The rat’s paw moves constantly, sometimes becoming a blur as it depresses the lever over and over. Once, twice, ten times, a hundred times, five thousand times in the space of an hour. With each push, an electrode sends a jolt of electricity coursing through its tiny rodent brain. The rat will push the lever for as long as 24 hours without stopping. It won’t eat, or sleep, or make any effort to leave the confines of its stainless steel cage. Unless the men in white lab coats cut off the current, it will stimulate itself to death.
It’s 1954, and science has just stumbled upon the brain’s pleasure center. Heady days! The excited researchers repeat the experiment on monkeys, and find, again, they can reach right into the hypothalamus and light it up like a Christmas tree, transforming their subjects into blissed-out automatons. The seminal paper concludes that these results could “very likely be generalized eventually to human beings—with modifications, of course”.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a rat stamping on a lever that stimulates its reward center, forever.
I hope they wheeled out Jeremy Bentham’s corpse for the occasion, so his mummified head1 could gaze fondly upon his legacy. Bentham, a boyish, possibly autistic Englishman, was the inventor of the modern science of happiness. Having observed that suffering was ‘bad’ and pleasure was ‘good’, Bentham came up with a nifty formula for maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. This was the kind of moral philosophy everyone could get behind, and the hedonic calculus soon became a central pillar of ethics and human development.
But if you take Bentham’s formula to its logical conclusion—perfect pleasure, no pain—you end up with the rats in the cage. This rapturous state of existence is known as ‘wireheading’, and it’s a recurring theme in dystopian fiction: should anything unpleasant happen to the inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, there’s always soma, delicious soma! “half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a weekend, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon…”
Huxley gave us the weak version of wireheading; his soma-addicts still have some semblance of a life. In the strong version, the pleasure floods the brain to the exclusion of any other activity—the equivalent of a never-ending heroin rush, or an endless orgasm. What if you were offered a pill that removed all pain, and made you experience the purest joy for the rest of your life? Unlike the starving rats, all your mundane physical needs would be taken care of. There’s no catch.
La Gros Mort
“The loving cup of strawberry ice-cream soma was passed from hand to hand and, with the formula, ‘I drink to my annihilation’, twelve times quaffed.”
I’m curious to see the results of the poll, but I think I can take a guess. If you’re anything like me, you not only wouldn’t take this deal, but it feels horribly wrong on some deep level. Why?
The French have a delightful euphemism for orgasm, la petite mort. The ‘little death’ is a reprieve from existence, a moment to step outside of consciousness, perhaps catch a glimpse of nirvana. But the dose makes the poison: somewhere along the way, the sacred becomes profane, la gros mort. Wireheading is a trip with no end, a permanent paroxysm of bliss that leaves the host mindless, drifting through the cosmos as an indeterminate blob. To choose to wirehead is no different to killing yourself: this is the bullet that the Benthamites must bite.2
John Stuart Mill said his teacher was always a boy, even as an old man, he knew “so little of human feelings… still less of the influences by which those feelings are formed”. This is interesting, because Bentham’s conception of happiness is exactly the sort of definition a child might come up with: scraped knees are ‘bad’, candy is ‘good’.
The weird thing is that we already had a grown-up definition of happiness, two thousand years before Bentham began fiddling with his slipstick. In the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle warns against identifying the good with pleasure—a slavish life, suitable only for beasts. The ancient Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia, is usually translated instead as ‘flourishing’, which encompasses not just pleasure, but purpose, and growth, and striving.
Eudaimonia plays merry hell with the instruments of the happiness researchers. Paradoxically, the good life often involves the denial of pleasure, or deliberate suffering. If you ask parents how they feel in the moment—up to their ankles in dirty diapers, sleep-deprived, social life obliterated, forced to endure torturous violin recitals—they’re invariably miserable compared to their childless peers. And yet, most describe having children as one of the happiest and most satisfying experiences of their lives.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever climbed a mountain, or fought for a cause, or run a marathon, or started a business, or even just opened a really stubborn pickle jar. Anything worth doing is likely to be painful, dangerous or unpleasant at least some of the time, but it provides a lot more lasting satisfaction than sitting at home in a padded room, eating candy.
The Experience Machine
Oh, you want eudaimonia? No problem, say the wireheads—there’s an app for that, too.
In the 1970s, the philosopher Robert Nozick came up with a thought experiment called ‘The Experience Machine’. In this virtual reality of infinite possibility, you would feel exactly as if you were writing the great American novel, or running the race of your life, or learning a new skill, or hanging out with friends—all while floating in a vat with electrodes wired into your brain. Once you’re plugged in, you forget you ever made the decision.
This is easier to imagine today; we’ve all seen The Matrix. Some people are already starting to bow out of the real world in favor of immersive video games, with their carefully calibrated flow states—you’re on a quest, overcoming challenges, you have community, and enemies, and purpose! Take the blue pill, and the thin gruel of reality is transformed into delicious steak.
