The pair have developed a device they call Pavlov Poke, named after Nobel Prize-winning Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. In his study of dogs, Pavlov found that a stimulus (e.g., ringing a bell) could be linked to a previously unrelated response (e.g., drooling), creating what's known as a conditioned reflex.
As noted by Nobel Media, advertising has adopted the technique to condition consumers to associate positive feelings with products. Facebook, a major advertising company, appears to represent a counter-example: A recent study suggests Facebook use makes people feel worse about themselves.
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Morris and McDuff want to use Pavlov's technique to deter use of Facebook, which they characterize as "addictive by design." Facebook, they say, is designed to promote engagement, but not well-being.
To mitigate Facebook's addictiveness, the pair created an Arduino-based keyboard hand-rest that shocks computer users who spend too much time checking the social network.
This is not without precedent: Last year, a man hired a woman to slap him when he procrastinated online. Thanks to Morris and McDuff, technology has made yet another job obsolete.
The two MIT students designed their project to keep themselves away from Facebook while they finish their dissertations, but presumably the device could be altered to punish over-reliance on Google or any other website.
The effectiveness of this approach remains open to question. It turns out the device imparts enough of a shock that its inventors were not keen to test their creation very extensively.
"Sadly, we found the shocks so aversive, we removed the device pretty quickly after installing it," Morris explained in a blog post. "Anecdotally, however, I did notice a significant, though temporary, reduction in my Facebook usage."
Morris says that he's no longer "dragged [to Facebook] by some mysterious Ouija-esque compulsion."
Pavlov Poke also provides a way to reduce Facebook dependence that doesn't involve physical abuse: emotional abuse. Instead of a shock, the system can be configured to respond to excessive social networking with scolding telephone calls, courtesy of Amazon.com's on-demand labor service Mechanical Turk.
(So if technology is destroying jobs like "personal slapping assistant," it's also creating new ones like "Facebook-usage harassment caller." That just leaves the issue of job quality.)
McDuff in an email said that Pavlov Poke is an "art/life hack/comedy project meant to promote discussion" rather than an attempt at a viable product. Nonetheless, the fact that there's an abundance of software-based alternatives designed to block access to social networking sites, such as Anti-Social, suggests self-control services have become indispensable as a defense against technology designed to be irresistible. We've entered into a technological arms race against ourselves.