True Em Grit

The new movie True Grit is a well-done celebration of the central farmer value of self-control. Not that foragers didn’t use self-control, but farmers took it to a whole new level, to get folks to act in quite un-forager-like ways. George Will’s latest column echos that gritty farmer theme, with a standard conservative warning that wealth and modernity tempts us to excess:

Daniel Akst[‘s] … book “We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess” notes that the problems of freedom and affluence – of “managing desire in a landscape rich with temptation” – are desirable problems. But they are problems. …

American life resembles “a giant all-you-can-eat buffet” offering “calories, credit, sex, intoxicants” and other invitations to excess. … Life in general has become what alcohol is – disinhibiting. … Today capitalism has a bipolar disorder, demanding self-controlled workers yet uninhibited shoppers. … The inhibiting intimacy of the village has been supplanted by the city’s “disinhibiting anonymity.” … As traditional social structures have withered under disapproval, and personal choice and self-invention have been celebrated, “second careers, second homes, second spouses, and even second childhoods are commonplace.” …

Pondering America’s “aristocracy of self-control,” Akst notes that affluent people, for whom food is a relatively minor expense, are less likely than poor people to be obese. Surely this has something to do with habits of self-control that are conducive to social success generally.

Before you dismiss Will’s concerns as the no-longer-relevant paranoid fears of a sad stick-in-the-mud, consider that when I recently discussed future Malthusian ems, several commentors responded that em poverty wouldn’t be so bad because very vivid and luxurious video games and virtual reality would cost only a tiny fraction of their subsistence cost. Also, since ems wouldn’t eat food, get sick, or have biological bodies, they needn’t feel hunger or pain. But I think this image misses the revival of farmer-style grit in an em world:

Ems, or whole brain emulations, are my best guess for the next big transition on the order of the farming and industry transitions. Farmer-style stoicism, self-sacrifice, and self-control, detached as needed from farmer specifics like love of land or sexual monogamy, might well be more effective [than a forager-style] at creating acceptance of em-efficient lifestyles. Religious ems might, for example, better accept being deleted when new more efficient versions of themselves are introduced. “Onward Christian robots” might be the new sensibility. And em’s low incomes might help farmer-style fear-based norm-enforcement to gain traction.

Ems would need some resources, and their bodies and minds would collect defects and errors, even if none of these resources or defects are biological. So it would be functional for ems to redirect their hunger systems to track the collection of needed resources, and redirect their pain systems to monitor possible defects and errors. They might of course sometimes enjoy pleasant vivid daydreams when their minds need non-shut-down rest, but it would be more functional for ems to daydream about variations on their own lives, rather than about completely alien lifestyles. They might also, if possible, redirect their needs for sex and kids toward em style reproduction activities.  If so, ems should feel hunger, pain, desire, and deep frustration, because such things are useful to feel.

As with our ancestors, it might be functional for much of em leisure to be devoted to relatively functional social bonding and mutual signaling of abilities, shared loyalty, and values. Farmer leisure differs from rich forager leisure, for good functional reasons. Compared to us, ems might prefer leisure that more celebrates self-control, religion, honor, loyalty, submission, grit, and determination. They might on average be happy, but with a grittier farmer style happiness. Whether such lives seem worth living to you probably depends on how fiercely you side with foragers in the forager-farmer divide.

Added 11a: Many commenters think direct modification of em brains would quickly lead to “happy slave” ems. Seems likely we’d try such modification, and they’d probably add some degree of cooperativeness, but my guess this will be a minor contribution.  The ability to select just a few of the billions of humans to make em copies will allow big changes between ems and humans, but I expect most of that to be used to select very high ability em minds, and that relatively little will need be spent on a willingness to submit to low incomes and high work regimentation. The farming revolution has already selected humans for plasticity in that direction, and it wouldn’t have been possible if humans didn’t already have a lot of such plasticity.

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