Life in the Experience Machine beats the pants off reality, and once you’re plugged in, you forget you ever made the choice. Let’s put it to another poll:
This time I’m not so sure about the results. Nozick was confident that no-one would willingly step inside the machine. We want to actually do things, not just have the illusion of doing them. We want to be a certain type of person, not just an indeterminate blob. The moment you enter the machine, you never again have the slightest impact on reality. It’s an improvement on the blissed-out-zombie wireheading, but no less of a suicide.
This is what my gut screams at me too, but I dunno. Perhaps it’s just such a creepy idea—The Matrix really poisoned the well—that it’s impossible to acknowledge we should absolutely take this deal. We’re really bad at predicting what we want, after all. So I’ll grudgingly concede that ‘perfect wireheading’ might well be the optimal state of existence.
Of course, this is all academic. What really matters is that anything less than perfection would be horrifying. One of the fears about superintelligent AI is that it might fail to understand the complexity of human values, and wirehead us in some flawed way. We’d be locked in the machine and doped for our own good, docile and drooling, proving in civilization-ending fashion that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.
There’s a bit of a blind spot here, because it doesn’t take a superintelligent AI to make this mistake. After all, regular old human-level intelligence manages it all the time…
“As always, the weather is a balmy 72 degrees and sunny, and, uh… Oh, I see the ship’s log is showing that today is the 700th anniversary of our five year cruise. Well, I’m sure our forefathers would be proud to know that 700 years later we’d be… doing the exact same thing they were doing. So, be sure next mealtime to ask for your free Septuacentennial Cupcake in a Cup!”
—Captain McCrea, WALL-E
How delicious that Disney—a multinational entertainment company—should do such an stellar job of rubbing our noses in it. In WALL-E, Earth is a garbage dump, destroyed by runaway consumerism. The last humans while away the centuries on a permanent cruise through space, enjoying round-the-clock entertainment and fine dining while they slowly devolve into placid blobs. WALL-E is subversive because it’s a cartoon, but it’s not cartoonish—there’s no need to invoke magic pills and sci-fi hand-waving; all we have to do is keep doing exactly what we’re doing.
Primitive attempts at wireheading are already near-ubiquitous. Drug addiction is the most obvious parallel; other mutant members of the extended family include fast food, alcohol, prescription meds, porn, reality TV, online gambling, virtual reality, and immersive video games.
The common thread is that these are all ‘superstimuli’, distorted and amplified versions of the sensations we’re biologically hardwired to pursue3. An apple has 100 calories and lots of vitamins, a MegaThirstyGulp soda has 1000 calories and no nutritional value whatsoever, but our brains don’t know the difference. Superstimuli are deliberately designed—often by the smartest people on the planet—to exploit the peculiarities that make us human. They’re engineered to generate hits of dopamine at perfectly-timed intervals, bypass the higher functions, and tap straight into the older and more primal parts of the brain.
At least they’re pleasurable. But because this is imperfect wireheading, we adapt. The rush wears off, the hedonic treadmill ramps up faster and faster, lasting satisfaction dangles forever just out of reach. We always need a stronger dose, more ‘likes’, new depths of depravity, an ever more comically-oversized soda cup.
We could just keep pounding the treadmill. But because this is imperfect wireheading, we suffer. There’s no AI nursemaid patiently taking care of the mundane necessities—paying bills, personal hygiene, holding down a job. Nothing will stop the diabetes, or the cirrhosis, or the withdrawal symptoms, should we ever wrest back enough self-control to try and get off the ride. Humanity may have already peaked; for all our apparent progress, life expectancy in the US is going backwards.
Most people in developed countries now have the means to anesthetize themselves around the clock. Everything is available on demand, at the click of a button, delivered to the door, or beamed out across a million channels in breathtaking HD clarity. Uber, but for X! Why even bother leaving the house? No need to walk! It’s never been easier to obtain short-term pleasure, or to obviate short-term suffering. But there’s always a trade-off.
The Gray Life
CAPTAIN: “I can’t just sit here and… and do nothing! That’s all I’ve ever done! That’s all anyone on this blasted ship has ever done—nothing!
AUTO: On the Axiom, you will survive.
CAPTAIN: I don’t want to survive! I want to live!
The lack of dialogue in the first half of WALL-E makes it difficult not to notice the one recurring line:
Each robot character has a clearly defined purpose, whether it be mundane—picking up trash—or extraordinary—searching for new life. The robots know why they exist, and what they need to do. It’s only the humans, drifting aimlessly through space, who fear the question.
