Saturday, September 05, 2015

Refresh. Repeat.

In an early scene in the 1972 Michael Crichton novel "The Terminal Man," a staff neurosurgeon is interviewing a potential patient. The man says he came to the hospital after reading about their work in a magazine article: "Is it true that you can put wires in people's brains so that you feel pleasure? Intense pleasure?" The doctor says yes, and then secretly summons a team to watch the interview from behind a one-way mirror. "Well," the man says after some back and forth, "I want the operation done on me." After being told that the hospital doesn't do brain surgery without a real reason, the man storms out. The doctors sit back, stunned. They discuss it, until one sums it up this way: "That man is an elad."

That's "elad" as in "electronic addict." Hardly science fiction, it's a concept based on studies done on rats in the 1950's by James Olds and Peter Milner. They were investigating whether rats might be made uncomfortable by electrical stimulation of certain areas of their brain. In the experiment, rats were jolted if they went to a certain corner of their cage, with the assumption they would learn to avoid it. Instead, they came back quickly after the first stimulation and even more quickly after the second. In later experiments, they allowed the rats to press levers to shock themselves. Some did it as much as seven-hundred times per hour.

I'm not proud to say it, but I am that rat.

I had that realization as I hit the button to check my email for the umpteenth time today. No surprise, there's was nothing new there. All the big projects from the first half of the year have wrapped up, and those slated for the second half haven't really gotten going yet. With Labor Day being so late, those who aren't at the beach are in the mountains, or just lounging by the pool. And the spam filter is doing its job, and catching all the flotsam and jetsam that is lapping on my electronic shore. But really: nothing? I hit the refresh button, then check the connection, then refresh again. Nada. Crickets.

Perhaps you're not so different. We have been so conditioned to the constant inflow of stuff, be it important or stupid, that we suffer withdrawal if it stops. Sure, like that overused phrase "work-life balance," we talk about the importance and desirability of "downtime" and "disconnecting." But if you look closely, I don't actually think that's what we want.

We actually want to be connected all the time, just one way at times. We want to see the office gossip, and know what's happening, but not be required to react. We want the Facebook updates, the Twitter feeds, the Instagram, Pintrest and Flipboard dispatches. We want it all: we just don't want to feel that we have to do something about it. It's bending the rules of physics. It's action without reaction.  

This harks back to an earlier time when responding took actual effort as opposed to just fast-twitch muscles. You got a call on your answering machine, or maybe a letter in the mail. It imparted news of some kind, good or bad or even neither. But no one expected a response immediately. You had time to digest, consider and formulate your reaction, and even think about the best means to deliver said message. You might not even respond at all. And that was often OK as well.

Nowadays you no sooner send something out than you expect an answer. And if you don't get one, you figure something must be wrong with your connection. It's almost inconceivable to you that someone somewhere doesn't immediately drop everything they are doing in order to react to your post/tweet/email. Even a single letter like "K" is all it takes to validate your efforts, whether it's a request for a meeting, a recipe or a Justin Bieber sighting.

But that's the response side. For now, I am on the receiving end, and there's nothing being received. Nothing. Like the rat that I am, I hit refresh; still nothing. Again. Oh, look! An update on a concert series we've attended in the past. Interesting, but I'll be out of town when it happens. Delete. Refresh. Nothing. Hmmm. I wonder if the internet is broken.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always seems to have a device within reach. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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