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Plato Would Have Wanted Us to Unplug (eidolon.pub)
112 points by fern12 63 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments



In the book "Reality is Broken" by Jane McGonigal, she argues that instead of video games being something that are a corrupting influence, real life is not nearly as engaging as it could be compared to video games.

Consider how some people get much more satisfaction out of being in a World of Warcraft guild compared to going to their public school. There is nothing that would make it impossible for a job or a school system to be as engaging as a video game, and there are actually people I once met at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) who are trying to do that.

On the other hand, from the perspective of evolution, the human brain did not evolve in the presence of things like high fructose corn syrup and infinite Facebook feeds, and so it can require unnatural efforts to use moderation, especially if someone is predisposed to be particularly addicted to something.

So, maybe like most things, the issue is more nuanced than just "video games are horrible" and "video games are completely good."


>There is nothing that would make it impossible for a job or a school system to be as engaging as a video game

Of course there is: real life has real consequences like failing school or poverty or death if you mess up too badly. Part of the fun of video games is that you can do exciting things without actual risk.


To tag on to this: I'd argue that work and school are more engaging than video games. When was the last time you just stopped going to work because it wasn't fun? Having to do these things in order to survive is extremely exciting, it just that the excitement doesn't feel good.


> Having to do these things in order to survive is extremely exciting, it just that the excitement doesn't feel good.

That's just called stress and I'm not sure I would equate stress to excitement. What makes the video game more engaging, relatively speaking, is that the stress factor is virtually eliminated. If we want to make real life more engaging, so to speak, perhaps we all need to focus more on how to reduce/eliminate stress.


I think stress is like excitement with risk. Something exciting and not stressful probably doesn't have much risk involved. However, if the individual perceives risk, then stress is introduced. Think skydiving. Skydiving can be pretty exciting, but if you perceive a high risk of death or injury then skydiving would be pretty stressful.

If we want to make real life more engaging, perhaps we need to focus on how to reduce risk. Or at least, reduce the risk of a superbad negative outcome.


I'm not disagreeing entirely, but I'd like to add and ask, have you ever heard the saying "stress is the body's natural response to task managment"?

I have been in many situations that others would find stressful (and always including the people around me during them) but because I was organized and experienced these experiences were in fact very exciting and even fun. The risk and very real consequences of failure are what made those situations what they were. Not saying it's for everyone, but for those that thrive during real challenges and having the good fortune to be tasked so heavily and with such responsibilities, these situations can be absolutely exhilarating. As an added bonus, the rewards are also real!


I greatly disagree. Please provide an example of your school or work situation for comparison with a video game. Most real-world schools and jobs do not require quick thinking and actions like video games. I do think that there is an opportunity to make school and work more engaging, its just that most are still stuck in the old framework/system.


First off, you’re clearly ignoring a disagreement about what engagement is.

Secondly, it’s not clear why engagement in terms of “quick thinking and actions” is desirable. It’s a dopamine rush, not a paycheck. You persuade me to work by paying me money; the second I see achievements at work, I’m headed for the hills.


Sometimes I got to work because I have no real choice. This isn't a new thing, I've been that way my whole life. I do sometimes enjoy my work. But sometimes I don't.

Games, however... I only play them when I'm enjoying it. Nothing is forcing me to do that.

Games are absolutely more engaging than work.


This would mean that rich people have more fun, because their risks are lower.


That seems likely to be true, coupled with the fact that wealth means greater selection in their entertainment.


However, they are not more likely to be happy (down to a certain point - earning less that 70K affects your happiness; above that though, it doesn't seem to have an influence).

Happiness != Fun. Sadly, we often seem to try to maximize Fun (/pleasure/ease/etc.), and not Happiness.


> However, they are not more likely to be happy (down to a certain point - earning less that 70K affects your happiness; above that though, it doesn't seem to have an influence).

I thought that was a misinterpretation of the data, which showed essentially logarithmic growth of happiness with respect to money? When plotted on a linear graph, the curve seems to go flat after a certain income level, but it actually keeps on increasing. Which would mean that more money results in more happiness, but with diminishing returns.


True, but OP mentioned fun.

It's also true that more wealth doesn't seem to make me happier, in and of itself. It does mean I have much less stress. That makes me more content, which some might call happiness.


