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Mar 20, 2023·edited Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

While I appreciate this analysis, I am struggling with the underlying premise to which you return in your conclusion:

"I tend to agree with Ernie’s observation that, 'This is precisely why people are pessimistic in the face of increasing material progress. They’ve lost their old source of meaning from the struggle to survive, and can’t find their own way forward.'

As technology enables longer lives and more free time and more material abundance, it leaves an equal and opposite opportunity for humans to turn that potential happiness into real happiness."

Have we lost our source of meaning from the struggle to survive? Despite the indisputable progress you cited in terms of life expectancy, child mortality, democratization, etc., we (for transparency, citizens of democratic nations that have high life expectancy and low child mortality) have simply traded these dangerous phenomena for others; survival is now a function of access to credit because survival now has a dollar-denominated cost and there is insufficient capital (or imbalanced distribution of capital). Credit is impaired by factors like racism or astronomically inflated costs of college (the leverage for which is not dischargeable by bankruptcy). This impairment has residual consequences on things like homeownership and the accumulation of wealth. Combined with other circumstances like the divergence between wages and cost-of-living (which can be partially attributed to the natural inclination of the tech industry and VC to pursue lower costs and better margins), people who enjoy all the benefits of current progress are either working more hours for [effectively] less compensation or are undertaking onerous amounts of debt to [temporarily] pursue happiness (until their debt is called).

But are we really surprised by that? Senator Kennedy (R-La.) literally just said on the record "I mean, the life expectancy of the average American right now is about 77 years old. For people who are in their 20s, their life expectancy will probably be 85 to 90. Does it really make sense to allow someone who’s in their 20s today to retire at 62?"

I don't think we've lost a sense of meaning. I think we're bewildered that, given all the progress, we are unable to reap the reward of selecting what is meaningful to us and obtaining that because we are still too busy fighting for survival just in a more complicated and confusing context than adapting for temperature extremes (although it's remarkable how we're already undoing all our progress on that front, isn't it?), procuring sufficient nutrition and hydration (although, again, how are we still seeing clean water crises in this day and age?), and erecting adequate shelter.

If the goal is to pursue happiness, then it might be most easily visualized by Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If we stipulate to tech having been instrumental in helping us realize the foundational layer of physiological needs and ostensibly the next level of safety needs, why are we committing more of our lives to the employment implicit in that level and not to ascending to love and belonging, esteem, or self-actualization?

There are plenty of opportunities for meaning in front of us and I disagree that people can't find their way forward, they are being obstructed.

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I agree "happiness" needs to be redefined; we no longer need it to be about "fulfilling more of our physiological needs". To be effectively, should we not actively participate in the creation of our next set of incentives? And should we not remove the obstacles that get in the way of those incentives? And how do we plan to deal with the resistance we're going to get? Not just from those few who lust/relish in exercising control but exert a lot of influence given their current assets/tools, but also from the ~3 BILLION people to whom "fulfillment" does not yet apply.

For example, one of those obstacles that will get in the way is the continued use of money in any form (fiat or crypto). I believe we need to deprecate money, not because money is bad, but because it is a mishandled tool that is causing humans not to move on to that next layer.

Money was created bc bartering was too slow & for a long time it was useful and necessary. Money was a proxy for "energy transformed". Good or services are made of the energy we harvest to build tools, have ideas, etc... Until ~1890, we could not count energy well, but now we can and track it quite easily. Money supply increases (aka the measure of inflation) was necessary because we built more stuff. But it is no longer being measured or tracked for that purpose. Money should track energy increases, but it's not. Furthermore, money masks the necessity to allocate resources efficiently or risk having to deal with serious consequences. Instead, money allows the money printer to magically rescue someone else based on what a subset believe is important to the well being of the majority.

We no longer need money. We need only count and transfer energy, and we have a lot of it. We have enough for 2300 calories per person per day + 50kWh per day for every human being on earth. To put that in perspective, 50kWh per day = ~20 human beings working for each human being every single day! 2300 calories = 2.6kWh. Everyone can have enough energy to build and live a high quality life (home, lighting, phone, communication, transport and time off).

