The Executive Computer

When Machines Spawn Obsession

By Peter H. Lewis
The New York Times

November 13, 1988

THE phenomenon is familiar in the world of ''hackers'': a young man of exceptional intelligence, feeling that he is alienated from the system and threatened by the real world, finds safety in the computer lab and develops an obsession for the technology. Shunning sleep, and limiting social relationships to the sphere of hackers with whom he shares his obsession, he pushes himself to his physical and mental limits in the quest for the ultimate hack, the fusion of elegant thought and computer code.

Such might be the profile of the person responsible for the recent successful computer virus attack on a national military network. But some psychologists say that a variation on the phenomenon is also emerging in corporate culture. A crippling obsession with computer technology is affecting business executives as well as hackers.

Male executives and managers - the victims are almost always men, for reasons that are not fully understood - are often found working late into the night at the office or at home, silhouetted in their solitude by the eerie green light of the computer screen. The effects of this obsession can be found in a person's personal as well as professional life.

For companies, this could be a problem in the making, even though few managers object to employees who work overtime on productive tasks. In fact, these obsessed computer workers can be some of the most valuable employees at a company.

And these workers differ from ''hackers'' in their productivity: Unlike hackers, who use computers for thrills and personal satisfaction, the obsessed workers use their machines as tools to perform a task or in some other goal-oriented way. Indeed, companies -both big and small - often benefit from a worker's obsession with the computer, even if it is at the expense of the individual's personal life.

But in the long run the obsession can detract from an employee's effectiveness on the job. The worker may ''burn out'' as a result of endless hours at the computer. Stress, muscular and skeletal problems, fatigue and eyestrain, among other health problems, have been associated with extended computer use.

Business and personal relationships suffer because the man cannot pull himself away from the keyboard. The rationale is often ''just one more'' - one more printout, one more recalculation, one more revision. One task leads to the next and the perception of time becomes distorted, particularly as the user becomes oblivious to the passage of time. When the user finally breaks away, his thoughts are preoccupied with the next session at the keyboard.

Is this computer addiction? Can computers become as destructively addictive to susceptible executives as alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sex or work itself?

''I have no doubt at all that it occurs,'' said Jack Dunham, a professor who specializes in psychology and microtechnology at the University of Texas, who has been an observer of computer culture since 1960. ''Just look around.''

Michael Dertouzos, director of the laboratory of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that while there is definitely a phenomenon of computer addiction - ''I have observed it in myself and in thousands of my students over the past 25 years,'' he said - whether it is harmful or not is open to debate.

''I am a hacker,'' he said. ''I have a Mac II. I helped design the thing, and I'm at it constantly. My family complains, but they get used to it. And it's a lot of fun. Some men golf, some play baseball.''

Marvin Minsky, an artificial intelligence researcher at M.I.T., has long defended the hacker as no different from others who are seriously devoted to their work.

BUT other - more personal - issues surface in discussions of men who are obsessed with their computers. Power and control are words that inevitably turn up, and the ramifications of their link with computer use can be seen at home and on the job.

''The tendency to sit in front of the machine forever was incredible,'' said Dr. Dertouzos. ''It's a power trip, a sense of tremendous control over a machine that does not behave as unpredictably as some of our friends.'' He added: ''The very things that men seem to treasure - power and control - are there.''

Perhaps, Dr. Dunham suggested, there is such a person as a ''puterfiliac,'' who feels that he lacks control in the corporate culture and finds control, power and a higher sense of self-esteem in working on a computer that does his bidding, loyally, patiently and predictably.

Dr. Dunham surmised that computer addiction, like other forms of addiction, is based on psychological denial, ''a substitute or escape mechanism from some reality that they don't want to face.''

''It's a safe place for someone to get away,'' he said. ''It's demanding enough that it gets you into it. And yet it's easy to rationalize because hey, it's my job, I have to do it.''

A societal element is there, too, he said. ''It's also socially acceptable, just like smoking, gambling or alcohol used to be acceptable addictions.''

IN discussing computer addiction, the experts consider it almost exclusively a male problem. Why are men, more so than women, so prone to it?

David Zubrow, a planning research analyst at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who is studying the issue of gender and technology, said studies have confirmed what has been obvious for years. ''Males compute more than women,'' he said. ''A higher proportion of males get involved in computing. Males like computers more than women do.''

But, he asked, ''is sex an explanation?'' The answer is unclear. Mr. Zubrow said he was looking for other explanations. But so far they, too, are not illuminating. ''What processes produce what we observe as gender differences?'' he asked. ''They may have little to do with computing.''


Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company