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SATURDAY, MAY 28, 2016
 
In my Psych101 class we covered positive reinforcement - getting the same action to be repeated by acknowledging it with some affirmation. You ask the dog to sit, the dog sits, you give it a treat - encouraging it to sit the next time you ask it to, regardless of whether you have a treat or not. Pretty basic stuff. Then there's the story that I'm sure is more Urban Campus Myth than it is fact - the story of the cunning graduate student who would played a Pavlovian trick on his Psych professor through the same positive reinforcement. More interesting, however, was covering random reinforcement - that is, when reinforcement comes not through a specific action, nor based on an interval of time. It happens randomly. Rather than the pigeon pressing a lever to receive its food, the food is delivered based purely on some random - pardon the pun - seed. The pigeon, which was formerly encouraged to press the lever for its food, no longer forms the direct correlation between the lever press and the delivery of food. And being hungry it searches desperately for the correlation between its action, and the delivery of food. And those crazy people in lab coats having fun with hungry animals noticed something odd: Pigeons started developing almost a tribal routine - flapping its wings, turning around, tilting its head to the left, pressing the lever, tapping its left foot, and then voila... food. It was doing it's own sort of "rain dance," if you will.

There are many different areas of human life where we've fell victim to this same tribal routine in hopes of getting that morcel of satisfaction. Whether it's blowing in the Nintendo cartridge, followed by a tap on the side, sliding it into the system very quickly with a simultaneous press of the "Power" button, or a slight twitch of the car keys to the left, a double tap on the gas, before turning the ignition, we always come up with some elaborate song and dance to get what we want. And while some of those actions do have direct correlations - the blowing into the cartridge would remove dust - we somehow have learned to add a lot more pomp to handle the circumstance.

The most curious of them all is our handling of computers. And if you're the "tech support" of your family, you've likely encountered the odd systems developed to get that computer to work - some which include a nudge here, a tap there - as though some wires became misaligned since the last computer usage. More curious is when seasoned computer users develop their own tribal ceremonies to get their computer to work. Wireless not working? Ipconfig -flushdns, slaughter a goat, ipconfig -release, disable the driver, sacrifice a virgin, re-enable the driver, ipconfig -renew, reboot. The difference between a computer not working and a more mechanical system is that the mechanical system errors out due to mechanical issues. A gear wore out. A tube is leaking. Not enough oil. While computer chips can fry, often the issue is somewhere within the working code. A fault, an error, a memory leak. There are so many different possibilities for a system having an error - it could be the operating system, it could be the driver the hardware is using, it could be the software that relies on the driver, it could be the software relying on some piece of the operating system, or any other wide array of things that more advanced users have a hard time of really understanding the actual cause of the issue. Rather than really figure out the system, we make umbrella attempts - attempts which cover a wide range of possibilities, that may not necessarily make sense, but have worked in the past for similar effects, the causes remaining unknown.

What I find completely odd is that in all our advances, we are victims of our own invention. We don't know how to use them to the extent that we can properly solve any problem that arises with the most direct of methods. Technology - whether computer, car, or iPod - has become, or rather we've made it, part of the nature we don't fully understand. "I don't know why it works when I do this, but it does, so I keep doing it when it's broken." It's all part of a world we don't fully understand, the irony being that it's the part of the world created. Computers, machinery, it's all part of the unknown world - and we're more comfortable in our ignorance than if we knew exactly what 0 turned to a 1 when it shouldn't have.

The part that's slightly irksome is that this reminds me of a 1984-ish, Brave New World-ish, Brazil-ish, THX-1138ish, Logan's Run-ish type of World. One wear we form assumptions about the world we don't understand, and accept that we don't understand it. It's through our not understanding that we dance tribal dances, we form conspiracy theories, we give Internet movies like Zeitgeist the time of day. On some level, it's more interesting to think there's some deep mysterious goings-on that are... going on. Something beyond our control that we consider ourselves only lucky if we can control a portion of it. The most logical and simplest of answers is the one we're quick to reject, our brains crave conspiracy so much. It's why we watch trashy talk shows, why people still forward me urban myths, and why Zeitgeist now has an addendum - and many of my friends on Facebook felt the need to post it to their profile.

