The age of superstimuli

There are many lenses through which you can analyse people's behaviour. One lens sees everyone as "economic agents making broadly rational choices". Others include "players of a complex, hierarchical social game"; or "products of cultural conditioning"; or "individuals with unique talents and flaws and hopes and fears". Each is useful in some ways, and misleading in others.

I'd like to discuss another lens which I think should be a more standard one. That is "primates constantly faced with superstimuli". I'm using superstimulus to mean, roughly speaking, a set of sensory inputs which has a large effect on our thoughts or behaviour, usually because they're a much-amplified version of something we evolved to respond to in the ancestral environment. Consider how much superstimuli in one form or another pervade your life:
  • You wake up and check your social media notifications, on websites where every tiny detail has been A/B tested to keep you on them longer. You might also get sidetracked by one of the many viral apps which, like slot machines, use varying rewards to trigger addiction mechanisms (notice how many of the most popular games have chance as a major component?)
  • You grab some cereal - one serving of which often has more than your entire recommended daily intake of sugar.
  • While eating, you read a newspaper containing the most outrageous and shocking events that have occurred across the entire planet. You're also reminded about dozens of people who are far more successful and respected than you'll ever be.
  • You try to work, by sitting down at a laptop which has ready access to millions of distractions.
  • Your lunch and dinner are probably rich in processed meat, fat, and salt. If you're hungry in between meals, you can quickly find unhealthy snacks.
  • You relax by watching movies or TV shows with unrealistically beautiful people doing unrealistically exciting things. You can also easily access millions of porn videos catering to every taste.
  • If you wanted, you could have easier access to more addictive drugs more cheaply than anyone ever had before, say, a century ago. Even if you're not tempted by hard drugs, you probably consume alcohol and caffeine on a regular basis.
  • You may well end your day with several hours of gaming, perhaps on a MMORPG like World of Warcraft or Runescape, where reaching the highest levels takes thousands of hours of grinding effort. Yet watching those virtual counters tick upwards is still addictive enough to keep millions of players enthralled.

There are plenty more examples along these lines, most of which you're probably already familiar with. These are not new ideas - but it's still worth pointing out the underlying commonality. Whatever it is you want, the modern world will amplify it and exaggerate it and feed you an endless stream of it. Norms against anti-social behaviour, which used to constrain excesses, have withered away - now the only restraints are your self-control, and (sometimes) regulatory barriers. But increasing technological progress will make both much easier to circumvent. Banning addictive substances has been hard enough; banning addictive algorithms will be nigh-impossible.

Eventually we might have a technological solution to addiction - but as usual, defense has been lagging far behind offense. There are already millions of people whose lives are severely harmed by addictions to gaming, to porn, to opioids; and probably hundreds of millions addicted (albeit more weakly) to social media, and sugar, and smartphones. Expect trends like these to get much worse before they get better.


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