Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization

At least three peo­ple have died play­ing on­line games for days with­out rest. Peo­ple have lost their spouses, jobs, and chil­dren to World of War­craft. If peo­ple have the right to play video games—and it’s hard to imag­ine a more fun­da­men­tal right—then the mar­ket is go­ing to re­spond by sup­ply­ing the most en­gag­ing video games that can be sold, to the point that ex­cep­tion­ally en­gaged con­sumers are re­moved from the gene pool.

How does a con­sumer product be­come so in­volv­ing that, af­ter 57 hours of us­ing the product, the con­sumer would rather use the product for one more hour than eat or sleep? (I sup­pose one could ar­gue that the con­sumer makes a ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion that they’d rather play Star­craft for the next hour than live out the rest of their lives, but let’s just not go there. Please.)

A candy bar is a su­per­stim­u­lus: it con­tains more con­cen­trated sugar, salt, and fat than any­thing that ex­ists in the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment. A candy bar matches taste buds that evolved in a hunter-gath­erer en­vi­ron­ment, but it matches those taste buds much more strongly than any­thing that ac­tu­ally ex­isted in the hunter-gath­erer en­vi­ron­ment. The sig­nal that once re­li­ably cor­re­lated to healthy food has been hi­jacked, blot­ted out with a point in tastes­pace that wasn’t in the train­ing dataset—an im­pos­si­bly dis­tant out­lier on the old an­ces­tral graphs. Tasti­ness, formerly rep­re­sent­ing the evolu­tion­ar­ily iden­ti­fied cor­re­lates of healthi­ness, has been re­verse-en­g­ineered and perfectly matched with an ar­tifi­cial sub­stance. Un­for­tu­nately there’s no equally pow­er­ful mar­ket in­cen­tive to make the re­sult­ing food item as healthy as it is tasty. We can’t taste health­ful­ness, af­ter all.

The now-fa­mous Dove Evolu­tion video shows the painstak­ing con­struc­tion of an­other su­per­stim­u­lus: an or­di­nary woman trans­formed by makeup, care­ful pho­tog­ra­phy, and fi­nally ex­ten­sive Pho­to­shop­ping, into a billboard model—a beauty im­pos­si­ble, un­match­able by hu­man women in the un­re­touched real world. Ac­tual women are kil­ling them­selves (e.g. su­per­mod­els us­ing co­caine to keep their weight down) to keep up with com­peti­tors that liter­ally don’t ex­ist.

And like­wise, a video game can be so much more en­gag­ing than mere re­al­ity, even through a sim­ple com­puter mon­i­tor, that some­one will play it with­out food or sleep un­til they liter­ally die. I don’t know all the tricks used in video games, but I can guess some of them—challenges poised at the crit­i­cal point be­tween ease and im­pos­si­bil­ity, in­ter­mit­tent re­in­force­ment, feed­back show­ing an ever-in­creas­ing score, so­cial in­volve­ment in mas­sively mul­ti­player games.

Is there a limit to the mar­ket in­cen­tive to make video games more en­gag­ing? You might hope there’d be no in­cen­tive past the point where the play­ers lose their jobs; af­ter all, they must be able to pay their sub­scrip­tion fee. This would im­ply a “sweet spot” for the ad­dic­tive­ness of games, where the mode of the bell curve is hav­ing fun, and only a few un­for­tu­nate souls on the tail be­come ad­dicted to the point of los­ing their jobs. As of 2007, play­ing World of War­craft for 58 hours straight un­til you liter­ally die is still the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule. But video game man­u­fac­tur­ers com­pete against each other, and if you can make your game 5% more ad­dic­tive, you may be able to steal 50% of your com­peti­tor’s cus­tomers. You can see how this prob­lem could get a lot worse.

If peo­ple have the right to be tempted—and that’s what free will is all about—the mar­ket is go­ing to re­spond by sup­ply­ing as much temp­ta­tion as can be sold. The in­cen­tive is to make your stim­uli 5% more tempt­ing than those of your cur­rent lead­ing com­peti­tors. This con­tinues well be­yond the point where the stim­uli be­come an­ces­trally anoma­lous su­per­stim­uli. Con­sider how our stan­dards of product-sel­l­ing fem­i­nine beauty have changed since the ad­ver­tise­ments of the 1950s. And as candy bars demon­strate, the mar­ket in­cen­tive also con­tinues well be­yond the point where the su­per­stim­u­lus be­gins wreak­ing col­lat­eral dam­age on the con­sumer.

