There was a story some years ago about living circumstances for the 1.3 million employees of Foxconn in China, the company that builds Apple’s products. It’s a problem of scale, no doubt, but these workers lived in crammed boxes stacked atop one another high into the sky. In between the buildings, there was a net.
The net is an admission that suicide is embedded into the overall design of the arrangement, and short of a full-out global economic revolution, this was just the way it was going to be.
I thought of those people, and shook my head in pity. Those poor bastards.
In Sapiens, the author argues that the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago was the death of individual happiness. Systems that solve many of our problems do just that: they do the thing we were supposed to do. Millions of years of evolution have designed a human who feels at its most natural when performing certain actions which are in accordance with its instincts. In other words, it was by design that if you performed these actions, you would biologically feel good. That’s the whole premise.
In a few short years, and counting, we’ve managed to “solve" most of our yucky biological chores, like hunting and gathering, washing, cleaning, and today, cooking, traveling, and foraging (now called yelping).
It’s all taken care of by Uber for X.
What remains? What remains when all of our million-year-old chores are domesticated, and made ridiculously effortless—as easy as a few haptic taps on a surface? What do you call that existence, when you are completely absolved of biological chore?
Enter The Artificial Life.
The Artificial Life is not one of nature. It is a woefully unprescient conception designed by us, and mostly facilitated through the use of language. Our bodies, our minds, and the concert of their interactions are unable to fully appreciate the Artificial Life. It's still trying to do something else.
The Artificial Life is city living. Any city. If you can get food delivered to you in under an hour, you are living the Artificial Life, even if you don’t exercise that power frequently. In the Artificial Life, you do things that are abstract; that nothing in the natural world, including our bodies, can really make sense of. Watching Netflix on a rectangular TV hung up on your wall? That isn’t a real task. It’s not a real thing. It’s abstract pleasure for our unapologetically reward seeking mind. Our brain is tricked in a hundred which ways before watching Netflix is recognized as a real thing you’re doing. But our body doesn’t get it. It produces real chemicals when things happen on a fake display.
Here are things you might do in the natural world that evolution has recognized as fulfilling:
- Hunt or gather food
- Cook the food
- Collect wood for a fire
- Build a fire
- Build a home
- Explore the earth around you
- Do nothing, after a tiring day’s work
Here are things you might do in the Artificial Life:
- Have food delivered to you in 35 minutes
- Set your Nest to 74 degrees
- Turn on your digital fireplace
- Build a home in Minecraft
- Explore Twitter
- Do nothing, after a tiring day’s work, and feel guilty for doing so
Is it any wonder why fulfillment is lacking in abundance in cities?
I spend a lot of time fine-tuning my artificial life to optimize for fulfillment and peace. I make progress, but it’s always fleeting. The wisdom which I might have gained a few weeks ago about being more present is today no longer cutting it. I need something new. So I go search, for the same thing, in a different package.
And this cycle repeats, and repeats, and repeats. I might just be ok realizing there is no fulfilling city life. Not until a bridge is built between the abstract and the physical. Not until our bodies understand where they are.
Presently, they haven't got a clue.