“There is a magic button, and if you were to push it, then from that moment on nobody would experience the tingly feeling they get when they see someone attractive ever again. They would still be able to recognize attractive features, but that specific sensation would be lost forever.
Do you push the button?”
I read this question aloud from a laminated card to the circle of people gathered around the snack table at a meetup in Berkeley and grabbed a handful of chips from the open party-sized bag.
“Obviously yes,” I said after a short pause.
“Because it would help solve a lot of inequality. I feel like people are often discriminated against for not being attractive,” I explained. “They have to work extra hard to get others to trust them, have worse outcomes when tried for crimes, and have a harder time making friends and finding romantic partners. And most of the world also acts like this isn’t true. They prefer the comfortable lie that the only thing that matters is what’s on the inside, and if your heart is beautiful then people will see that beauty. But I don’t think that’s really the case.”
An older man to my right jumped in: “is eliminating inequality a good thing in and of itself though? And isn’t removing the tingly feeling of seeing someone attractive explicitly limiting the best of us, rather than trying to bring others up to that level? I could see pushing a button that made everyone extremely attractive, but this is closer to taking away attractiveness altogether.”
“I guess I feel like the amount of suffering that would be eased by pushing the button outweighs the suffering brought on by the extra work attractive people now have to do to be liked.”
“But,” he objected, “it’s not just about suffering. I have an intuition that there is something uniquely valuable about that tingly feeling. Sort of like how humans appreciate beauty in art and music, and this is agreed upon as something that is specific to humans and very special. Taking that away would be like taking away the shiver you get when a song connects with you just the right way.”
A girl across the table added, “would you push the button if it meant that nobody would ever experience the tingly feeling they get when they hear a beautiful voice?”
This was par for the course at a meetup for readers of the philosophy blog SlateStarCodex. I made a mental note about how much I loved talking about questions like this, and the particular discussion styles that marked people who were especially good at it -- patterns like the ability to ask questions in analogous forms, and the ability to cut straight to the root of disagreements.
“I guess not,” I admitted.
“Is that just because you feel like the amount of inequality resulting from variation in voices is not as much as the amount of inequality resulting from variation in attractiveness?” she asked.
“That would be consistent, but actually now I’m just questioning my initial instinct to push the first button. Maybe I wouldn’t.”
The older man grabbed an Oreo. “But do you think inequality is wrong in principle? Let’s suppose everyone in the world starts out looking exactly as attractive as each other, and then one day someone is born who is 10% more attractive. Are we morally obligated to do everything we can to make them less attractive?”
I frowned. “Well… not in that case, but if you add in the fact that there are limited resources and all of those people are in competition with each other -- a competition in which being attractive helps you -- then I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the inequality leads to unneeded suffering. Like, let’s say an extremely attractive woman is born who all the men then decide they want to compete to woo. They all end up spending all this extra energy on the competition that would have otherwise been spent doing important things which now don’t get done, so society suffers in that way, first of all. And then there’s competition among the women where they all want to be more attractive now that the benefits have been made so obvious, so they start spending their time trying to get men to want to woo them, so again society suffers. And then the world gradually sorts itself into one that is divided into stratas of attractiveness where life is best for those who are the most attractive. And now if someone is born who is 10% less attractive than the mode then they’ve been forced into this lower class and denied privileges they would have had if attractiveness didn’t matter so much.”
I looked around the circle to see nods of agreement and picked up another card. This one read “what is your craziest sexual fantasy?”
The argument that there is something uniquely valuable about the tingly feeling of seeing someone attractive is interesting. It’s not unlike the feeling I get when I hear beautiful music, or see a beautiful painting. I wouldn’t push a button that got rid of those feelings. I wouldn’t push a button that stopped us from feeling love.