But it's not like rich people live their lives as if everything is without risk like a videogame.


Not everything is without risk, even if you're rich. Most of things that make a rich person's life more fun are the things that their wealth allows them to do without risk: talk to anyone, lend people their stuff...


If there were games where you could get physically hurt, they would easily have a bigger fanbase than regular games.


Football?


> There is nothing that would make it impossible for a job or a school system to be as engaging as a video game

You mention "public school" in the previous sentence, which is important, because many private school do successfully address the engagement issue by having a much more rich and unstructured environment with better teacher to student ratios and passionate teachers that more freedom to innovate. That doesn't mean that there aren't great teachers at public schools, but that the standardization and lack of resources really hobbles them.


Standardization is often talked about, but it would totally be possible to standardize on a "good curriculum".

It's extremely hard to find teachers that are willing and able to produce entire curriculums on their own for the group of 30 children. However, there are many teachers that would be excited to try out better curriculums if they were offered them. That curriculum can, of course, be less structured as well.

Hundred percent agree on lack of resources, of course.


> Hundred percent agree on lack of resources, of course.

My state provides about $7,000 per public school student (I don't know if this is per student actually enrolled or student in the district, even if the student goes to a private school). That means that a classroom of 30 students is worth $210,000. There is absolutely no way that $210,000 is an insufficient amount of resources to educate 30 K-12 students. That's 3½ times U.S. median income — easily enough to teach a year's worth of material.

The problem with public schooling is structural, not resources.


Food is subsidized, so let's say about $100/month/kid is going to help pay for their school lunch. There's $36,000 a year gone.

Arts classes requires materials. Instruments for band. Mopping the classrooms. Maintenance for desks.

Some of those kids go to detention, so now some teachers get paid overtime to sit with them.

The football team takes the bus to go somewhere.

The library buys some new books. Updates the computers.

There's a lot of stuff going on, it's not just the teacher.


The delay between the sacrifice and the gratification (and the corresponding neurochemical responses) in real life is often on the order of years or even decades.

In video games the delay is often on the order of minutes or hours.

The real world cannot compete with video games in the same way that milkshakes cannot compete with broccoli.


Something that I've been thinking a lot about lately is the idea that due to the way humans evolved, we've spent most of the ~100k years of our species existence in an environment we evolved to be adapted to. Humans have spent most of our history as hunter-gatherers, and only in the last 6k years or so have we had civilization and only in the last 100 years have we invented abnormally pleasurable experiences (crack cocaine, Doritos, World of Warcraft, etc).

Milkshakes cannot compete with broccoli because milkshakes are far beyond the tastiness of anything we would have found in the savannas of Africa. But so my wonderance is - would life 70k years ago be as fulfilling and enjoyable as World of Warcraft, since that was the environment we were adapted to do well in?

Modern schools ask children to sit still for hours and do mental work. The savannas had us outside all the time, living with close family and friends, exercising a lot, etc.

I'm not trying to romanticize living in the jungle, just makes me wonder how our ancestors felt day to day.


> The delay between the sacrifice and the gratification ... in real life is often on the order of years or even decades.

> In video games the delay is often on the order of minutes or hours.

Regarding the education component of the original comment, there can be just as much immediate gratification in education as there can be in games (note that the topic here is gratification, not how long it takes to really learn some topic). E.g. solving a problem that takes a minute to solve - whether there's the intrinsic gratification, or some sort of gamified element like getting points that will work towards you leveling up in some sort of scheme.


the world is way more random than video games. in general most games reward effort with a small set of known outcomes, and for online RPGs and the like, the more effort (time) spent, the more rewards one can get.

in real life you could spend your entire life dedicated to a single craft and fall short for reasons outside of your control.


> The real world cannot compete with video games in the same way that milkshakes cannot compete with broccoli.

It's ironic that you bring this up because I actually quite like boiled broccoli.


More than a milk shake?


I average maybe a milk shake a month, but broccoli multiple times a week. And I'm on the "eat whatever the hell I want at all times" diet. Broccoli out-competes milkshakes for me. If I had to give up one or the other, I'd give up milkshakes.

