There’s a certain thought experiment that has been disturbing me for a while now. When I first heard it, years ago, I thought it was interesting but mostly theoretical and irrelevant. Now I think it throws a floodlight onto what might well become a defining crisis of the twenty-first century.
In 1974, philosopher Robert Nozick asked us to imagine a “Great Happiness Machine.”(1) Suppose technology has advanced to the point where the creation of perfect virtual reality worlds is possible. They are so good that there is no way to distinguish between a virtual world and the real world.
Suppose, now, that you have been given a choice: You can not only create your own perfect virtual world, but you can choose to live out the rest of your life in it. Do you want to live in a tropical beach paradise and never work again? Done. Do you want to be a billionaire? No problem.
Or maybe paradise and luxury aren’t “exciting” or “character building” enough for you, and what you really want is a world full of action, adversity and adventure? That can be arranged too. Would you like dragons with that?
You can be whoever you want to be, look however you want to look, lead whatever life you want to live and meet the perfect romantic partner, all with the click of a few buttons. You can even, if you wish, arrange to have your memory wiped so that you believe your virtual world is the real world. Yes, you can make yourself think that this is actually your real life.
So now the big question: would you plug yourself into the Greatest Happiness Machine?
a crisis of purpose
Nozick thought that most people wouldn’t. Subsequent research seems to bear this out, with recent studies revealing that only about 29% choose to abandon reality for their ideal world.(2) It’s not a small minority (and that number has the potential to rise if they’re asked to imagine that their real life is unhappy), but it’s a minority nonetheless.
For the other 71%, there seems to be something more important to life than simply having everything they want.
This issue is not original to Nozick. It goes back at least as far as Alfred Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters (1832), the tale of sailors washing ashore a land of people who do nothing but eat a certain “lotos-fruit,” which makes the crew high and contemplate never returning to the real world of toil and suffering.
Exactly a century later, Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World (1932), the disturbing dystopian depiction of a world where everyone takes a “soma” drug that renders them perfectly happy while being hopelessly enslaved.
But ever since Nozick, it’s virtual reality that dominates portrayals of this issue, from Total Recall (1990) to The Matrix (1999) to Black Mirror (2016). Whatever their differences, the underlying theme remains the same:
Something important is lost when we choose happiness and pleasure over reality.
Most of us have a deeper need than can be fulfilled by the dopamine highs of pleasure. We have a need for purpose, for the sense that our actions and relationships have meaning in the world. And this is something that cannot simply be programmed into a machine.
I used to think that settled it. But then I took a look around: the rise of social media bubbles and echochambers, online simulated worlds, the invention of AI and artificial relationships; and then, of course, there’s actual virtual reality.
Nozick’s thought experiment is becoming less and less theoretical. While 71% of us say we prefer reality over some elaborate hedonistic illusion, we are, step by step, insulating ourselves from reality at an ever increasing pace.
No, most of us won’t choose to enter the Greatest Happiness Machine; but we seem perfectly happy to sleepwalk into it.
the modern flight from reality
Perhaps this is all just a natural response to the human condition. As humans we’ve always sought to control our environment: from building shelters and digging wells to inventing vaccines and raising sea-walls. You could say that this is what civilisation is: the human project to have power over nature instead of the other way around.
In a sense, then, the creation of a virtual world where everything is perfectly controlled could just be the logical conclusion of civilisation itself.
Or perhaps it’s a response to social conditions. There are precedents for this. The Roman poet Juvenal wrote of Emperors throwing “bread and circuses” to distract the people from their real problems; Karl Marx wrote of religion being used as an “opium of the masses,” a painkiller that numbs the people to the truth of their own oppression.
It’s not hard to see how virtual worlds could be the logical conclusion of such attempts at social control as well; they’re the ultimate “circus,” the most powerful “opium.”
But whatever the case, if purpose and meaning are what most of us care about, then we have to draw the line somewhere.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that we are walking into the Greatest Happiness Machine with our social media bubbles and echochambers. Here, we can protect ourselves from pesky alternative opinions and only ever hear our own views echoed back to us. Yes, we are already in a world where you not only get to choose your own preferences, you get to choose your own facts.
Yes, people have always been drawn to echochambers of various kinds. But there’s no question that modern social media algorithms have made this phenomenon far easier and far more pervasive, with our feeds only exposing us to more of what we already “like.”
Good luck to the truth if you are mistaken about one of your beliefs. Even if you’re the kind of open-minded person who wants to know if you’re wrong, if you haven’t already “liked” the truth, then it’s going to have a hard time popping up in your feed and penetrating your echochamber. And if you’re not that kind of person, if you’re just looking to have all your biases, prejudices and tribal loyalties confirmed every day, then God help you.
This is how millions of people get sucked down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, variously alleging that the world is flat, that shapeshifting reptilian aliens hide among us, or that the world is run by a cabal of brain-juice harvesting satanic pedophiles.
