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The Perfect Drug

While few people have high praise for K-12 drug education, to me I think the most damning aspect was that it took the "these specific things are super bad!" route, rather than explicitly describing the larger meta-problem, that while we seem to enjoy free will, life is full of potential closed cycle reward loops that can entice us like meat moths to a Foreman grill.

From my twenties to my thirties if you asked if I had any addictions I would have proudly told you what an awesome straight-edge lad I was, and how neither cigarettes or alcohol really seemed to hold any sway over me. I would probably say this to you with a fourth of my attention while the rest of it was concentrating on obsessively growing carrots in a virtual representation of ancient Egypt.

XKCD's most recent blog post is on an interesting form of addiction that I hadn't ever really considered, addiction to novelty. Much like how I sometimes find myself walking, on auto-pilot, to the snack pantry, similarly I find myself opening and reloading. It isn't a conscious act and it has always somewhat bothered me.

Randall calls it "Addiction to Novelty", and it explains so much. Not just why I find reddit so compelling, but also why I used to spend hours as a teen flipping through cable channels, or how I always thought the new video game I got was going to fulfill my entertainment needs forever. The promise of newness far more exciting than the actual result. The pre-Christmas giddiness. Novelty and unlimited potential swirling together in a heady aroma.

What I find most compelling about the XKCD Blag post is how he mentions that the promise of immediate reward always short-circuits his motivation to work on longer term projects.

The Internet is an amazing place. I have wanted to learn more about electronics for years, mostly unsuccessfully, until I came upon these Arduino Tutorials that offered simply the perfect amount of information in digestible packets to really make electronics "click" for me.

I find the fact that the Internet provides virtually unlimited knowledge and distractions from that knowledge an interesting problem for humanity as a whole to get a grasp on. If you provided internet kiosks in slums in India, would the kids use them to learn to be architectural engineers or after the novelty wore off would they eventually only use them to watch Lady Gaga videos?

Whenever I fly and look over the scale of what we have created, read bbc world news or watch Carl Sagan's old Cosmos series it occurs to me that our brains just weren't meant to process information at this scale. We're designed to absorb and collect information about our local surroundings, which when a laptop with a browser open now encompasses everything.

I don't think that is healthy for our minds, but I don't know what to do about it. Advocating for ignorance of large scale world issues bumps against several other values I hold dear.

Of course, there is always a middle ground. Saying "don't eat donuts all day" doesn't itself demand that you starve yourself. The difference is that people generally know what eating donuts does to them longterm, whereas I'm willing to say that it isn't well understood what gorging yourself on rich information does, or even how one differentiates from "good information" and "unhealthy information".

But as is, I think that we need to start that sort of conversation, and get people to understand that just as we are what we eat, we are, possibly more so, what we spend our time reading or watching.

The "nutritional" content of information I find to be an interesting metaphor, I wonder how far it could be extended...


This is one of my favorite blog posts ever. It hits on so many issue of interest to me.
1) I do this! Compulsively checking the news is something I thought I picked up in debate, and a habit I've been trying to kick ever since. I check your blog 5 times a day, for example!
2) I absolutely agree with the "nutrition" metaphor. Have you read about the concept from psychology of "priming". I think I first read about it in blink. Since then, it has held the same place my mind as the placebo effect. Absolute fascination.
I've often thought that there is a product to market for people trying to kick the "distraction affliction". A little app that runs on the background of my phone or pc which shows a message "go back to work" instead of whatever website I try visit. The app would 'allow" me to visit the sites in a predesignated time window.
Also, have you watched the Ted talks video regarding the internet consols in India? Its amazing.
by: Mike (contact) - 22 Feb '11 - 11:50
Interesting slashdot article talking about a guy who lowered his ebook from $2.99 to $0.99 and ended up selling 20x as much!
by: Kyle (contact) - 09 Mar '11 - 08:42


Meta Information:

Title: The Perfect Drug
Date posted: 22 Feb '11 - 10:47
Filed under: General
Word Count: 628 words
Good Karma: 94 (vote)
Bad Karma: 47 (vote)
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