Our future measure will be reputation; we'll be allocated resources and opportunity based on our REPUTATION! We'll finish/fail at getting tasks/projects done with this energy and gain/lose reputation from it. We'll measure how creative we each are and find meaning in that reputation.

We'll accept that evolving biologically means no longer being tied to this physical body.

Right now, we have a wall to climb and money is like barbed wire hurting every step of the way. To speak nothing of the other issues (the ~3B people), etc...).

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Personally I hold a lot weight in the philosophical theory of the Capabilities Approach, which is essentially that what makes humans happy is learned and applied capabilities. I think as long as the future of technology doesn't infringe on people's capacity and motivation to acquire new capabilities (instead of delegating everything to technology), there's only upside to advancing technology beyond what we currently imagine.

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Doesn't the capabilities approach constrain the conversation to the selfish focus on human's needs? Cows are a source of meat for humans. But they're an inefficient source. The entire cow needs to be fed with energy and kept alive to provide meat/dairy, etc... If the goal is amino acids and meat flavor, why not make it from bacteria?

Same analogy applies to humans. We're a sack of tissue, we keep ourselves alive and we have fears/pain/emotions; but if the goal is to get stuff done, and it's we only selfishly care about the fact that it should be done by humans only to our satisfaction, then won't we want everything we do to be done ONLY as long as it appeals to our feeble whimsy...?

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“What is Technology For?

The purpose of technology is to increase the potential for human happiness.”

(Caveat: I am often pessimistic about tech so my criticism of it comes from that place. Maybe I need to be more optimistic.)

Do people producing a majority of the tech we use actually believe this or do most of them simply optimize for engagement at any cost? In my opinion, until the incentives change (no idea what that looks like), the most adopted tech will continue to be soulless and the opposite of happiness-inducing. I get frustrated that anyone is surprised or confused by our current negative relationship with tech. I have to check my bias about this at the door because I will admit that I struggle mightily with being pessimistic about tech. Mostly because of what I see in my day to day experience. It’s hard not to be. I teach at the High School level and if you sit in a room full of teenagers during any type of idle moment, I’d like to think it’s hard not to be suspicious about all the promises and grandiosity.

I feel like the promise of most tech (especially social facilitation) is gaslighting us all into continued adoption even though it is so clearly to our detriment. Everyone is walking around with a device that has turned our time into a commodity to be harvested by powerfully addictive forces. It’s a boring thesis at this point, but to me, it is the simplest and the most true. And it seems like most of us have just capitulated to the idea of it all. I realize that pessimism is easy and sounds smarter and is a trap sometimes, but I can’t help it. I see a tyranny of convenience and a whole lot of ideas that abstract our reality in unhelpful ways to most human beings.

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I completely get where you're coming from, and I can only imagine how being a high school teacher and seeing all of the kids on their phones could make you feel about tech.

The way I see it, social media companies are just a small piece (although big in terms of market cap, power, and time spent) of what I think of when I think of tech. And I just deleted the twitter app (although I still use the desktop) because I was too addicted and checked it any time I had a free moment, so I get that addictive pull.

That said, I do think most of the entrepreneurs I talk to and work with do actually believe it. Founders in biotech, space, defense, robotics, supply chain, education, housing, etc... are trying to solve big problems. And crypto gets a bad rap, but if anything, a lot of the founders are too idealistic if anything.

Maybe the more cutthroat/cynical companies are the ones that have gotten the biggest, which is true of most industries, but I'm hopeful about a lot of the companies being built now.

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I appreciate the optimism you bring to tech, which is why I read your work! Need an antidote to my own frustration and pessimism. That and your synthesis abilities are pretty darn valuable, so thanks for the content you produce.

