Capitalism, happiness, AI, Kylie Jenner and the human condition: welcome to a radical, unrefined stream of consciousness.
For a design-thinking assignment, I was required to come up with a 100 questions about the world. The following statements are questions or insights — some trivial, some absurd, some profound. Some have objective answers, while others are simply cognitive stimulants. They are not grouped thematically, but simply presented in the order in which they were conceived. At times, there is no discernible train of thought, but some questions have thematic continuity.
Caffeine is advised. Onward.
Why are academic and professional quantifiers and measures based on performance outcomes rather than learning outcomes?
In the context of economics, should be place an emphasis on divvying up the pie, or growing it?
Is capitalism an effective means to grow the pie? And to what extent is this context-specific?
Was the institution of religion effective and useful and effective in helping us develop as a species? Or was it restrictive?
Does religion serve a purpose or play a role today in our a collective growth and development as a species?
Why does the institution of marriage exist?
Is it still relevant and appropriate in the context of today’s world?
Are labels and categories productive ways of organising information around us, or do they limit our ways of thinking about the world?
Are we born with certain perceptual limitations which only allow us to observe, detect, feel and experience certain aspects of this world?
Is it more important for society to be values-oriented (behaviour guided by internalised morals and values) or rules-oriented (behaviour guided by social approval, validation and rule of law)?
Is it possible for a non-organic entity to possess consciousness?
Is it possible to create a non-organic entity, and cultivate within it, consciousness?
Consider our our availability of choice and variety, in the domains of access to material items, educational and academic routes. How has this diversity arisen? Does it have its roots in human entitlement, a sense of righteousness — our propensity to demand a right to information, to knowledge, to educational opportunities, to consume — if we pay a currency for it?
Is the availability of choice actually good, at the individual level, or does it lead to distraction and confusion?
Is choice a luxury, available to only those with financial power?
Do the ‘means justify the end’ in the context of authoritarian and fascist governments?
Hypothetically, is a political leader justified in subjecting his citizens to a low quality of life (including monitoring and surveillance), with the promise of an eventual liberty or the prospect of turning the nation into a superpower?
Do geniuses today exist? And if they did, would we know?
Is immortality good for humanity? If not, why are we working towards it?
Is it possible to achieve world peace without a supranational totalitarian / fascist governing body?
Why are countries becoming increasingly closed and nationalist?
Is this going to have a net positive effect on a majority of stakeholders?
Is innovation really more important than safety, security, liberty and happiness?
Is AI a step in the right direction for humanity, or should development simply be stopped (or heavily regulated, and decelerated)?
Is it really possible to stop the development of AI?
Is it plausible to suggest that the primary reason AI exists is capitalism-induced efficiency — that we are potentially and possibly bringing our species closer to an increasingly negative state of existence because we’re following the rules of a self-devised system?
Is UBI a feasible alternative economic system that could accompany the regulated development of AI?
Is it important to follow social norms, or should they simply exist as pencilled in frameworks guiding your journey, while you grant yourself the individual liberty of ‘blazing your own trail’?
Is there not some sort of evolutionary purpose to widely adopted moral and ethical codes? Then perhaps they should be regarded as unquestionable and concrete?
How can we be better judges to discern where we should draw our permanent, unquestionable lines? And is there a quantitative, universal value that is unquestionably true for humans across contexts?
Is the education space disruptable? Does it need disruption?
To what extent do you, as an individual agent, have control over your fate?
Is everything deterministic — with genetic heredity, chemical reactions, social experiences, interactions and influences, and evolutionary propensities, all combining to result in a probabilistic outcome, which guides behaviour? So the collective journey of humanity and the individual human could technically be scripted, or just a running program with a string of billions of causal events.
What then, is decision-making? Individual agency?
Humanity’s purpose is anthropologically and evolutionarily obvious — to prolong the survival of the species, via procreation. If it is procreation, why are we not designed to spontaneously die after making lots of babies? Why is the world designed to keep us alive, even after we have served our evolutionary purpose?
Maybe there’s an additional purpose then — one that we get to determine, design, adopt and fulfill. And maybe our agency lies, then, in determining what that is. Maybe that is the meaning of life?
