Radio, Rats, B.F. Skinner (Pandora): a descent into madness

7093991205_700c7fb58f_bAm I just a rat in a Skinner Box?

Those who have taken an intro to psych course will have to have heard of the tale of the rat in the box — the one with electrodes jammed into his brain in the part called the “pleasure center,” hooked to a switch he could push. He liked pushing the lever so much that he never ate food or drank water — just sat by the lever, and tapped at it, over and over.

Till he died.

I’m not quite a Luddite. I’m not one who feels that he needs tons of gadgets around at all times, but I don’t think I’m scared of technology, either. I mean, I do have a blog on this newfangled Internet thing. But I think I’d be lying if I said I was never part-wary of any new means of dispersal for new information.

What I’m trying to say is: Pandora has murdered my brain.

That’s all I’m really trying to say.

B. Frederic Skinner [Misc.]And to clarify that, I guess that I’d better back up and explain to my readers my long and uncomfortable history with music. In brief, I love albums. Or loved them — past tense. At one point my CDs were stacked by the hundreds, and I’d wear them all out from track one to track 12. A good one was not a collection of songs but a work to be studied (cohesive and whole). I’d leave one in my player for weeks at a time, exploring its dark, twisted corners till it gave up its secrets.

I listened to Deitiphobia and Over the Rhine till I dug the profundity out of the one and profanity out of the other.

skinnerboxTo play through an album was to yield to the artist — to step out of your mind and into another. A secret affair with thoughts (sacred, profane).

And then I discovered Pandora.

I’m not (quite) ashamed to admit that the first time I heard of Pandora, it scared me (a little, at least). There was something obscene (something not-at-all-right) about servile computers bringing infinite streams of whatever sub-sub-genre music you asked for, a feed customized to the ears of the listener, down to the note. Something easy and lazy and even myopic.

Why yield to the artist if you can make him yield to you?

0198162246.skinner-box.1The soul of Pandora is pure gut reaction: thumbs-up or thumbs-down, within minutes of starting each song. If played by those rules, the game favors songs with a lot on surface and nothing beneath. Songs that tickle the ears but don’t reach to the soul. Not a banquet of food, but a ranch dressing hose.

I made challenging stations.

I did.

A classical station with Bach and Stravinsky. A ’50s jazz station with Ellington, Brubeck. But each time I logged in, I sighed and skipped over them, bowing before the Dark Goddess of Pop, the one they all call Instant Gratification. The one who would play me tween-targeted dreck (Lovato and Gomez), and I was embarrassed, but it tickled my ears.

rat-mirrorI was the rat, trapped in the glass box, and tapping the thumbs-up switch (“shock pleasure center”), just begging for jolt after jolt of the sugar-pop bubblegum. Lazy and starving and too unconcerned about anything else to admit it.

I looked in the glass at my eyes, bloody-red and round (bulbous), punctuated by whiskers and razor-sharp teeth, grinding together in four-on-the-floor while my soft, folded ears twitched in time to the shrill siren vocals.

And I lay on the floor while I starved in my filth, till I woke from the dream.

And I realized at last it was me, in my flesh (my pale, human skin), on the couch while the new Adam Sandler film played out on Netflix.


Despite all your rage, I am still going to ask you to read more of my stuff:

Rashomon, and Why Jesus is a Postmodernist

So, My Baby Got Vaccinated and It Made Her Sad

The real reason I won’t be buying a videogame system this week.

6 thoughts on “Radio, Rats, B.F. Skinner (Pandora): a descent into madness

  1. Pingback: Majestic Protests from a Magisterial Protestant; or, someone needs to harass Don Miller some more, so it might as well be me | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  2. Muhahaha. Awesome post. I gave up on Pandora a long time ago because when I stepped back from it, I realized I never enjoyed the experience of Pandora. Like you, I was too busy skipping songs to actually listen to one. So I gave it up.

    Best decision I ever made. I am an album guy now. My buddy and I are currently reliving 1989-1994 hip-hop in real time–so first week of Jan. 2014 yielded all of the hip-hop releases of the first week of Jan. 1989 and so forth. It’s pretty intense subjecting yourself to such things, but there is a certain child-like element to each week that makes it worth it. We are chronicling our journey, by the way, if you are interested. The site is (title came from the track off of Run D.M.C’s Raising Hell album!

    Thanks for the laugh. Enjoying your blog!

    • No worries, man. Thank YOU for actually reading this post…you might be the first. (Ha.)

      I confess I still use (and probably overuse) Pandora — it’s become part of my daily writing routine. (Sigh.)

      Son of Byford sounds fascinating. I probably have far too much musical ADHD to do a project like that myself, but I’ll definitely be reading the blog.

  3. Pingback: Matt Walsh, pt. 2: Your Political Views Were Genetically Determined, So Get Over Them | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  4. Pingback: In the Spirit of Aronofysky’s ‘Pi,’ Here’s a Mathematical Proof that ‘Noah’ Would Have Pissed Everyone Off, No Matter What | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  5. Pingback: Prebylutheranism 2nd Anniversary Spectacular! (My Top 10 Posts Ever) | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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