Social media definitely casts a dark shadow over my opinion of tech in general, which maybe isn't fair. And yeah, the negative affects of it on our younger generation just punches me in the face every day. Would be great to see if tech can help education but I have my doubts about that because the pace is just too rapid and the options are far too many for schools to effectively keep up with. There’s always something new to implement, and to me, tech is breeding chaos. And that chaos begets more chaos in all these other arenas. If there is a tech out there that can aggressively simplify things over a long-term period instead of for a year or two at a time before the next thing comes out, then I think it could be useful. But how can anyone even stop to smell the roses right now?

Like, is it not wild that we live in a time that supposedly has all these conveniences, yet people feel more time constrained than ever? Or maybe it has always been that way... And then the irony in the idea that people might spend their whole lives trying to learn how to live longer..

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Apr 1, 2023·edited Apr 1, 2023

Spending in Biotech, space and education helps capture & transmit ORIGINAL knowledge & thought. That's great!

BUT... spending in defense, supply chain, housing and other sectors is PRIMARILY (not entirely) a focus on "attention/emotion" tech (defense is about "fear-mongering" (on all sides), supply chain is about giving more of the things most people don't really need to as many people as possible; same for Housing, Pharma can be divided into "chronic" OR "acute" and the vast majority of investments focuses on "chronic" drugs whose root cause is in lifestyle we've chosen to live in and to which the Pharma investments do not help remediate (e.g.: willing to force everyone to take a vaccine because it can kill <0.2% of the population but unwilling/fights against advocating/preventing sugar/fructose/other food dosage to reduce mortality by >30%, etc...).

As a % of tech investments, defense, supply chain (marketplaces, goods), Social Media, Agriculture, Pharma, etc... is >90% (vs the total which includes biotech, space & education). It's laughable!

Lumping all of the fields together qualitatively doesn't do justice to the goal of dissecting the underlying root cause and sentiment behind the complaints levied at tech/tech companies/founders/VCs.

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I think technology does improve people's happiness, but social media doesn't. I think the issue is social media and not technology that causes a person to be unhappy.

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

I will leave you with one question, though:

What if happiness and meaning are anti-correlated?

Or more gently, they diverge after a certain point?

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The rabbit hole keeps getting deeper and deeper!

I probably should have been more clear on definitions here -- by happiness, I mean the kind that comes from meaning more than the kind that comes from hedonism. Nothing scares me more than that scene in Wall-E where all of the humans get fat and lazy watching TV and stuffing their faces while the robots do all the work!

But your point is very well taken. Thanks for pushing me!

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If I could change one line in American history, it would be to replace “happiness” with the "pursuit of flourishing" -- to explicitly include social meaning alongside personal pleasures.

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

I think people are not unhappy with technology. I think they are unhappy that technological progress has not significantly decreased the labor required to maintain a standard quality of life. This is because the benefits of technological progress accrue to the owner of the firm and consumers, and not to labor.

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

Beautiful and profound hypothesis. In fact, I always like to use the term "multiplier" associated with technology. When there was not enough technology to be perceived as such, humanity set goals knowing that everything had to come through its own abilities or at best, the "divine" dimension could help. Goals were commensurate with potential.

Considering technology as a "tool," previously one operated with simple "additions." One would set oneself to get to 10, and do the sum 1+2+3+4=10

Technology, simply changed mathematical operators! 1*2*3*4=24. It gave us new tools to create more and more complex expressions. The result changes, so the goals change, but our work remains constant.

But be careful, because it can also make things more difficult (1/2/3/4=0.0416 :-)

So happiness is found within ourselves, and technology being an extension of ourselves can only make things better or worse. Everything depends on us, as it has always been.

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With all your ideas about WHAT lies in the future, you don't seem to propose HOW humans will pursue happiness. What the hell are we supposed to do if everything is taken care of for us?

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

Great point! Perhaps you know the old joke (beloved of my father) about the guy who died and awoke to find himself in a place where every wish was granted instantly and without effort. After many days of this, he was asked by another inhabitant “how are you doing, so far?” He replied: “okay, I guess, but it’s not quite what I imagined Heaven would be like.”

To which his new friend replied: “Heaven? You think you’re in Heaven?”