Societies tend to produce a lot of art once they hit a threshold of being able to keep people fed and safe. Some people go so far as to say that things like art, music, and love are what give life meaning, that the point of modern society is that it gives us leisure time to do with what we please. Born of this school of thought is the advice that you should follow your dreams. Do something you’re passionate about and you’ll never work a day in your life. And reactionarily, the counter-advice, keep your passions separate from your job. Be passionate about your hobbies, but pick a job with security that you’re good at and that makes you money.
Even so, for many of us with job security and generous wages, the allure of following our dreams still tinges every discussion of the future. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” I’m not sure. Either I will have followed my dreams by then, or I will still be doing what I’m doing, and not finding it unenjoyable, because how could such a cushy life ever be unenjoyable, but also markedly noticing that even though this isn’t bad, it still is not my passion.
One friend jokes about quitting his consulting job to found a startup. Another travels the world, “funemployed.” One friend leaves a big tech company to pursue stand-up comedy. I see a video of his set on Facebook later -- he’s hilarious. Then I go to work and help build a product that a billion people use, with my teammates who are basically the smartest and most conscientious people I know. And at the end of the day I have a jam session with a bassist who used to play music professionally before deciding that having his career be music was slowly draining his passion for music. When I grab dinner with him later and tell him that in 5 years I will have tried doing music as a job he considers it for a moment and says, “given what I know about you, I actually think you would really enjoy that.” I think back to what one of my high school teachers once said about a career in music: “you have to love it enough to risk hating it.” I think about what I would be risking if I did leave my job.
Passion does weird things. It can make it seem admirable to leave a well paying and impactful job for a cheap apartment near an arts scene. Romantic, even. If I tell you that a successful CEO stepped down from his position at 35, you are confused until I mention that he’s really passionate about charity work and hopes to shift his focus to doing more of that. Following your passion is kind of like the ultimate justification for doing anything, especially things that involve a lot of sacrifice. And maybe this is rightly so -- what else could possibly pull you away from your good-enough life to try out a maybe-better-but-maybe-worse alternative?
Or, more realistically, it’s a maybe-better-but-probably-worse alternative. At least for the musicians, artists, and stand-ups. Only a tiny fraction of us ever achieve conventional success. Of those who are able to make a living doing what we love, even fewer get mega-star levels of fame. And of those who do get famous, many will never have as positive an impact on the world as I can have doing software engineering on a billion-user product. If I fix a 911 call issue, that’s a billion people who now have more reliable emergency services. If in addition to that I donate 10% of my income to effective charities, that’s 3+ lives saved annually. Most doctors don’t save that many lives in a year, and their job is literally to save lives.
But, of course, there are worthwhile goals other than the ones which do the most good. If your moral compass points another way, as Emerson would argue, you’d best follow that compass, because at the end of the day the only person to account for your life is you. So maybe the answer is, as Dan Harmon says, to only do it if you could spend your whole life doing it without ever “making it,” and you would still be happy and feel like that was a worthwhile life. But that’s less practical advice and more just a way to calibrate your expectations. If you’re doing it to get famous, you’re probably going to burn out before you get famous. In other words, if you really have enough passion to fuel a lifetime of work, Harmon says go for it. In a way, looking for a career related to your passion is a natural consequence of that passion itself.
So let’s say you have a magic button. If you push it, then from that moment on, nobody will experience passion ever again. They would still be able to honestly evaluate their skills and appreciate well executed art, but the specific feeling of drive that leads people to make stupid decisions would be lost forever. They would finally be able to plan for their futures in realistic ways, weighing the low percent chance of success with the safety of a conventional career.
Do you push the button?
Content warning: some talk of sex and consent
I am allowed to want sex. This is for some reason really hard for me to get into my dumb head. But I think it might still be true.
I’m not prude and not afraid of revealing things about myself when directly asked. I think in general I’m even pro-sex. But still something deep inside me feels like wanting sex is bad because sometimes people force other people into having it, and it’s hard to imagine someone enthusiastically consenting to having sex with me. I know this is not a reasoned position, but cut me some slack because it took me a long time to even realize that there is this thing inside me.
