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June 22, 2005

Experience Machines

Will Wilkinson criticizes Richard Layard concerning Nozick's "experience machine":

Will Wilkinson / The Fly Bottle: Value Monism & Public Reason: More Layard Flogging: Here's what [Layard] says about Nozick's famous experience machine:

If offered the chance, asks Nozick, would you plug in? Of course, many people would not, for all sorts of reasons. They would not trust the machine to deliver what it promised, so they would prefer to keep their real autonomy. Or they might have obligations to others that they could not perform if they were inert. And so on. Thus this is a weak test case, especially because it describes a situation so far from our reality that we have almost become a different animal.

That the machine perfectly delivers as promised is stipulated. Inability to entertain the counterfactual--to actually conduct the thought esperiment--is not an argument against it. And 'obligations to others they could not perform'? Well, yes. This is precisely the sort of thing people might worry about because people generally think they ought to meet their obligations, regardless of the hedonic payoff. That's part of Nozick's point, dipshit. If Layard was honest, he would bite the bullet and say, yes, plug in. And if there was an experience machine for each of us that would maximize the hedonic quality of our experience, then we would be obligated individually and collectively to forgo a real life of actual action and actual engagement, and instead climb into our pods on the Matrix pod farm, and dream sweet virtual dreams until we die. If Layard will not deign to explain to us why, despite our deep sense of revulsion, we ought to see this scenario as the happiest of all possible circumstance, he cannot expect us to acquiesce to his Benthamite Philosopher Technocrat fantasy.

I find this very interesting.

Wilkinson doesn't seem to have a clue about just how much time we already spend plugged into "experience machines."

I, for example, just spent an hour and a half lying largely motionless on my bed, plugged into a low-tech experience machine. Although my physical body was motionless and largely unstimulated, the experiences that my mind was having as I was plugged in was of going back in time to May 1979, of teleporting across an ocean to a seminar room in King's College, Cambridge, and of listening to thinkers like Michael Ignatieff, J.G.A. Pocock, Donald Winch, and Nicholas Phillipson expound their respective takes on political economy and the Scottish Enlightenment. The experience wasn't "real"--I wasn't really in King's College, it wasn't really 1979, there was no conference I was present at, et cetera. But the fact that I was jacked into a low-tech experience machine rather than present at a conference did not make my experience "bad" or second-rate or not worthwhile. In fact, it was a much better experience than I would have had at the real conference: I could fast-forward through the boring talks; I could pause and rewind the action to make sure I grasped important points. And I could speed things up.

I read, after all, perhaps five times as fast as people typically talk--ten times as fast as if they are not well prepared, and using lots of filler and recapitulation as they try to figure out what to say next.

It's much more pleasant to lie on one's bed in the cool California evening and read Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff, eds. (1983), Wealth and Virtue: The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 0521312140) http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/asin/052131240/, than it would have been to have to shlepp all the way to the fens of East Anglia in the rainy month of May for the conference.

So, yes, we would choose to plug into the "experience machine." We do so every day, even though our current instantiations of the technology are very crude and extremely low tech and unconvincing. Wilkinson does too.

Of course, we don't plug into our experience machines 24/7. We are good Aristotelians as well as Benthamites: moderation in all things. But the fact that we are not jacked in all the time is not an argument against experience machines: food is good, and we don't eat 24/7 either.

Or perhaps what I am really saying is that we are already effectively completely jacked in, that the Singularity has already happened: that it in fact had happened by the time of Machiavelli's "Letter to Francesco Vettori."

Posted by DeLong at June 22, 2005 08:38 PM