You are the machine; the machine is you
August 1, 2013 8:59 PM   Subscribe

I have a rule- if I ever leave Reddit to look at Facebook, and then return to Reddit, and then back to Facebook... I have to get up and leave the house.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:16 PM on August 1, 2013 [13 favorites]

Holy shit.

As much as I love you guys I think I really do need to take break from this fantastical blue slot machine and get some work done.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:27 PM on August 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

An excellent report on one of the aspects of technology and the Internet that most fascinates me. Thank you for this; it puts some of my own research into game play and psychology into perspective.

There's a concept I've found very hard to describe which is touched upon briefly in various areas of study: in theatre, in religion, in the work of certain architects, and in the game that I've been writing about for the past ever. Douglas Hofstadter's idea of the "strange loop" gets at it, though nothing I've read of Hofstadter's adds the context that I was looking for. This piece connects two pieces I've been trying to connect for a while now.

The concept has something to do with the importance of disruption, of discomfort. Basically, upsets are crucial to how we grow and form as living, thinking things. We need the unexpected; we need the unsettling. It forces us to think, and to reconsider ourselves, and to grow. The problem is that we usually grow right up to the point that we no longer feel unsettled, and when we get stuck again. Even the most wide-reaching processes have the tendency to turn into shallow loops if we let them—take world travel, for instance, which is widely acknowledged to lead to realization and change, but which just as quickly turns into a tool for shallow, wealthy youth-sorts to convince themselves that they know everything, without really understanding anything.

The game I started my research with essentially posited that information technology provides the world with a unique opportunity—because we can create shared systems for each other to dwell in, it might be possible to disrupt and disorient people's thinking on grand scales, reach out to people in ways people aren't used to being reached. And certainly that's true. I'd point to MetaFilter itself as an example of a big place that has a tremendous impact on many of its users. Certainly I would be a shittier, more worthless person if I hadn't signed up here. And I'd have been even worse if I stuck to Reddit—but even Reddit has a positive impact on many, many of the people who use it.

But the problem with systems is that, by their nature, they become recursive and repetitive. Computer programs and web sites are even worse, in a sense, since by their nature they require you to remain physically inactive, for the most part, so when they throw you into a loop they really shut down on your external stimuli, unless you're browsing on a phone or something similarly mobile (and then you're missing out on the best part of browsing things online, which is: getting to write!).

I'd known I wanted to write about addictive online behaviors for a while, now, but I hadn't known how to fit it into my (somewhat massive) structure. I think the connection between this and "flow", though (which is a fascinating concept in general that's been ruined by marketers), clarifies what I've been thinking. In short, while there's nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, in interactive structures like games and web sites, you can be tricked into not only enjoying yourself but also feeling like you're doing something productive. That way you're not even receiving the internal kick telling you to start doing something worthwhile, and you really get stuck in a rut.

One of the most infuriating things about an otherwise excellent book, Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, is a chapter where she compares the hours people have put into Halo 3 with the hours it took to create the Great Wall of China—and then she suggests that the Halo 3 hours is an equally monumental human achievement. Completely conflating "effort" with "output". It still makes me mad. And there's a disturbing trend in general, and this is as true among Internet startups as it is among game designers, to conflate "how long we've made people do this for" with "how much we've gotten people to do".

Look at Facebook and its features to pump nostalgia into your feed when nothing's happening: popping up old photo galleries and such. That kind of recursion—spend time revisiting your memories of wasting your time on Facebook two years ago!—gives people nothing, but makes them feel like they're devoting their time to something significant, even memorable. Which makes you even more okay with wasting more time on Facebook, because after all, FB's making it so that wasting time online will generate future memories, as reliable and repetitive as clockwork.

It's a serious problem, which many people notice but few people, myself included, can easily put into words. We now have the ability to trick the mind into thinking it's doing something meaningful, even when it's not. That same ability can focus the mind on doing productive and wonderful things, which is problematic in the sense that you can't just cut out all of that sort of behavior without missing out on wonderful things too. I've wasted hours skimming MetaFilter threads just for the drama of it all, doing nothing good with my time whatsoever, but if I try to avoid MetaFilter then I'm missing out on a provocative and terrific community. The only thing separating useful time spent on MeFi from useless is my own self-awareness, but that's easily tricked. There's no easy way to separate the one from the other, and I'm not sure if it would be possible at all.

