A while ago Rochelle suggested we had a conversation about the addictive nature of DS106. She was asking a serious question – what is the nature of DS106 that leads a few of us to dedicate more time than we have to it for no pay or egoboo and is our judgment affected in ways we do not see? She wondered about the neurochemistry of love and addiction – dopamine and serotonin in the brain playing havoc and leading to unhealthy choices.

About the same time I made this fun DS106 trailer:

I recognised the pattern she was referring to. I have spent longer than I am willing to admit trying to get an animated gif to do its thing for no discernible purpose other than I love it and fun is good. And yes, I know enough about addiction to know that addicts say the same thing about their drug of choice. If you want a funny look at this issue then you could do worse than watching Flesh-eaters Anonymous but be aware it is not for the faint hearted and its humour rather dark, more halloween than academia.

The rest of this post is a serious look at this proposition and explores some of the issues and questions we explored when we talked. An edited version of the conversation can be heard at ColinPods

Is our judgement being affected in ways we do not see? Many people who I consider wiser than me think so. Richard Foreman on The Edge explains the issue in a graphic and poignant way:

But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become “pancake people"—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

Will this produce a new kind of enlightenment or "super-consciousness”? Sometimes I am seduced by those proclaiming so—and sometimes I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.

But, at the end, hope still springs eternal…

George Dyson on the same page asks: Does the resulting mind belong to us or to something else (Google perhaps)?

Our work on creating a personal cyberinfrastructures puts DS106 on the ‘hope springs eternal camp’. Yet I think something wicked this way comes. I see pancake people all around me and I fight each day my own tendency to skim read and and store stuff instead of engage with it in the moment or in depth. It is not the same to engage and remember than to know where to find  and it is not the same to do a daily create than to do a life time create. Breadth and depth. I too sometimes shrink back in horror at a world without density and people lacking in layers. I too find that hopes spring eternal for this web that I love, but we need to engage with the tough questions raised by Rochelle. Are we making ill-informed judgements because we are addicted to the processes it affords? Are our cognitive abilities changing (not necessarily for the better) as we fall in love with the vast network of information and it offers us the illusion of ‘super-conciousness’ whilst (may be) dwarfing our ability to evolve a deeply textured personality?

The idea that dopamine is released into the system on the anticipation of a reward is key to this discussion. And the word anticipation needs underlying. We will keep going doing something that is not healthy to get this feeling of anticipation – Rochelle’s point is that may be DS106 is set up to maximise the feeling and hence we create a kind of an addiction to the process of creating as we anticipate the output and have to keep searching for more tutorials, more ideas, more resources to complete our tasks. DS106 ain’t no Google Form. 

Looking at it psychologically, I connect to Thomas Moore and the myth of Icarus. Listen to it as kid’s story here and relax for a while. We fly too high and get burnt by the sun. Moore has dedicated his life to the creative process and his advise is for balance and connection not grasping and keeping going at any cost.

If our tools are changing us and our way of thinking, but we keep on using them for pragmatic purposes or because we like the feeling that the anticipation of completion brings, we may be blind to harm. After all psychology is full of evidence about how we are not as smart as we think we are and how cognitive biases offer up to consciousness life as we want it to be not life as it is. 

Nick Carr in his seminal article ’Is Google making us stupid?’ notices something amiss:

My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Plenty has been written to refute the argument that the tool is shaping us and I myself want to believe that technology is neutral and that we can approach it from a centred space. Yet, what we are starting to uncover here is that if this were not the case, we would not notice.

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.

What are we creating when we have a tool that is taking away the mental models we carried with us and holding them for us?

