Are you and your computer more than just good friends?

June 2, 2006

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world.

For some, the internet is an addiction. Others feel their computer is out to get them. What drives an internet addict and what causes a person to consider computers the enemy will be among topics at this month's Internet and Society conference at the Wessex Institute of Technology.

But the reach of the conference, the second of its kind, will be much wider. It will cover identity, ownership and truth, and will explore how people from China to the Amazon have met internet challenges related to these themes - for instance, how to check if a piece of information on the internet is true or false.

Michael Spector, associate director of the Learning Systems Institute, University Center, Tallahassee, Florida, and one of the conference organisers, says the growth of internet-based technologies and mobile and wireless high-speed access since the first conference took place two years ago has altered the rules of the game. He says: "The constant availability of information and communication changes our views of ourselves and the social rules that govern our world. We no longer have clear demarcations of work and home or of school and recreation."

How this can be taken to extremes will be explored in a paper by Janet Morahan-Martin, professor of psychology at Bryant University in Rhode Island. She says that in the early 1990s, reports began to surface that some people's use of the internet was out of control. By the late 1990s, the online Internet Addiction Disorder Support Group was flourishing, even though its founder had set it up as a joke. Treatment centres that specialise in internet addiction have been developed all over the world.

The first officially licensed government clinic for internet addiction in China was opened in Beijing in 2004.

Morahan-Martin says there is some scepticism about the existence of "internet addiction" and argues that it is important to distinguish internet abuse from other problem behaviour exercised through the internet, such as pathological gambling or net sex. On the other hand, she says that internet addicts are more likely than others to engage in these activities.

Research has also shown that there are certain personality factors associated with internet abuse, including loneliness, shyness and social anxiety. And she says people with internet addiction are particularly prone to using the internet as a social tool, preferring it to face-to-face interaction. They are more likely than other internet users to use it to meet new people, find emotional support and talk to others with the same interests. For them, "the internet can be socially liberating, the Prozac of social communication".

Meanwhile, what interests John Charlton, a research fellow in psychology at Bolton University, is our tendency to have relationships with our computers, rather than to use them to form relationships with other human beings. He has devised a questionnaire measuring how people think about their computers.

"The idea is that computers can trigger scripts in us that are usually triggered in interactions with other people, so we start to treat the computer as if it were a person," he says. "We expect it to do certain things and when it doesn't, we start shouting at it."

His preliminary work has found that people's tendency to attribute human characteristics to computers decreases as their computing experience increases. But he suggests that while those people who think of their computers in human terms may become more angry with them if something goes wrong, they may also be the least likely to shout at them because they moderate their behaviour, just as they would if angry with a person.

The meeting, which also covers e-commerce, e-government, privacy, gender, multicultural considerations and innovative ways of using the internet in learning, will be small and informal, with about 50 delegates.

Those presenting papers come from as far afield as New Zealand, Iran and Eritrea. One submission will discuss students' use of IP telephony (a means of transmitting voices as digital data via the internet) within the walls of the Forbidden City in China; another looks at how IT is empowering female street vendors in India.

The small size and wide reach of the conference should allow particularly close networking between people with very different experiences, says Konrad Morgan, professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Bergen, Norway, and another organiser. He says: "It will be possible to talk to every delegate and learn something unique from their work in a specific region that you might otherwise never hear about."

The Internet and Society 2006, Second International Conference on Advances in Education, Commerce and Governance: Technology's Impact on Individuals, Culture and Society, takes place at Wessex Institute of Technology, Southampton, June 12-14.

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