So why don’t we just say no? A key as­sump­tion of free-mar­ket eco­nomics is that, in the ab­sence of force and fraud, peo­ple can always re­fuse to en­gage in a harm­ful trans­ac­tion. (To the ex­tent this is true, a free mar­ket would be, not merely the best policy on the whole, but a policy with few or no down­sides.)

An or­ganism that reg­u­larly passes up food will die, as some video game play­ers found out the hard way. But, on some oc­ca­sions in the an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, a typ­i­cally benefi­cial (and there­fore tempt­ing) act may in fact be harm­ful. Hu­mans, as or­ganisms, have an un­usu­ally strong abil­ity to per­ceive these spe­cial cases us­ing ab­stract thought. On the other hand we also tend to imag­ine lots of spe­cial-case con­se­quences that don’t ex­ist, like an­ces­tor spirits com­mand­ing us not to eat perfectly good rab­bits.

Evolu­tion seems to have struck a com­pro­mise, or per­haps just ag­gre­gated new sys­tems on top of old. Homo sapi­ens are still tempted by food, but our over­sized pre­frontal cor­tices give us a limited abil­ity to re­sist temp­ta­tion. Not un­limited abil­ity—our an­ces­tors with too much willpower prob­a­bly starved them­selves to sac­ri­fice to the gods, or failed to com­mit adultery one too many times. The video game play­ers who died must have ex­er­cised willpower (in some sense) to keep play­ing for so long with­out food or sleep; the evolu­tion­ary haz­ard of self-con­trol.

Re­sist­ing any temp­ta­tion takes con­scious ex­pen­di­ture of an ex­haustible sup­ply of men­tal en­ergy. It is not in fact true that we can “just say no”—not just say no, with­out cost to our­selves. Even hu­mans who won the birth lot­tery for willpower or fore­sight­ful­ness still pay a price to re­sist temp­ta­tion. The price is just more eas­ily paid.

Our limited willpower evolved to deal with an­ces­tral temp­ta­tions; it may not op­er­ate well against en­tice­ments be­yond any­thing known to hunter-gath­er­ers. Even where we suc­cess­fully re­sist a su­per­stim­u­lus, it seems plau­si­ble that the effort re­quired would de­plete willpower much faster than re­sist­ing an­ces­tral temp­ta­tions.

Is pub­lic dis­play of su­per­stim­uli a nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ity, even to the peo­ple who say no? Should we ban choco­late cookie ads, or store­fronts that openly say “Ice Cream”?

Just be­cause a prob­lem ex­ists doesn’t show (with­out fur­ther jus­tifi­ca­tion and a sub­stan­tial bur­den of proof) that the gov­ern­ment can fix it. The reg­u­la­tor’s ca­reer in­cen­tive does not fo­cus on prod­ucts that com­bine low-grade con­sumer harm with ad­dic­tive su­per­stim­uli; it fo­cuses on prod­ucts with failure modes spec­tac­u­lar enough to get into the news­pa­per. Con­versely, just be­cause the gov­ern­ment may not be able to fix some­thing, doesn’t mean it isn’t go­ing wrong.

I leave you with a fi­nal ar­gu­ment from fic­tional ev­i­dence: Si­mon Funk’s on­line novel After Life de­picts (among other plot points) the planned ex­ter­mi­na­tion of biolog­i­cal Homo sapi­ens - not by march­ing robot armies, but by ar­tifi­cial chil­dren that are much cuter and sweeter and more fun to raise than real chil­dren. Per­haps the de­mo­graphic col­lapse of ad­vanced so­cieties hap­pens be­cause the mar­ket sup­plies ever-more-tempt­ing al­ter­na­tives to hav­ing chil­dren, while the at­trac­tive­ness of chang­ing di­apers re­mains con­stant over time. Where are the ad­ver­tis­ing billboards that say “BREED”? Who will pay pro­fes­sional image con­sul­tants to make ar­gu­ing with sul­len teenagers seem more al­lur­ing than a va­ca­tion in Tahiti?

“In the end,” Si­mon Funk wrote, “the hu­man species was sim­ply mar­keted out of ex­is­tence.”