If, and when, we create this ‘alternative AI species’, perhaps we will create them to fulfill a certain functional role — i.e. their evolutionary purpose. Maybe then, their pursuit of self-discovery, of finding their ‘additional purpose’, separate and distinct from the evolutionary function with which they were programmed, is a necessary and sufficient criterion by which to label them alive?
Is the ‘evidence of self-discovery’ really a sufficient condition for life, or must we consider sentience, self-awareness and intelligence as well?
Do dogs dream?
When we achieve the mapping of the human genome, should customizing the genome of a ‘designer baby’ be a power granted to a human being?
Is this not taking the magnitude of influence a parent has over a child to another level? To what extent, then, should a parent accept responsibility for future crimes a child commits, if they have programmed them as such? Will errors in programming be the fault of the parents, who have intentionally endowed their human with such qualities? Will the ability to program a child be restricted to those with financial means? Does this generate an entirely new paradigm for systemic inequality?
Do you live your life for yourself, or the people you love? Is that why it hurts when someone you love is lost — because part of the meaning of your existence ceases to exist, or has to change?
Is it possible to make cockroaches extinct without significantly affecting ecological cycles and the global food web?
Do we really seek happiness, or simply contentment?
Is the pursuit of long-lasting contentment and satisfaction more realistic, long-lasting and stable than the pursuit of happiness, which can occur as a result of succumbing to temptation or desire?
Is it possible to always be happy? Perhaps not — but it might be possible to have a baseline state of long-term contentedness and stability, with happiness and sadness being random, variable spikes in positive and negative directions. Like any drug, maybe we build up a tolerance to happiness, until it diffuses into contentment, requiring us to acquire greater dosages of happiness-inducing stimuli to feel the same level of happiness.
Or maybe happiness can theoretically be computed by the following method: (1) assigning positive states (eg: happiness, pleasure) with positive values, and negative states (eg: pain, anger) with negative values, weighted with the intensity with which they occur, (2) summing the positive and negative values to create a state value S(t) for a given moment in time, (3) continuously measuring S(t) for every moment in time, (4) cumulatively summing the measurements, resulting in an S(T), at any given moment, 5) thus providing with an individual with their emotional state at any given moment.So maybe happiness is a high score of S(T) at any given moment? Obviously, there are methodological constraints associated with this method. We have brain-imaging tech to observe biological responses, and observational and self-report techniques to collect data about behaviour, but these are skewed, biased and non-objective: biological responses associated with similar levels of emotions may vary across individuals, observational and self-report techniques are subject to a host of biases, etc. Until we develop tech to map cognition, and monitor it, this method seems impossible.
Given that an egg was socially evaluated to be more popular than Kylie Jenner, what does the fact that she is on track to become the world’s youngest female billionaire say about us, as humans?
Maybe our devices, by providing us with notification-disguised dopamine-kicks, are serving to quench our thirst for happiness — is it a device’s function as a dopamine-inducer what makes it so addictive? Indeed, a companies goal is to make the best possible product, i.e. one that provides the maximum possible pleasure for a user, i.e. one that triggers the release of most dopamine, i.e. one that is maximally addictive. When a company talks about creating the best possible user-experience, or designing for the user, it could perhaps be translated to how can we exploit behavioural predispositions (where is my user most likely to look) and cognitive faculties (how can we maximise feelings of positivity associated with our product) to increase user engagement. It is precisely this form of ‘happiness’ to which a tolerance can be built — 400 likes on an Instagram picture feels cool the first time, but the state aroused when getting 400 likes on subsequent occasions is likely to be weaker.
Is that not a perversion of our existence — using the basis of our actuality, exploiting our guiding desires, for the benefit of a select few?
So did capitalism nudge us into declaring war upon our cognitive faculties; exploiting reactive behaviours and chemical processes to make money off of them?
Will we ever be able to leverage the system’s rules to undo, reverse, this war on cognitive faculties?
Given that the human body reacts to devices and recreational drugs in a way similar, should device-usage be government regulated?
What was the first life form? Could the answer to this question have implications for how we design future life-forms?
What was the first particle of matter in the Universe, and from where did it arise?
Do our perceptions of visual patterns have an effect on our internal state?
How important is it to take risks?
How much should we care about social validation?
