn’t include an omniscient display. At no point in time can you see exactly how hungry or tired you are, how close you are to people, or what you need to get done in a day. When you do something repetitive in real life, you feel bored and want something else to do. When you do something repetitive in a videogame, a bar fills up and a number gets larger. There might be a little celebratory jingle, too. Your brain feels accomplished.

It’s not real, but it feels more rewarding than working on something in your actual life. And the anonymity of the internet means you don’t have to restrain or filter yourself - for the most part, your words and your actions are completely inconsequential. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from - online you and everyone else are on an equal playing field. Your insecurities about your looks or fear of approaching strangers become irrelevant, shielded behind a screen safe at home.

If you’re bored, there is an endless amount of information to distract yourself with. Think of anything you’ve ever seen or heard of - paintings, music, movies. It’s all there. Any book you’ve ever heard of too, and thousands of words about any single subject you're curious about. It is a limitless resource.

It was a crutch. I didn’t have to leave my house to meet people to talk to, and I definitely didn’t need to ask to learn things about them or the world. I could just search for it online, or scroll through their profiles. The low-effort, instantaneous joy and escapism I trapped myself in with videogames was transferable to other people, too.

But it has its benefits. It’s significantly easier to find places to meet new people, and it would be more difficult to stay connected to people you didn’t see regularly otherwise. It’s difficult to know how much is too much when there’s plenty to figure out and experience on your own, but because I need technology to work and live, I feel like it is an extension of who I am, and that makes me feel like less of a person.