Posts Tagged ‘B.F. Skinner’

New York Mag May 25, 2009Back in 1971, when the web was still twenty years off and the smallest computers were the size of delivery vans, before the founders of Google had even managed to get themselves born, the polymath economist Herbert A. Simon wrote maybe the most concise possible description of our modern struggle: What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. As beneficiaries of the greatest information boom in the history of the world, we are suffering, by Simon’s logic, a correspondingly serious poverty of attention.”  “In Defense of Distraction,” By Sam Anderson (New York magazine, May 25, 2009)

Okay, so I’m a little behind in my reading. But that is exactly what Mr. Anderson’s article is all about.  Distraction.  Throw bipolar disorder and ADD into the mix and you have a mind that can’t stop gorging itself on available information.

That’s also the reason I post less frequently than I would like.  Too much.  Of everything.  The e-mails, the RSS feeds, the Facebook notifications, the Tweets…all keep begging for my attention.

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

Mr. Anderson’s likening the Internet to a Skinner box was very enlightening.  Part of how we change behavior is by knowing why we engage in that behavior to begin with.  After spending the morning wandering through a couple of bookstores, it occurred to me that I was merely wasting time, not, as I had been deluding myself, doing research.  I am always waiting for that next piece of brilliant, entertaining, thought-provoking information that will lead to an insight, that will lead to a post, that will lead to…what?  Being cured?  Happy?  Successful?  Rich?  Adored?

Is anything every really enough?  I doubt it.  We (most of us) are hardwired to want more.  Sure, there are some people who can happily check-out, spend their “golden years” playing golf in Boca Raton.  But that seems to be less and less the case these days as the world gets smaller and as we discover ideas that twenty years ago would never have made it past the front door of our suburban home.  With more exposure often comes more desire.  If you didn’t know there was such a thing as an iPhone, you wouldn’t want one.  Trouble is, now you not only know about it, you have one, only you’re not satisfied with it because you’ve just found out that the newer version comes with video.

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


I don’t have a problem with being unhappy, dissatisfied.  It’s depression, a totally different animal, that I find unbearable.  I have always thought that wanting more is a good thing, you know, like sharks: if you don’t keep moving forward you die.  And by more, I don’t mean “more,” or bigger, or better, or faster.  I mean like learning to speak French fluently, or being able to play the piano, or hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, or win the Pulitzer, an Oscar, or a Tony.  Not having a Pulitzer doesn’t make me unhappy. It’s not like I need one.  But I can’t exactly be completely happy either if I really want one (am striving for one) but don’t have one yet.

I think the best we should strive for as humans is to be content.  Anything more is foolhardy, anything less a waste of what we do have.

But I did finally drag myself away from the bookstore and into the library where I am now writing this.  Okay, true confession; I didn’t start writing this until after I had perused the new books section for some possible unforeseen gems.  I mean, I did have to pass it on the way to the writing desks.  Hey, change is hard.

As Mr. Anderson’s wife reminds him, “You have all the information you need to do something right now.”

And so do I.

Thanks for allowing me to be one of your distractions.

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