Don't get me wrong, the sugar in a milkshake is delicious, but it's just not hearty and fulfilling like a good meal can be. Of course, this is well after I started cutting back on sugary drinks during meal times. Not for health reasons mind you - I realized it was messing with my appetite, which in turn was limiting my ability to fully enjoy the rest of my meal. That it's healthier for me is a nice bonus.


As I've gotten older, my sweet tooth has diminished considerably. Many milkshakes are cloying to me now. I would much prefer broccoli stir fried with some meat in a savory, spicy sauce.


>In the book "Reality is Broken" by Jane McGonigal, she argues that instead of video games being something that are a corrupting influence, real life is not nearly as engaging as it could be compared to video games.

The same could be said for porn. But unless we think it's ok to turn everyday life in endless group-sex (often involving tentacled animals) I don't think it's relevant, either there or here.

Heck, the same holds for drug use -- drugged states can be more engaging as compared to "real life".

Games can be totally "exciting" by taking shortcuts and providing cheap dopamine thrills, in a way regular life can't easily replicate.

But the proper question is not what is more engaging, but what is more meaningful/useful.


I agree with you - the threshold for what is engaging and what is over-engaging is not really very defined. That's where my thoughts from evolutionary psychology come, since it gives a way to define that threshold. Basically anything that is way beyond what we would have experienced 70k years ago might be best viewed with caution.


I'm not sure the author is doing an either/or. Instead she is examining the uses of the word "pharmakon" in Plato's work, and suggests that how it describes the innovation of written speech as a spell or drug or scapegoat could be inferred of technology, too. The author concludes, "Demonizing the substance, rather than the impulse, behind addiction is what leads us away from true healing and towards damaging narratives. Technophobia isn’t a soothing ointment, it’s pushing some guy you don’t like off a cliff and hoping your pustules magically disappear."


As we're entering a risky new era in technology, it might be that same technology that would provide us with a cure.


I am optimistic that that will turn out to be true. Some are pessimistic about, say, how there are so many different prescription drugs out there that now no doctor can realistically know how all of the interactions work. But, in the case of something like the IBM Watson computer, it (at least theoretically as it is pitched) can examine literally all the combinations and make it work.

My current running theory is that the world will become really great if we can just get to that point before everything explodes.


> Studies have shown that psychological issues, often caused by pain or unmet needs in childhood, are far more likely to lead to an addiction to something than that something (whatever it is—heroin, sugar, sex) is likely to cause an addiction in a psychologically healthy, happy person who has the skills to cope with the stuff life constantly throws at us.

Obviously having studies is nice, but I feel that this is pretty intuitive (I wonder why/if Dr. Andrew Doan would disagree).

With that said, I think the correct headline would have been "Socrates Would Have Wanted Us to Unplug." And, because it's Socrates we're talking about here, we can't really take him seriously. I'm not sure about him being the Ur-millennial, but he was certainly the Ur-troll. The author herself admits she's being a bit facetious (w.r.t. books), but I think the distinction is important.

> Plato probably would have approved of Waldorf- or oppressive-Religious-homeschooling-style extremism—hell, he kind of invented it—and if we want to follow in his great tradition we should not only ban all screens but also all forms of writing and most literature.

This is really pushing it. Quoting from his "Republic" is kind of iffy because it's hard to tell whether or not the book is meant to be serious, sarcastic, taken literally, or taken in semi-jest. Interpretations vary wildly.

Either way, the article was a great read and I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion that instead of demonizing substances (or video games), we need to fix the underlying psychological issues.


> Obviously having studies is nice, but I feel that this is pretty intuitive

It's more than nice. Studies have shown that many intuitive notions are wrong. So it's really important to test the intuition.


Socrates would want us to not take anyone's word for it, including Socrates'. Plato might want the same.


A verbose way of saying don't blame the drug, blame the shortcomings or trauma in one's life that created the impulse to abuse a drug. The article also touches on how something pleasurable doesn't become a drug until it becomes an unhealthy addiction - as long as it's used or enjoyed in moderation/with restraint, it's a medicine or tool.

If I could write that well I'd probably flaunt it, so no disrespect to the author.


Except that the guy in the picture of the article is Socrates.