And finally, here's the part that I find most ironic. We've Pavlovized ourselves. We've created a world in which we ring a bell, and we salivate. We shake a tail feather, rather than research. We connect the dots we created into an elaborate web that ultimately has no factual connection rather than connect them in sequential order - because it's more interesting than the truth.

And we salivate.
Comments

Hogan

Hogan

As usual, I'm not sure exactly what you're getting at, Alisha, but the piece reminded me of Max Weber's discussion of "disenchanment" or "rationalization" or "demystification" in his "Science as a Vocation". The idea, basically, is that human progress takes the road of steady, progressive, scientific rationalization of external phenomena. Where "primitives" might seek the wisdom of the shaman - with its recourse to magic spirits - to explain something, or perform an elaborate (but unnecessary) ritual to appease the gods and get some manna from heaven, we "moderns", on the other hand, have science, and therefore no need of "spirits" and so on. But, as you point out (and as Weber condedes) this doesn't mean that most people nowadays actually have a better understanding of what's going on. And in the case of our own human-made technology, the scientists and engineers are now the shamans, that is, those with the secret, expert knowledge that leaves the rest of us awestruck. It appears that they - the ones with the secret knowledge - work miracles, though to them it's just part of their field of expertise. As Arthur C. Clarke said (to paraphrase), Any sufficiently advanced technology is at first indistinguishable from magic.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, Weber wrote, "Does it mean that we, today...have a greater knowledge of the conditions of life under which we exist than has an American Indian or a Hottentot? Hardly. Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may 'count' on the behavior of the streetcar, and he orients his conduct according to this expectation; but he knows nothing about what it takes to produce such a car so that it can move. The savage knows incomparably more about his tools...The savage knows what he does in order to get his daily food and which institutions serve him in this pursuit. The increasing intellectualization and
rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives."

Anyway, I'm sure my comment is not much clearer to you than your article was to me, but that's what it made me think of.
REPLIES: alishahnovin

alishahnovin

ALISHAHNOVIN

Replying to Hogan:
I guess this wasn't the most linear of thought flows. I had started writing about one thing, and about midway it became about something else - I guess it's pretty obvious. I didn't spend much time to then go back and edit it. I figured I would leave it as a thought-flow.

Hogan

Hogan

Yeah, okay, but what did you think of my comment?
REPLIES: alishahnovin

alishahnovin

ALISHAHNOVIN

Replying to Hogan:
Heh heh, well it pretty much touches on what I was getting at - so even if you didn't consciously know what I was getting at, some wavelength happened to coincide.

But yes. Technology is largely misunderstood. The "computer" is not the circuit boards, or the processor with thousands of on/off switches. Instead, it's the box - as though it were a solid cube. Almost a mystical thing that people interact with more spiritually than they do mechanically. Do they need to know more about the machine than this? "Need" is a tough word - but ultimately, they're better off. It's an attitude, I guess. Are you satisfied with haphazard fixes to problems concerning a thing you don't understand, or would you rather get to know it better and ultimately have a better understanding? People have an approach to technological problems that make it seem more like a biological approach than a mechanical - and it's due to ignorance. Some go so far as to anthropomorphize the machine - personifying it with statements like "Ugh, this computer hates me..." or "Whenever I open this program, it doesn't want to respond..." Maybe they're being poetic, or maybe in their own minds their substituting the logical reason for what seems more like an illogical human response.

And this regard for the computer as a mystical object - it's akin to conspiracy theories, ideas that we don't know all the facts, we're being guided along like sheep. That's largely the entire premise of movies like Zeitgeist - and its where they have their appeal. Even if you know all the facts, you feel an attraction to something like Zeitgeist because it's the mysteriousness of it all that attracts you.

In other words: thinking of the literal machine as this mystical entity is similar to thinking of the figurative machine as this mystical entity of secret cults, with secret handshakes, underground meeting rooms, and ulterior motives. And neither mindset ultimately lead to a pretty productive solution.



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