For learners, addiction or desire for mastery?

In 1979, Kenneth Peter went cold turkey. He kicked the computer habit. It wasn't easy. The Stanford political science major had been among the LOTS (Low Overhead Time-Saving System) top 10 in computer hours logged.

Logging back on it, Peter says he actually experienced "withdrawal symptoms." For three months, it was a struggle to stay out of the LOTS building.

"Every time I walked by, I had a strong urge to go in and log into the system ," he says. "It was very difficult not to do so."

You won't find "computer addiction" in any psychiatric encyclopedia, and you never will. It's an erroneous term, but commonly applied to a real phenomenon. Kenneth Peter recalls contemporaries at LOTS who "literally became malnourished because they didn't take time to go eat." some, he says, went so far as to sleep on the floor or on couches to avoid coming back to their dorm rooms.

virtually every university or engineering school with a major computer center is concerned about what Joseph Weizenbaum, an MIT professor, has dubbed the "compulsive programmer." Students obsessed by computing tend to do poorly in other courses and some flunk out. Moreover, their isolation in the computer subculture deprives them of the broadening experience that a college education is meant to be.

Beyond that, "compulsive programmers" can be plain nuisances, tying up valuable computer time with games like "Star Trek" and "Adventure" while students with assignments must wait for terminals.

Charles Rose, chairman of the department of computer engineering and science at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, has encountered more than a dozen students he thinks merit the label "addict," however imprecise the term.

Like most technically oriented people, Dr. Rose says, these students are fascinated by problem-solving and they love puzzles and electronic games. Moreover, they approach life much more analytically then emotionally. Most are devoted readers of science fiction and many have an interest in music.

The last, Rose thinks, is what keeps some of his computer-driven students from "going off the deep end." The student spends time with his music and "has some sense of existence and beauty outside of himself."

Rose spotted one additional similarity: Several of those most obsessed with the computer had poor relations with their families.

How do these pieces fit? Rose speculates:

"Children and adolescents need to have some sense of order in their lives. If they're in an environment where they have no controls or they cant't figure out where their boundaries are, they're likely to become antisocial or asocial. An alternative to becoming a juvenile delinquent is to get into something in an obsessive way, something that can order and structure one's life without turning around and saying, 'I reject you' or 'I don't love you.'

"I think a computer provides that for someone with a particular mind-set and a particular set of talents."

Nancy Brodhead, senior user services specialist at Dartmouth's Kiewit Computer Center, agrees. There's one type of "addict," she says, who "simply wants to learn all he or she can about computers." There's another type, though, who is distinctly less mature. "They learn a lot, but it's peripheral. Working with the computer compensates them for feelings about their relations with other people."

MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle doesn't like the addiction metaphor, which implies a void in the user that only the computer can fill. Instead, she prefers to focus on the computer's "holding power" for children at various stages of the development cycle.

For instance, between the ages of 4 and 7, she says, children in the first (or "Piagetian") stage are in the business of "sorting out how the world works and what is alive and what's not alive. Computers -- because of their reactivity -- provide objects for these children to think through these issues."

"Children at the next stage -- between 8 and 10 -- are concerned with competency, competition, making things happen. Children become engaged with the computer as a way to achieve effects. They're involved with making the computer do things."

"With adolescence," says Turkle, "the child turns to questions of identity. The holding power at this stage is great, because it provides a language for thinking about many things, including the self."

Under scrutiny, the "compulsive programmer" has much in common with the familiar teen-age male who endlessly fine-tunes and polishes his car. The difference is that the computer interacts with the user, and that makes for a "more powerful contact," as one professor put it.

Powerful indeed. Ask a sample of computer users to describe the nature of that contact, and you get a variety of answers:

* "It's almost like you're playing God," says Stanford's Kenneth Peter." You have total control over another intelligence. You can make it respond to your every whim."

* "It's like learning an instrument," says Michael Wozny, director of the interactive Computer Graphics Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "The pieces start falling into place, and it all snowballs. Students see what's involved, and they know they can master it. The feeling of accomplishment is there."

* "It's like eating junk food," says Harry Mergler, professor of engineering at Case Western Reserve. "It's one type of hardware students can get instant gratification from."

Like the teen-ager who lives only for his car, the "compulsive programmer" usually grows out of his so-called "addiction." But not all do. Those who don't , said a Mid- western faculty member, tend to go into industry and become the "quintessential systems programmer who works weird hours at night and who communicates only with other people who speak his language. They're very productive; on the other hand, I wouldn't want my son to grow up like that."

Whether there are more "compulsive programmers" populating the campuses is an open question. Charles Rose at Case Western Reserve thinks the number has declined in recent years. The reason, he thinks, is that more students are being exposed to the computer in high school and at home. By the time they reach college, the computer has lost its "gee whiz" quality and the student is ready to settle down to do serious work with it.

At the same time, other technologies may be diverting students from the university's several computer centers. Some of the game-playing that used to take place on the university's mainframe, for instance, may now be going on in dorm rooms on the new crop of sophisticated video games.

In addition, Rose says, more kids are bringing their computers to campus. "They have their own Apples, and Lord only knows what they do with them."

Beyond sitting down and talking with students who seem to carry computer interest to excess, there's not much that faculty or administrators can do to temper their charges' zeal. Counseling centers can increase awareness of the problem, but they can help individuals only when asked -- and few compulsive programmers feel they have a problem. On the contrary, says James Jackson, director of the computer center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, "they seem really content. They want to go work for Digital."

Looking back on his own experience, Mr. Peter thinks much of his own stress might have been avoided had he been able to acclimate slowly. He had never before used a computer, but he plunged as a freshman into the superwired environment of Stanford. The transition was disorienting. "You have to be established in your own living habits, and your own group of friends, before you start going to a computer center. It takes a great deal of maturity to be able to control your own mind when you are exposed to a very appealing and very different subculture."

David Ragone, president of Case Western Reserve, may have found as good a solution to the problem as any. He bought his 16-year-old son a personal computer. The youth became totally consumed by it, neglected his homework, and spent all of his time at the keyboard.

One day, Dr. Ragone noticed that his son was not at the computer. "Is there any more equipment I can get you?" he offered.

"Please, Dad," his son protested, "no more. My grades can't take it."

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