To what extent to voice-powered digital assistants, like Alexa, Siri or Google Home, have an affect on our rhetoric and manner of speech? Do our continuous verbal commands to our devices have a subconscious effect on the way we interact with other people?
Could a device be created to electronically stimulate specific neurons in the human brain, thus artificially producing within us emotions, sensations and thoughts?
What if we could download memories?
What if we could reduce frictive communicative barriers (eg: time spent accessing device + navigating to app + typing a message + finding emoji), and devise a way to communicate simply by thinking, perhaps by implanting a cerebral silicon chip in our cortices, connected to our phones via Bluetooth or WiFi?
What if, in addition to communication, the chip’s functionality could be extended to use search engines? To provide access to thoughts so that a search index can search, index and download answers for offline viewing before we actually think them? To grant permissions to search engines to access only a specific class of thoughts, perhaps with specific keywords (eg: those preceded with Ok Google) to retain a certain sense of privacy?
Privacy issues… Google… Facebook… access to thoughts? Implanting thoughts? Accessing the unthunk? Hacking and data breaches? Remote access to an individual’s cognition?
If devised, will this service be universally accessible, or patented, and thus restricted to only an elite few, creating yet another barrier, or pertinent differentiating factor in the quality of life, between social classes?
Does a sharp increase in mental health cases in recent years (found even after controlling for increase in the number of reported cases) signify that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way systems are constructed for the human experience?
If a ‘bring the dead back to life’ technology was discovered, should it be released to the public?
Tech purports to have ‘connected the world’ and ‘brought us closer’ in unprecedented ways — why, then, is it simultaneously creating a sense of social isolation, impeding human interaction and driving us further apart? Possibly because our systems are simply not evolved to form long-term attachments via technology. Years of evolution have resulted in the basis of interpersonal relationships stemming from the release of oxytocin — a hormone that enhances relationships and forms social bonds — maternal, familial, romantic and platonic. Oxytocin is associated with intimacy. Communication over devices stimulates a single perceptual channel (i.e. vision), whereas in-person communication is a multimodal perceptual experience, thus resulting in greater intimacy, resulting in greater oxytocin release, and subsequently greater attachment. In addition, devices are not just inadequate substitutes for in-person communication, but also occasionally weaken in-person communication by serving as distractors while communicating and interacting.
Can a duck imprint from a picture or digital representation of their mother?
Why are millenials increasingly entitled and impatient? (1) Entitlement: We live in a digital age where, those who are fortunate enough, have access to a variety of apps, whose primary purpose of existence is to offer you the best possible experience when interacting with their service. And if they fail to deliver anything less than perfect, as a user, you are entitled, encouraged even, to write a scathing review highlighting its flaws so the Creators, the service providers who enable you to access this virtual world, can do better next time, can improve their world with the next update. And this is true for all apps — essentially, an entire digital universe revolves around you, consumer, with corporates seemingly scrambling to serve your needs. Would this ecosystem not positively reinforce a sense of entitlement, especially among adolescents? When our early ancestors encountered wet rather than dry wood in the forest, and were unable to build a fire that day, they didn’t have a direct hotline to God to whinge about the lack of access to a service they should have a right to. Therefore, the behaviour of companies spoiling consumers with services in order to become more competitive (@capitalism), along with the ability of the users to hold a concrete entity accountable or liable for a failure, could be an explanation for increased entitlement. (2) Impatience: a prime factor potentially resulting in impatience could once again be associated with dopamine-kicks from notifications. As previously mentioned, notifications trigger the release of dopamine, associated with with pleasure and addiction. Over time, with a consistent stream of dopamine dings, we build up a tolerance, and so require more notifications, more dopamine, to feel the same level of ‘good’, consequently increasing our device usage (especially social media). Furthermore, when we experience a reduction, we are likely to get cranky, or impatient, possibly explaining our need for instant gratification, and wanting more, now.
Is it smart to reduce our baseline contentment state to almost nothing (i.e. even in the absence of things, we are content), so that we are content no matter what?
And should we learn to identify desires as short-term happiness inducers, cultivating an awareness and mindfulness of the effect they can have on our internal state?
Is this not what most religions preach?