I’ve said before that the first time I heard the phrase “Asian fetish” I sort of knew instinctively that it didn’t refer to attraction to Asian men, only women. (Maybe you could point out odd counterexamples but I think by and large this is still true.) I also recently realized that I sort of in general by default assume that people are grossed out by the idea of physical intimacy with me. Even when I was in elementary school I felt so bad for girls who were forced to hold my hand because we happened to be standing next to each other in a circle in gym class. I’ve always felt inwardly like all touch from me must be secretly unwanted, and this often keeps me from hugging and kissing people.
Sex feels good physically, and it also makes me feel desirable and useful. Desirable because it generally involves a partner to act as evidence that there are people who find me attractive enough to fuck, and useful because that partner also often gets something out of it.
Also, “allowed to want sex” sounds a lot like I think I’m entitled to sex. I think that’s related to why it’s so hard for me to get it into my dumb head.
In the 2015 season 3 premier of “Nathan for You” on Comedy Central, Alen Harikian, the trusting but lonely owner of Speers TV, agrees to work with Nathan on a plan to exploit the local Best Buy’s price match policy to obtain an endless supply of cheap TVs. They put up advertisements for a $1 TV sale at Speers and hire actors through Craigslist to go to Best Buy with the ad and purchase a bunch of sets and bring them back to be resold for thousands of dollars. Nathan Fielder, who “graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades” pitches this idea in complete deadpan, and is met with a sideways glance and a hesitant “um… it’s a great idea.”
In order to discourage customers from taking advantage of the deal at Speers, he implements a dress code in the store, and hides the TVs behind a wall with a tiny door.
He then convinces Alen to let him bring in a live alligator and leave it behind the door to guard the TVs. On the day of the sale, Best Buy does not decide to uphold their price match policy, so Nathan hatches a plan to file a class action lawsuit against Best Buy, which involves having Alen diagnosed as criminally insane, and covertly gathering evidence against Best Buy from their employees by creating a fake reality show where retail workers go on blind dates.
“Nathan for You” is that kind of show; excessive, imaginative, and sensible in the same way a kindergartner is – the logic is there, but it’s unapologetically impractical.
One of the long-running arcs follows Nathan’s struggle with social anxiety, based in part on his real life. In one episode he instructs an actor he has hired to tell him she loves him over and over as an acting exercise. In another, he creates a fake “The Bachelor”-esque show to get practice talking to women. Through all of this, there’s no winking at the audience; the viewer is continually wondering if the Nathan Fielder of the show is just a character, and perhaps when the cameras turn off, the real Nathan Fielder breaks into laughter and reveals that he’s actually just adept at pretending to be awkward – but he never falters.
This commitment to his character – or perhaps it’s just the truth of his self portrayal – is an essential part of what makes the show work. Cringe humor is hard to do well and a lot of viewers are turned off by the second-hand embarrassment. A show which laughs at people who are doing their best but coming up short is only a short hop away from becoming a show like “tosh.0″ which, while funny in its wit and sarcasm, is also often devoid of heart in a way that makes it feel less than genuine.
The secret sauce of “Nathan for You,” then, is Nathan Fielder. His gift for walking the line between manipulation and self-deprecation keeps the audience on his side. In one episode we watch him trying to connect with other men by talking about beer and sex, a conversation which reveals his own shortcomings and embarrassing idea of masculinity, in a clothing store’s back room which has been redecorated and labeled “The Man Zone.” In another, he throws a party to test a product he hired a programmer to create which sends party invites that will be filtered as spam so you can exclude people with plausible deniability, but nobody ends up comes to his party except him and his client, and a professional Bill Gates impersonator who he has hired as entertainment (the two sit on the couch uncomfortably while the impersonator delivers a monologue about Microsoft before Nathan snaps some photos and the client has to go, leaving only Nathan and the impersonator). In all of these episodes, he makes his clients uncomfortable for the sake of comedy, it’s true, but what’s even more true is that he does it by putting himself out there. The pattern that actually ends up emerging is one where Nathan’s actions unintentionally betray his own vulnerability – going for a hug at the wrong time, telling a joke that doesn’t quite land, or getting a little bit too into a dance – and his “victims” response is to make him feel reciprocated.
