The Experience Machine: Choosing to digitally opt out

Super-advanced neuropsychologists approach you with an offer. Continue to live your life with its pleasures, pains, doubts, anxieties, hopes etc., or, enter the “Experience Machine”. The Experience Machine is a terrifically advanced computer that hooks up to your brain and allows you to live your life the manner you wish. Want to live as a celebrity? The Machine can make it so. Want to write the world’s greatest novel? The Machine will give you the experience of doing it and enjoying the rewards. The machine can give you infinite bliss and/or infinite achievement, guaranteed, for the rest of your life. Do you opt in?

Pre-dating the Matrix movies by 25 years, Philosopher Robert Nozik invited us to consider this “thought experiment” in his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Nozik used this experiment to challenge the idea that pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) is all that is important to people. He believed that most people would find good reasons to not live in a reality created by such a machine. He believed that people prefer to actually do things rather than experience them. He also claimed that we want to feel that we are tied to our identity, not just a “blob floating in a tank”. He thought that people would be unsatisfied with being part of the machine’s “man-made” reality, rather than “deep reality”.

In 2010, Felipe de Brigard, a psychologist and experimental philosopher, challenged Nozik’s thoughts on the Experience Machine. He proposed that people wouldn’t want to opt-in to the Experience Machine, not because of revulsion to the idea, but rather because we are inclined to stick with what we know, the “Status Quo Bias”. He developed a slightly different thought experiment:

Imagine you wake up in a chair in a lab. A woman in a white coat introduces herself and tells you that the life that you’d been living until now was a computer representation. You now have the choice to leave your friends, family, possessions and projects behind in this fake, computer-generated world, and enter deep reality. Alternatively, you could re-enter the Experience Machine and carry on as usual. Do you opt out?

De Brigard asked a bunch of people what they would choose. Most opted to remain within the machine.

In 1974, computers were rare and rudimentary. In 2010, the iPhone had been released only 3 years prior and social media was just emerging. Things have changed, and these thought experiments are no longer just in the mind. The reality created by applications of computers is in many ways much more attractive and pleasurable than reality. There are three main streams of current technology that are beginning to supersede “deep reality”: gaming, pornography and social media/online forums.

Males aged 15-24 in Australia who play videogames spend, on average, over two and a half hours of game-time per day. Life is scary, and scary is adventurous, and adventures lead to feelings of achievement. Gaming provides a sense of achievement without any real risk. It scratches the itch for pushing boundaries and taking risk, while remaining in the safety of home. Maybe this is good: adolescents nowadays are less likely to have sex or use drugs and alcohol. Do you opt in to gaming to meet your needs for adventure and achievement?

Almost every man (98%) claims to use porn. Some may be lying. Sexuality also comes with risks, the risk of rejection and humiliation. The risk that, like your deepest insecurities tell you, you might in fact be inadequate. Porn is patient, it is kind. It does not dishonor you, nor is it self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. In short, porn is the safe mother/lover that is all give, no take. Do you opt-in to porn to satisfy your need for love and sex?

Friendships formed online can become deep quickly because online users feel that they can let their guard down with people they may rarely/never meet in person. It feels safe. The online world allows users to form an identity which may represent their best side. It is also easy to reject someone online who doesn’t accept you and your worldview. Do you opt-in to social media/forums to satisfy your need for companionship and acceptance?

To some extent you are in the Experience Machine. Perhaps, like Nozik’s original thought experiment, you are in the process of deciding to what extent you wish to live your life in the machine. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Maybe, if you’re older and have experienced both worlds, you can accept the good and reject the bad of what technology brings. For Digital Natives, the choice has been made for you. You are, and have always been, in the machine. You may ask yourself at some stage whether you wish to remain in. Like in de Brigard’s experiment, will you shrug your shoulders and succumb to the Status Quo Bias? Given the choice, would you opt out of the machine?

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