When is it Wrong to Click on a Cow?

Three Stories

Imagine, for a moment, three young adults recently embarked on the same promising career path. The first comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings practising and playing a musical instrument. The second comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings practising and playing a video game. The third comes home from work each day, and spends their evenings hooked up to a machine which directly stimulates the pleasure and reward centres of their brain.

How do these people make you feel?

For some people with more libertarian, utilitarian, or hedonistic perspectives, all three people are equally positive. They harm no-one, and are spending their time on activities they enjoy and freely chose. We can ask nothing more of them.

And yet this perspective does not line up with my intuitions. For me, and I suspect for many people, the musician’s choice of hobby is laudable, the gamer’s is relatively neutral, and the “stimmer”‘s (the person with the brain-stimulating machine) is distinctly repugnant in a way that feels vaguely ethics-related. It may be difficult to actually draw that repugnance out in clear moral language – after all, no-one is being harmed – but still… they’re not the kind of person you’d want your children to marry.

The Good and The Bad

Untangling the “why” of these intuitions is quite an interesting problem. Technically all three hobbies rely on hijacking the reward centres of the brain, whose original evolutionary advantages were more to do with food, sex, and other survival-related tasks. There’s a fairly short path from arguing that the stimmer’s behaviour is repugnant to arguing that all three cases are repugnant; after all none of them result in food or anything truly “productive”. But this tack also seems to go a bit against our intuitions.

Fortunately, the world has a lot of different video games, and we can use that range to draw out some more concrete differences. At the low-end are games like Cow Clicker and Cookie Clicker, which are so basic as to be little more than indirect versions of the reward-centre-stimulating machine. More complex games seem to intuitively fair a little better, as do games with a non-trivial social element. Games that directly attempt to train us in some way also seem to do a little better, whether they actually work or not.

Generalizing slightly, it seems like the things we care about to make video games more “positive” are roughly: transferable skills, personal growth, and social contact. But this model doesn’t seem to fit so well when applied to learning an instrument. You could argue that it includes transferable skills, but the obvious candidates only transfer to other instruments and forms of musicianship, not to anything strictly “practical”. Similarly, social contact is a positive, but it’s not a required component of learning an instrument. Playing in a group seems distinctly better than learning it by yourself, but learning it on your own still seems like a net positive. Our final option of “personal growth” now seems very wishy-washy. Yes, learning an instrument seems to be a clear case of personal growth, but… what does that mean exactly? How is it useful, if it doesn’t include transferable skills or social contact?

There are a few possible explanations that I’m not going to explore fully in this essay, since it would take us a bit far afield from the point I originally wanted to address. For one, perhaps music is seen as more of a shared or public good, one that naturally increases social cohesion. It seems plausible that maybe our intuitions just can’t account for somebody learning music entirely in private, with no social benefits.

Another approach would be to lean on Jonathan Haidt’s A Righteous Mind and its Moral Foundations Theory. Certainly none of the three people are causing harm with their actions, but perhaps they are triggering one of our weirder loyalty or sanctity intuitions?

Thirdly, perhaps the issue with the third hobby is less “it’s not useful” and more of a concern than it’s actively dangerous. We know from experiments on rats (and a few unethical ones on humans) that such machines can lead to addictive behaviour and very dangerous disregard for food and other critical needs. Perhaps as video games become more indirect, they become less addictive and simply less dangerous.

Moral Obligations

Really though, these questions are being unpacked in order to answer the more interesting one in this essay’s title: when is it wrong to click on a cow? Or slightly less metaphorically: what moral obligations do we have around how we spend our leisure time? Should I feel bad about reading a book if it doesn’t teach me anything? Should I feel bad about going out to see a show if it’s not some deep philosophical exploration of the human spirit? What about the widely-shat-upon genre of reality television?

Even more disturbingly, what are the implications for just hanging out with your friends? Surely that’s still a good thing?

If I generalize my intuitions well past my ability to back them up with reason, we have some weak moral obligation to spend our time in a way that benefits our group, either through direct development of publicly beneficial skills like music, or through more general self-improvement in one form or another, or through socializing and social play and the resulting group bonding. Anything that we do entirely without benefit to others is onanistic and probably wrong.

