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On Nozick's Experience Machine: the Internet

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Robert Nozick argued that we wouldn’t want to be plugged into an experience machine because-

1. We want to do certain things, not just have the experience of doing them.

2. We want to be a certain kind of person, not an indeterminate blob. We want to feel like we are.

3. We don’t want to limit ourselves to a man-made reality.

Most find the world of Brave New World to be depressing. I propose it is because people don’t want to live in a deterministic world. They want novelty. They want to not know. They want freedom, which means freedom to pick both actions and consequences, some of which are unknown. Uncertainty is fundamental for man to enjoy life. Why?

If you were God, you would want to make a universe full of mystical and uncertain things. If you make a deterministic world, people would lose interest, get bored, and commit suicide to exist. Brave New World is such a deterministic world. This is also why GTA becomes boring once you know everything about the game. However, you wouldn’t want the world completely random either. A completely random world is essentially no different from a deterministic world. You have no control. The outcome is determined randomly. Thus, you would want to make a world in which people have some control and a lot of unknown to enjoy. This is exactly how the universe is. [some parts of this paragraph were inspired by Alan Watts]

People instinctively dislike the notion of an experience machine. They instinctively know it to be incomplete and fake. The idea of getting plugged into one is depressing to most. And they are right. An experience machine can never produce a real experience, because there is no such thing as an experience.

Consider love. When humans think of love, they think of an experience that is characterized by certain values. They assume it is a process/state separate from not love. But this assumption is wrong. The experience of “not love” is equally important for love to mean anything. When a young man asks a woman on a date, part of his excitement is the anxiety of rejection. If you managed to produce that anxiety, you'd still lack the uncertainty of the day before when he decided whom to ask out. You still need to factor in his [the man’s] previous history with women, which defines his dating experience. Thus, his experience of dating can't be isolated from his general experience of life.

Just like a word needs a context and a picture needs a canvas, an experience needs a background story for it to mean anything. The experience of friendship requires the experience of not having friends. It gets enhanced if you have experienced fake and unreliable friendships. The joy of winning a trophy requires the despair of trying and not winning a thousand times and not knowing if you would ever win. Thus, if you plug yourself into the machine to experience victory, it would not feel real because you have not yet experienced failure. If you add the experience of failure, you still wouldn’t enjoy victory because you are certain you’ll win. If you add the desperation of possibly never winning, you would realize suddenly that real life is already like that. Life is exactly how it should have been.

There is no such thing as an experience that is categorically separate from life. There is only one great experience, in which events are sprinkled like chocolate chips on icecream. If you only eat the chips, you would fail to enjoy the ice-cream. They enhance each other. Similarly, life is not the sum of its parts, from which you pick some and reject the rest. They all come together to complete one another like a puzzle.

Some may want to plug into the machine because it appears to be an easier and happier version of life. This is fundamentally fallacious. If winning easily made people happier, they would not discard consolation prizes. Sportsmen will never look for stronger opponents, but we know they do. There is a reason why children born to really wealthy families are prone to depression because everything is given to them. Just like highs and lows both are important on a roller coaster ride, victory and rock bottom are equally important. We can see it in cancer survivors. Once they beat the seemingly unbeatable, they live more joyfully. The same can be seen in people who have had near-death experiences. The joy they live with cannot be found even in highly spiritually developed individuals. Thus, if life in the machine is not bad, it can't be good either. If there is no sadness in it, there can’t be any happiness either. They both go together, just like crest and trough, north and south, right and left, full and empty, 1 and 0. If you add all the lows to the experience, why would you get plugged in? You already have that opportunity. It’s called life.

Consider the internet, an experience machine. People shop, make friends, date, etc, but they know something is missing. When you shop online, you log in, compare prices, and pay for the product. This is considered “the shopping experience”. The actual experience of shopping includes how the store clerk treats you, the possibility of meeting someone at the store, and sliding down the stair railing at the mall. It includes many unknown variables, all of which are eliminated online. Nothing is unpredictable, including buying behavior. People buy whatever is cheap and has good ratings. Online retailers can’t make it feel real because the shopping experience is tied to the rest of our lives. The experience machine is bound to fail.

Consider the friendship experience. On social networks, you log in and know what to expect. You add people and talk about things you already agreed on. There are no variables other than appearance. Nothing is unknown or uncertain. This is “the online friendship experience”. This is why anxious people hide behind screens. They prefer to text and refuse to take calls because they are unprepared to process unknown and unexpected words. They don’t want to face the unknown. But the unknown is fundamental to friendship. It encompasses all the possible aspects of friendship and of not friendship that you may experience if you make friends off the grid. The actual experience of friendship is uncertain and unpredictable. People have different stories about how they met, where they met, and what they faced together. They often make friends with people they did not initially agree with. In addition, the general experience of life also factors into producing individual experience of friendship. A rich man and a poor man experience friendship in different contexts. We make friends unexpectedly. We even make friends with animals. Unable to produce the rest of our lives, the experience machine fails. Therefore, modern people have failed to make good friendships.

Consider the dating experience. Tinder is a good example. Girls find it facilitating to control the unknown. In the real world, they may attract suitors who are poor or unattractive. They would have to think of excuses to ignore them so they can focus on the mate they want. They cannot be overly flirtatious because they don’t want people to shame them. Behind the screen, they can control it all. They can block all ugly and poor men and focus only on those they desire. When matched with one of them, they can be as flirtatious as they want because no one sees them behind the screen. Yet they are not satisfied, because this is not what they wanted. Tinder reduced dating to a few variables: how good someone’s camera and editing skills are, how much he earns, and tall he is. Dating became pretty much a useless simulator game. Girls blame guys and guys blame girls when the problem is the internet is an experience machine serving people a reduced and deterministic version of what dating used to be.

By the way, are we surprised the internet has depressed its users? Didn’t I mention that people find the idea of an experience machine depressing? They are instinctively right. Now, unplug yourself.

More food for thought -

If a machine can get you anything, will you ever be satisfied? Chances are, no. It is a trap. You’ll never be satisfied wanting things because it is the very nature of want to keep you wanting. It’s like putting out fire with fire. People don’t get happy by getting things (hedonism). They get happy by letting go of wanting, which is fundamentally a state unfulfilled.

Reference -

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State And Utopia. Retrieved from

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