This author is interested in the "space" of possible experiences, including emotions, and the potential to manipulate them through drugs and future technology, especially in a future where technology and our understanding of the brain and consciousness are greatly advanced.
There are various problems with "drugs" of various kinds, like how some of them could make you an addict, withdrawn from the world, like a zombie, etc. There are different ways that people worry about the effect of drugs on their users, and even some people like this author (who are trying to be very independent of social convention and social norms) show some respect to those concerns.
Then one way of phrasing the angle of this essay might be:
In a technological future where we could get and make even more powerful drugs, and had fewer practical responsibilities (like not having to work), what would we want to understand about our relationship with drugs so that using them literally all of the time would be a good thing rather than a bad thing, in terms of the rest of what we value? What are the good and the bad of drug experiences, and can we tease them apart conceptually?
I don't have enough of a position on this question (or enough understanding of some parts of the essay) to be clear on whether I agree or disagree, but I hope that helps in terms of what the essay is talking about. ("Wireheading" basically means using some kind of artificial means to feel super-good all of the time, and people worry about it because people and other animals who are given this opportunity seem to immediately lose all interest in everything else, which seems kind of bad from most conventional perspectives of what a person can or should be!)
…This made a lot of sense when I read it in between biphasic sleep phases at 3 AM last night. Not sure what that means.
The following quote in the article illustrates what they describe as "Wireheading done right":
"Their primary state of consciousness cycles over a period of 24 hours. Here is their routine: They wake up and experience intense zest for life and work at full capacity making others happy and having fun. Then they go crazy creative in the afternoon, usually spending that time alone or with friends, and explore (and share) strange but always awesome psychedelic-like states of consciousness. Finally, at night they just relax to the max (the healthy and genetically encoded phenomenological equivalent of shooting heroin)."
I can see the appeal of this type of existence. But taking a step back, I question the value in experiencing these states unless they correspond to real events in the world.
For example, focus on "They wake up and experience intense zest for life and work at full capacity making others happy and having fun." This is a perfectly fine sentiment to have. But things should feel better because they're better things to do. Wouldn't a wireheader working in a cheap toxic factory be just as happy as one working in an expensive, safe factory? How might that ultimately impact the factories we design?
With utilitarianism, we attempt to maximize pleasure (very roughly speaking). But part of that is because pleasure has been tied to good events by our built-in wiring. If we have the ability to make any event pleasurable, it feels like we need a new ethical system that employs a full gradient of emotions, including low-valence ones, to appropriately reflect the difference between the desired and the actual reality, and avoid a dystopia where everyone is happy. How does wireheading take this into account?
I have never heard the term and this is my first introduction to the concept, at least framed in this manner ...
But ... aren't we all, already, "wireheads" ? Our tools and heuristics might be a little blunt, or ineffectual, but the quote you provide:
... sounds a lot like the better days that I have - it's just that I accomplish it with Caffeine, meditation, intense exercise, good sleep hygiene and (sometimes) alcohol.
While I haven't formally explored my day to day life on a happiness maximization metric, I did not come to these tools accidently, or randomly - I've slowly tailored them, and my own habits, to achieve maximum happiness on a specific time horizon ...
It's an interesting thing, because I also take caffeine, and exercise, and meditate. Maybe it's just a matter of degrees, a sliding scale. But "too much of a good thing" isn't unheard of, and I have a strong suspicion that "pleasure control" is one of those things that's tolerable in small doses, but ultimately isn't conducive to survival or satisfaction, especially taken to the extreme of avoiding negative emotions entirely.
Even in that distant future though, wireheading would be a practice that fundamentally damages the emotional feedback loops that led to that type of society being formed in the first place. (i.e. the feedback loops that cause people in a society to reject agents that want to change or destroy it.)
Without those feedback loops, a perfect utopia would become an unstable equilibrium, because nobody has any reason to prefer that society over any other society. Thus, you could argue that wireheading is long-term incompatible with a perfect utopia.
