Success At Creating Modern Tech Tools May Be Leading To Failure Of Modern Thought

The news these days is full of stories about how social media and smart phones are changing the fabric of modern society.

While tech companies want us to think that they are bringing people closer together (and in some ways they are, albeit into one great big echo chamber), more evidence points toward the actual reality that social media is instead fracturing our society into competitive tribal groups. This splintering of American identity is at the root of the dissatisfaction and anger that has been spreading across the United States.

Thank goodness that has led to much analysis about how humans function and whether they are behaving more like animals—rats—due to today’s flood of social media and alleged help from smart devices.

If asked, few people would voluntarily liken themselves to rats.

But despite evolution’s gift of a human brain vastly greater in size and power than that of a rodent, technology and greed are combining in troubling ways that not only push us toward rat-like behavior, but undermine ideas of freedom and equality that have been central to the American experiment.

In 2013, The Atlantic published a piece by Bill Davidow that now seems prophetic. With the ungainly title “Skinner Marketing: We’re the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward,” Davidow introduced many laypeople to the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who developed the concept of “operant conditioning.” Building off the famous experiments of Ivan Pavlov, Skinner learned that he could modify the behavior of mice and rats by providing food as a reward for a particular action (pushing a button, in most cases). This might seem like old news for any of us who have ever tried to get our kids to go to bed or clean their rooms, but Skinner’s ultimate discovery was far more unsettling.

In 1957, Skinner and colleague C.B. Ferster designed an experiment in which they varied the schedule of reinforcement. Some rats received continuous reinforcement—every time they pushed a button, they were rewarded with food. Other rats received fixed-rate reinforcement—they were rewarded with food after a constant number of button-pushes. Some rats received rewards at random intervals—when a rat pushed a button, there was some random chance of it being rewarded with food.

What Skinner and Ferster discovered (and casino owners have known forever) was that variable rewards make rats (and people) far more likely to perform a desired behavior than constant or regular reinforcement. Variable reinforcement also makes a behavior much harder to extinguish.

App developers have taken Skinner’s discoveries to heart. Smartphones are more addicting than ever because you never know when you are about to get the next reward, whether that is something as simple as a retweet or a text from a friend. And smartphones are likely to get even more addicting as the corporations who control them harvest more data and come to understand our behavior far better than we ever could.

We like to think that smartphones and the internet give us ever-greater freedom. Cyberspace, however, is not designed to set us free, but to turn us into addicts.

Nowhere is that addiction more debilitating than in our use of smartphones as tools. When we want to drive somewhere, recall a fact, or do math we turn to our smartphones.

Of course, that has left too many of us unable to navigate, remember, or divide without a digital reference in our pocket or purse.

In theory, having the sum of human knowledge at your fingertips should be an equalizer that makes raw intelligence matter less. But research suggests that dependence on smartphones is robbing us of our ability to think well and solve problems creatively.

Imagine if your smartphone ran out of battery while you were driving in an unfamiliar place! How many of you could successfully navigate to your destination using the map in the glovebox (assuming there was one there)? Now imagine if your children or grandchildren found themselves in the same predicament.

That might be unlikely to happen, but the real world creates all sorts of situations that fail to completely align with the ideal world a smartphone imagines. Such situations require thinking in ways that pre-smartphone humans found second-nature. Thus the world, at least for now, begins to separate those who use a smartphone as a tool and those who use it as a crutch. In that way, smartphones might actually make the world less equal.

We are also—again, in theory—all born equal with the same potential. . Yet from our moment of birth we are being differentiated—for better or worse.

Wouldn’t it be wise to avoid the avoidable use of tools that are designed to foster addiction and overdependence? Shouldn’t we put greater focus on intellectual independence and creative thinking?

There is an effort underway for Facebook to admit it is enabling misuse of its platform to mislead a lot of Americans—in many ways—and to try to build into its system ways to lessen and avoid that misuse.

Perhaps the time has come for Apple, Samsung, etc. to work on their tools smartphone tools in the same way?

 

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