The final question is then: what if that isn’t what I find enjoyable? How much room is there in life for reading trashy novels and watching the Kardashians? The moral absolutist in me suggests that there is none; that we must do our best to optimize what little time we have as effectively as possible. But that’s a topic for another post.

Performative Emotions and Social Media

Social media has changed the way we relate to each other, and to ourselves. This is not a particularly controversial claim in and of itself; the controversy comes when you attach a value proposition to this change. Even then, “controversy” is perhaps the wrong word. There are a few luddites screaming into the void that social media is ruining kids these days, and by golly in my day we walked thirty miles to school in the snow and we liked it. And then there’s everybody else, who just doesn’t care.

Granted, this isn’t exactly a fair telling. The effect of social media on our relationships, our emotions, and our selves is a hot topic in many social science departments, and has certainly spawned enough TED talks. But there is still a large gap between “we studied this” and “we think this is bad”. Ironically, the talks which are most axiological are the ones most likely to go viral, on the very platforms which they decry.

I would like to reassure you that I’m a young, hip thing and not a luddite screaming into the void, but it isn’t true. Luddite might be a bit strong, but fundamentally this post is about my belief that social media (and reality television, and youtube, and…) are ruining kids these days. How, you ask? By turning us all into actors.

The combination of modern societal/infrastructural wealth and our culture’s obsession with individuality has led to an explosion in the number of people living in the extended adolescence of Paul Graham’s neurotic lapdogs. As in high school, the net result of this is the pursuit of social status for its own sake and beyond any reasonable limits. This would be bad enough on its own, but modern social media amplifies the effect by providing a perfect, shallow, dopamine-inducing medium (is it weird to call “social media” a medium? It feels like I’m violating a plural matching rule somehow) for this pursuit.

What this means is that many people born in the 1990s (and particularly those born in the 2000s) don’t know how to actually feel emotions. I grant this is an unusual claim; it certainly isn’t among the common set of arguments raised against social media. Even so, I believe it is true. Social media and the pursuit of irrelevant status has resulted in a generation and a half of people for whom emotions are performative, instead of felt.

In this world, you can chase happiness, or you can chase the appearance of happiness, and given the distorting lens of instagram only the latter is relevant to the status games we play. Perhaps your sadness is real, but it’s not valuable unless you can ironically caption it with a pithy quote about self-care. Actual felt emotions don’t matter anymore, because it’s become a truth universally acknowledged that “everybody’s a mess on the inside anyway”. This “truth” has somehow simultaneously described the problem and normalized it away, but I believe it’s still a problem. A world in which people are fundamentally unhappy is a bad one, no matter what other nice properties it might have.

The interesting thing to note is that in this world, nerds are at an advantage. I don’t mean the popular, “everybody’s a nerd” modern pop culture version which has lost any useful semantic content; I mean the original version, the people who had just completely given up on social status altogether in pursuit of other interests. Only by detaching yourself from the status games can you start to worry about how you actually feel, instead of how you appear to feel in 10-second snaps. This is something I’ve lost sight of in the last six months, and something I’m trying to recover.

And oddly, on some definitions, going back to my stereotypical nerd roots is going to make me more cool, not less. Either way, I hope it makes me a better person.

Our Need for Need

It is a trite, well-established truth that people like being useful. But there’s more to it than that, or rather, there’s also a stronger version of that claim. People do like being useful, but useful is a very broad term. Stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, in that it’s a thing with a use, which needs to be done. And it’s true that some people may in fact actively like a job stocking shelves at a Walmart. But on the whole, it’s not something most people would consider particularly enjoyable, and it’s certainly not something that is considered fulfilling.

Let us then upgrade the word “useful” to the word “needed”: people like to be needed. While stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, the person doing it is fundamentally replaceable. There are millions of others around the world perfectly capable of doing the same job, and there are probably thousands of them just within the immediate town or city. If our fictional stocker were to suddenly vanish one day, management would have no trouble hiring somebody else to fill their shoes. The world would go on. Walmart would survive.

Now this is all well and good, but I would argue that there is an even stronger version of this claim: people don’t just like to be needed, people actively need to be needed. Over a decade ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay called Why Nerds are Unpopular; it’s a long essay with a number of different points, but there is one thread running through it that in my opinion has gotten far too little attention: “[Teenagers’] craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere”.

