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Outsourced motivation

At the Atlantic's website, Reihan Salam files a report on the tech companies debuting projects at South by Southwest, which has apparently transformed itself into a milieu for venture capitalists rather than A&R men. (Related question: In our iSociety, has music become subsumed under technology?) Salam highlights the proliferation of services that attempt to transform everyday life tasks into games by assign values to them and keeping score. He describes Loudcrowd, which serves up social games to isolated people, commercializing our reluctance to be out in the world where we can't control everything. Channeling Allen Bloom, Salam writes that Loudcrowd suggests to him "anomic dystopia" -- I guess I'd define it as a world in which collective experience is systematically abrogated, a world in which only competition can "unite" us and corporations reap the profits from our combat. We end up sharing only the ideal of measured achievement: how many more points we can score, how many people are reading our updates, how many more things we can own or add to our list of experiences. Services like Loudcrowd seem to meet the need we now have to have our social experiences more rigidly structured by an outside party, a referee, some sort of mediator. Increasingly, simply hanging out seems like wasted time unless someone is keeping score or is broadcasting it to others who are not there.

We seem to have worked ourselves into a corner where we must outsource our ability to be motivated. We need outside parties to generate motivational schemes and point systems to drive us through life activities that were once rewarding enough in and of themselves. As Salam notes, It's easy to imagine this evolving into a social engineering system in which we are told what we should enjoy by virtue of how many points some commercially interested party has assigned it. But where he points out that "this concept of layering games over real life is an extension of something we all do: apply our own standards and expectations to the social world," he fails to note that these services are endeavoring to perform that function for us, pre-empt our own standards while substituting their own.

Meeting with your friends too boring? Social life too uncompetitive for you? Enter Foursquare, "an ingenious service that turns finding your friends into a Zelda-like quest," according to Salam. He quotes this description of the service from the NYT:

Foursquare players "check in" via iPhone application, text message or the Web. That alerts their network of friends to their current location, in case they feel like dropping by to say hello or have a drink. (If you're flying solo, or on a date, Foursquare allows you to check in without posting your location.) Players rack up points for checking in at unusual places, early hours of the morning or in the same location as other users in their network.

It seems strange that we would need to incentivize ourselves to have a social life, but that seems the inevitable outcome of technology-assisted convenience. Convenience tends to be a matter of avoiding interpersonal hassles in favor of a solipsistic world in which we have individual control over as much details of our experience as possible. The ideal, from the perspective of technology, would be a situation in which we don't have negotiate any aspects of shared space or time with anyone. "Sharing" itself would become passe. (Where's the incentive?) Instead, we broadcast at one another from our hermetic worlds. Why trouble yourself with reciprocity when you have the tools to broadcast yourself to those who happen to be interested, and filter out what bores you among everyone else's broadcasts.

Drawing on Will Wilkinson's argument about the proliferation of coexisting status hierarchies making us all feel like achievers (as if these are not themseleves ordered into a hierarchy), Salam suggests that these virtual games mapped on real life are useful because they "introduce new hierarchies designed to make life more fulfilling and fun at a faster rate than we've seen in the past." Generally, that seems like a grim take on human nature, that it requires hierarchies for their to be fulfillment and fun -- that winning is the only joy we know. But stranger, especially for a conservative like Salam, is how he posits acceleration as basically beneficial. This seems to me another of technology's detrimental effects, given our consumer society -- tech is tailored for increasing our cultural consumption throughput. Making social life into a game, quantifying it even more precisely, seems very likely to exacerbate that tendency, nullifying the quality of experience and reducing it to a point value. ("I wanted to see that painting show at the Met, but I saw that the Guggenheim was worth more so I went there instead." "Would have went to see your band, but seeing the band playing at Mercury Lounge was worth more points. Sorry.")

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