This note is the twenty-ninth letter in the 104-days-of-summer-vacation series. You can also follow the full twitter thread here, and leave any thoughts and comments that might come up!
I’ve been coming across the concept of wireheading a lot in my reading. In Superintelligence, Nick Bostrum uses it to refer to the idea of artificial intelligence systems which hack their own reward pathways, in effect lazily short-circuiting their intended behavior.
Generally, wireheading is when any agent (artificial or otherwise) artificially induces and gets addicted to pleasure, in the human case typically due to some brain stimulating machine. This implies that a wireheaded agent is impaired in their ability to exert their agency in dimensions other than maintaining the wirehead. tldr, a kind of electronic drug that is impossible to resist.
Something that’s scaring me is our openness to a future where we’re all wireheaded. Take social media for example, what are the engagement-driven recommendation algorithms but a weak form of wireheading. Or Netflix which seems hell-bent on getting us hooked on as many shows as we can fit in 24 hours. All while Amazon’s next-day delivery keeps our dopamine hits coming and our hands twitching for the next purchase.
In big-tech FAANG, I’d argue Apple is the only company which isn’t built on weak wireheading. And of aspiring consumer tech startups, it seems a good proportion of products are built on viral growth in the style of Nir Eyal’s Hooked.
This doesn’t sit right for me. I’m a big believer in technology which amplifies human agency (technomorality) and it feels like there’s less of that going around. Instead the constant entertainment environment feels like the path towards whatever the humans in WALL-E were up to.
This doesn’t have to be the way. We can still shift gears and collectively focus on building technologies which empower us, rather than those which keep us placated. I think the future we were promised depends on it.