Humans, individually, can be incredibly brilliant but collectively we’re often puzzlingly stupid.
To take a simple, uncontroversial example, we know that forests are critical for our survival. They influence rainfall, climate and the very atmosphere that we breathe. Despite essentially universal agreement about this fact, we’re continuing to destroy them at an extraordinary rate. It seems, despite our intelligence and our astonishing global communication infrastructure, that we’re collectively incapable of aligning what we know needs to happen with what we do.
There is a thought experiment about artificial intelligence, first articulated by Nick Bostrom, known as the paperclip maximiser — bear with me a moment, this is related to human intelligence and sustainability. In this thought experiment, we imagine that there’s an AI system used by a company that makes paperclips.
This AI is tasked with increasing paperclip production and is fed all the necessary information regarding paperclip making, including materials, labour, human motivation, supply chains and so on. Critically, it’s also capable of learning how to learn and does this at an exponential rate.
To cut a long story short, the AI gets better and faster at making paperclips at a rate that far exceeds human capacity to keep up or to adapt. Eventually, it turns the entire universe into paperclips, with all humans and the biosphere being consumed quite early in the process. The thought experiment, not meant to be taken too literally, was designed to explain that AI doesn’t need to have general intelligence and self-awareness to be a threat but can be a threat simply by being single-minded and able to adapt faster than we can react.
I recently heard Daniel Schmachtenberger taking this thought experiment in a very interesting and thought-provoking direction by saying that human society is already the paperclip maximiser but instead of making paperclips we’re making dollars – which are primarily just zeros and ones in bank databases. Our collective intelligence system has one overriding purpose – to turn everything into money; trees, labour, water, human babies. Everything. It’s also very good at learning how to learn and is extremely good at eliminating threats.
The paperclip maximiser economy is not controlled or driven by anybody, it’s just a product of our global corporate capitalist economic model. The rules of the game are such that if you don’t strive to turn everything into dollars then you’ll likely be defeated (in whatever you’re trying to do) by somebody or some institution that is.
There are plenty of people, organisations and political parties who are desperately trying to assert that some things are more important than money. Most people agree with them, but the money-making paperclip maximiser continues on regardless, barely diverted at all by even the most strident, most well-supported initiatives, such as reducing tropical deforestation or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
As Nietzsche prophetically warned, god is dead, and we have replaced him with the paperclip maximiser. Our collective intelligence system has no alternative, so even if we were to somehow collectively stop buying palm oil, for instance, Indonesians would still clear orangutan forest habitat to produce the next most profitable commodity.
Just as we know that destroying the forests of the world is destroying our future, we also know that consumerism doesn’t make us happy. Evidence abounds that the important things for human flourishing are connections to other humans, connection to nature and feeling needed and supported. The paperclip maximiser has us sacrifice those things in order to work hard and earn money.
In part, we need to make a lot of money so that we can afford housing that’s become ludicrously expensive because, instead of being primarily about shelter, housing has been captured by the paperclip maximiser and its primary purpose is wealth accumulation. Without irony, our newspapers can have articles side by side bemoaning the rise in homelessness and discussing the details of the “housing market”.
However grim this might seem, it is possible to beat the paperclip maximiser. We already know that the consumerist treadmill isn’t good for our mental or physical health. All we need to do is talk to people (real people, face to face) and work out what our core values are. Then we need to consciously and deliberately build a new story for humanity to move towards. The story of state-corporate capitalism has run out of puff. Most people aren’t buying it any more but there isn’t another well-championed narrative to orient ourselves by.
Social media platforms are the paperclip maximiser’s best friend. We’ve taken some of the brightest minds in the world and turned them to the task of designing addictive systems that keep us online for as long as possible in order to put advertising in front of us. These systems are personally tuned to the things that each of us will find addictive.
Keeping us online instead of in the real world keeps us lonely, sad and vulnerable to all the wiles of the paperclip maximiser. We shop and we strive for higher-paying work that will allow us greater status and more virtual praise from other sad, lonely, isolated people.
Have you noticed that when you’re having a great time with friends or family you don’t feel the need to check your social media feeds as much? The paperclip maximiser relies on us being plugged into the system of control, the system of polarisation, the system of artificial wants and needs.
Ancient Futures author, Helena Norberg-Hodge is fond of saying 'our arms have grown so long that we can no longer see what our hands are doing'. It’s my personal belief that, as part of this change, we need to re-localise our shopping as much as we can so that we can see the faces of the people affected by our choices and the environmental impacts.
It’s time to unplug and work out what our real wants and needs are and to build a new collective intelligence system that will deliver those needs. There are efforts already underway to do just this in Australia with Australia remade being one great example.
Not only will doing this save the biosphere but it will make us more connected and more satisfied with our lives. Who wouldn’t want that?
This is an edited version of an essay that was runner up in New Philosopher magazine’s "being human" writer’s prize and was first published in issue #25 of the Magazine.
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