Newsletter 19/2/2011: why cults are like computer games and other curious facts

So I bought a Kindle yesterday. Yes, boys with toys, another new gadget, I couldn’t resist. I love it. All those new books at a touch of a button. The first book I bought, which you can only get as an e-book, was what the FT called ‘the most talked-about non-fiction book of the year’ – economist Tyler Cowen’s long essay, The Great Stagnation. It suggests economic growth is much lower now because we have picked all the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of technological innovation and the pace of new scientific ideas has slowed over the last 30 years. However, he suggests that while economic growth may be slowing, the outlook is more positive for personal growth and well-being. “The new low-hanging fruit is in our minds”, he says, sounding a bit like Tyler Durden.

It’s interesting that the most-talked about non-fiction book of the year should be a short e-book, or an e-ssay, if you will. Could Kindle and iPad save the essay and lead us back to a golden age of New Journalism-type long articles? I hope so. Cause for optimism: Kindle’s new Kindle Singles format, which publishes essays, long articles and short stories, and which includes a new series launched by TED. Props to Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation for being one of the first on the new format with his Happiness Manifesto. Nic’s colleague at the Centre for Well-Being at nef, Charles Seaford, is talking about the politics of well-being at the London Philosophy Club in two weeks, in London. Sign up to the Club – we have Maurice Glasman, Ed Miliband’s new fave philosopher, talking about the Good Society in March.
The second e-book I bought in my first flush of Kindle-mania was Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I’ve mentioned on the blog before. McGonigal, an idealistic games designer, thinks the reason people spend so much time playing games is that reality as it is presently constructed is broken. It’s not satisfying our basic human needs for engagement, participation, self-determination and mastery – while games and virtual worlds are (plus games let us blow shit up). So we have two choices – retreat further into the virtual world of gaming, or try to use gaming thinking to make reality better. Ask why we like playing games so much, and then use that to make our lives better. Here’s one effort at what McGonigal calls ‘happiness hacking’ – a programme called Superme, which uses games and videos to try and teach the principles of Positive Psychology to teens.
One of the reasons we like games is because they give us a clear sense of progress and mastery – we can see that we’ve advanced to be a Level 5 Wizard (or whatever). In life, it’s not quite so clear if we have ascended to the next level. Maybe that’s why people slave away at corporate careers – at least they can see their visible and quantifiable progress up the ranks. It’s also perhaps why people get drawn into cults like Scientology: because they’re like computer games. They promise that, if you put enough coins into the machine, eventually you will become an Operating Thetan level VII. Read the New Yorker’s brilliant long article on Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis’ defection from Scientology, or my summary of it here. He estimates he spent around $300,000 to become an level VII thetan. That’s an expensive game.
Maybe if we could measure our well-being and see more obvious progress, like in a computer game, we’d spend more effort and be more motivated to ‘hack happiness’. That’s the thinking behind this new start-up, Gravity Eight, which aims to spread the philosophy of the ‘quantified self’, and provide users with a dashboard of measurements for their physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being, so we can ‘power up’ to level 3 Spirituality (no really, look on the right).
I’m ambivalent about the whole craze for measuring well-being. I like the shift beyond GDP, but there are limits to what one can quantify. Can you imagine a ‘meaning machine’ that tells us how much meaning our life has, like a weight machine telling us our weight? No? That’s because meaning is a more subjective and intangible quality, which you can’t sum up in a number (thank God).
Here’s a review I wrote of Daniel Batson’s important new book, Altruism in Humans, which considers his 30 years work testing out the ‘empathy-altruism hypothesis’ via lab experiments on humans. I think it’s the first review of the book. Batson’s conclusion: humans are altruistic, but the motivation doesn’t always lead to the common good. We need other pro-social motives, like collectivism and principalism.
The dark side of human nature was on show this week, with the upsetting news about the mob attack on CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square amid the euphoria of Mubarak’s ousting (she apparently wasn’t raped, contrary to early reports). As Edmund Burke warned us, revolutions can bring out the devils in us as well as the angels. Some wondered if women should be sent into conflict zones. That question was raised back in 1991, when the army surgeon Rhonda Cornum was captured and sexually molested in the First Iraq War. She bounced back, and is now a Brigadier-General in charge of the US Army’s resilience-training programme, which launched its new ‘resiliency campus’ last month. Re McGonigal, the Army also launched a ‘virtual resilience island’ on the online game Second Life.
The war correspondent Kim Barker, who herself has experience of being sexually molested in conflict zones, summed up my feelings on the incident well, in a column in the New York Times. She wrote: “In the coming weeks, I fear… that there will be suggestions that female correspondents should not be sent into dangerous situations. It’s possible that bosses will make unconscious decisions to send men instead, just in case. Sure, men can be victims, too — on Wednesday a mob beat up an ABC reporter too, and a few male journalists have told of being sodomized by captors — but the publicity around Ms. Logan’s attack could make editors think, “Why take the risk?” That would be the wrong lesson. Women can cover the fighting just as well as men, depending on their courage.” And Logan apparently has plenty of that.
On a lighter note, here’s a story of a woman’s bravery in conquering her claustrophobia, to such an extent that she has become a circus ‘genie in a bottle’. She faced her demons by getting her mother to put her in a bin. Ah, bin therapy, your time has finally come.
Whew, lots of reading this week! I kind of have information indigestion. Infodigestion (n): ‘A feeling of weariness, confusion and nausea after one has consumed too much information and exhausted one’s cognitive bandwidth’. Epictetus once said: ‘if talk among laymen should arise on some philosophical principle, remain, for the most part, silent, for there is a considerable danger that you will immediately vomit up that which you have not digested’. Probably not a blogger, then.
See you next week,
Jules

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