July 30, 2004

Heavenly Earth

Conquering Heaven on Earth by Lene Johansen brings up an interesting issue: as our economy advances, what will we use it for, and what becomes the new status objects?

The basic argument could perhaps be described as "divergent Maslowian": as we make the bare necessities cheap enough, people start spending on the next step in the ladder of needs. But each level offers far more different ways of satisfying the need. We can only get oxygen by breathing, but we can vary food quite a bit. In fact, once the basic nutrition demand is satisfied we will add taste, culture, ethics, political and status signals to it (a bit of spicy freedom fries to the venison, anybody?). And the ways we signal socially are even more diverse, since they are so unconstrained by reality.

As we become better at producing goods to satisfy desires we run into problems. Hardwired desires for high-calorie food to ensure survival clash with ready availability and produce obesity. It is interesting to note that over-drinking is not the same problem as over-eating, since the threshold when the drive stops appears to be much sharper. Since we cannot retain water efficiently there is no point in trying to drink too much, and evolution has not favored overdrinking. It is the drives that do not saturate fast that leads to trouble.

Will we get similar problems when we get good at producing services for every desire? My guess is that eventually most sexual needs will be more efficiently satisfied using artificial systems ("technogamy") than other humans, which is probably just as well. But until the artificial systems around us also produce the same emotional and social interactions as the humans we have evolved to co-live with people will still have unmet emotional needs for each other.

[ I don't see any reason why we wouldn't reach the point where ultrasocial AI also would fulfill our emotional needs, but at that point the assumptions of the scenario also implies the existence of human-level, emotionally humanoid AI, and we end up with a mixed human/AI society. With AIs as potential consumers too, of course. They will have needs too. ]

So my guess is that a world with effective service production the big unsaturated drives will be mostly social and self-actualizing. Which doesn't seem to be as risky as overeating from our current perspective. That may well turn out to be very wrong; one could imagine a material paradise where people spent most of their time engaged in social competition and climbing. Hmm, sounds like quite a few reality soaps, in fact.

But such drives are less constrained, and hence can go in many more direction than just "more". The one exception might be social rank, which in humans seems to be pretty scalar. But being recognized by others, that can be achieved both by being extrovert, funny, good-looking, having achieved something, trying to achieve something, or a thousand other possibilities. This means there is competition only for attention and social time. The interesting thing is that such unconstrained happiness-seeking seems to be never-ending and fundamentally creative.

In the end the difference might be that some forms of happiness are consummatory: we consume something, and then we are satisfied. Others are productive: we create or do something, and we are happy when we do it. Compare it with ordinary pleasure and eudaimonic flow.

So maybe we are moving towards heaven on earth (thanks to free markets, free competition and free creativity), but it seems plausible that the immensely happy people of this world will consider themselves engaged in fierce competition and hard work. Just as we think we live hard in this modern world.

Posted by Anders at July 30, 2004 10:22 PM