If it is possible, then it has to do something with that disruptive behavior, that jolt concealed in places you're not expecting it, that unexpected moment amidst the predictable. The more I study various religions, the more I find that the pursuit of that sort of revelation is usually at the core; theatre theorists are much clearer about that moment's importance, but theatre's so niche that very people study it or consider it to be an important component to how our cultures function. Theatricality allows you to string somebody along with the promise of leisure of mindlessness, then gradually stimulate them into a more engaged state of mind, and finally hit with some sort of expert twist that throws the whole mind into disarray. But the trick is that if your audience knows that kind of disruption is ahead, they'll either anticipate it, which lessens the impact, or else they'll skip out on your thing altogether, because it's not what they think of as relaxing.

How does this apply to web design or gamemaking? I only have the faintest of ideas. I think it's the most interesting question in the world, personally, and I think that following it will lead to the design of much healthier web sites and forms of entertainment in general. Entertainment can go hand-in-hand with provocation, and often does (again, even within the confines of MetaFilter). The trick is less knowing that, and more figuring out how to somehow shape idle discussion and messing around into something more significant. Not banning idleness; using it. That's the nice thing about mechanical systems; you can take the hard work of motivating yourself and giving a shit and just throw yourself at something which'll do the heavy lifting for you. But that requires such a system to exist first; and it requires you to know enough about what you're looking for that you'll take advantage of it when you find it.

Sorry for the long comment. This just happens to land very close to my interests, and in one of the blind spots of what I currently know. Very exciting to see this issue discussed in these ways. Eventually people are going to figure this all out and use it to make some pretty awesome things. In the meantime, we just have to suffer along with all the harmful shit we barely know how to comprehend the harmfulness of. Alas.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:39 PM on August 1, 2013 [76 favorites]

i'm addicted to Facebok and the Internet
'fruit machines' or 'pokies' are horrible though... they steal money, basically, 'cause they get you into that zone
and i was reading today an article about how Candy Crush and Angry Birds are also medatative

i get into this zone while playing open world games... i'm too tired to do machines, so i just drive around listening to music, not even doing violence or anything, just cruising, until i fall asleep

the most hypnotic site i've seen is TV Tropes... it has a tiny amount of information and a clean white background
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 10:01 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I disabled my Facebook account a few months ago and couldn't be happier. My metafilter habits on the other hand...
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:21 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

@Rory, very insightful complement to the article. I suppose it's not terribly helpful, but when I consider what a "disruptive" web site might look like, my first thought is The Ultimate Productivity Blog.
posted by rouftop at 11:10 PM on August 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a facet of transhumanism that talks about how we incorporate our tools into our sense of ourselves.

I think it's kind of telling that our person/machine-selves spend so much time in blind self-gratification, whether it's through a slot machine or Facebook.
posted by mikurski at 11:15 PM on August 1, 2013

so… where do I go
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 11:27 PM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

so… where do I go

you don't go anywhere. we need these distractions to put our mind in a holding pattern so we don't think about death
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 11:32 PM on August 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

we need these distractions to put our mind in a holding pattern so we don't think about death

To me, it doesn't seem that death is the difficult thing not to think about (although on occasion, wanting to die is). Rather, it's life itself with its complexity too much to process: the myriad choices that it presents us with, the unmanageable number of things in the world that are broken and call to be changed. It's so much easier to give up on these things and step into those addictive abysses that we can pretend to believe have meaning.
posted by beryllium at 2:01 AM on August 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

we need these distractions to put our mind in a holding pattern so we don't think about death notice each other
posted by fullerine at 2:11 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

So interesting how this complements video games as self-medication! I would call them the Haloperidol of flow. But then again Haldol is actually so empty no one even abuses it.

In my attempts to reclaim my life from the distraction zone, I'm trying to become more aware of flows as empty or productive. There's many mindlessly productive flows which are easy to jump into if one can somehow mentally reclassify them from work to enjoyment.

As a musician, for years I balked at the idea of making myself transcribe stuff. So hard! Writing down music! I'm kicking myself it took me so long to realise it actually boils down to this attractively mindless loop: Tab to music software, listen to a few notes, tab to notation software, enter them, repeat, suddenly a few hours passed by and the next day you can play along!
posted by yoHighness at 2:35 AM on August 2, 2013

(apologies for the unduly depressing tone of my comment last night. I do believe it is possible and necessary to escape those abysses and do things that help one another and build meaningful community; let's do this together!)
posted by beryllium at 5:29 AM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wow Rory that comment is amazing. Processing that plus the excellent article is gonna take me a little bit brb.
posted by sweetkid at 5:32 AM on August 2, 2013

See also: The Quest for Frisson by Roger Ebert.
posted by usonian at 7:20 AM on August 2, 2013

To me, it doesn't seem that death is the difficult thing not to think about (although on occasion, wanting to die is). Rather, it's life itself with its complexity too much to process: the myriad choices that it presents us with, the unmanageable number of things in the world that are broken and call to be changed. It's so much easier to give up on these things and step into those addictive abysses that we can pretend to believe have meaning.

