The Skinner Box

In B. F. Skinner’s famous experiment in operant conditioning, a lab rat is placed inside a container and rewarded with a food pellet on completion of a task, triggered by an external stimulus such as a light, a sound or a shock. The pattern of reward becomes increasingly inconsistent, following a ‘schedule of reinforcement’ controlled by the experimenter.

Skinner Box (Operant Conditioning Chamber)

From Wikipedia:

Skinner’s operant chamber allowed him to explore the rate of response as a dependent variable, as well as develop his theory of schedules of reinforcement. If the event increased the number of responses it is said to strengthen its responding and if it decreased the number of responses it weakens the responding.

In short: a Skinner Box allows one to observe habits being formed, through control of the conditions surrounding a subject and their reward.

The lessons learned span far beyond Psychology: Education; Behavioural Economics; Interpersonal Communication and even Video Gaming have each benefit from an understanding of operant conditioning, so it is no surprise to see advertisers capitalising on our easily pliable behaviours.

One such experimenter, a brand of flavoured rice cake, posed the research question “how far will you go for Fantastic Delites” – their conditions, a large scale Skinner Box and the baying masses of an Australian shopping mall.

The results are equal parts twisted, fascinating and funny:

The evidence suggests human subjects will endure an embarrassingly strict schedule of reinforcement, especially in a public scenario.

At last year’s TEDxObserver Cory Doctorow gave a talk comparing the machinations of Facebook to operant conditioning of a more dangerous kind… and I can’t help but feel he has a point.

We will go pretty far for free rice cakes – but would we go further knowing we were in a Skinner Box?

Applying Baudrillard

For Jean Baudrillard (1983), “at any moment in the course of our modernity, a particular arrangement of signifying objects and images conditions the way we see the world” (Clark, 1995). “Each major transformation is accompanied by a feeling of disorientation and discomfort over the loss of the previous ‘reality’. This effects a recourse into the imagined certainties of the receding order to ground or stabilise that which is new. In this way, “reality loops around itself”, as “each phase of value integrates into its own apparatus the anterior apparatus as a phantom reference, a puppet or simulation reference”” (Baudrillard, 1988: 145, 121; cited in Clark, 1995). In these words, we see Baudrillard’s perspective can apply neatly to my analysis of Mobile AR. Taking up where McLuhan left us- a view of the Magic Lens constrained by its deterministic overtones- Baudrillard injects the much-needed element of an actively social construction of Mixed Reality, whilst grounding my work in his Postmodern thought on Virtuality.

I am interested in the view that iterations of reality, whilst overlapping and viewable through the Magic Lens, support and influence each other’s existence within a wider structure. I could live wholly in The Virtual, and bring to it conceptions of the reality from whence I came. We see a similar behaviour in Alternate Reality games such as Second Life (Linden Lab: 2003) or The Sims (Maxis: 2000) whereby developers program known physical world causalities, behaviours and actions despite the near-limitless formal opportunities offered by the medium. Users, when given freedom, will likely bring their own conceits and personal experiences to these alternate realities, thereby foregoing what else might be possible in favour of their own culturally-inherited drives and ambitions. The Magic Lens presents a wholly new canvas for the social construction of reality. The collaborative and democratic Mobile 2.0 ethos that Nokia hope to breathe into Mobile AR could falter if users bring too much of our present iteration of reality to it. The Magic Lens offers an opportunity to reshape The Real, not solely through tagging buildings or leaving messages floating in mid-aid, but through the lessons we might learn through engaging with each other in a new way.

Baudrillard focused his work on how we interface with information, and how we build it into our view of reality. He posited that The Media had hijacked reality, becoming a powerful force in the construction of hyper-reality, a social reality that has become more powerful than we exert control over. Through the Magic Lens, we might give form to some aspects of hyper-reality. The medium allows for virtual elements to co-exist with real objects occupying space in the user’s own hyper-reality. In this way, each user can choose which hyper-reality they want to exist in, whether it is one in which 3D AR avatars walk the streets and go about their virtual lives; or one where arrows and directions graphically point out where to go to fulfil a shopping list’s requirements. The Magic Lens makes a shift from mass-media control to personalised, user-focused context-based reality: Reality 2.0 if you will.

Assuming AR does present a new layer to reality, there are certain Baudrillardian imperatives that we will bring to this landscape. One such imperative links the physical properties of real-world space- gravity, mass, optics- to our new environment. To make sense of virtual elements in their context we will employ what we already know about the environment we are in. This means that the most prized virtual objects will exhibit expected behaviour, intuitive interactivity and will be visually suited to its surroundings. Similarly, an object’s location in space alters its perceived importance. I would argue that should a common Mixed Reality exist, governing bodies would write entire protocol for the positioning and size of virtual objects so that one contributor could not take up more than his worth. Important to consider is that even writing hypothetically I am bringing Baudrillardian imperatives to task, applying democracy to a non-existent world! Baudrillard’s “reality loops around itself” has a troublesome effect on my analysis. Let me instead take a fresh perspective, in my next section written from the perspective of Walter Benjamin…