Friday, March 14, 2008

Why We're Powerless To Resist Grazing On Endless Web Data
While there is a certain grand mystery to some aspects of human behavior, others can be easily explained. Just find yourself a garden-variety house cat, along with a $10 laser pointer.

Many cat owners know that the lasers are the easiest way to keep the pet amused. The cats will ceaselessly, maniacally chase it as it's beamed about the room, literally climbing the walls to capture what they surely regard as some form of ultimate prey.

Obviously, cats are hard-wired to hunt down small, bright objects, like birds. But since nothing in nature is as bright as a laser, they are powerless to resist its charms.

Cats and lasers are useful in explaining some of the more addictive aspects of Web use. . .

Only one of my cats finds my laser pointer interesting anymore. Of course, the older two don't find much of anything interesting anymore unless it involves warmth, food, or scratches. THe little one is far more fascinated these days with a squirt of water from a syringe.

Anyway, he explains our fascination with reading web sites as a hard-wired drive to discover new information and supports it with some neuroscience research:
In other words, coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom.

Makes some intuitive sense, but I'm not sure how all the evo-psych stuff really pans out. It's currently rather fashionable to link everything we do to the selective pressures faced by our Paleolithic forebears. Not there's anything inherently wrong with that, but it does tend to produce a lot of just-so stories that have little empirical support.

One thing though:

For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives.

Technically, of course, back when the area was inhabited it wasn't a gorge at all; that came later with the rift system.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting and it no doubt caused a bunch of opioids to be released in my head.