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Let everyone sparkle: psychotechnology in the year 2067 | Psyche

The Prologue and the Promise by Robert McCall. (detail, mural originally commissioned for the EPCOT Centre). Photo by Arteephact/Flickr

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Let everyone sparkle: psychotechnology in the year 2067

The Prologue and the Promise by Robert McCall. (detail, mural originally commissioned for the EPCOT Centre). Photo by Arteephact/Flickr

by Eric Schwitzgebel + BIO

Thank you, everyone, for coming to my 60th birthday celebration! I trust that you all feel as young as ever. I feel great! Let’s all pause a moment to celebrate psychotechnology. The decorations and Champagne are not the only things that sparkle. We ourselves glow and fizz as humankind never has before. What amazing energy drinks we have! What powerful and satisfying neural therapies!

If human wellbeing is a matter of reaching our creative and intellectual potential, we flourish now beyond the dreams of previous generations. Sixth-graders master calculus and critique the works of Plato, as only college students could do in the early 2000s. Scientific researchers work 16-hour days, sleeping three times as efficiently as their parents did, refreshed and eager to start at 2:30am. Our athletes far surpass the Olympians of the 2030s, and ordinary fans, jazzed up with attentional cocktails, appreciate their feats with awesome clarity of vision and depth of understanding. Our visual arts, our poetry, our dance and craftwork – all arguably surpass the most brilliant artists and performers of a century ago, and this beauty is multiplied by audiences’ increased capacity to relish the details.

Yet if human wellbeing is a matter not of creative and intellectual flourishing but consists instead in finding joy, tranquility and life satisfaction, then we attain these things too, as never before. Gone are the blues. Our custom pills, drinks and magnetic therapies banish all dull moods. Gone is excessive anxiety. Gone even are grumpiness and dissatisfaction, except as temporary spices to balance the sweetness of life. If you don’t like who you are, or who your spouses and children are, or if work seems a burden, or if your 2,000-square-foot apartment seems too small, simply tweak your emotional settings. You need not remain dissatisfied unless you want to. And why on Earth would anyone want to?

Gone are anger, cruelty, immorality and bitter conflict. There can be no world war, no murderous Indian Partition, no Rwandan genocide. There can be no gang violence, no rape, no crops rotting in warehouses while the masses starve. With the help of psychotechnology, we are too mature and rational to allow such things. Such horrors are fading into history, like a bad dream from which we have collectively woken – more so, of course, among advanced societies than in developing countries with less psychotechnology.

I feel my mood unbalancing slightly at the thought of those who deny themselves. Wait, I’ll sip this lovely pale relaxant… Ooh. Better

We are Buddhists and Stoics improved. As those ancient philosophers noticed, there have always been two ways to react if the world does not suit your desires. You can struggle to change the world – every success breeding new desires that leave you still unhappy – or you can, more wisely, adjust your desires to match the world as it already is, finding peace. Ancient meditative practices delivered such peace only sporadically and imperfectly, to the most spiritually accomplished. Now, spiritual peace is democratised. You need only twist a dial on your transcranial stimulator or rebalance your morning cocktail.

Every major philosophical and psychological theory of wellbeing compels the same conclusion. We are by far the best-off generation in history: the happiest, healthiest, most productive, most ethical and longest-lived people ever. What a time to be alive! And the trajectory is only upwards, as we use our newfound energy, skill and wisdom to further improve ourselves. Our children and grandchildren will know even better lives. I marvel at the present condition of humanity, but I marvel even more at the transcendent greatness toward which humanity is rocketing. I pity our grandparents’ generation, who dragged themselves sleepy and aching through tasks that were not always a joy, who nursed bitterness and hate, who ruined themselves through foolish choices, and who were so easily swayed by destructive lies.

But speaking of destructive lies, I can’t resist inserting a critical word about the unhappy, purist minority who reject psychotechnology. Or should I conclude this birthday speech with no more said? You have all been magnificently patient, of course. (Aw, thank you, Clarice! Thank you.) I feel my mood unbalancing slightly at the thought of those who deny themselves – and worse, their children – the advantages of psychotechnology. Wait, I’ll sip this lovely pale relaxant … Ooh. Better. Even the psychotechnology sceptics, of course, deserve our love. Even those who would throw the world off a cliff deserve our love.

There are a couple of things the sceptics get right. They note, correctly, that anger, bitterness, dissatisfaction and hate have historically driven rebellion and social change. They also note, again correctly, that some beautiful things are lost when we lose unhappiness. But they place too much weight on these considerations. They call us sheep because we are delighted to give our government, our employers and our clients whatever they reasonably ask of us. And they accuse us of being shallow, of being too unwilling to stomach discomfort, of conforming too easily, of losing what they regard as essential human experiences: grief, despair, rage, loneliness.

Once you have tasted our joy, our focus, our improved memory, why would you revert to angry, dull stupidity?

In a certain sense of ‘freedom’, we are, admittedly, less free than our grandparents were. Corporations and the government suggest what lives to lead, and we accept their wisdom rather than fight. To enjoy peace, we gladly defer to those in power. How much is such ‘freedom’ worth? Maybe a fair bit! But it’s not – decidedly not – worth the whole history of human evil. It’s monstrous to suggest otherwise. The defiant freedom the technology-sceptics desire can be bought only at the cost of rejecting psychotechnology and reintroducing war, genocide, starvation and every kind of cruelty, suffering and hate. Would you fail to stop a murder because you value the murderer’s freedom to kill? Would you allow a Holocaust?