The important thing to note about this (and Graham does so, in a roundabout sort of way) is that teenagers in a modern high school are not exactly idle. They have class, and homework, and soccer practice or band practice or chess club; they play games and listen to music and do all the sort of things that teenagers do. They just don’t have a purpose. They are literally unneeded, shut away in a brick building memorizing facts they’ll probably never use, mostly to get them out of the way of the adults doing real work.

This obviously sucks, and Graham stops there, making the assumption that the adult world at least, has enough purpose to go around. Teenagers, and in particular nerds, just have to wait until they’re allowed into the real world and voila, life will sort itself out. And it’s true that for some, this is the case. A scientist doing ground-breaking research doesn’t need to worry about their purpose; they know that the work they are doing is needed, and has the potential to change lives. Unfortunately, a Walmart stocker does not.

To anyone who has been following the broad path of the news over the last decade , this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. It seems like every other day we are confronted by another article suggesting that people are becoming less happy and more depressed, and that modern technology is making people unhappy. Occasionally it is also noted that this is weird. We live in a world of wealth and plenty. The poorest among us are healthier, better-fed, and more secure than the richest of kings only a few centuries past. What is causing this malaise?

The simple answer is that we are making ourselves obsolete. People need to be needed, sure, but nobody wants to need. Independence is the American dream, chased and prized through the modern Western world. Needing someone else is seen as weakness, as vulnerability, and so we strive to be self-sufficient, to protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt. But in doing so, we hurt others. We take from them our need, and leave them more alone than ever before.

Of course, Western independence as a philosophy has been growing for near on three centuries now, and modern unhappiness is a much more recent phenomenon. There are two reasons for this, one obvious and the other a bit more subtle. To start with, our modern wealth does count for something. A small amount of social decohesion can trade off against an entire industrial revolution’s worth of progress and security with no alarm bells going off. But there is a deeper trick at play, and that is specialization.

In traditional hunter-gatherer bands, generally everybody was needed. The tribe could usually survive the loss of a few members of course – it had to – but not easily. Every member had a job, a purpose, a needed skill. That there were only a handful of needed skills really didn’t matter; there just weren’t that many people in any given tribe.

As civilization flourished, the number of people in a given community grew exponentially. Tribes of hundreds were replaced by cities of thousands, and for a time this was OK. Certainly, there was no room in a city of thousands for half the adult men to be hunters; it was both ecologically and sociologically unsustainable. But in a city of that size there was suddenly room for tailors and coopers and cobblers and masons and a million other specialized jobs that let humanity preserve this sense of being needed. If it was fine to be one of the handful of hunters providing food for your tribe, it was just as fine to be one of the handful of cobblers providing shoes for your town.

To a certain extent, specialization continued to scale right through the mid-twentieth century, just not as well. In addition to coopers and masons we also (or instead) got engineers and architects, chemists and botanists, marketers and economists. But somewhere in the late twentieth century, that process peaked. Specialization still adds the occasional occupation (e.g. software developer), but much more frequently modern technology takes them away instead. Automation lets one person do the work of thousands.

Even worse than this trend is the growth of the so-called “global village”. I, personally, am a software developer in a city of roughly one million people. Software development is highly specialized, and arguably the most modern profession in the world. At the end of the day however, I too am replaceable. Even if I were only one of the handful of developers in my city (I’m not), modern technology – both airplanes and the internet – has broadened the potential search pool for my replacement to nearly the entire world. My position is fundamentally no different from that of the Walmart stocker – I would not be missed.

At the end of the day, humanity is coming to the cross-roads of our need for need. Obsessed with individuality, we refuse to depend on anyone. Women’s liberation is slowly freeing nearly half of the world’s population from economic dependence. Technological progress, automation, and global travel are all nibbling away at the number of specialized occupations, and at the replacement cost of the ones that remain. The future is one where we all live like the teenagers in Paul Graham’s essay: neurotic lapdogs, striving to find meaning where fundamentally none exists. Teenagers, at least, just have to grow up so they can find meaning in the real world.

How is humanity going to grow up?