From the editor

Are laptop and other technological devices types of Skinner Boxes?

By V. Krishna Kumar

Skinner, the head honcho of radical behaviorism, designed technology that shaped and controlled the behavior of many rats. It appears that Skinner’s notions are fully at work at an unprecedented pace with new technologies continuously shaping our work habits, lifestyles, and relationships with friends and family members. Only some years back, I had a home office set up in the basement with a desktop computer and monitor. I would go up and downstairs a few times a day to work, giving me a nice workout. The only thing I might bring downstairs was a cup of tea but usually not food.

Now the situation is different—the office set up downstairs still exists, but I am unlikely to go downstairs unless I am looking for a certain book, using the treadmill, re-setting the Wi-Fi router, or transferring a file from my old computer. I have a new work space—my family room where I sit on the couch with my laptop and TV on, but muted with closed captions and do just about all of my work on the couch. I occasionally glance at the TV, perhaps as my eyes probably have the need to watch a large screen rather than the small laptop screen. As I write this editorial, my attention wandered to the commentary about iPhone 5 on CNBC, giving me a short break from my ongoing struggle to find the right thoughts or words to complete this editorial. Every so often, an incoming email alert pops up with a ding in a small window on the screen while I am engaged in other tasks on my laptop. The coffee table and the floor space underneath serve as my desk cluttered with papers and books, requiring a quick tidying up when some visitors arrive.

Headsets and closed captions make it possible for another family member to watch TV while you continue to work. The laptop and TV combination cuts down on any lengthy conversation, the possibility of getting into arguments, and the need to share irrelevant small talk such as what happened at work today. Using the family room makes snacks and food easily accessible. The Wi-Fi router has redefined the phrases “work space” and “couch potato.”

I see students in the students’ lounge at the university with their heads buried in laptops, hardly socializing with each other. I wonder how many students go to the library these days and for what purpose. It’s good that my university allowed a Starbucks to open in the library where I do see students socializing. If I go to the library, I see more students on the computer than in the stacks looking for a book or reading a journal. A few years back, I remember walking to the library and staying there for several hours once or twice a week, but my main reason to go to the library these days is to deliver a journal that I donate to the library. I typically obtain articles online or request them through the Inter-Library Loan service without leaving my home or office, saving considerable time. As I understand, people can now use a website that will do their homework, take tests, and get an online degree on their behalf for a fee. Individuals getting a degree using these online services perhaps should list it as dis-Honorary degree on their CVs!

Receiving bills and making payments online save us significant time, even eliminating the occasional need to walk to a postbox located in the next block. The postal mail typically consists of catalogs, CE course announcements, ad pages from local stores, and some professional mail. Friends and relatives just forward emails they receive from others to keep you entertained or you just go on Facebook to find out what your friends or your relatives are up to. Facebook has given a new meaning to “keeping in touch” and knowing who is a “friend.” LinkedIn has redefined the term professional contacts—it keeps you informed on the updated profiles of your professional contacts, minimizing the need for you to contact them by telephone. I guess the time you save by using various online services gives you more time to do more work online.

Are laptop and other technological devices types of Skinner Boxes? I press keys on a laptop (analogous to bar press in a Skinner Box), and I get reinforced maybe on a variable schedule (possibly a combination of interval and ratio) by a variety of reinforcers, for example, interesting news, photos, and information on developments in technology. Additionally, the email alert popups and dings possibly serve as discriminative stimuli that sustain my online presence over long periods of time and keep me away from getting a real, perhaps a more preferred, reward of socializing with friends and engaging in small talk over a beverage at a bar in my neighborhood.