Thursday, July 3, 2014

Smart Phones and Skinner Boxes

The smart phone is the ultimate Skinner box.

B.F. Skinner experimented with rats in boxes and discovered some interesting things about behavior.   In his experiments, a rat or mouse would be given a reward for pressing a response lever.  Funny thing was, the less often the reward was given, the more likely the rat was to press the lever.   One would think that if you got a reward when you pressed the lever, you'd press it a lot, and if rewards were given rarely by the lever, you'd give up on it.   But the opposite is true.   Skinner's rats would be jerking that lever like maniacs, trying to get that elusive reward.

And if you've ever been to a Casino and seen the ladies in their housecoats jerking the levers on the slot machines (today they push buttons, less effort) you'll see the same effect.   The rewards are few and far between, but they jerk that lever all day long.

Some friends of mine got smart phones recently, and their behavior would make B.F. Skinner proud.   The main use, apparently, for a smart phone, is to locate other people to have sex with.   There are "apps" galore that allow you to hook up with people of the opposite or same sex.   You can even track people in your vicinity, who are interested in sex.   It is an electronic version of the singles bar, and it is quite frightening.

What is interesting is that the rewards are few and far between.   Most people contacted this way, they tell me, spend endless amounts of time sending and receiving texts and making appointments that never amount to anything.  There is a lot of noise and very little signal.   So they spend even more time online trying to find sex, and finding it very rarely.   But occasionally lightning does strike.

And since the reward is there, but very infrequent, they keep texting and scanning and whatever, on their phones, almost 24 hours a day, convinced that if they don't monitor these things 100% of the time, the good ones will get away and all that effort would be wasted, doing dumb things like hanging out with friends or, well, work.

Even for those who are not sex addicts, the smart phone acts as a Skinner box.   I see people obsessively checking their phones all the time.   Someone might be texting them, and if they don't respond right away, the other person will get mad at them!   The person sitting in the room in front of them apparently doesn't matter.   That's just some asshole who doesn't have a smart phone - not even worth talking to, if you can't text them.

And I am serious about this latter point.   If you want to communicate with someone who is smart phone addicted, even if you are in the same room, the best way to go about doing it is to text them.   Otherwise they will just pretend to pay attention, while furtively glancing at their electronic bar of soap.

It is sad, and it is scary, that our entire society is going OCD all at once and not only is no one noticing, everyone thinks it is a fine and wonderful thing.

But perhaps this is just part of a trendline that started years ago.   With mass media, people started listening to records and radio, and by the 1950's radios were in every car, and usually on all the time.  By the late 50's television invaded the home, and watching every night, with a TV-dinner served on your TV-snak-tray, was a new norm.   By the 1960's we had color television to watch, and the family sat around the "tube" every night and watched the same fare as millions of other Americans.

By the 1970's and 80's, we had cable and lots of channels to chose from.   And since every member of the household had their own television, everyone could crawl off to their own cubby and snuggle up with their own shows.   Average tube watching time skyrocketed - with most Americans watching about 4-5 hours a day or more.   That's basically every waking, non-working, non-driving hour.

But apparently that wasn't enough.   The Internet promised to liberate us from the tyranny of television.   But for most folks, the most interesting thing they could think of to do with the largest database in the history of mankind, was to post pictures of their cats on Facebook.

And with the smart phone, the television level of banality can be carried on your hips at all times.   Televisions in public spaces now compete with smart phones for the hearts and minds and eyeballs of America.

And in 10 years, a television in a bar, airport, or restaurant, will seem as quaint and antiquated as a public payphone - and perhaps broken like one, as well.   Because everyone will have their own television, right in their hands - and most do, already.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders are detrimental to your well-being and your personal wealth.   Hoarders do not live very long, nor are they very happy, healthy, or wealthy, as they squander their estates on the idea that broken lawnmowers and other junk are valuable.

People who obsessively clean their homes are never very happy people, no matter how well combed the fringes on their rugs are.

And similarly, people who obsessively smart phone - which is about half the population, from what I can see (including drivers!) are not very happy people - or very happy for very long.  They live in a virtual world, where great things are always one text or tweet away, and if they don't stay online 24 hours a day, they might miss that great experience that the smart phone promises - but rarely delivers.

Businesses make money on your obsessions and compulsions, period.   Casinos cater to the compulsive gambler.   Tobacco companies cater to your addiction to nicotine.   Carmakers cater to your obsession with your personal image (as do branded clothing makers, along with a host of others).   Everyone sells status, in one form of another - catering to your obsession to be "special" and "unique", as if your choice of consumer goods could make you so.

The smart phone industry is no exception.   The genius of Apple in developing the iPhone was not in the technology or packaging or even the status-selling of the product.   The genius was in developing a product that had a crack-like effect on its users - that once they use it, they cannot stop touching it, playing with it, and constantly looking at it.  Sort of like an adolescent boy who has just discovered his penis.

Obsessions are not healthy.  They are not good for you.  They are not profitable, except to the people who cater to those obsessions.  When you give in to obsession, you surrender all control in your life to others - and hand them your wallet as well.   You are giving into weakness and making yourself weak and vulnerable.

Suddenly, something that you never needed or wanted before is now a necessity.  And many people view these things as necessities in their lives.  Many people tell me, with a straight face, that having cable television is necessary to daily living - and they cannot imagine living without it.   Once they get a smart phone, they believe that too, is part of daily living and the fabric of life would be rent asunder if they cannot get five bars of 4G service.

The reality is, these vendors are not selling oxygen.   You do not need it to breathe, or to live.   You can do without.   If you cannot, then you are merely choosing to do so.

REMEMBER:  $100 a month, invested at 5% interest, over a 45 year working life, comes to $201,222.20 in your IRA or 401(k) account.   Your savings ARE like oxygen, in that you need them.   Funny thing, though.  Most Americans have nothing in savings, but have 500 channels of cable television and the latest smart phone.

Choices, choices, choices!   Choose not to be obsessive, and you come out ahead.  Act rationally in an irrational world.