Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Experience Machine of the Future

Hey.  I've been shoveling snow and consorting with family and trying to help keep a company in business and perfecting graduate school materials.  So.

When Games Invade Real Life is my link for you today, envisioning a future in which everything we do works with the same incentive structure as a video game.  Points for doing things you should do, like taking care of yourself and going to work, etc, points for doing things the advertising companies want you to do, like watching advertisements and buying their products.  A whole world of points, and obviously, a whole world of some crazy computer system knowing everything you are doing all the time, down to the toothbrush in the morning that the toothpaste companies give you points for using.  The speaker of this talk says it much better than I could.

Gaping privacy concerns that we in the Internet age just might have to learn to let go of aside, I'm not a huge video gamer, so this world in no way appeals to me for that reason alone.  I like video games, but they bore me pretty quickly and I'd rather Go Live my Life.  (I do quite like physical world role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, but I'm still going to reach a saturation point after a while.)  But what if the game was my life?  Or rather, my life really did work like a game? There is some powerful research out there into the power of intermittent reward, and don't some economists and social scientists and the like assert that most everything we do is based on reward and punishment, even if the reward is an intangible thing like "happiness" or "doing good things" as opposed to racking up money or points?  This talk caught my attention because, dude, this guy, (Jesse Schell, big shot game designer), presents a downright plausible view of the future world.  What if we really could re-structure our society that way, hi-jack our psychology into make us better people?

Yet I am reminded of an essay from ethics class, The Experience Machine.  Despite the fact that a machine capable of allowing every person to plug in and experience his or her idea of ultimate happiness without realizing that it's all an illusion would, all practical problems like maintaining it and dying of starvation, etc. aside, make everybody as happy as possible, something inside of us still insists that plugging into such a machine would be a very wrong thing to do.  Immoral, in some way we can't quite pin down.  Missing out on something very important about being alive, despite the fact that all of us who were plugged in should have better lives, because we would have only those experiences we want to have.

Even if a game-like reward society could encourage us to do more things that are good for us individually and good for society as a whole, there's something still...if not wrong about it, then certainly something that is lost. Perhaps the problem is that we could make society "better," but better by whose definition?  An "open-source" definition, edited by every entity that contributes to the game structure?  That seems most likely, and it is the most benevolent possibility--although it is not the only possibility, and that is where those heck-of privacy issues start rearing their heads again.

Yet I protest along the same lines as Nozick supposes we would protest an experience machine: what if my definition of "better" falls utterly outside the confines of simple act and reward?   What if I want to do things for reasons unrelated to racking up points, whatever real-world form the concept of "points" might take?  Am I already lying to myself by believing that I do?

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