So far I’ve connected this blue-screens-of-death fear-mongering to technophobia

Writing style today in English speaking countries feels a bit baroque and over-decorated.


The author of this piece is clearly incredibly well read and yet it seems she read all of these classical works with disdain for their authors or at least with the deeply held belief that they can't truly be taken seriously. That belief is probably so deeply held that she's not even aware that she holds it.

I know that in my own experience I grew up thinking that way. When you truly accept that we today are not smarter nor necessarily more 'enlightened' than the people that came before us it opens your mind to the lessons of history in a very real way.

>After all, if we cling to this primitive idea that an addictive substance must be eradicated, and if we live in a world in which sex and food are considered addictive, where does that leave us as a species?

Have you considered that this "primitive" idea comes up over and over again among great thinkers and writers throughout human history because there's something to it? Do you think people today live happier, more fulfilling lives because food is superabundant to the point of excess and sexual proclivities are uninhibited?

Why are you so sure?


Another trope that bothers me, along similar lines, also appears in this article: that people have always had anxieties about the changing ways and attitudes of the youth, and so we should dismiss such fears.

In fact, ancient civilizations did fall, sometimes because their people lost the will and confidence needed to maintain the institutions that they inherited. Because they became decadent in their abundance and abandoned the virtues that created their fortunes in the first place.


I think this view is more problematic than the one you're critiquing...

I don't think it's too unreasonable to assume more modern people (significantly more modern, even), are a bit more enlightened on some subjects. At least, we no longer consider things like slavery and sexism OK, yet ancient people did, which indicates some significant gaps in their philosophies and high influence from outside.

> Have you considered that this "primitive" idea comes up over and over again among great thinkers and writers throughout human history because there's something to it?

Well, there is something to it... it's often reflecting the natural order of things, or the Zeitgeist of that time. Generally, a great thinker does not transcend time and is somewhat locked into their time, in that only certain strains of thought seem to exist during a time period and others do not, which indicates that overall variety of thinking is just not very high, regardless of how much of a "great thinker" you are.

This, of course, it true for our time as well. Very likely many things we believe today are heavily influenced by whatever is, in a sense, "fashionable". Some ideas are best left unstated.

The age, or lack of thereof, won't really tell you how accurate or useful something is, you'll have to evaluate it on its own terms. I don't like terms like "primitive" because they don't mean anything on their own, but that's a different question.


> At least, we no longer consider things like slavery and sexism OK

No one has ever thought sexism is OK just like no one has ever thought murder is OK. The term contains within it the implicit value judgement.

So long as there is sexual dimorphism among humans there will be a fundamental nature to the relations between the sexes and gender roles. If you would like to keep your mind closed and not think about the possibility that what we have now is not necessarily in keeping with that nature, that is your prerogative.


> No one has ever thought sexism is OK...

They have. Aristotle:

> "[T]he relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled".

This is exactly what sexism is. It's perceiving women as inferior to men. Why one does so is beside the point. If one finds justifications for being OK with sexism, such as sexism reflecting nature, that doesn't change the fact that they're OK with sexism.

> just like no one has ever thought murder is OK.

Murder is definitely very OK in the natural world, so if that's your sticking philosophy, it's pretty much a necessary requirement.

> there will be a fundamental nature to the relations between the sexes and gender roles

I already addressed that this is one of the limiting factors on "great thinkers" and why often their thought patterns are so similar:

> Well, there is something to it... it's often reflecting the natural order of things...

> If you would like to keep your mind closed and not think about the possibility that what we have now is not necessarily in keeping with that nature, that is your prerogative.

Oh, I'm fully aware we're not fully keeping up with nature, and I consider that a very good thing.


On the other hand, we also live in a crazy extreme environment today compared to olde times. We have better sanitation and life expectancy, but also way more exposure to things like lead, diesel fumes, radiation, environmental pollutants magnified through the foodchain...

I mean, how many Greek cities had nuclear landfill fires smoldering underneath them? Fewer than modern America. And how much mercury and DDT was in the fish they ate? How many pharmaceuticals in their runoff water?


> I mean, how many Greek cities had nuclear landfill fires smoldering underneath them? Fewer than modern America.

How many modern American cities have smouldering nuclear landfill fires under them?