Does a universal God exist, or does each person have a God, within them?
If it is the latter, is realizing that God the meaning of life?
Should illegal acts that are harmful simply to the perpetrator of the act (eg: drugs) be legalised, since it should be an individual liberty to decide what is most productive for ones lifestyle?
Should bot-created and bot-designed bots design laws for (1) themselves, (2) humans?
What is the purpose of playing a sport or game? Is its purpose to stimulate cognition and fulfill the function of social bonding? If this is the case, is this not an outdated practice?
Why do we continue to play sports when we have other less grueling forms of entertainment?
We exercise to break down muscle for regeneration, and to improve our cardiovascular systems — given the complexity of technology, should their not be a more efficient way to do this, without ‘wasting time’ exercising?
Should humans universally adopt cognitive enhancers to become more efficient as a species?
Is it becoming harder to distinguish between physical and digital realities, as AR, VR and other technologies create ‘immersive’ experiences, while Amazon Go allows you to shop check-out free as it tracks you digitally?
Is singularity imminent, as humans, over time, increase device usage, dependability and integration into their existence while training computers to increasingly imbibe and emulate human qualities?
Considering both caffeine and Adderall are stimulants, why is the latter illegal?
Is it not fascinating that there still does not exist a group that simply refuses to conform to the construal of time? It is, after all, a social construct.
Can we reconstrue time? Is it possible to make the Gregorian calendar more efficient?
What is the evolutionary function of anxiety and depression as chronic disorders?
To what extent can we learn through observational and vicarious learning vs. experiential learning?
Where do you draw the line between experimenting vs. accepting and adopting a social code collectively developed over years of experience (i.e standing on the shoulders of giants to prevent accidents, foolish mistakes and dangerous temptations)?
What is the evolutionary advantage of a dominant allele over a recessive one?
Is it possible to develop a mechanism to cognitively measure and quantify fear?
Is the Turing Test an effective test for machine intelligence?
If a machine was able to devise a better test with fewer limitations, should we adopt that instead?
Is it possible to create a customized formula for a given individual to maximise their pleasure and minimise pain? Can repeated brain scans and EEGs allow us to determine the neural structure and pathways that are associated with specific stimuli? Consider the following methodology: each individual has a distinct neural composition and unique neural pathways of variable ‘strength’. (1) Place the individual under a brain scan (eg: EEG). (2) Then, give the subject a large dataset of pictures of objects, entities, people and phenomena as stimuli, and ask them to rate, on a scale, how good or bad they felt when looking at the picture (i.e. rate the picture on a pleasure scale, and a pain scale.) (3) Simultaneously, record the brain areas stimulated when the picture is encountered, creating a neural mapping. (4) Now, behavioural responses can be associated with specific brain areas — we already know this: the hippocampus is involved in memory, the amygdala plays a role in emotion regulation, etc. But, other neurons, not typically associated with feelings of pleasure / pain, may fire as well, consistently and with every presentation. If we are able to collect such data for several different stimuli, perhaps we can find a pattern, a certain cluster of neurons, that predictably and consistently fire to stimuli that are rated high in pleasurability, specific to given individual, distinct from and in addition to the usual pleasure circuit? And perhaps feeding this data into an algorithm that finds perceptual, thematic, and conceptual similarities in stimuli, can enable us (or the algorithm) to predict which future stimuli you specifically would find especially pleasurable or painful, specific to your brain.
How might one develop a tool to isolate the building blocks and source emotions of complexed, mixed emotions?
Is it possible to create a device that allows you to experience a sensation without requiring you to engage in a behaviour that produces that sensation? For example, I wouldn’t know what sugar tastes like without actually tasting it. The experience associated with it can be described to me, but I never experience the sensation associated with sugar consumption unless I actually eat sugar. Likewise for drugs. VR comes close to providing us with immersive experiences, but it is yet not multisensory.
If we invent a way to do this, can we then experience a ‘spiritual awakening’ without practicing meditation or adopting a given religion?
That’s it for now! Indications of scientific or theoretical inaccuracies in the comments would be much appreciated — it will help improve the quality of the piece for future readers. Furthermore, should you possess answers to the aforementioned questions, I’d love to continue the conversation in the comments section. Thanks for reading!