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Technology: A Boston medical writer sounds the alarm about the psychological cost of high-tech living. A first-aid kit for the future is a must, he says.

May 11, 1990|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The symptoms include tension, paranoia, overstimulation, anticipatory disaffiliation, psychosomatic headaches, fatigue, sagging libido, psychic numbing, low self-esteem and high anxiety.

What is the ailment?

"Technostress," says Philip T. Nicholson, a Boston medical writer and seasoned watcher of Life in the Information Cyclone. He defines technostress as a contemporary disease caused by the pressures of living in a high-tech world.

"This can lead to panic, alienation and a sense of hopelessness," says Nicholson, who is organizing a Technostress Information Network to coordinate research on the subject.

As our lives at home and at work become relentlessly computerized (President Bush's recent quip about a nation where every citizen would be able to set the clock on his VCR indicates that technostress has struck the White House), and as we flounder in tides of information and electronic images and call-waiting buttons and laser printers and fax machines, we may experience not only headaches and back pains, but a range of contradictory psychological changes, such as sharp impatience with any process that takes more than a few seconds, or the inability to make decisions.

Considering that rapid technological change is expected to whiz us right into the 21st Century, Nicholson is convinced that studying the prospects for humankind in a nanosecond-paced world is a necessity.

"What I'm doing is looking at the eroding aspects of the communications revolution," he says. "Somebody needs to be designing a technostress first-aid kit for the future--thinking about the glue that will hold people together."

Nicholson sees his role as sounding the alarm, but he is not alone. Although technostress has not been officially recognized in the medical Establishment (a spokesman for the American Psychiatric Assn. did acknowledge a concern over growing symptoms of mechanization and dehumanization), it is attracting researchers from all disciplines. Studies on the effects of computerization on humans can be weighed by the ton.

Craig Brod, a Silicon Valley psychotherapist who coined the phrase in his 1984 book "Technostress," agrees with Nicholson that we are producing a technological society that is leaving us tuned into machines but starved for personal contact.

In clinical interviews, Brod noticed similar patterns in patients who worked with high technology, whether they were data processors or CEOs. Not only were they suffering such stress symptoms as headaches, but they also were internalizing the computer process itself, developing such behavioral symptoms as a sense of accelerated time, a desire for perfection, and difficulty in relating lovingly to others.

"With a typewriter there were time and motion interruptions when you tore up a piece of paper or hit the carriage return--there were all kinds of separations between you and the machine," says Brod. "Then comes this wonderful technology that alters time. You can work for hours being almost motionless, and basically you are hooked into this machine."

The key, he thinks, is that high-tech environments create their own kind of stress--the stress for perfection--and when life falls short of that, technostress victims react with "a lot of anger and hostility."

What alarms Brod is the disappearance of a "human sense of time" on a widespread public scale as society becomes increasingly computerized. He sees symptoms everywhere. For example:

* We used to get money by standing in line at the bank and exchanging greetings with the teller. Now we withdraw money from a self-service automated teller, and if it takes more than 60 seconds we get impatient.

* At the market, we shuffle past a checkout clerk who is frantically running groceries over a computer scanner. Clerks now handle two and three times as many people in their lines as they used to, so they can't afford to stop and say "hello."

* On the telephone we used to give the number to an operator, and sometimes ask for help finding a number. Now the telephone is so automated that machines answer when the phones ring.

* Many offices are so computerized that even people sitting next to each other converse by electronic messages. The office water cooler conversation is history.

In every direction, "we are producing this automated society not meeting our needs for personal contact, for a human sense of time," says Brod. "I even have patients who ask me how much time they should spend with their children."

Brod foresees an eventual revolt if technostress is not addressed because "we are automating the human element out of our lives."

Other experts see the technostress problem through a different lens.

At USC, Ann Majchrzak, an organizational psychologist, says workplace stress isn't caused by technology itself but by the way management handles it.

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