Addiction in the 21th century

Apr 07, 2015

by: Cynthia Andrzejczyk, Ph.D 

Bruce Alexander has written a penetrating and incisive book on the nature of addiction in the 21st century. Along with defining and differentiating various types of addiction, Alexander, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Canada, has amassed forty years of studying addiction and addictive patterns of behavior, along with lecturing extensively on the topic. He has undertaken an inquiry as to how addiction has grown into a global phenomenon typical to the age in which we live.

In a chapter from his text on The Globalization of Addiction entitled “Addiction1, Addiction2, Addiction3, Addiction4,” Alexander cites then defines four different types of addiction. Addiction1 is the most common and refers to addiction to alcohol, one of the first recognized dependencies identified by physicians in the 19th century. It also includes addiction to drugs recognized as addictive beginning in the early 20th century (such as morphine), then into the latter part of the last century and would include addictions to heroin, cocaine, crack, and metha amphetamines (Alexander 19-20).  Addiction2 then adds a subtle point of difference. While both addiction types 1 and 2 are defined as an individual having an “overwhelming involvement” in a drug or alcohol habit, Addiction2 also suggests “substance abuse” or drug abuse of some kind that is not entirely overwhelming. This kind of abuse, as Alexander argues, will become “problematic” to society, though, at some point (Alexander 20).

Addiction3 expands the range of dependency to include other activities and behaviors as opposed to ingestion of substances such as alcohol and/or drugs. Addiction4 entails a depth of involvement that may be habitual but is generally considered harmless or non self-destructive. Addiction4, for example, may involve a passion for social and political activism, as a way to illustrate the point, but Alexander’s most interesting comments are made about Addiction3, and in some ways, they are more representative of the times in which we live. Alexander writes,

Addiction3 does not refer to an ordinary habit, but to an overwhelming involvement. Gambling, love, power-seeking, religious or political zeal, work, food, videogame playing, Internet surfing, pornography viewing, and so forth can take up every aspect of a severely addicted person’s life—conscious, unconscious, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, social, and spiritual—just as severe drug and alcohol addiction can. Such overwhelming involvements often entail a startling blindness to what the addiction is doing, which is aptly called ‘denial.’ (Alexander 35)

Addiction3 may involve habitual play of one kind or another, such as gambling, but the new component in terms of addiction applies to electronic and/or digital technology, more specifically, video gaming and the various activities associated with the Internet. It is what comes next in the Alexander discussion that may give us pause to think about the scope and intensity of addiction in our global culture: “Many instances of addiction3 do not involve a single habit, but rather an ‘addictive complex’ of several habits that constitute a single addictive lifestyle” (Alexander 35). One example of this type of complex might be someone who is obsessed with video games, Internet, emailing and chatroom involvement, along with the use of cellular phone technologies (ironically called the Smart phone). Although addiction3 can drastically alter a person’s life and cause great harm to “individuals and society,” Alexander claims that media focus instead on the dangers of alcohol and drugs while they “reassure us with good humoured portrayals of addiction3 to food, consumer goods, sex, religion, television, video games, and so on” (37). We need go no further than to scan some of the ads which blithely market addiction as part of the product packaging designed for our entertainment.

If we are indeed likely to be addicted to a number of things, then why are we addicted? Sociologist B.J. Gallagher, writing for the website Living has posted an article appropriately titled “Is Everyone Addicted to Something?” He offers two perspectives on addiction—one from the field of psychiatry and the other from a Buddhist perspective, but both touch upon spiritual or ‘soulful’ causes for addiction. For example, Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and author of Start Where You Are says that the problems leading to addiction are not so much cultural but more of a conditional matter—we simply cannot slow down the human engine:

We are restless, irritable, and discontented—we find it impossible to just sit still and BE. So we distract ourselves with activity and entertainment, with cell phones, texting, video games. . . movies, magazines, non-stop busyness to keep us looking everywhere but inside ourselves. We mood alter with substances (like caffeine) and activities (shopping, gambling, sex, work. . . ) [to] medicate our existential anxiety. (qtd. in Gallagher 2-3)

Gallagher then cites Scot Peck, a psychiatrist, who suggests in his lecture, “Addiction: The Sacred Disease,” that addiction is an outcome of the human condition, a feeling that we have of separation, or in his words an “emptiness, a longing. . . a hole in the soul” (qtd. in Gallagher 2). If we cannot find that connection in life to a supreme being of some sort, or to a Universal Life Force, then we search for something to fill that empty space, that void. The end result is that some of us turn to alcohol or drugs, others to pastimes such as shopping, gambling, or sex as a way to pacify that feeling of spiritual emptiness. Ironically, says Dr. Peck, “the alcoholic who is thirsty for Spirit. . . settles instead for spirits” (qtd. in Gallagher 2). Sociologist Gallagher elaborates by suggesting that people with addictive patterns of behavior feel that they have found ‘that thing’ which makes them feel less edgy or less stressed, something that can help them “make it through the night” (2).