Who wants to be a vestigial human being? Freed from the ‘tyranny’ of work, nothing to contribute; I am Jack’s useless appendix. Generational welfare traps are not pretty. A Universal Basic Income sounds good in theory, but it might be the final nail in the coffin. Good luck telling someone hooked on drugs, or fast food, or reality TV, that they don’t really want this—that it might feel good in the moment, but it’ll only drown them in ennui later.
No doubt it’s patronizing to imply that everyone should be building cabins in the mountains and reading Aristotle. People know their own minds best. In econ-speak, MTV and Mountain Dew Arctic Burst and prescription painkillers are ‘revealed preferences’. There’s definitely an element of finger-wagging here; the elite have always sneered at bread and circuses. But I don’t think that’s all of it.
That is, unless you think it’s a coincidence that mental health problems are skyrocketing—in my home country of New Zealand, twice as many people kill themselves as die on the roads—that America is in the grips of a deadly opioid crisis, that fertility rates are falling below replacement levels, that obesity and diabetes have reached epidemic proportions, that our ‘advanced’ societies are failing in a myriad of unexpected ways.
To paraphrase Huxley, it’s not the Black Death we have to fear; our generation’s affliction is the Grey Life. The communal structures in which people used to find meaning are crumbling, and the lonely pillar rising in their place—that of the atomized, self-stimulating individual—feels kind of precarious.
Our vaulting ambition may have got the better of us. Religion and mythology and quaint old-fashioned notions of ‘virtue’ would not yield to our shiny new measuring apparatus, so we left them for dust. It would be bleakly ironic if, despite our incredible wealth and fairytale technology and elegant scientific method, with which we have poked and prodded at the entrails of the universe, we had so completely failed to comprehend the contents of our own heads.
Flourishing can’t be flayed and pinned to the page by economists, with their slide-rules and pocket protectors. It doesn’t come in convenient cardinal units. Real human wellbeing is a slippery little beast; if you pursue it head-on, it slides from your grasp, so we just extend our sticks and measure something and call it ‘happiness’, and Jeremy Bentham’s severed head grins its boyish grin until the end of time.
The proverbial drunk searches for his keys under the streetlight, despite having lost them out in the darkness. We stick to what we know best, and we’re getting really good at the wireheading kind of happiness. Every day, the algorithms improve, and the molecules get more pure, and the games become more addictive, and the companies capture another slice of our attention. Every day, the bar for resisting gets higher and higher. Every day, the full force of technology is brought to bear on the great project of modernity: transforming human beings into happy blobs.
Pleasure or purpose—choose one! And choose carefully. Once the wire is lighting up our reward circuits, we can hardly pull it out, any more than the rats could. Of course, most of these trade-offs have been made for us. We live in a world optimizing for more and greater pleasures, for the negation of pain, and the avoidance of suffering. This is undeniably a good thing. But I’m not sure if it’s the most important thing.
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Where the Greeks focused on character and self-development, modern ethics focuses on particular actions: Kill one to save five? Abort a baby or not? Haidt argues the shift away from virtue was a grave mistake, because it reduces the scope of morality—we hardly ever run into these trolley-problem-style scenarios in real life. It also relies on bad psychology: “Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail. It gets causality backwards.”
This is a very beautiful film that deserves a close reading. It’s ultimately uplifting, and the closing credits alone are worth the price of entry.
Everyone knows Brave New World, less so Huxley’s utopian counterpoint. A jaded English journalist washes up on a remote Indonesian island that has resisted the corrupting influence of the outside world. This is what I imagine would happen if you teleported the residents of Berkeley to a remote island and left them alone for a couple of decades: a mash-up of secular spirituality and science, complete with polyamory, psychedelics, and communal child-rearing. Utopian fiction is tricky because of the inherent lack of conflict, but Huxley manages to inject enough pathos to keep it interesting.
Gilbert is a Harvard psychology professor best known for his research on ‘affective forecasting’. Since we’re hopeless at anticipating what will make us happy, we probably shouldn’t take our intuitions about the Experience Machine too seriously. Besides, Gilbert points out, maybe we’re already inside it. Spooky! The whole book is pretty funny and well-written, and delves into some of the paradoxes within the field of happiness research.
- Bentham asked that his body be preserved, so it could be wheeled out at parties if his friends missed him. He wanted his head to be preserved in the style of the Māori (the indigenous people of New Zealand), but his friend botched the job. The resulting monstrosity originally sat perched between his legs, was kidnapped by a rival university, and has just gone back on display again, after being deemed too grotesque to be shown to the public for several decades.
- Most moral philosophers have abandoned the hedonic calculus for the likes of preference utilitarianism, which gives weight to the full range of human values. Similarly, the ‘capability approach’ in human development aims to replace the relentless focus on GDP with increasing optionality and agency. This is pretty cool, but it doesn’t seem to have filtered into the general public consciousness.
- For a full explanation, check out ‘Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization‘ by Eliezer Yudkowsky.