Thursday, March 15, 2007

Confronting Addiction

HBO's Addiction Project, produced in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), goes on the air tonight. Having demonstrated their ability to deliver compelling social messages through both dramatic series (The Wire still being the best of the lot) and documentaries that demonstrate what you can do when you replace the financial table scraps of Public Television with a real budget (When the Levees Broke and, more recently, Bastards of the Party), HBO has now mounted a major project around a ninety-minute documentary supplemented by thirteen shorts. That's a lot of material, and HBO is engaging many of their resources to manage it. This includes four of the cable channels they now manage and their On Demand service. (I also thought I saw something about streaming video, but the only video I have found on their Web site thus far has been preview material.) Finally, the DVD (a four-disc set) goes on sale on March 20.

Entertainers love to recycle the motto that timing is everything. Since much of my own writing has tried to address the "addictive stance" we seem to be taking towards our abundance of technology toys, my own opinion is that the timing of this project could not have been better. However, while HBO describes this as a project targeted at Americans, I can only hope that at least some of the material they have produced can contribute to a global conversation on this problem. Today's SPIEGEL ONLINE ran a story about binge drinking in Europe that throws a new light on how we should be thinking about the social consequences of the European Union. Furthermore, while Germany may be taking innovative approaches to dealing with the elderly, the survey reported in SPIEGEL ONLINE indicates that this approach to alcohol is an addiction of the young:

Europeans from Cyprus to Ireland indulge in a rather intoxicating continental pastime: drinking. The champions of excessive or binge drinking are the Irish, Brits, Finns and Danes, according to a European Union survey on alcohol consumption released on Wednesday.

The study -- which polled 28,584 people between last October and November -- found that for young people in particular, the odd drink is not enough to satisfy their thirst: almost one in five between the ages of 15 and 24 consumes five or more beverages in one session, defined as the benchmark for binge drinking.

Binge champions are the Irish with 34 percent, followed by the Finnish, British and Danish with 27, 24 and 23 percent respectively. Italians and Greeks, on the other hand, tend to stay relatively sober: only 2 percent of those asked reported excessive alcohol consumption.

Since Germany is at neither the top nor the bottom of the list, SPIEGEL included one paragraph specific to Germany in their report:

Germany is currently discussing the dangers of binge drinking and ways to prevent out-of-control alcohol consumption following the much-publicized case of a 16-year-old student in Berlin who drank himself into coma by consuming 52 shots of tequila in one sitting.

I do not know if I, personally, have been too reductive in trying to gather these stories, and any others concerned with addiction, under my reality-is-too-much-with-us motto. I shall certainly be watching the HBO material with that project in mind, not so much to continue on my rants about our proclivities to deny reality as to try to throw more light on what it now means to "be in the world," a world that has now been made by our barreling ahead with major technological advances, most of them grounded in information technology and many of them based on the affordances of the Internet. My first blog tried to approach this as a problem of an educational system that attached more value to short-term training in the latest technologies and short-changed the longer-term perspective of the liberal arts. However, in taking that strategy, I may have been too focused on a symptom of a more general disease that is still very poorly understood; so I want to see if HBO will end up helping me with my understanding.

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