Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization

Saturday, March 17th, 2007

Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses 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.

Yudkowsky leaves us “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.”

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