If it sometimes seems as though different groups of people inhabit entirely different realities, it’s because they do.
Reality: 0. Greatest Happiness Machine: 1.
Picking up the pace and entering the Greatest Happiness Machine at a full run, we now have AI and the possibility of artificial relationships. Who needs the hassle, the compromises and – God forbid – the alternative opinions that come in a relationship with a live human being? Isn’t it just so much easier to get involved with someone (something?) whose sole reason for existing is to please you?
I give you Replika, the AI “friend” whose appearance, personality and interests are all completely up to you. They’ll only tell you what you want to hear and never hold you to account for your behaviour. Social skills, so necessary for human survival for so long, are redundant.
Pay a little more and you can even take your relationship to the “next level” (yes, really). Never again will you have to accept flaws in your romantic partner. Everything is all about you, and your echochamber is more tightly sealed than ever.
Sure, right now this technology is in its infancy. Your AI friend or lover looks like a cartoon and the conversation is a bit limited. But this technology is only going to get better; and once it’s combined with sex-robot technology, it’s not hard to see where it’s all going.
When your AI sweetheart looks, sounds and even feels like a real human being – except perfect in every conceivable way – how many people do you think will be motivated to brave the trials, tribulations and inevitable heartaches of the real dating world?
Reality: 0. Greatest Happiness Machine: 2.
Plummeting headlong into the Greatest Happiness Machine now, actual virtual reality is well on its way. Those VR goggles into which you insert your phone and wreck your eyes are only the beginning. Mark Zuckerberg’s “Meta” platform envisions social media moving entirely into a virtual world.
This will make the days of scrolling through a social media feed on your phone look like the times when we got our information from rock tablets. You will have an avatar where you get to look however you want to look, and you will interact with other people’s avatars. You may even be able to take your date to virtual paradises with virtual bars and virtual restaurants. Better yet, take your AI Replika.
And I have to admit – despite the fact that it will profoundly magnify all the problems that already exist with social media in terms of echochambers, loss of privacy, mass surveillance, corporations manipulating and marketing to you by controlling your perception of reality, and that it will almost certainly be hacked(3) – it sounds fun. But then, so does the Greatest Happiness Machine.
And again, the technology will only get better. The virtual world will only become more and more enticing, and reality will only become more and more lame by comparison. And when life in a virtual world is no longer some outlandish thought experiment, but instead is just the new “normal,” just how far will that 29% figure (who say “yes” to Nozick’s offer) begin to climb?
How long will it be before we see the first volunteers signing up to “plug in for good”?
We already know how addictive social media is. We’ve all seen – or are – people who reach for their phone without even thinking about it, like methheads chasing their next fix. We can only imagine how much worse would be a social media virtual world.
We also know that it will never be enough. On this point, ancient religions and modern science agree: whenever we gain what we want, we sooner or later tire of it and we just want something else. It’s the hedonic treadmill effect, where we live in a vicious cycle of always wanting more and never being happy with what we have. Virtual reality is the hedonic treadmill on steroids.
Reality: 0. Greatest Happiness Machine: 3.
unplugging from the machine
I, for one, am not throwing in the towel just yet.
Plugging into the Greatest Happiness Machine’s gilded cage is a choice. Sure, it’s poised to become a harder choice in the future than it was when it was just a harmless thought experiment without any real consequences, but it’s still a choice. We can still choose reality.
And if the real world is too “boring” for you, well there are solutions to that. And since this is a mindfulness blog, I’m going to be completely predictable and recommend mindfulness.
As I’ve written before, boredom isn’t really possible in a state of mindfulness. You don’t need a perfect paradise, a perfect adventure or a perfect partner to make life interesting. When you can experience sheer bliss – and pleasure, actually – simply by following the breath or the sun’s warmth on your face, everything becomes intensely, overwhelmingly, interesting.
Mindfulness means acceptance of things as they are, in all their messy imperfection. Imperfection is beautiful; think moss-covered rocks, castle ruins, entangled jungles, or that ugly but loveable pet dog.
The partner who sings off-key in the shower, who’s a bit clumsy sometimes, who you can take care of when they’re down, who will hold you to account for your nonsense and make you a better person.
The connections to be made in the real world are far more deep, far more meaningful, than can ever be experienced with a “perfect” AI ghost in the “perfect” dystopia of meaninglessness that is virtual reality.(4)
You could say, in fact, that it is perfection that is boring.
Let’s work on making the real world better, not our empty fantasies.
Let’s make life meaningful again.
1: Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State and Utopia. Basic Books, 2013.
2: Hindrinks, F.; Douven, I., (1 Dec 2017). Nozick’s Experience Machine: An Empirical Study. Philosophical Psychology.
3: Rosenberg, L. (6 November, 2021). Metaverse: Augmented Reality Pioneer Warns it Could Be Far Worse Than Social Media. BigThink.
4: Breines, J. (30 June 2015). 5 “Flaws” That Just Make You More Loveable. Psychology Today.