Bruce Alexander takes a slightly different approach, examining addictive causes from a psychosocial angle. He asserts that the problem can be traced to a general feeling of dislocation. Over the centuries, and with the rise of the industrial age, along with the emergence of a free market society, massive numbers of people have been displaced: They have lost their homes, their families, their tribe, their sense of community, their way of life. From birth, says Alexander, the individual seeks connection, first through one’s parents and extended family and then through larger communities. Communities could be based on geography or sense of place; based on religious affiliation(s); or based on group, clan, or commonly shared tribal identities. Whatever the connection may be, the individual has a need to feel a socially derived association with others. When that connection is weakened, removed, or absent entirely, psychosocial disconnect is the end result.  Elaborating on how the theory of dislocation works, Alexander asserts,

Dislocation in the broad sense of the word does not necessarily imply geographic separation. Rather it denotes psychological and social separation from one’s society, which can befall people who never leave home, as well as those who have been geographically displaced. Like psychosocial integration, dislocation has been given many names, perhaps the most familiar being ‘alienation’ or ‘disconnection’. . . . In contrast to material poverty, dislocation could be called ‘poverty of the spirit.’ (Alexander 60)

Alexander warns that in human beings, a prolonged sense of psychosocial dislocation has profound effects on the human psyche leading to “unbearable despair, shame, emotional anguish, boredom and bewilderment” (59). Under such circumstances, if we are cut off from the most basic need of connecting to others, some of us, an increasing number of us, will take something or search for something to do that will mitigate or ease the pain of dislocation. Historically speaking, as Alexander notes in a review of the evidence, alcohol did not reach epidemic levels among any given culture until a tidal wave of dislocation occurred with the rise of the industrial age and the birth of a free market economy. A large, unskilled labor force was needed to fill the factories that made mass production possible. The shift from rural to urban life brought with it a whole new set of problems. Entire families might be disconnected from one another by working long hours with little pay. Economic hardship created further psychosocial hardships. By 1800, Britain and other European nations were confronting an alcohol epidemic (Alexander 130).

But what of the individuals of the 21st century, the ones who have been described as having poverty of spirit? Alexander gives this group the title of “the tragically cool” (277). Theirs is a life living on the cutting edge of things, with everything that is new, in a non-stop sort of lifestyle: “They use email, cell phones, and Blackberries [addictively] to maintain their state of perpetual motion” (277). If there is a complex of addictions to point to, they would be comprised of the individual’s need to stay wired or plugged in, to be communicating 24/7. The tragically cool constantly indulge themselves in virtual lives, with virtual connections, either through gaming circles or through endless entanglements of friends on social media websites like Facebook. Alexander’s image of the tragically cool completes itself in a world of free market economies and endless consumption.

With so much to do and with so little free time in which to accomplish this total immersion in everything that is cutting edge, the tragically cool individuals don’t feel the emptiness, the hole in the soul—they are simply too busy buying and too fragmented psychologically to do otherwise. Alexander paraphrases another expert on the tragically cool, Dany-Robert Dufour, to provide a clearer sense of how the tragically cool operates:

[He or she] is a person who will connect with each new trend, who lacks strong roots, who is infinitely open to the flow of merchandise and communication technologies, and who always needs more consumer goods: in sum a precarious person, whose precarious identity is valuable in a market that can use it as a new opening to sell goods that can serve as identity kits or images with which people can identify because a free market economy depends on him or her to maintain itself. (Alexander 280)


Twenty-first century life is high-tech, deliriously fast-paced,  and stressful. The very things meant to make our lives easier, build better communications, keep us informed, and help us to stay in touch with others may be the sources of our addictions. But is the news all bad? It depends on whether we are feeling the emptiness or not, or maybe we are just too busy to think about it, to get in touch with the emptiness at the core that some psychologists and behaviorists are talking about. Alexander says that the first step in the process of recovery is to remove the blinders. If we are in denial about our own habits of mass consumption, we will never be able to see the source(s) of our spiritual dislocation. That’s the first step toward moderating our addictive habits. The next step writes Alexander is to rely less on material acquisitions and more on finding a “secure place in a real community” (340). When we connect more with family, friends, and the larger surrounding society, then we have a chance of breaking out of that condition called psychosocial dislocation.

Author Biography

Cynthia Andrzejczyk, Ph.D., is a graduate of the Claremont Graduate School. She has been a member of the English Department faculty at California State University, East Bay, since 1997. Professor Andrzejczyk teaches courses in composition, writing proficiency, and ethnic studies. She is the author ofThe Progressive Writing Text and co-author of The Writing Skills Test Booklet and Tutor Talk. Dr. Andrzejczyk is currently working on a text with co-author Eva Angvert Harren. The tentative title for this project is Come Alive: A Twelve Step Method to Body Wellness.

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