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Technology and Intermittent Reinforcement

Recent digital technologies generate a perfect storm of anti-attention, largely because they draw on the tremendous power of what B. F. Skinner called ‘intermittent reinforcement.’ We click the ‘new mail’ button in our email clients or look once more at Twitter or revisit Facebook because we get something new and interesting only sometimes—and this, Skinner learned, is far more powerful an incentive to animals than regular and predictable reinforcement. After all, if we know that whenever we click the button we will have new mail, our curiosity is diminished: when we get to it, it’ll be there. It’s the not knowing that prompts my rebellious hand to inch toward the iPhone. As Sam Anderson has written, ‘The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction.’ (Many metaphors for this situation may suggest themselves: I am also fond of Cory Doctorow’s comment that ‘the biggest impediment to concentration is your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies.’)

Many of us try to console ourselves in the midst of the blooming and buzzing by claiming the powers of multi-tasking. But a great deal of very thorough research into multitasking has been done in recent years, and it has produced some unequivocally clear results, chief among them being: no one actually multitasks, instead, we shift among different tasks and give attention to only one at any given time.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction