August 29, 2013 - Robert R. Morris
and Dan McDuff, a pair of PhD candidates at MIT, have developed a device that administers a non-lethal shock
when you overindulge in online distractions, according to John Biggs of TechCrunch.
They have dubbed the unit the "Pavlov Poke", and as Morris explained in a recent blog post, it features special code that monitors the websites that individuals visit using their browsers.
Should a specific site (for example, a popular social network) become visited too frequently, the device sends a shock through a peripheral device hooked up to the user's keyboard.
The Pavlov Poke is made of an Arduino board (a type of board that can be used to develop various applications), according to Victoria Woollaston of the Daily Mail. It is connected to the computer by a USB cable, and rests underneath the wrist of a user.
Once installed, the application's logging software tracks usage of various programs and websites, and issues a warning message if too much time is spent viewing or using the software or webpage. If use is not discontinued, the board will administer an electric shock.
Morris and McDuff, who say they created the device using odds and ends found around their laboratory at MIT, said that they were motivated to develop the unit because they waste, on average, a combined 50 hours a week using Facebook. In order to curb their apparent addiction to social media, the students turned to the Pavlovian method of classic conditioning, according to Nic Halverson of Discovery News.
"Did it work? We're not sure," Morris wrote, adding that multiple shock exposures were needed to know for certain, but that he and McDuff "found the shocks so aversive, we removed the device pretty quickly after installing it." He added that he did notice "a significant, though temporary, reduction in my Facebook
Before using Pavlov Poke, Morris said he often found himself using Facebook
"well before I noticed any conscious intention to do so," but that after the electric shock, "these automatic behaviors seemed completely rewired. I no longer visited the site unless I wanted to. My fingers no longer started spelling Facebook
as soon as I opened a browser window. I still visited the site, but I wasn't dragged there by some mysterious Ouija-esque compulsion."
"While this project is intended to be a joke, we believe a serious discussion is needed about how communication technologies are designed," the researchers said. "Technologies like Facebook
are addictive by design. According to comScore, Facebook
users spend an average of 400 minutes per month on the site. A recent study from the University of Chicago
suggests that Facebook
are more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol."
They explain that pages like Facebook
are based on engagement metrics, which measure the number of people that use them every day and the amount of time each visitor spends on the website. However, they add that those metrics are not designed to gauge how potentially harmful those goods and/or services could be, drawing comparisons to cigarettes - which have tremendously high engagement metrics, yet are extremely bad for smokers.
While devices like Pavlov Poke could help us recondition our existing online habits, Morris and McDuff said that a second and perhaps better approach is to alter the ways in which technologies are adopted. "If a technology appears especially sticky, users should proceed with caution and take pains to assess how the technology affects their mood over time," they explained. "Unfortunately, as new technologies become more mobile, they become harder and harder to resist. Indeed, the more ubiquitous and accessible the technology, the more addictive it can become."