We know things are bad — worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 8:23 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

@Rory, I'll bite: what's the game you've been writing about for the past ever? I worked on a couple you might have liked, in years past.
posted by intendedeffect at 8:38 AM on August 2, 2013

Add to Favorites
Add to Favorites
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:42 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Facebook? Really? I don't think I've ever spent more than 15 minutes at a time on facebook, unless I'm promoting a show. Although the tab is always open...

Tumblr, on the other hand...
posted by Eideteker at 8:47 AM on August 2, 2013

How are traditional (or modern) video games any better? There is the incentive of trying to get to that ultimate kill screen/whatever, but really you're playing the same Pacman levels over and over again.

I use FB only occasionally, mostly to post links or a few pics. I can see how people get hooked though.

It also seemed like people used to be hooked on The Farmville or whatever, and that went away. Won't this insatiable hunger for trivial news of friends, relatives, and associates wither on the vine as well (or shift to some other service)?
posted by mrgrimm at 9:35 AM on August 2, 2013

We now have the ability to trick the mind into thinking it's doing something meaningful, even when it's not.

Isn't it up to each of us to define "meaningful?"

Also TV.

Tumblr, on the other hand...

Yeah, and porn.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:40 AM on August 2, 2013

I'm reading The Spirit of St. Louis and Lindbergh describes the "zone" as he flys across the Atlantic:
I'm not conscious of time's direction. Figures of miles from New York and miles to Paris lose their interest. All sense of substance leaves. There's no longer weight to my body, no longer hardness to the stick. The feeling of flesh is gone. I become independent of physical laws -- of food, of shelter, of life. I'm almost one with these vaporlike forms behind me, less tangible than air, universal as aether.
With flying, we no longer get that excited about becoming "independent of physical laws", flying is just a conveyance, a tool. Facebook is exciting because we can keep in touch with everyone we ever know everywhere in the world, but that excitement too will pass (younger generations are already leaving Facebook, it was never that new for them). But it is a novel thing and like those early flyers we are lucky to be pioneers.
posted by stbalbach at 9:41 AM on August 2, 2013

Interesting. It's not just about Faceboof is it? Anything online that leads to more click...and another.

Also, a state that's so seductive because it mimics productivity so exactly - but by definition without delivering the result.

I'm understanding Adam's testiness, or impulse to shrug off any responsibility - 'some people can't control the part that turns it from fun into addiction.' As maker-testiness, it is echoed by user testiness - yes it was productive, I needed to keep in touch! Yes it was productive, I found out so much new stuff!

Indeed. Mimicry - something to think about.
posted by glasseyes at 9:41 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've also been thinking a lot (forgive me) lately about productivity, life choices, "the myth of inbox zero" and particularly, the Zeigarnik Effect.

The gist is that we can't stop thinking about something until we complete it. In modern life (me talking now, not Zeigarnik), there's so much we can't or don't complete (dentist appts, gym workouts, that letter to your brother, that gift for your aunt, the TPS report that was actually due last Wednesday) that those nagging effects result in huge amounts of stress on our systems.

Meditation is one (positive, imo) way to relieve that stress. Another is compulsive behavior. At the least, Facebook browsing is better than shopping. IMO.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:53 AM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I read Rory's comment and thought it was incredible. Favorited it. Flagged it as fantastic. Thought about sharing it with someone who like me spends too much time looking at nothing online. Went to open my email and felt like I had too many tabs open. Went to close my feed reader tab and saw RowBoatCop from 5 second films. After that played, there was a link to the best vines of July or something. So I just wasted the last 10 minutes watching complete nothing at 5 and 6 seconds a clip. I am ashamed.
posted by cashman at 11:09 AM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I can't find it online (maybe it was just printed in the physical version), but I read an article in Mother Jones about the science of junk food (i.e. mouth feel, synthetic flavor, sugar/fat content, etc.) that seems to parallel this article rather shockingly. We have become gluts for skimming that gray area between signal and noise; bet you you can't have just one picture of your ex-boyfriend and his wife and kids!
posted by Mooseli at 11:11 AM on August 2, 2013

"Yeah, and porn."

Ooh, I forgot about porn!
posted by Eideteker at 11:15 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by mrgrimm at 11:15 AM on August 2, 2013

This is me, except I'm on Instagram, not Facebook (although I know FB owns IG). If I'm commenting on as well as liking photos, it doesn't count, right? Right?
posted by bayani at 11:44 AM on August 2, 2013

@Rory, I'll bite: what's the game you've been writing about for the past ever?


