Beyond Economics

The End of Growth and Time for a New Era

Category Archives: Technology

The Internet as a Monkey Trap

The Monkey Trap

Google, Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, email, text messaging, gaming, virtual worlds…what is your banana? What so captures your attention that you can’t let go?

I saw a cartoon of a monkey trap (not this one) over 25 years ago in an article entitled Computers as Poison. The idea has stuck with me ever since. Today, I came across this explanation which describes the attention capture phenomenon quite well.

SEEKING: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous. Slate (8/12/09)

You can’t stop doing it. Sometimes it feels as if the basic drives for food, sex, and sleep have been overridden by a new need for endless nuggets of electronic information. We are so insatiably curious that we gather data even if it gets us in trouble….

Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling?

We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain…Thank dopamine…

But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. “The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore…

For more on how to balance seeking and satisfaction for optimal experience, I recommend this book:
Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life
The basic thesis of the book is that we are most fulfilled when engaged in activites that challenge us at the optimal level, neither too much nor too little. The author goes on to describe how some people are able to “find flow” in almost any type of activity, even the seemingly mundane.

There can be a sense flow in losing oneself on the Internet, but the first article suggests that there is something about the nature of the Internet that makes it too easy to cross the line into unhealthy addictive behavior.

Google vs. Facebook: Is this the right question?

While I do have a Facebook page and a few dozen “friends”, I don’t find it compelling enough to check in with more than a few times per week and have been wondering if I am missing the boat. Google, on the other hand, I can’t live without. For an information junkie, it’s nirvana. More importantly, how can you compare Facebook and its assorted little games and applets, as addictive as they are for many, to Google, which, in addition to Search and Android, has also created Maps, Earth, and now Books, among other things.

My bias, then, is to see Google continue to thrive and Facebook to become a passing fad. This article, and especially the comments that followed, recently caught my attention.

Facebook Will Thwart Google, Says Ex Googler

Does Google have any chance at all of competing with arch-rival Facebook? Not really, former Google bigwig Paul Buchheit says. Buchheit tells us his old company will probably find it easier to land on the moon…If Google can’t mount a viable challenge to Facebook, it will make the social network look all the more unstoppable to competitors and frustrated users alike.

Why doesn’t social mesh with where Google is strong, i.e. in basic engineering skills?

— Google’s strength is in building large scale computer systems like BigTable [definition], and they reflexively try to apply that to all problems (if all you have is a hammer…)
— Facebook is also very good at what they do (unlike MySpace)
— The network effects in social are very substantial

Would it be erroneous to detect a bit of pessimism on your part about some of Google’s big initiatives? Do you still think Google is innovating, on balance?

I’m actually rather optimistic about Google overall. The inevitable doom of ChromeOS is due in part to the huge success of Android. As for social, I expect that Google will find greater success with their self-driving car and moon landing initiatives.

As is often the case, I sometimes find  more incite in the comments section. Here are some of the choice excerpts:

…I’ll be damned if I’m going to use a me@facebook.com e-mail address ever. Facebook isn’t taken seriously by professional adults, it’s taken for what it is: a tool to ‘socially network’, which in and of itself is still viewed as a bit of a joke. That being said, the kids using FB now will be the professional adults in a few decades, so stay tuned to this sexxxxy battle!

…I’m far more likely to click on a Google ad than a Facebook ad, and that will never change. Facebook ads tend to be stupid and inaccurate. I’ve yet to see them offer anything remotely in the vein of my interests when they have a LIST of my damn interests.

…I predict a massive switch to a new platform as the young adult/hipster crowd gets sick of friends requests from parents and bosses.

…with the advent of Facebook’s success, we have come full circle. People now log into a closed environment to start their day and access interesting points on the web…All of this potential on the web and people still want to hand over proprietary control for internet content to someone else.

…Facebook seems unbeatable right now, but there could easily emerge another Google on the horizon to take it down. (This ‘Google’ will probably not be the Google, much to the Google’s chagrin.)”

…If we’ve seen anything in social networking, it’s that services either begin with or develop biases toward the user bases that they serve. Right now, Facebook’s user base is very broad–which means that it doesn’t target any single demographic in a particularly exclusive way. This makes them, I think, quite vulnerable to more targeted services that can convince users they’re doing more cutting-edge things with social networking. To combat this, Facebook has chosen the “bloat” route. They’re trying to get into micro-blogging, e-mail, mobile apps, etc. To me, this reeks of a Yahoo!-style trajectory, typical of classic Silicon Valley business ventures.

…Landing on the moon may, or may not, be easier than beating Facebook at social networking, but landing on the moon is also far more interesting than Facebook.