Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Internet As The Hotel California

Fr. Dale Matson

“Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
'Relax' said the night man,
'We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!” 
(From the Eagles song “Hotel California”)

As a psychologist, I was trained in what was then called “Behavior Modification”. It is now more euphemistically referred to as “Behavior Therapy”. It was based on training principles primarily promoted by B.F. Skinner. He trained pigeons to peck at levers that would deliver food. The concept of positive reinforcement was intended to initiate and eventually make a particular behavioral response permanent. The contiguity of the stimulus response is important. Psychologists like to emphasize positive reinforcement over other methods for shaping behavioral responses. In other words they consider it the best way (most ethical) to establish and maintain a behavioral response. The reinforcement schedule is also important with intermittent positive reinforcement being the most powerful method. If you are an avid fisherman or an addicted gambler, you are living proof of how potent intermittent positive reinforcement can be.
We all have a basic need for attention. Infants, who are not handled and attended to, will die from what is called failure to thrive. Sometimes children act out to receive negative attention rather suffer the isolation of being ignored. Maslow put physical needs ahead of psychological needs but as basically social creatures I believe psychological needs sometimes are preeminent.
Internet marketers are familiar with these basic human needs and use them to shape our lives through social media and to some extent reduce our freedom.  For example, the Facebook Logo incorporates a “thumbs up” symbol. This is positive reinforcement and the more we get, the more of our time and attention are directed to that venue. Claude Steiner coined the term “Warm fuzzies”. People enjoy giving and receiving them and that is what the upvotes are for on social media. Emoticon faces on social media are also intended to mold behavior. Should we avoid a comment that will evoke a frown, so much for freedom of expression?
Meanwhile your travel and activity on the Internet is tracked and analyzed by those who are competing for your attention and those who want to market products. As you travel, “cookies” allow marketers access to your attention. If you look for a product on the Internet, those pop up ads that appear for days afterward are not accidental. If you use Google Chrome as your Internet browser, you can clear your browsing activity but this disclaimer will also appear: “This clears synced data from all devices. Some settings that may reflect browsing habits will not be cleared.”
“There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”  (Justin Rosenstein)
            As a priest, I am most concerned with how much time is spent on the Internet. It is time taken away from the real world of full human experience to a virtual world where many folks depersonalize themselves with Internet usernames. This allows them to say things that are unkind to others and remain anonymous. It brings out the worst in many.  I’m sure some are addicted to the Internet in general and some Internet sites in particular.
But there is the compulsive nature even more than the potential for addiction. The cited article notes research that people touch, swipe or tap their phones on average 2,617 times a day.
            I think it rather ironic that the behaviorist B.F. Skinner trained pigeons (definition: 1. a stout seed- or fruit-eating bird with a small head, short legs, and a cooing voice, typically having gray and white plumage.) Today’s B.F. Skinners are Mark Zukerberg, Sundar Pichai and people like them. If we are addicted to the Internet, then we have become their pigeons (definition: 2. a gullible person, especially someone swindled in gambling or the victim of a confidence trick.)
            Scripture tells us, “You shall not have any other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) Scripture also tells us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. (Matthew 6:21). From a basic behavioral perspective, if we are spending too much time involved in social media on the Internet, we are not spending enouth time somewhere else. I have often seen a group of people sitting together at a restaurant, all looking at their smart phones. When I am with young folks, it is like I am dealing with someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. Did you refer to your phone as you were reading this?
            “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device” (“Hotel California”)

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