Only one that I know of, but that's still probably more than ancient Greece.

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-do-you-put-out-a-su...

It's an interesting bit of trivia that St. Louis had one of the nation's first cyclotrons used for atomic research, but radiation is the gift that keeps on giving. We're more or less stuck with it now, though; too bad we aren't using more for energy. Why, my pops has stories of scrubbin' the hot room floor what'd raise your hairs...of course, that was back on the East coast. Grandpop always was fond of hands-on lessons.

Well. Hands-on lessons, ignoring the IRS, and losing his company's license to produce radioactive material. Still, he considered it a win when he was still cogent because 'those boys at oak ridge saved him from the draft.' Can't argue with that. Or at least, I sure as hell can't, especially since my other grandpop served in the Pacific theater and was very quiet about the whole thing besides using certain, uh, racial epithets to his death.

Let's all stop and appreciate the lack of serious global conflict around now, yeah?


> When you truly accept that we today are not smarter nor necessarily more 'enlightened' than the people that came before us

We're not necessarily smarter (native intellect) but we are a shitload more enlightened (educated, experienced). In Plato's time, only the absolute social elite could converse in this manner, whereas now we have much broader and deeper knowledge available (and discussed) on pretty much every aspect of life that is common between our times.

Don't fall into the trap of deifying past thinkers; they were humans too. Yes, we can learn lessons from them, but our populace as a whole is more enlightened than the populace as a whole in Plato's time. One simple example is egalitarianism; while not perfect now, Greek democracies were only democratic for elite men. Sucks to be you if you're a slave or a woman because... um... that's just the way it is? If you're going to be making theory, you should work from solid foundations - the ancient Greeks had some really wrong ideas about the role of the physical heart and brain of a human, and no-one today would talk about the left ventricle being the source of human heat, for example.


> they were humans too

Yes they were. However I'll put more stock in the ideas that have survived and been promulgated throughout the ages than I would, for example, some poorly thought out perspective from some random guy on HN.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindy_effect

> and no-one today would talk about the left ventricle being the source of human hea

No one today would seriously suggest that a low-fat high-carb diet was healthy and yet that's exactly what was advocated by the medical profession up until about 5 years ago.


Well, you're succumbing to survivorship bias there, because there were plenty of poorly thought-out perspectives from yesteryear that haven't survived. Claiming that the ancients were more enlightened than us moderns because a few of their ideas survived is simply not rational.

And it's certainly stacking the deck to compare the apex thinker of antiquity to a non-apex thinker today.


> survivorship bias

This term is a meme to you and you don't actually understand it. Tell me, what is the meaning of 'survivorship bias' when we're talking about things which have lasted for significant periods of time, over many cycles?

You keep arguing against a strawman. I never claimed that an idea is better just because it was held earlier.


> you don't actually understand it. Tell me, what is the meaning of 'survivorship bias'

If I don't understand the term, then what's the point of getting me to explain it? Explain it yourself if you think I have it wrong.

> Tell me, what is the meaning of 'survivorship bias' when we're talking about things which have lasted for significant periods of time, over many cycles?

O_o

My first comment was pointing out that the ancients believed in a lot of things that DIDN'T stand the test of time. If you're just limiting yourself to only those ideas which have survived and are making your conclusions from those, then you really are in no position to declare others ignorant of what survivorship bias means.

> I never claimed that an idea is better just because it was held earlier.

A strawman of your own, because I wasn't talking about individual ideas, but the concept that the ancients were more enlightened than today. I said in my original comment that some lessons come from them, but overall they weren't 'more enlightened'.


... When you truly accept that we today are not smarter nor necessarily more 'enlightened' than the people that came ...

The trouble is that we are more enlightened.


The idea of Enlightenment has intrigued me ever since a conversation I had when I was working with the UN in a third world country.

The conversation was with a lady from an African country and she was talking about her tribe. She said she was from the enlightened tribe. My initial reaction was to question her belief in her own superior enlightenment. My subsequent reaction was to question my own level of enlightenment and ask what right I had to question hers.

My feeling is that enlightenment (or whatever metaphysical term you want to use) can only be gained following a long period of introspection and study requiring isolation, peace and calm, something that is sadly lacking in most parts of the modern world. Claiming that we are more enlightened than the ancients where such conditions only required finding the proverbial mountain cave is a bit of a stretch.


