I have a series of mechanisms in my life that sound pretty silly when I explain them.
I leave my debit card at home. But I’m not comfortable walking around without access to funds. To resolve this dilemma, I have sewn up cash and credit cards in a cloth pouch that must be torn through if I need to access them. Similarly, my computer and smartphone (I switched from a flip phone in 2019) are locked up with various blocking apps that restrict when and how I can access the internet.
I don’t have minesweeper, solitaire or any other games on any of my digital devices. I don’t own a game console or a television screen and hopefully never will.
When I tell people about this, I often get a response that is something like “Couldn’t you just, you know, exercise self discipline?”
No. I can’t. Neither can you, neither can anyone else. Compulsive, reward seeking behavior is deeply wired into us. Relying on willpower does not work if your willpower is constantly assaulted. I am lucky: I have no predisposition to the addictions that typically kill people or otherwise ruin their lives. I am not driven to consume drugs or alcohol. But I have habits which I can only imperfectly control, things I know I’ll do again and again even though I would prefer not to.
This problem is going to get worse. The marketplace is perfecting new sources of hyper-stimulus not found in the ancestral environment. As it gets worse, my own feeble buffers against this tide are likely to be insufficient.
The burden of willpower is increasingly privatized. Once it would have been part of the commons. Pornography used to require an uncomfortable interaction with a store clerk and the possibility of a friend or neighbour seeing you make the purchase. Now it is piped into every home in the developed world. Shitty, processed food is often cheaper and more convenient than more nourishing alternatives.
Some people try and develop heroic levels of self discipline. These are the lifehackers, the no-fappers, the orthorexics who struggle valiantly against themselves.
If they succeed, the result is the cultivation of an internal tyrant: an ascetic, sovereign self-actualizer. Online gurus sell the means of attaining this vision. Often it simply fails and the wayward addict climbs back on the wagon, vows to do better, or continues searching for the next thing. If this happens often enough, he may become resigned and blackpilled.
The Ulysses Pact
The Ulysses pact refers to when Ulysses had his men tie him to the mast so he could enjoy the siren song without succumbing to destruction.
My approach to self discipline is mostly about engineering Ulysses pacts. This can take strong or weak forms: I might make it near impossible to do the thing I want to do, or I might merely make it more inconvenient. Impossibility is often hard to achieve. But sometimes adding a bit of friction is enough. While house sitting for a friend, I found myself stopping, turning on the TV, and losing several hours a day to mindless channel surfing. When I realized what was happening, I took the remote and put it in the basement. It worked and I stopped.
Ulysses and anti-Ulysses Technology
When I upgraded my smartphone for work, I immediately went to the task of changing its settings to maximize my privacy and minimize distractions. I found I was unable to uninstall basic software like internet browsers. I could not dumb down my smartphone.
There are well-intentioned people who wish to make wireless internet free and ubiquitous. They should be challenged. In the future, people may well have to pay for the privilege of being offline.
There is some reason for optimism. I have found useful products like Cold Turkey and Freedom. They are both flawed in their own ways, but better than nothing. Internet filters are now being designed for self regulators. These technologies are in their infancy. They are often embarrassingly easy to overcome for hardcore addicts and both over and under inclusive in their filtering. Some of them direct themselves only to the already digitally immersed and are little more than data harvesters.
If this technology improves and takes off there may be a red queen arms race between Ulysses and siren tech.
If you are reading this and you work in tech, there is a huge need for more and better Ulysses technologies. You don’t have to design ever more addictive products for big tech.
The Ulysses Community
Sometimes peoples’ Ulysses’ pacts may become weak, unwieldy or unworkable if they aren’t supported by the social context. What they need is a meta-right: the right to voluntarily surrender some of their freedom in order to live a better life.
“Meta-rights” don’t (yet) have the same legal and normative value as “rights.” But they’re a useful way of describing how people could be better off if they could freely give up freedoms. Some jurisdictions allow compulsive gamblers to blacklist themselves from casinos. They can request to be put on a list barring them access. A good way to enforce this would be to make careless casinos indemnify blacklisted gamblers for their losses.
Where could individuals turn to secure meta-rights? It is doubtful governments are the best place to do so. Protecting people from themselves is unpopular when implemented at scale and can also create locally suboptimal conditions. As a policy implemented on the scale of an entire country, prohibition was a failure. It turned many otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals for a victimless crime, sewed disrespect for the rule of law, and created violent, unregulated markets. The same can be said of the war on drugs.
But in other contexts, it may work quite well. Small, isolated villages in northern Canada frequently choose to be “dry.” Activists campaigned for years to close the liquor stores next to the Pine Ridge Reservation.
While we should be alert to the possibility of well-crafted policies to alleviate some of these problems, we also shouldn’t be too reliant on government to solve this problem for us.
A community is a group of people who have more trust and loyalty towards each other than they would towards strangers. Where communities have a high degree of co-ordination and cohesion, they can often make better decisions about what works for them than distant bureaucracies.
Some communities can intentionally adopt different norms from those of the prevailing society. A community can be prepared to make arbitrary refusals of new technologies. Many people would be better off if they had to leave their homes to use the internet. Communities can provide buffers against the modern world that individuals may find impossible. Imagine living in a community where the only access to the internet was at certain times in a community hall or library. Or which didn’t have internet service at all.
“Preppers” are people who get ready for disruptions to society as we know it. They typically prepare for supply chain disruptions, civil conflict, or a breakdown in law and order. On a long enough timeline, they are inevitably going to be right about something. They are sometimes an object of ridicule for people who have mostly lived in times of peace, stability and regime continuity.
I am suggesting people can and should prep for something other than societal collapse. People should prep for the disruptive effects of hyper stimulus and new media. This kind of prepping can be combined with the regular kind if people so desire, but it need not be.
You may not yet have a compulsive habit that threatens to ruin your life. You may be skeptical. Perhaps you enjoy pornography, video games, social media and processed food in moderation; maybe you find that they enrich your life. It is likely that in future these things may become more addictive, or that new ways of hijacking human reward systems will emerge. Just because you are not enslaved now does not mean you will not be so in future, or that your children will not be.
Find your crew and start building a walled garden. The future is unwell.