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The experience machine

Robert had been sitting in front of the consent form for two hours and still he did not know whether to sign it or shred it. His choice was between two futures.

In one, his prospects were bleak and the chances of realising his dreams slim. In the other, he would be a famous rock star guaranteed to be kept permanently happy. Not much of a choice, you might think. But whereas the first life would be in the real world, the second would be entirely within the experience machine.

This device enables you to live the whole of your life in a virtual-reality environment. All your experiences are designed to make you happier and more satisfied. But crucially, once in the machine you have no idea that you are not in the real world, nor that what is happening to you has been designed to meet your needs. It seems you are living an ordinary life in the ordinary world: it is just that in this life, you are one of the winners for whom everything seems to go right.

Robert knows that once he is in the machine, life will be ~ great. But still, something about its phoniness makes him hesitate to sign the form that will take him to this paradise.


It's easy to see why Robert is holding back. Life in the machine would be bogus, inauthentic, unreal. But why should an authentic 'real' life, with its remorseless cycles of ups and downs, be preferable to a bogus happy one?

A sales agent for the happiness machine could offer some powerful arguments that it is not. First, consider what 'authenticity' and 'real' mean. An authentic person is who they really are, not what they pretend to be. But Robert will still be Robert in the machine. He can reveal his true personality there as easily as he can outside it.

Then you might say that in the real world, you become a rock star by merit, whereas in the machine it would not be his own efforts which were rewarded. To which it might be replied, have you heard most rock stars? Talent has little to do with it; luck and opportunity everything. Robert's fame in the machine will be no less deserved than the fame of the countless wannabes who make it up the slippery pole of pop. Indeed, that is the great recommendation of the experience machine. Success in life depends so much on luck: were you born in the right place, at the right time, to the right parents? Were you endowed with the abilities your society values and rewards? Did you have access to the people and places that could help you get ahead? To say it is better to leave yourself at the mercy of Lady Luck when you could choose to be happy is crazy.

As for the idea that you would be abandoning the real world, we might say: get real. The world you live in now is no more than the sum of your experiences: what you see, hear, feel, taste, touch, smell. If you think it is more real because it is caused by sub-atomic processes rather than silicon chips, perhaps you need to reconsider your notion of reality. After all, even our concept of the world of science beyond experiences is ultimately based on observations and experiments wholly within the world of experience. So in some sense, reality is just appearances.

And yet we still might not want to enter the machine, determined as we are that our futures should be as much a product of our own will and efforts as possible. If we persist with this refusal to enter the machine, then at least one thing must be true: when we consider what is in our own best interests, we care for more than just happiness. Otherwise, we would enter the machine like a shot.

from The Pig Who Wants to be Eaten by Juian Baggini (page 292)

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