“We’re living in a moment when even institutions that used to be in the business of promoting reflection and deep thinking are busy tearing up the foundations that made these things possible, in favor of getting more traffic,” said Pang, whose book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, is to be published in August.
“Even universities and churches end up doing this when they go online, never mind newspapers and magazines,” he said.
The compulsiveness is given extra force, in social media, by the fear of missing out. What Stone calls “continuous partial attention” is not motivated by the desire to get more done, which is what underlies old-fashioned multitasking, but rather by “a desire not to miss anything” and “to be a live node on the network.”
To explain what makes the Web so compelling — so “addictive” in the colloquial sense, at least — the advocates of conscious computing usually end up returning to the psychologist B.F. Skinner, who conducted famous experiments on pigeons and rats at Harvard University in the 1930s.
Trapped inside “Skinner boxes,” equipped with a lever and a tray, the animals soon learned that pushing or pecking at the lever caused a pellet of food to appear on the tray; after that, they would start compulsively pecking or pushing for more. However, Skinner discovered that the most powerful way to reinforce the push-or-peck habit was to use “variable schedules of reward”: to deliver a pellet not every time the lever was pushed, but only sometimes, and unpredictably.
There is a slightly depressing view of the Web according to which we are essentially just Skinner pigeons, compulsively clicking in hopes of a squirt of dopamine, the so-called “feel good” hormone in the brain. Once you have learned about Skinner, it is impossible not to see variable schedules of reward everywhere you look online. When you click refresh on your e-mail, or when you check your phone, you are not guaranteed a new message; when you visit Facebook or open Twitter, you might or might not find an update of the sort you had been hoping for.
This might even help explain the appalling quality of so much online content. Nine times out of 10, when you click on a Huffington Post link — “PICTURE: Kate and Wills as OAPs [old age pensioners],” “Simon Cowell Just Got Weirder” — it is a tedious disappointment. However, if it predictably lived up to expectations every time, you might actually feel less compelled to click. (There is an evolutionary argument to be made, too, about the restless compulsiveness of Web use. There is little survival advantage to feeling contented, and a big one to feeling constantly slightly dissatisfied with what you have got.)
By far the funniest, or maybe the most horrifying, illustration of this situation is Cow Clicker, a Facebook game created in 2011 by the game designer Ian Bogost as a satire of undemanding “social games” such as FarmVille — in which, as Bogost put it, “you click on a cow, and that’s it.”
In Cow Clicker, you clicked on your cow and it mooed, and that was it. You then had to wait another six hours to click again, unless you were willing to part with real money (or virtual money, accumulated through clicking) for the right to click again immediately. Bogost’s joke became a surprise hit: At its height, Cow Clicker had more than 50,000 users, some paying US$20 or more for pointless “improvements” to their cow, such as making it face the opposite direction.