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