In another sense of ‘freedom’, we are perfectly free. We choose devotion to our social roles, and we feel whole-heartedly satisfied with this choice, perhaps after some psychotechnological tweaking to make it so. We feel no compulsion. We do exactly what we want – which by no accident harmoniously aligns with what society wants from us.

Maybe we are shallow, in a way. Maybe our souls are not as dark and deep as those of our melancholic ancestors. We mourn our loved ones only briefly. Depression, hatred, despair, terror – we know these emotions only in play, through fiction or brief experimentation. We do not struggle, month after month, through misery. There is no agonised Hamlet among us. If that’s what depth requires, we’re better off without it.

Those who reject psychotechnology romanticise the ill-tempered rebel, the free-thinker, the misfit, those who were wild and unhappy and impractical – the cowboy-movie hero, the drunken poet, the infinitely grieving lover. True, humanity loses a certain kind of tragic beauty in consigning all such characters to history. But our lives are not artwork to be valued for their tragic elements. Happy endings are better.

To those who refuse psychological enhancement, I say, try the technology! How can you justifiably reject it when you remain in ignorance? Trust those who know both states to choose the better. Time and again, psychotechnology sceptics who do explore enhancement, however doubtfully and hesitantly, rarely choose to return to their earlier unenhanced state. Once you have tasted our joy, our focus, our improved memory, our intellectual sharpness, why would you revert to angry, dull stupidity?

There is nothing to rebel against, no injustice worth fighting. In old societies, inequality meant deprivation and suffering, but no longer. All the enhanced thrive, and enhancement is free to any citizen, resident or guest who seeks it. The government ensures a minimal living standard for all. Food, housing, education, healthcare, opportunities for professional advancement – all are now secure. Though some have more wealth and power than others, no one need feel envy or resentment. The rebel can have no good cause.

You can still be an independent loner, if you like. Pursue your passions in solitude, play video games, meditate on your toenails, or create art for no one else to see. Great! If you’re enhanced while you do it, even better! A wealthy society can tolerate such selfishness within bounds. But few of us choose such paths. Why choose solitary, selfish ends, when with a bit of psychotechnological tweaking you could derive just as much joy from being a teacher, cashier or engineer, harmoniously contributing to the good of the whole – an ethical improvement with no loss of happiness. What’s the downside?

You purists who refuse psychotechnology will fade into obscurity. I am baffled by your stubbornness, but society need not fear you

Of course, in the provisioning of new goods, it’s reasonable for loners to be last in line. It’s reasonable for the most productive citizens to gain the most. If anyone is unhappy about that… well, we all know the solution.

Here comes Paul with the cake. How gorgeously decorated it is! How the candles glow! Paul, you look ravishing. I already know my wish. Before the wish, a few last words. I intend these especially for any friends who are still hesitant about psychotechnology, who might be here in this room or who might be watching this livestream from far away.

You purists who refuse psychotechnology will fade into obscurity. I am baffled by your stubbornness, but society need not fear you. You will lose all contests with the rest of us – ever more reliably as our technology improves.

Those of you who refuse to employ neurotherapy, cognitive enhancers and mood regulators at work, and those of you who deploy these technologies for maverick ends – you will underperform. If you’re a salesperson who refuses appropriate psychotechnology, you will be frustratingly slow, make sloppy mistakes, and not reliably display a cheerful face to the customer. If you’re a nurse, you will likewise be slow, sloppy and unpleasant, and it will matter even more. Why would an employer want you? Go freelance and you will also fail. No technology-rejecting lawyer, electrician or entertainer can expect in the long run to compete effectively for clients. You already know this, of course, even if you refuse to see it, even if you cling to weak threads of hope, running to the dim corners of society where the unenhanced still temporarily have a chance. The trend has been obvious for at least a decade, as psychotechnology sceptics increasingly fail in their careers, in one profession after the next.

Parents, heed me especially! You refuse to give your children neurotherapy, cognitive enhancers and mood regulators, and then you are surprised that they are fussy, selfish, inattentive, dense, impatient, rebellious, forgetful and moody? Your children perform badly in their classes, and their peers choose happier, kinder, more creative and more energetic children as friends. If your deprived child sneaks a sip of another child’s mood regulator, they will feel their fussiness dissolve into calm bliss, and they will wonder why their parents refuse them this benefit. Your children beg you for the psychotechnology they need to be happy, successful and well liked. If there’s one thing that cracks my mood just a little, it’s the thought of parents who will not do right by their children in this way. Ruin yourselves if you must, but not your children!

We can embrace psychotechnology and enjoy its immense benefits at the cost of losing angry freedom and tragic beauty. Or we can reject psychotechnology and be stupid, unhappy and unemployed. The choice is clear. I raise my energy drink to the powers that have delivered us our unprecedented joy. We can party without exhaustion all night. My birthday wish: in 10 years, 20 years, 100 – everyone in the world will sparkle as brightly as we all do tonight, and ever more brightly.

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12 April 2022