The Experience Machine

I had originally planned to refer to a textbook reading that I use for a class of mine in order to supplement this submission, but I must go where there is wi-fi, and the Muse has now struck, yet I am without the textbook (and there is, for once, a really cute girl in the coffee shop, and I want to indulge the fantasy that I will meet the woman of my dreams in a coffee shop, though I have not had the best success approaching women in coffee shops). Actually, I could probably find it online, but the Muse is telling me to keep moving my strong and nimble fingers. Yes, my divine dear.

Robert Nozick, in his “The Experience Machine,” invited us to join him in his philosophical laboratory back in the 70s (I bet it had plush carpeting and a velvet portrait on the wood wall paneling) for a short but strikingly provocative thought experiment. He asked to reader to consider whether he/she would opt out of actively participating in society in order to connect to a machine that is capable of producing the most elaborate, intense, and satisfying virtual reality (he did not use that phrase, though) experiences while sustaining that person’s bodily functions. This person could elect to spend several months at a time hooked up to this machine, and choosing the fictive fantasy for the next merry mind go-round would take only a few dreadful minutes in real time. Nozick then proposes three reasons why people may not choose such an intellectual incubation: one, we want to do, actually, certain things–not just experience the simulacra of having done those certain things ; two, we want to be, actually, a certain way; three, this would limit us to a man-made reality.

I tell my students that this has to be one of the most important (and prescient) pieces that they will read, given the very great likelihood that they will be confronted with this choice within their lifetime. One only has to look at the boundaries continually being pushed by virtual reality technology to see that odysseys of this sort await us in the electronic ether. Perhaps one need not do even that much. If one looks up from one’s own glowing smart phone screen to acknowledge others, one will find that every one else is still looking at his/her screen. In that way, we have already entered and limited ourselves to a man-made reality. My students usually give the answer that I think they believe I want to hear: “Oh no, how horrible–we would never do that,” they defiantly declare as they text under their desk top. However, usually one or two students is bold enough to admit: “Yeah, I’d try it–I mean, why not?” I admit, I walk that line of inquiry, too.

Most of us have already come to accept a simulacrum of life. Though the preview of this would have horrified my 90s self, I am now perfectly satisfied communicating with people via text messaging. In fact, as with many, I suspect, I often prefer it to actual face-to-face conversations, especially when I feel obliged to contact people whom I would rather not encounter in any significant manner. Perhaps the fact that I inconsistently blog is another sign that I have come to accept a simulacrum of life. While I realize that ever since the invention of symbols, a certain immediacy and rawness has been eliminated from our daily encounters. (John Zerzan wept.)  The textual transmission of knowledge can now be outsourced to media other than rather limiting auditory exchanges, allowing for a greater dissemination of knowledge and, well, civilization. This is not quite what I mean. Once again, referring back to my 90s self (who only occasionally wore flannel), I would have been disheartened to think that I would come to a point where I would often rather proffer ideas and debate them online than, say, sitting at a coffee shop or a bar. Given that I presently have this online outlet, I now almost grow embarrassed when serious discussion arises in public when, with my younger self, it was once the only conversation that I wanted to have in public.

Further in the article, Nozick upped the antagonistic ante when he asked if a transformation machine would be more tempting to those who may be able to resist the experience machine. Once again, prescient. With transhumanism poised to become a bigger topic of concern than what another trans word currently is, this is another choice that people will soon enough have to confront. Who would not be tempted by the option of implanting a neural lace, allowing one’s brain to function as a spongy conduit for the Internet? If thought that I could acquire mastery of Latin or Japanese through mere technological implantation, say sayonara to declension drills. (The aforementioned sentence may go down as one of the favorite lines I have ever written.)

Most troublesome, to me anyway, is the conclusion that now seems inescapable: many people will need to be pacified through experience machines in order to keep them from flesh and blood violence or mischief, especially with the great robotic displacement of humans that is coming to a factory/fast food joint/law office/school/truck near you.

By the way, I think coffee shop girl is sporting a ring.

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3 Responses to The Experience Machine

  1. Philologos says:

    I suspect that in order for one to have a satisfying experience in VR–one that made coherent sense–one has to have a basic library of genuinely lived experience on which to draw. Hence too much VR and too little lived experience might limit the extent and quality of what one could experience in Nozick’s offer of becoming (only) a brain in a vat. If this reasoning is correct, then having genuine experience would by definition be superior to VR.

    On the other hand, perhaps it is possible to have meaningful (in some sense of that term) experience inside a system divorced from genuine experience. A game of chess can be meaningful, though what goes on within the game seems a bit abstracted from real life. However, very few but the demented would prefer chess as a whole to genuine life experience as a whole, even if one turned to chess as a recreation–however serious–occasionally to escape from genuine experience.

    Then one might argue that the game of chess is part of one’s genuine experience: if so, is it even ever possible not to have a genuine experience? (To some a dream may not be genuine experience, but to Freud it is very much a part of one’s genuine experience.)

    • Excellent comment. I agree that, prima facie, genuine experiences are superior to virtual experiences in the same way that cooking a meal with friends is superior to zipping to the nearest fastfryfuryfood joint and “dining in” alone. (I know that this is not the best analogy as both events still qualify as genuine experiences as we are using the phrase.) What concerns me, though, is how often–I admit–I am satisfied to do the latter. (I do have a weakness for McDonald’s and Popeye’s.) Conceivably, I could live a more-or-less decent life always choosing the latter or, at least, a life that, asbent any other great deprivation or suffering, I could be satisfied living. Per your point: I think that you are correct–a basic library of genuinely lived experiences would be needed in order for a virtual encounter to be coherent. However, I am reminded, as I usually am, of something Flannery O’ Connor once wrote. Her statement from _Mystery and Manners_ was directed toward students in the school of writing who believe that one must live, live, live (think: Kerouac) before one can write something of value. She said, to the effect, that one already has a complete library of experiences by the time that one reaches age seven: love, desire, heartbreak, fear, joy, anger, relief, hysteria, shame, facing temptation, etc. If this is true, then it may be more a question of how varied and developed the library of genuinely lived experiences must be prior to one’s becoming engrossed in a coherent virtual theater.

      This line of questioning does raise a frightening scenario akin to Plato’s Cave: imagine children who are from birth immeresed in a virtual theater. First of all, could they even form an orderly and coherent narrative of life? Second, provided they could, would they, like the men in the cave who are content with playing shadow games, want to leave given the option? Would they not have to be forcibly extracted from the virtual theater? Would the modern-day Socrates be one who tries to extricate people from this Matrix like Neo? Throwing in another allusion: what if an evil genius raises an army of these children to do his (or her, as the case may be) bidding? I am not quite sure what damage one could do to the larger world if one is immersed in a virtual theater, but, you know, perhaps at some point technology will develop to the point that one can affect real change through virtual reality in the non-virtual world.

      You have given me something to think about/dread for the rest of the week.

  2. Philologos says:

    I agree to some extent with what you say around your citation of Flannery O’Connor, though surely the point there is that she is not distinguishing between genuine and ersatz experience but between dramatic experience of a sometimes violent encounter with the world at large (which, I think would probably require Kerouac’s insistence on motion) and quieter, more domesric experience. (Both the combat soldier deployed to Afghanistan and his wife who remains behind to take care of their home and raise their infant daughter genuinely encounter the world and have experience. I.e., Penelope’s experiences in Ithaca are just as real as are Odysseus’ at war and on his wanderings.)

    It is apposite to adduce Plato in this context, though doing so again assumes the primacy of real experience as opposed to that of the illusion.

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