We like it when people are vulnerable, and we hate seeing them fail when we know they’re trying. Cringe humor relies on the conflict between discomfort, and this inherent support we have for each other, which is why it’s so often mean. The lesson can quickly become: “don’t try anything that might not be funny or cool.” The commentator’s position can quickly become: “I am funny and cool, and you can tell because I’m able to make fun of this buffoon who isn’t.”
In “Nathan for You,” the trick is that Nathan himself plays the part of the buffoon. We feel the same discomfort because he exposes himself so completely, but we root for him because he still means well. We squirm in our seats as the unwitting participants in his show bend over backwards to support his absurd ideas, but we also note that we would probably do the same, and that’s not a bad thing. At its core, the show teaches us that it’s okay to put yourself out there even if you’re afraid you might fail, by showing over and over exactly how bad you can fail and yet still have everything turn out okay.
Nathan ends up giving up on the Best Buy lawsuit, and even though Alen assures him that it’s okay, as he explains in V.O., he still feels like he has failed him. But after he reviews some footage of a conversation they had on the day of the sale, Nathan realizes that he might be able to redefine what success means. The episode ends as he sets Alen up on a date with one of the Best Buy employees who applied to his fake dating show. They’re seen hitting it off, she gives him her phone number, and he replies with the widest grin on his face that he will definitely call. And Nathan drives off into the sunset to go help another struggling small business in the next episode. Because it turns out that if you’re brave enough to try every crazy nugget that pops into your head like Nathan Fielder, you’ll probably end up with gold.
San Francisco is the land of software engineers, which means it’s the land of frustrated and smart people. Smart people tend to be expressive and artistic, but often not in a way that makes them money (we can’t all be the creator of Yo), and even less often in a way that fits the traditional employment model in which a cooperation contractually sponsors your existence. But all of this pent up artistic energy has to go somewhere, and Burning Man can only absorb so much of it, so we see projects pop up every day on hnews which can really only be described as tech art.
Tech art is art about tech. It’s usually made with tech. It’s often satirical. It’s extremely powerful.
Tech art is Likebook, a social media app where all you can do is Share and Like – you don’t share specific things, you just nebulously Share, and other people Like. And SomeWhatsApp, a messaging app that randomly drops 10% of messages so that you have plausible deniability when you don’t respond to things.
Tech art is a search engine for colors, a daily palette, or a plaid generator. An AI that tries to draw an image from a caption, but is bad at it. A wisdom generating neural network trained only on the bible and some Computer Science books. A bot that writes click-bait, and an entire subreddit of bots trained on other subreddits, replying to other bots.
It is all of this, and their shared deeper message that outlasts and outworks nihilism – one that, in the face of everyday monotony, rather than going dark, chooses to shine light. In an age of phone addiction, social media depression, wage-slavery, income inequality, and disillusionment with the optimistic future of the 2000′s, tech art loudly trumpets the message that technology problems aren’t unbeatable.
Many readers will find that they actually are tech artists (this is why so many of us turn to side projects). That they are prouder of their oddly meaningful and personal widgets than they are of the million-user SaaS product they work on. That there’s a hole in their bookmarks where their favorite I’m-bored website used to sit; a hole they now fill with CNN and the NYT, but which is much more suited for artistic expression and enjoyment. Their spirits are restless.
They know that art is powerful when it is universal, they know that nothing is more universal than the pounding war drums and slow march of coming technology, and nobody knows the news from the front like them. And they know that to some extent it will be impossible not to succumb, that fighting it would be like wading handcuffed through molasses, and giving in would mean pain.
But above all else they know that humans always find a way to take pain and turn it into art.