There is an "out", which is to just have some of the population wirehead, and then have the society be steered by the individuals that don't wirehead, and therefore can make ethical decisions. Alternatively, you could emulate Ian Bank's Culture, and remove decisionmaking power from human hands entirely via automation. But really, even in that world, I'd rather be one of the un-wireheaders who retained their ethical agency, even if it came with suffering. At least, I think I would... although I'm not sure exactly why.
TFA is entirely about addressing this. Wireheading is a common argument against utilitarianism. Furthermore, if everyone is happy, is it a dystopia?
If someone steals my wallet, and it doesn't make me unhappy, then am I really hurt? Money that can't increase my happiness isn't useful
Andrés Gómez Emilsson on Solving Consciousness and Being Happy All the Time
Let us begin by enriching our understanding of the nature of bliss and its temporal dynamics:
What is Bliss?
Briefly stated, bliss is the absence of pain or discomfort. It has been defined as "the pleasant feeling one gets when thinking about something pleasurable." This definition captures the essence of bliss, but there are many other definitions floating around out there. For example, Wikipedia defines it thus: "The experience of being completely contented and without anxiety" . Another definition comes from the Oxford English Dictionary: "A state of mental or emotional well-being; happiness" .
There is no question that we want to avoid pain and suffering. We also know that we can't do so if we don't even have awareness of them. But how does this relate to bliss? One way is to say that bliss is a kind of transcendent pleasure. If you're having trouble visualizing this, imagine that you're on a beach and you see a beautiful sunset. You could enjoy the view forever, but eventually your eyes start burning and water starts coming out of your nose. At some point you realize that the sun isn't really shining at all, it's just reflecting off sand grains in front of your eyes. So what happens next? Do you stop enjoying the view entirely because it doesn't feel like paradise anymore? No! All you need to do is go down the beach a little ways and the sun's rays won't be striking your eyes at that angle anymore. You can keep on enjoying the view forever if you want to, or at least as long as you can stand being outside without sunblock.
It's a well known fact that our conscious experience of things tends to fade over time. In psychology this is known as Hedonic Adaptation. We quickly get used to things being a certain way, and then we seek out new things to experience. This is why we buy lots of stuff, take lots of trips, try new hobbies, etc. One could also call this the hedonic treadmill. It might seem like paradise is always just out of reach no matter how hard we try, but this isn't quite true. The truth is that hedonic adaptation works both ways. If we stop doing the things that we've gotten used to, then our hedonic adaptation goes in reverse. In other words, if you spend all your time sitting on the couch watching Netflix, eventually you'll get bored of that and will seek out new experiences. You'll start going for walks, or going to the movies, or learning a new skill, or whatever else. At some point you'll realize that your life has meaning again. And, just like that sunset that made your eyes burn, you'll find that this new meaning starts to fade over time. It's all a matter of what you've gotten used to.
If all this is true then it seems like we can easily achieve perpetual bliss without needing to do anything drastic at all. All we have to do is keep on top of our hedonic treadmill by seeking out new experiences on a regular basis. Unfortunately it isn't quite that simple. Our hedonic treadmill is extremely complex, and there are certain things that interfere with it in ways we don't fully understand.
In fact, it's not just a question of keeping on top of our hedonic treadmill. It's more a matter of keeping ahead of it. If we fall behind for too long, we will eventually hit a low point from which it will be very difficult to recover. It's like running a race. If you're ahead of your opponent for the whole race, then you can pretty much take it easy for a while and still win. However, if you start to fall behind, then every second that you don't pick up the pace makes it harder to catch up again. Eventually you'll hit a point where it becomes impossible to win, no matter how hard you try.
fed with the article results in:
Wireheading Done Right: Stay Positive Without Going Insane 2016
"To do so we must avoid wireheading traps and take seriously future economic selection pressures, as they will determine who or what survives at the evolutionary limit."