Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Demand happiness, supply misery

It’s fairly accurate to say that innovation is all about “solving problems people didn’t know they had.” Before Facebook, for instance, nobody noticed that there was a social-network-shaped hole in their lives. How foolish we were to be content with our dreary lives! How presumptuous to have called ourselves happy! But I suppose it’s forgivable: The problems that these services solve are well hidden. So well hidden, in fact, that I still can’t tell what they were in the first place, even after using them for years.

The misery of the technological condition has almost become a cliché. The subject has generated enough plaintive think pieces and hot takes to keep print journalism alive. Still, it’s a valid complaint: I wouldn’t want to give up these services, but they haven’t made me much happier than I was before I started using them. One could even say that social media has made my life worse just by bringing this problem to my attention. But don’t act surprised. It’s all in the script: At the core of the Silicon Valley ethos is a call to problematize existence.

In the world of business, consumer happiness is an externality. The real goal is to create desire, to convince me that I have a problem — to create demand where there was none. The entrepreneur’s dream is to make us see the world as the monochrome, Sisyphean hell of an infomercial’s “before” segment. Hegel, writing in the early 1800s, recognized this: “What the English call ‘comfort’ is something inexhaustible and illimitable. Others can discover to you that what you take to be comfort at any stage is discomfort, and these discoveries never come to an end. Hence the need for greater comfort does not exactly arise within you directly; it is suggested to you by those who hope to make a profit from its creation.” We have somehow convinced one another that the unfulfilling but addictive pastime of social media is worth the effort. Maintaining this convenient myth — that what we desire makes us happy — is the primary function of advertising.

The myth is convenient for the consumers, because it offloads their responsibility for their own happiness. It is convenient for the producers because happiness sells. When we see a new phone advertised with a faster processor and a longer battery life, we remember all the times our devices froze or died on us. Desire begets frustration; frustration begets desire. When our impulsive desire to check Snapchat is frustrated, this frustration is channeled back into desire for a new phone; the impulsive nature of the desire is forgotten. No one wants to admit that they are buying a new phone to facilitate their addiction to social media. The moment of purchase is rather one of infinite promise: that our frustrations will be no more, that this purchase will make us happier forever, that the great disruptors in the sky will never invent new problems to make us miserable. We justify these purchases to ourselves by pretending that we are buying happiness. Latent in every upgrade is the vain hope that it will be the last.

Can we clamber over our desires to demand true happiness? What would it even mean to be truly happy? From Aristotle to the Buddha to Camus and beyond, philosophers have been hazarding answers to this question since time immemorial. It seems we’d be hard pressed to put out a universal theory of happiness without imposing our own value judgments on others. But if we accept that each of us can individually come to grasp what makes us happy, we can start to examine our desires, to take control of ourselves, to short-circuit this machine that converts hope and desire into misery.

Scientists believed for years that the neurotransmitter dopamine was a “pleasure chemical.” They cited studies showing that when rats were presented with a lever that activated dopamine in their brains, they would press it repeatedly for days, ignoring food and drink until they died. It seemed clear that the dopamine was bringing the rats into a chemical euphoria that was preferable to survival. But, by closely examining how dopamine levels changed in the brain over time, scientists realized much later that dopamine actually plays a role more similar to desire than to pleasure: that the rats were not in euphoria, but in the abjection of wanting and wanting with no real satisfaction.

Many people see Stanford, and Silicon Valley in general, as a sunny, futuristic heaven. The scary thing is that heaven and hell are almost impossible to distinguish from the outside.

 

Contact Eric Wang at ejwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.