Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

quote of the day

“The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction.” — Sam Anderson

Anderson continues:

As B. F. Skinner’s army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly but something called “variable ratio schedule,” in which the rewards arrive at random. And that randomness is practically the Internet’s defining feature: It dispenses its never-ending little shots of positivity—a life-changing e-mail here, a funny YouTube video there—in gloriously unpredictable cycles. It seems unrealistic to expect people to spend all day clicking reward bars—searching the web, scanning the relevant blogs, checking e-mail to see if a co-worker has updated a project—and then just leave those distractions behind, as soon as they’re not strictly required, to engage in “healthy” things like books and ab crunches and undistracted deep conversations with neighbors. It would be like requiring employees to take a few hits of opium throughout the day, then being surprised when it becomes a problem. Last year, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry raised the prospect of adding “Internet addiction” to the DSM, which would make it a disorder to be taken as seriously as schizophrenia.

Don't be ridiculous. I’m not an addict — I can quit any time I want.

Near the end of his essay, Anderson makes the argument that “Focus is a paradox — it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; they’re the systole and diastole of consciousness. . . . The truly wise mind will harness, rather than abandon, the power of distraction. Unwavering focus — the inability to be distracted — can actually be just as problematic as ADHD.” He is apparently unaware how much this sounds like pure wishful thinking. (Maybe he was too distracted as he wrote it.) But there’s something to the argument all the same; I hope to be able to say more about that later.

3 comments:

  • Matt Frost said...

    I've always resented the (fairly small) share of my own attention that I've squandered on Merlin Mann, but part of the reason I read his stuff was that I suspected he was a cultural avatar-in-waiting. Sure enough, he is on track to becoming the internet era's perfect huckster. Simultaneously self-effacing and messianic, proclaiming the uselessness of gurus and productivity tips, while getting paid to be... a productivity guru.

    The article drops: "Mann himself started getting treated for ADD a year ago; he says it’s helped his focus quite a lot." Of course, of course. Because who can authentically embody our era without an authentic diagnosis?

  • Richard Starr said...

    Interesting item--I'll be checking back frequently to see what more you have to say later.

  • Tony Comstock said...

    "The truly wise mind will harness, rather than abandon, the power of distraction. "

    This distracted state of mind that the internet seems to promote can be harnessed to good effect for stabby sorts of activities: marketing, promotion, sales calls, correspondence with colleagues. It's utterly poisonous to the sort of concentration and reflection needed for editing.

    In either case, a healthy sense of self worth and purpose seems to be the key ingredient, or at least for me it is. When I'm feeling low, the distracted buzz becomes too scattered, and the quiet of the editing bay becomes deadly isolation.

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