Imagine Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Bertolt Brecht all got drunk together in Russia and decided to make a game that's simultaneously brilliant as all three of them at their best, and frustrating as all three of them at their worst, and also it's three games in one that each take 40 hours to complete, and you have Pathologic. Oh, and then it was translated to English by a hand puppet who didn't actually know any Russian.
posted by Rory Marinich at 1:22 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

400 minutes a month is only 12 minutes a day. That seems really low to me. Most people I know spend 2-3 hours a day on Facebook.
posted by dmd at 5:24 PM on August 2, 2013

I really appreciated this article, and Rory's comment. I'm trying to challenge my biases a little, though, in understanding it. So I'm looking at non-machine versions of pointless, repetitive activity to see whether I can identify something that's different about the "machine."

My grandparents were big canasta players. They played 3-4 times a week for decades, hundreds of games of canasta. Games went on for 4-5 hours at a time. Their games didn't produce anything in particular. One can't really say they got better at playing. It was social (done with a rotating series of partners or family members), but 90% of the conversation was related to the card game at hand, so its significance evaporated at the end of the game (and the other 10% was about food or beverages, or was trash talk).

In my memory, it seems like my childhood with my grandparents was almost one long game of canasta, for a dozen years, in the summer with cicadas singing, and snacks and sodas on the table. I'm not sure they were trying to escape from the psychological pressure of unfinished tasks (they were hardworking Depression people whose jobs were manual - they finished everything by the time they sat down at the end of the day, and had no inboxes). They were psychologically stable. Evenings were long, and the game was a pleasurable way to pass the time, indulge in light rivalries, and enjoy relationships.

In what way(s) is that different? I want to feel that it is meaningfully different but am not sure I can pinpoint how. I'm not sure it's a difference in the nature of the flow state, the unproductiveness, or the time spent that we think of as "wasted". It may be different in terms of isolation - for all its "social" appearance, Facebooking is really a lonely, isolated pursuit that people do by themselves, only glancingly with others as participants, and they abstracted to a degree.
There is something to the short cycle feedback loop, which has certainly been shown to be satisfying to people, brain-chemical wise, as we are seduced into feeling something like a flow state because there is constant feedback and fresh opportunity to start again. So, to me, one important difference is that the feedback in the empty online experience is mostly of low quality, and not meaningful. Whereas the feedback in a true flow state, as designed by Csikszentmihalyi, gives you a valid read on your performance and skill level vis-a-vis the activity at hand and allows you to monitor your own success and progress and feel pleasure as the reward. The feedback changes along with variables that are actually related to you, your experience, and your performance. When feedback is basically driven by chance, or favors the house, or is irrelevant to you as a person (as most of it on Facebook or in games is), we have indeed imitated a flow state, and removed only the meaningfulness of the feedback. We continue to pursue this meaningfulness because we generally do expect usable feedback from repeated interactions that draw on what we think of as our skills; but the feedback we get is basically noise. And yet we seem to have a strong propensity to continue seeking it in hopes that we will, at some point, have some magic breakthrough that will give us a payoff in useful, satisfying evidence of meaningfulness in the activity.
posted by Miko at 8:07 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

For instance, I find myself cycling between tabs online late at night in the way BuddhaInABucket mentions. And when I bring it to the forefront of my consciousness, I realize I'm engaging in this repetitive activity because I am hoping, below the level of awareness, for something incredibly wonderful and new to suddenly appear. Not just something new (oh hey my hometown paper just added a new status about a car rollover on a highway / oh hey a picture of my friend's kid in galoshes / oh hey my cousin likes a recipe) but something that will somehow touch me emotionally and make me feel like sitting up late was worth it. And then I think: and what would that thing be? And that thing would have to be so sincerely wonderful that then I realize it will not be appearing on any website at this moment of the night, and I go to bed. So it's a meaningfulness gap - unless I break this cycle with the clear awareness that nothing truly moving, touching, connected, or human is going to happen to me at this time by clicking through four or five tabs for another half hour, I will keep looking for that thing.
posted by Miko at 8:24 PM on August 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

Two relevant concepts from biology:

Checking the Facebook for notifications is an example of variable ratio reward schedule, which reliably produces the highest response and slowest extinction.

This one requires a bit more work, but I'm pretty sure it would be productive to analyze the Facebook in terms of a superstimulus. The hard part is describing exactly the stimulus that the Facebook provides, because it's a bit more complicated and subtle than a really blue egg or a really red belly.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:53 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A response today from Maria Bustillos.
posted by latkes at 7:30 PM on August 19, 2013

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