Is knowing how to find stuff enough for true creativity?
Can we make new connections or has every thought on the web been thought and we are simply recycling?
Is technology supporting the kind of thinking that is not original, is not about new ideas or new connections, but just about reuse and remix?
Guy Claxton reviews extensive evidence in his book ‘Hare Brain and Tortoise Mind’ that shows human creativity needs a mode of thinking that attends to complex inner density – the tortoise mind- if we are to avoid just recycling new ideas. If we are hooked on searching and not on the quality of what we find, then may be the tool is mis-shaping us?  He also argues that we are becoming a society of articulate incompetents as we repeat rehearsed narratives but do not have the lived experience to back it up.
We need to nurture the kind of thinking (tortoise mind) that is not driven by goals and objectives – may be DS106 allows that? Rochelle talked about what it was like to do DS106 in-house at work. The focus is more on application and collaboration in order to support the taking of risks and creativity. If we can create a sense of a collaborative ensemble and can be relaxed together we release more dopamine and can inspire each other, help each other be on the creative edge. What came up for me, Rochelle said in our conversation, is this: are we messing with our brain chemistry in ways that are not supportive? How do we use DS106 in our life beyond just fun, so that it is more than having a bag of Doritos at a party?
It may be that DS106 is the space some of us choose to access our Tortoise non-goal driven mind. It may be that others use it to output art, and yet others use it as art therapy. For me, it is a about the digital element of story and my own fascination with novelty and anticipation – I love new tools and can always see potential applications in my work, even if those I work with do not yet. I am mostly in the ‘hope springs eternal’ camp. Is this driving an obsession? Is this the old rescuer pattern – look what I bring you  to fix all your problems? 
Creating an enclosure to be vulnerable and feeling safe within that enclosure to ‘feed our addiction’ may be thing to watch. DS106 has a shadow side and whilst this may not be the place to expand on that ( we did talk about it in detail – if you listen to the podcast), what is relevant is that we may be missing something about its structure that is creating an addictive pattern in the brain. I wonder if the ‘something’ may not be connected to the implicit ground rules and role modelling that make this community such a safe place to experiment. 
It is not, however, safe for everyone. It may be possible to create some guidelines that would include something about how to avoid getting addicted and how to deal with situations that push us beyond the flow channel and into anxiety or boredom. Rochelle and I talked about this and it is work in progress. It may lead us to joint research and may be an paper?
Meantime, we are working with the paradox as participants and educators. We love DS106 and its potential and if it it were changing our cognitive patterns in non-supportive ways, we would not notice. The nature of it as a ‘tool’ may be one that encourages dependency, yet we both feel that it is important to hold the tension and not plunge for easy solutions or criticism. This is what made this conversation interesting and insightful for me, at least. 
Some questions we are asking:
  • What are the things that make DS106 the kind of learning environment that it is?
  • It is a special creative enclosure, but why? What is its shadow?
  • Are we just getting addicted driven by chemistry in relation to the environmental conditions the DS106 space creates?
  • Do others experience a sense of concern for themselves or for the more vulnerable in the community? 
  • Are we creating a set of conditions that is not conducive to making good decisions? 

A key element to investigate seems to us to be the drive to seek. There is evidence to suggest that we prefer the chemistry of seeking than that of getting. Yoffe says in her article that humans and rats seem crazed not happy when they learn to stimulate the brain chemistry of seeking:

[self-stimulating rats and humans] did not exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or repeatedly having orgasms. The animals, he writes in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, were “excessively excited, even crazed.” The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging. Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn’t experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be caught in a loop, Panksepp writes, “where each stimulation evoked a reinvigorated search strategy” (and Panksepp wasn’t referring to Bing).


She suggests that our net searching behaviour is just an addiction, that we ‘keep hitting enter just to get our next fix’. Rochelle highlighted in our conversation that in DS106 we are constantly seeking – new ideas, new tutorials, new people to bring into the ‘cult’…

Yoffe again, quoting Berridge:

That study has implications for drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors. Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite,” he explains.

So do we find ourselves letting one animated gif lead to another, or one DS106 movie trailer lead to another, knowing it is not vital and that we really should sit and have dinner with our spouse instead? Do we keep clicking just to get the next fix? Is time to form DS106 Anonymous?

From a pedagogical viewpoint, I am interested in exploring how we are structuring our online learning environments to pander to particular bio-chemical states wether functional or not, over time.

For now we closed our conversation with the observation that whilst DS106 may encourage unhealthy seeking behaviour ‘it does open our heart and connect us with others. But may be that’s just the drugs talking.
In closing I feel compelled to quote in full the conclusion of Yoffe’s article on seeking:
If humans are seeking machines, we’ve now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious. In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes of driving two indoor cats crazy by flicking a laser pointer around the room. They wouldn’t stop stalking and pouncing on this ungraspable dot of light—their dopamine system pumping. She writes that no wild cat would indulge in such useless behavior: “A cat wants to catch the mouse, not chase it in circles forever.” She says “mindless chasing” makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs “because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior.” As we chase after flickering bits of information, it’s a salutary warning.