Scientific knowledge != enlightenment.


I would argue that ancient peoples were much more intelligent on average than people today. It is obvious to me that even in the past few generations, each subsequent generation has been less intelligent, more narrow minded, and overall less robust than previous generations. I personally knew many people who were born in the 19th century and I could not say that my generation is in any way superior to theirs. We may know more stuff, but we are far less wise. Reading ancient authors only reinforces how simple and unenlightened we are compared to them.

It is a very unpopular view, of course, because it is threatening to the self-esteem of my contemporaries who believe that all of the social changes and scientific advances in the past century or so have put us on the cusp of some permanent state of enlightenment. I am sure that we are rather on the cusp of great disaster. No one really likes to think that, but the evidence is pretty obvious in my opinion.


An argument made on such vague terms is easy to make. You never qualified how you measure intelligence, nor which people you're talking about (those who in the past who were wealthy and well-written enough to leave records vs the 'common clay' of today,) nor have you said which cultures you believe to be on the cusp of collapse, nor any prediction of the cause of such obviously imminent disaster. And of course, no proof that it would be a disaster, rather than a mere rebirth.

So I would argue that the provider of such an unenlightened exposition is not in a position to be giving such analysis in a meaningful way.


Also remember that when you are comparing your generation to a younger one, you have the leg-up of an entire generation of knowledge and experience that they don't have. But they may gain that in time.

If you are concluding that your kids' generation, and your grandchildren's generation are each successively less intelligent, please take a moment to reflect if that's a generational issue, or just an age issue. Kids do dumb stuff... are you sure that you or your peers weren't doing equivalently dumb things at that age?


Late reply, but no, I didn't really have the younger generations in mind when I said this. I was thinking of my generation compared to my parents' and grandparents' generations. Heck, even comparing presidents from the last 40 years to those we had a century ago reveals a decline -- not that I'm a fan of Woodrow Wilson or Warren Harding.


Oddly, I think one thing in support of your claim is that modern people do better at IQ tests. I've read that if we calibrated correctly, then populations from a few generations ago would have absurdly low median scores -- as if they had actual mental conditions.

But that can't be right measurement. Any test that took a normal person from 1900 at found them to so lacking in intelligence that they can't function in normal life is clearly missing some part of their intelligence. And perhaps that missing something is what you would describe as broad mindedness and robustness.


> ... we are more enlightened.

We have always believed that.


Not really.

All through the European middle ages people regularly believed (rightly!) that the ancients were wiser than them. Of course they still believed themselves superior because they were Christian -- and were partially right about that too.


Do you have an example of that? I can find examples of things like ancestral worship, but I can't think of any where they felt their ancestors were more enlightened? I'm sure there are individual examples but, as a general statement, I can't really think of a society that was suggesting they go back and do what their ancestors used to do.


Not do what they do, but think like they thought. Many medieval authors wrote from the perspective that the ancients were much more intelligent and knowledgeable than they. The Renaissance, for example, was sparked by the discovery of ancient Greek manuscripts a couple of centuries earlier. As those ideas were reintroduced, there was astonishing intellectual discovery and growth in Italy and then throughout Europe.


I'm not really able to think of any of those medieval authors who thought that way. I'm sure there are examples, but I can't think of any. It seems that, at least in practice, we've pretty much always felt we were the apex of morality and knowledge. That's, I would guess, why broad changes are the exception, slow, difficult, or violent.

I guess I probably should have written something longer and with some caveats.


> Do you think people today live happier, more fulfilling lives because food is superabundant to the point of excess and sexual proclivities are uninhibited?

Yes, very much so.

> Why are you so sure?

Because it aligns with my experience, ultimately. And because I have explanations for why these ancient thinkers thought the way they did - the kind of sexual behaviour that made sense in a world without modern medicine is very different from what makes sense with it.


> Because it aligns with my experience, ultimately.

The experience of one person over not even a full lifetime?

That's just laughably dumb. I don't mean to be rude but I also don't know what to say to that.



So we should allow children addictive substances and blame them when unable to control themselves?


Plato was a fascist.




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