Thursday, April 20, 2006

Fast Food and Pornography

We have evolved to survive and reproduce. Survival works with heuristics – rules of thumb that tell us “eat things that taste good, and when there’s a lot, eat a lot” and “seek out attractive, healthy-looking mates” because during most of humanity’s history, survival was a close thing. Those who followed such evolved heuristics had marginally better chances to survive and leave behind children and grandchildren. They were our ancestors. For those of us lucky enough to live and work in prosperous societies today, survival is not such a close thing in the food and attractive mate departments. But evolutionary survival heuristics keep working anyway. The result? Fast food and pornography.

This is one of many seemingly off the wall conclusions of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in an essay in the April/May Seed Magazine. The title is “Why we haven’t met any aliens.” Huh? Yes, it connects. I’ll spoil it for you and tell you that the aliens lost interest in finding other minds in the universe when they perfected the arts of permanent self-stimulation. They perished in virtual worlds of their own creation, loving every minute of it, right down to the last GTA virtual gang-bang and Big Mac with Fries (or alien equivalents thereof). The virtual worlds didn’t actually kill them (though the fries may have). They just were having so much fun, they forgot to reproduce. ET is probably hanging out in Woody Allen’s orgasmatron. Hey, isn’t somebody working on that here?

Of course this is really about us. Are we pleasuring ourselves to death? It does seem that entertainment in its many forms occupies more and more of our time and attention in America, at least. Sure, we still work a lot. But it does seem more and more to be about the frivolous and pleasurable and trivial. Far removed from survival. Of course many of the world’s people are faced with more difficult day to day decisions than whether to watch American Idol (go Katherine!) or play X-Box. And we do institute clever, non-intuitive strategies for making sure that survival doesn’t get too easy. Like electing (well, not exactly) a “decider” president who pisses off the whole world and can’t wait to find another war to start. That should keep us from getting too fat and lazy! Some of us anyway.

So am I part of the problem or part of the solution? Take space. On one level it’s cool – Orbiter is a video game I don’t have to feel guilty about playing. It’s freaking physics, man! On another level, I really believe that a one-planet strategy could get us in trouble someday. I’d like to have a backup plan, a couple million humans fighting and bickering on Mars, instead of just the 12 billion or so down here. Writing Go Play In Space was my first attempt to stimulate interest in science, using the relative coolness of space flight to sell the relative geekiness of studying science stuff. But in the end, I’m sitting for hours in front of a computer, immersed in a virtual world of space by night, a virtual world of international business by day. I help to sell software that is used to design technical products involving light. Most of my customers are in Asia. What are they designing? Entertainment products! Whoa. Neo, you were right, there’s something strange going on here.


Brian Dunbar said...

They just were having so much fun, they forgot to reproduce.

I'll have to read that linked article before I can comment in a learned manner but I don't buy your summary.

People are not a monolithic block. If Culture X devolves into naval gazing they will be replaced by a more vigrous Culture Y.

There is probably a socio-economic theory for this .. or you can look at history and see it in action.

FlyingSinger said...

Thanks Brian. This was a somewhat tongue in cheek and loosely reasoned piece written after reading the SEED article and having a couple of glasses of wine.

You're right that people are not monolithic. For all the navel gazers and couch potatoes in America, we also still have a disproportionate share of super creative people and entrepreneurs here. We are not yet doomed. There are even those (a small few) who perceive a new frontier (space) and are invigorated by it and working to reach it, as you well know -- frontiers often have this effect, once basic survival is taken care of (and some people will even risk basic survival to explore the frontier).

I do feel that overall, societies that are both growing AND are still closer to the survival level, such as China and India, could be the more vigorous Culture Y you refer to.

We'll probably be OK -- the crack about making sure survival isn't too easy is not entirely a joke. The challenges of energy, climate, and terrorism could prove to be extremely invigorating, even frontier-like. And when the first ribbon goes up to GEO, that too will be pretty invigorating - when the New Frontier is just up the CNT beanstalk.