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An electroshock Facebook deterrent converts mindless browsing into pain

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Along with the idea of "digital detox" or technological self-control comes the idea of tech as an addictive substance, producing dependence or disease. Frustrated by their excessive Facebook use, two friends studying at the MIT Media Lab took this idea to its logical conclusion: harsh and painful conditioning to break the habit. Robert Morris and Dan McDuff hooked an Arduino and electrodes to a laptop and created something known as the Pavlov Poke, a combination productivity tool, conceptual art project, and implement of torture.

Use a distracting site like Facebook too often, and the Arduino will send a shock through a keyboard rest and into your hands. An alternate version substitutes emotional abuse for physical, sending an alert to Mechanical Turk every time you get distracted. A worker will call you up and read a pre-written script, asking what you're doing on Facebook or calling you a "lazy piece of garbage." After using it, Morris found that "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."

The shocks are painful but probably not harmful, the calls fairly entertaining; Morris says the whole thing is meant as a bit of a joke. It's not really Pavlovian conditioning so much as aversion therapy, and it's of limited effectiveness — Morris says that he using Facebook significantly less for a little while, but the long-term benefits are totally unclear, and he doesn't know if the device would work for anyone else. The shock pad, in fact, turned out to be so unpleasant that they ended up quickly disconnecting it.

He says, though, that it's meant to stimulate debate. "Technologies like Facebook are addictive by design," he writes, citing a study that compares social media to cigarettes or alcohol. "There is increasing evidence to suggest that, over time, Facebook use reduces subjective well-being. Would you still use Facebook if you knew it made you unhappy? Probably, if you're addicted to it." Of course, these studies are complicated. Any report that says Facebook as a whole is causing depression probably isn't telling the whole story, and the study Morris cites says that the "desire to work" was also strong and difficult to resist — but probably not something we'd treat with a sharp shock to the hands. The Pavlov Poke is a lighthearted way of showing how simple it is to fall into small, harmful compulsions... and a symbol of how anxious we are about social media and technology in general.