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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

My name is Melissa. And I am an e-oholic.

Now that I have identified my illness--a dependence on the often illusory rewards of the computer--what is the cure?

It crept up on us slowly, didn't it? Ten years ago it was a mere tool, like the telephone or the scotch-tape dispenser. We used it when we needed to, then put it down. Then, day by day, moment by moment, the computer became more central to every aspect of life. People like me preferred it for communications, because we could hide our shyness and, in an e-mail, sound like the confident wits we'd prefer to be. There's a powerful reinforcer right there. And it's all about the reinforcers, baby.

For most of us, a communication from another human is inherently rewarding. It feels good, because a desire for communication is a part of who we are, biologically and therefore emotionally: pack animals whose survival, as a species and as individuals, depends on connections to others of our kind. Even a message from a robot wondering if we need low-cost Viagra (and appar
ently a whole bunch of folks do!) can feel satisfying, if only for a split second before we delete it. Disgusting.

The post office only delivers once a day; e-mail is pouring stuff into our boxes 24/7. I can almost remember the day I discovered what the Send and Receive button did. Watching those green bars progress into fullness, and boldface possibilities ensue, provides a rich moment of hope, particularly for the freelance writer: Is it a friend reaching out? An offer of work? That, on occasion, such is the case means we are on a variable schedule of reinforcement, and as Skinner wrote in About Behaviorism:

All gambling systems are based on variable-ratio schedules of reinforcement, although their effects are usually attributed to feelings. It is frequently said, for example, that people gamble because of the excitement, but the excitement is clearly a collateral product. It is also sometimes said that people gamble "to satisfy their sense of mastery, to dominate, to win"--in spite of the fact that gamblers almost always eventually lose. The inconsistency is explained by calling the gambler who ruins himself and his family "compulsive" or "pathological," his "irrational" behavior thus being attributed to an illness. His behavior is "abnormal" in the sense that not everyone responds with similar dedication to the prevailing contigencies, but the fact is simply that not everyone has been exposed to a program through which a highly unfavorable ratio is made effective.

We are all susceptible to it, in other words, because this is what natural selection has created us to be. (And by the way, happy 200th, Charles Darwin!) Yeah, that's right, a monkey hitting Send/Receive obsessively. It is also a very valuable procrastination tool, I've found, and therefore doubly reinforcing.

As Karen Pryor further elaborates, in her great book Don't Shoot the Dog! (whose title, she never fails to relate to her audiences, was not her idea, since the book is about operant behavior in people, as extrapolated from her work with animals):

The power of the variable schedule is at the root of all gambling. If every time you put a nickel into a slot machine a dime were to come out, you would soon lose interest. Yes, you would be making money, but what a boring way to do it. People like to play slot machines precisely because there's no predicting whether nothing will come out, or a little money, or a lot of money, or which time the reinforcement will come (it might be the very first time). Why some people get addicted to gambling and others can take it or leave it is another matter [another matter which Skinner explains above], but for those who do get hooked, it's the variable schedule of reinforcement that does the hooking.

In 1979, I was a walking, talking illustration of Pryor's example. The Greyhound from California to Utah passed, as perhaps all buses must, through Nevada. As soon as w
e crossed the state line, people were suddenly more eager to exit than our arrival at some pungent urinals and indifferent snack foods would have predicted. At last I figured out why: It was not the sun-splashed dust of the parking lot, or the promise of a bag of BBQ potato chips; it was the slot machines at every rest stop. Oh, how sadly absurd, I thought: as if they're going to win something. Pathetic. Then, at one stop, there was a nickel slot right outside the women's room. On my way in, I slid a coin in; I could, just barely, spare five cents to a new experience. Next, suddenly, clatter and clatter. Nickels flowed in joyful rain onto the floor. I scooped them up in wonder. At the next rest stop, I was elbowing the elderly and infirm out of my way in haste out the bus.

Now I sit all day in front of the keyboard like a test monkey, or probably more aptly, like a chicken at training camp. (Yes, peck peck peck: a way to finesse your training skills, because as explained by Teamworks Dog Training, which holds chicken camps a la Bob Bailey, the venerable behaviorist who created these camps for trainers, "Your chicken will be an excellent trainer--you wil
l be training an animal with lightning-fast reflexes and a very low tolerance for an insufficient rate of reinforcement. The other advantage of working with a chicken is that the emotional dialogue [like the one that exists between dog and human] is not a factor in training. Chickens do what works for them. If you don't set achievable criteria, and reinforce them at a high enough rate, they will simply fly to another trainer's table." How's that for a message, eh?) It cannot be repeated enough: All organisms do what works for them. Evolutionarily, cellularly, biscuit-wise: we're all living at the prodding end of some form of natural selection or another.

And so, on the morning walk, I say, tetchily impatient, to Nelly as she stops to sniff, and sniff, at some invisible marker on the side of the road, "Come on. I don't have time for this!" Yeah, because what I do have time for is hours upon hours sitting and waiting for my reinforcers to appear on the screen. I tell myself I'll just check e-mail for at most half an hour, then get on with the day, with my "real" work. The next thing I know, I look up and three hours have passed. Damn, then: I won't go online for the rest of the day. I won't!

I recognize the same sort of self-talk and bargaining that an alcoholic engages in--"Well, I'll just have one drink, because it's been a hard day," and then lo and behold they're all hard days, hard days which get harder and harder as time goes by. By four in the afternoon, I'm sort of tingling a little, or itching. "OK, maybe I'll just boot up and take a quick look . . . " and I read the e-mail, then hi
t Send/Receive a few more times. Peck, peck.

We should have known how speedily, how utterly thoroughly, these machines and their screens were going to take us over, body, soul, and economy. Because the portents were there, in the waking dreams we call "movies." The science fiction, the cartoons, of half a century ago: they all showed men sitting behind large consoles of buttons, and things lighting up (lighting up, just as in a Skinner box for rats or pigeons) that we were obviously meant to take as signaling quite important events beyond. It was coming, and they foretold it, though we did not heed. Science "fiction" indeed. We should have remembe
red that fiction always tells the truth. It is nonfiction that lies so dirty.

The thoroughness of this technologic takeover is seen in our language, or more properly, in our poetry, in the elided words (MySpace, eBay, Craigslist) where the space between things is now gone. We are all so much closer together now.