Please forgive a somewhat stream of consciousness philosophical discussion.
Over at my book blog, I have posted a review of Permutation City, a book that seems to be out of print. I will assume you haven’t read it, and I will avoid spoilers in case you want to find a copy. For what it’s worth, I rated it “3: worth reading once (check it out from a library).”
The main focus of the book is on uploads, or “Copies” as they are called there. You upload a scanned copy of your brain onto a computer, thereby having a backup in case you die. When you fire up your Copy, there is a version of you that exists on a computer. I want to focus on a single thing, the character of Peer and how he goes about being happy, since it applies to what we talk about here. Peer joyously instantiates the purest form of the grind.
For reference, Peer is in chapters 5, 11, 18, 20, 24, 27, and 31. Chapters 5, 20, and the beginnings of 24 and 27 will be the main focus. We are dealing exclusively with a major subplot and ignoring the rest of the book.
Peer is an upload who has left humanity behind. He does not pretend to be something he is not. He fully embraces the opportunity to redefine himself radically, even down to changing his desires. How does he feel about things? Exactly how he chooses to feel. He is choice as a value, taken to its fullest embodiment.
What do you do when your reality is under your control, when there are no preventable threats to your existence, when you can decide exactly what it is that you want to do? I want to make sure everyone is on the same page here: when you say you are deciding what you want to do, you are making up your mind, trying to determine what it is that you want to do; when Peer says it, he means that he is deciding what he chooses to want and then changing his desires so that he wants it. He can take this process back as far as he likes, deciding to want to decide to want to decide to want to want to decide to… It’s turtles all the way down.
This is trivial to some of you, but not all of our audience has thought much about psychology or philosophy. Feel free to pause for a moment and consider the implications of being able to change your desires, values, and emotions at any time, to any degree, for any or no reason at all. Read some G. E. Moore if necessary. We will still be here.
So what implications did you draw from that? Peer’s takeaway was that desires and activities are essentially arbitrary. When you can define yourself to be satisfied with an activity, that activity is fully satisfying. Right now, in your life, you have hobbies that interest and entertain you but are incoherent to many non-enthusiasts you know; are you fully “out” as a gamer?
Peer has two great examples of this. His first is the skyscraper, an infinite building above an infinite city that he climbs. When he decides, however he decides, to take some skyscraper time, he sets himself to start in the middle of the skyscraper, to never tire, to be exhilarated with the experience of climbing, and to have some exit conditions. Until those exit conditions arise, he is perfectly happy and content climbing his skyscraper. He is in self-defined paradise.
Later, we see Peer going through a series of randomly chosen interests. He has hand-carved 162,329 wooden table legs, and he is looking forward to the 200,000 mark. He knows that his interests will probably shift before he gets there, but right now, he is really looking forward to getting that sugar pine on his lathe. At other times, he pursued obsessions with mathematics, neurochemistry, Italian comic opera, and entomology. “Every one of these pursuits had been utterly engrossing, and satisfying, at the time.” Until the next one comes along. Then everything is relegated to memory, stored as an old interest that satisfied him but whose time had passed.
So how is your current arbitrary interest going? Will the world be a different place if you have a level 60 Hunter or Paladin? In the long run, you might as well have been making virtual charcoal in A Tale in the Desert or mining virtual rocks in EVE Online. I have had a great deal of fun growing fields of virtual flax, destroying virtual zombies, and exploring non-existent places. I have cleaned real world floors that just got dirty again, spent hours proofreading a paper that no more than four people will ever read (and which may have been destroyed by now), and have rearranged countless things that would matter to no one but myself. I have never gone out drinking, but I have told people about the things they do not recall doing the night before.
Are your interests entirely arbitrary? What makes the activity meaningful, particularly when all evidence of it is gone except your memory? Including your memory? Will it matter next week what happened tonight? Next year? Two hundred years from now? Matter to who?
I am tossing out these questions because, as Annie Dillard tells us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
You have chosen to spend some portion of your living days pretending to kill ten rats dozens of times in as many variations as suited you. As you do not understand why people enjoy curling or tending tropical fish or watching “America’s Next Top Model,” they do not understand why you enjoy your game. Next year, no one will remember who won the game, the cat will have eaten the fish, and America’s Next Top Model will go on to wherever reality TV stars go when their 15 minutes are over. And you will have moved on to your next game, leaving behind a Theurgist, a Defender, a Mage, a Blademaster, or whatever it is called in your game. All those hours, down the memory hole.
Is it worthwhile? Is this how you want to spend your time? There are many reasons why you might think so or not.
Is what makes each of us happy essentially arbitrary? In that case, no need to worry. Do what works for you.
Can you control what you desire and value? We have more control over our emotional states than we like to admit. We practiced intentionally being happier not too long ago.
Is happiness the point? If there is some higher goal that you are supposed to be instantiating, you are distracting yourself from it, and you can only justify it to yourself to the extent that the entertainment helps you pursue something greater.
Could something be making you happier?
At some point, you must ask yourself why you are doing anything in particular. What does it matter, to whom does it matter, and why do you care about that? Unless you intend to play that game forever, you are intentionally spending time on a bit of data that you intend to throw away. Even if you will never leave that character, this is time you are not spending with your wife, at your job, or volunteering at the homeless shelter.
I don’t care what game you play or none at all. We usually play these games with our friends (although some of us are using them to avoid really dealing with people), and fun with your friends (or alone) is a valuable thing whether that comes from a game, a conversation, a movie, or kayaking. Look past the arbitrary activity and see what you are getting from it.
In a sense, this breeds tolerance. There is no need to hate the game you did not enjoy; people are looking for the same sort of thing in different ways, in different places, according to what interests them. If people used to make fun of you for being a nerd, or still do, the point is not to make fun of them for being jocks or airheads or whatever — the point is to realize the commonality that lies behind whatever arbitrary form genetics and environment have guided us to. Some may be better or worse to some degree, but if you want to argue that there is nothing wrong with having memorized the hit points of every elite in UBRS, you should accept that there is nothing wrong with having memorized the starting lineup of twenty sports teams or when the sales are at the stores in the mall.
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You enjoy some form of repetitive activity, whether it is hunting Tuskers, crafting ingots, or seeing The Princess Bride for the fifteenth time. There is even a special joy you get from the repetition itself, a comfort that did not arise the first time, something that has added to your remembered joy of discovery from your first time. You have your skyscraper.
At some point, you need to decide what it means that you are climbing it, and if that building is where you want to be. If you cannot see yourself looking back and considering this time well spent, don’t spend that time. You can change your habits. There is still time.
If you decide this is something worthwhile to be doing, never apologize for it. If this is what brings you joy, if this is part of a valuable life, then do it proudly.
Do not hide from the question of how you are spending your life. Embrace it. Unlike Peer, you have a finite amount of time left.