I didn’t know I could turn off the traffic light scoring system. To be honest, it never dawned on me to check. I wasn’t aware it was an issue.
But now I see what’s happened…I’ve become one of B.F. Skinner’s pigeons. Pressing, tweaking, responding in the hope it will reward me with a beautiful green light on the screen for a particular plugin.
You know, the kind that tells you you’ve done a good job. That the machine approves of your work.
Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, my own desires align with the system, and the green light grants me entry without a need for compromise. But most of the time the disapproving red face tells me to make sweeping alterations if I want to be accepted.
Processes of behaviour modification are often innocuous, having been built with the best of intentions. They can help us learn languages, save money, and improve our health with better sleep and exercise.
The one for which I’ve turned out the lights is the Yoast SEO plugin on my website. It gives a traffic light score for the overall “readability” of a blog post, and its technical standards of search engine optimisation. Green smily face for ‘Good’, amber neutral face for ‘Improvements’, and a red unhappy face for ‘Problems’.
These can be really helpful tools. But only if and when they help us do what we actually want to do. And only if we feel free (and are able) to live without them when they don’t serve our intentioned purposes.
I still use the plugin, but I’ve toned it down. Literally…to greyscale.
I have a feeling that my morphing into a pigeon might be one of the reasons I’ve not blogged much over the past couple of years. Because when I write from my heart it doesn’t often generate a green light. It doesn’t fit the system.
I could try to be OK with that and get comfortable with the colourful consequences. But there’s something about seeing orange and red lights that feels like a judgement call. A criticism. A point that must be corrected.
Why didn’t I just turn it off?
Because I hadn’t noticed an issue. Until yesterday.
I picked up a book by my friend Mark. It’s called The Creative Wound, and it’s a beautiful read. Full of heart, soul, and freedom.
“This is how I want to write”, I thought as I spent more than an hour diving back into his anecdotes and reflections.
“What is stopping me from writing like this?” I paused to consider.
“I’m blocked”. That was my first reaction. But no. That’s just a safe, lazy, standard excuse. As if being blocked is not a symptom of something else.
And anyway, I’m not blocked. Not internally, anyway. I’ve been creating all kinds of stuff lately. My words have flowed onto the pages of my journal. There’s no problem there. It’s not me.
It’s the system.
Not my system. THE System. The System of Systems. The system I must follow if I want to give myself a chance of “success”. I am searching for a green light!
That previous paragraph is one that wouldn’t have survived the readability system. You don’t get a green light if you start three or more consecutive sentences with the same word. I’m not sure why.
I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve torn apart many paragraphs over the years, in an effort to satisfy the machine’s appetite. And I’m pretty certain that in so doing, my words have packed less of a punch at times.
In my experience, repetition is a great tool for creating an impact.
…when used in the right way of course. Because the flip side of that is the repetition of your keyword. The word you want to rank for on Google. You need to repeat it plenty of times. Pop it in the headings, subheadings, and early on in your title. Let the system know you’re serious about this thing. You want to be rewarded, so you’re invited, nay rewarded…to dump on your own work.
Rise Of The Machines
We talk about our concerns that machines are going to take over the world. What sort of image does that conjure in your mind? For me it’s a land of robots and metallic automatons, walking around and operating things in the way humans used to. But maybe it starts in a far more insidious way than that.
With our thinking, our actions, and our reactions. When technology is used to influence and even modify our behaviour, it is WE who become the machines. We train our brains to perform mechanically. To deliver results and hit our targets.
The System needs predictability, consistency, and un-creative standard modes of operating.
It uses our natural habit forming processes of trigger, routine, reward, to subtly change us. There’s just something about that green light. I definitely get a feel-good kick when I’m rewarded by it.
In fact, when I woke up this morning, my FitBit told me that I scored a green “good” with my sleep. I was disappointed not to hit a darker shade of “excellent” green, but it was better than receiving the amber “fair”. Oh those days are hard. Tainted. Failures.
Maybe I’ll see fit to remove that device from my life at some point too. I know it has a hold on me. Perhaps one day. For now I am happy to spend time raising my own awareness of where operant conditioning is not only present, but actively taking me away from what I want.
And even now my mind is curious. Would this essay get the green light? I’m not even going to check.