Addictive power of CrackBerry lies in the click
Twenty years ago B.F. Skinner died, but if he were alive today he would be the most annoyingly self-satisfied psychologist in the world. Any place he looked -- homes, offices, cars, sidewalks, buses, beaches, beds -- he'd see people hovering over their iPhones. He could point to them and say, "See. I told you so."
Skinner, along with earlier figures like Ivan Pavlov, explored the way animals can be conditioned to perform certain tasks. Skinner himself was famous for the way he taught pigeons locked in one of his boxes to peck at certain buttons in a certain order in return for food.
It led to the view that animals, including, ultimately, people, could be conditioned relatively easily to perform a task over and over. All that was needed was a strong enough reward. The brain, it turns out, is a warehouse of rewards in the form of neurotransmitters, some of which are as potent as the most powerful street drugs.
Irving Biederman, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, discovered that when research subjects were shown pictures of ambiguous situations that required some interpretation (Are those two people angry at each other?), they appeared to produce more pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters than when shown static and uninteresting pictures. The brain seems to thrive on being exposed to information that needs to be interpreted and rewards us mightily with natural opiates.
Computers, of course, are experts at new information, or at least new data, and can produce it in essentially endless quantities for virtually no cost. It thus should have been no surprise that almost overnight the CrackBerry became the constant companion of millions of high-functioning members of professional classes who had not previously considered themselves predisposed to addictive behavior.
What exactly were they addicted to? Their spouses would say it was to checking e-mail. I think it was something more basic, some extraordinarily potent but poorly understood biological feedback loop that's triggered by holding a device and then pressing a button that then changes the information on a display screen. What with videogames, TV remote controls, cellphones and now iPads, we are doing a lot of that in modern life. Put your hands on a mobile phone, or even a computer mouse, and what's the first thing you want to do? Click on something.
This is why attention spans on the Internet are so short, and why for all the words on the Web, reading is in a state of decline. Why? Because after not very much time you're pining for another hit of whatever sweet neural moonshine you get from pressing a button. No wonder kids prefer videogames to books or even movies. For gamers, neurotransmitters gush out of synapses the way Mentos-spiked Diet Coke spurts out of bottles in those YouTube videos.
Paging Dr. Skinner: What exactly is going on here? This neurotransmitter-addiction theory helps explain a lot of mobile phone behavior, including the universal tendency for people getting into elevators to check their e-mail, despite having just checked it, oh, 45 seconds before.
It also helps explain some quite popular mobile phone applications. Foursquare, for instance, takes advantage of the ability of smartphones to know their location, using that information to create all manner of tasks for its users. Many of them resemble the busywork projects you give to kids to keep them out of your hair; in Foursquare you can collect a "badge" by, say, visiting every Starbucks in a certain zip code. It's a popular feature, one that is helping give Foursquare a company-of-the-moment status in tech circles.
Maybe people like collecting Foursquare badges simply because they like simple challenges or sharing information with friends or being momentarily diverted from the stresses of the real world with some innocent pastimes.
But maybe, just as cigarettes came to be viewed as nicotine delivery systems, we should start thinking about computers, especially mobile ones, as neurotransmitter delivery devices whose powerful hold on us we don't fully understand.
Don't believe me? Try holding a mobile phone in your hand without clicking or pressing something. After a while your fingers will twitch, your brow will grow sweaty, you'll start to shift in your seat and get nervous. It's called withdrawal.
Now press something. All better, right?