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

I think your question approaches the heart of Ernest's quote: We need to scale, diversify, further understand (or maybe mutate is a better word) "meaning." Technology constantly reinvents what we do with our time and how we pursue meaning. But are we investing in technological developments for meaning itself? Are the technologists staring hard and long at the intersection between philosophy (I'm thinking the deepest forms rarely pondered outside of Ancient Greece or a PHD philosophy seminar) and technological innovation, finding ways to fundamentally and revolutionarily redefine how a human processes day-to-day stimuli, granting us not only new "senses" (perhaps) but also new frameworks for using that sensory data, combined with existing senses and richly empowered upon existing sensory and perceptive frameworks, to grant us a brand new, unimagined form of meaning?

We are still the same old humans, built on seven million years of evolution, "saddled" with the lizard brain and all its corollaries. Can that (the present) form of human find happiness in a world that technology (and by that I mean human curiosity) almost irresistibly pursues and strives to create? Or will we require brand new frameworks? Can those frameworks work within the current human? Can the promise of technology truly empower humans as we are now, or will some form of cyborgism be required?

I can think of a few potential examples of what a current human could do to pursue meaning in a world where everything is taken care of (sinking into states of pure inventiveness, perhaps, or striving to harness the material potential of the universe). But are those even relevant in a world utterly transformed by technology the layperson scarcely (even today) understands and that defies evolutionary reason? I'm ever so curious to find out.

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

Definitely thought-provoking. Two additional lines of thought that would be interesting to explore: intention and power. Because we're talking about people (those who work and control tech, not technology itself), intention matters. People are much more willing to forgive unintended consequences knowing it's impossible to predict the future, provided those who built in had genuinely positive intentions, AND are willing to change course to try to further human happiness when things don't go as planned. And power matters. The frustration also comes from the immense power wielded by what many perceive as a monopolistic industry, coupled with those dubious intentions.

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

I love this line. "The purpose of technology is not to be used, but to increase the potential for happiness." However, using a technology is what may eventually lead to that technology or other techs on top of it to create happiness in the appropriate sectors. Great article.

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Mar 20, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

Achievement unlocked: provoke a blogger with comments until he writes an entire column about it. :-)

Thank you. I deeply appreciate -- as always -- the humanity and humility you bring to this role. It makes me optimistic!

I have many other thought, but I will save them for later. In the meantime, if anyone is curious about whether it is even possible to design technology to maximize “meaning” I encourage you to check out Joe Edelman’s philosophical and technical work at the School for Social Design https://humsys.substack.com/

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Apr 14, 2023Liked by Packy McCormick

I think there is a lot of technological innovation that happens outside of Silicon Valley as well. Silicon Valley has become great at creating problems and then creating toolkits with more tools to create problems and growing these entities into multi billion dollar businesses. Also, the high technology or information technology sector only represents 10% of U.S. national GDP so it comes in around $1.9 Trillion annually and that is not a small part of the economy but nonetheless a part of a broader economy. Increasingly venture capitalist are reaching into emerging markets. You can reach these toolkits from anywhere there is internet connection.

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Not basic enough, people are unhappy with venture capital for the same reason the jackal is unhappy with the lion that has just brought down a big kill--- go back a few million years to research human happiness.

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I just wrote about this a few months ago but you did a WAY better job. Totally agree with it, Monkey Brain used to reward us for escaping the tiger chasing us, now it doesn’t quite know what to do, and gives us the happy accomplishment chemical for getting lots of kills in CoD..

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Mar 21, 2023·edited Mar 22, 2023

I think one area that you're not addressing enough is the difference between the benefits of technology at large vs the personal enrichment that a smaller and smaller group of people benefit from. This is a trend that is only accelerating and I think that when people look at the distribution of technology wealth it gets conflated with the broader benefits of the underlying technology.

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People hate the VCs because VCs optimize for their own wealth most often at the expense of the majority. There could be alternatives to VCs directing what technologies get developed that would be much more optimizing for happiness for many more people. A good view of this was the recent post by Cory Doctorow "Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk" https://pluralistic.net/2023/03/20/love-the-machine/#hate-the-factory

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