Total Recall

Forty years ago, thinker Robert Nozick offered one of those thought experiments so annoying it would go on to torture generations of ethics students. The “Experience Machine” is a monster from 1974 that sets out to prove that human satisfaction is not a measure of moral good — think of its intellectual goal as a bit like the Catholic Church without the incense.

In seeking to smack down the utilitarian principle that human happiness is the ultimate measure of good, Nozick asks us to consider that a team of “super-duper neuropsychologists” has formulated the absolute means to simulate any experience. We connect to this glitch-free Total Recall device and we are transported to any victory of our own devising: we can win a Nobel Prize, scale Mount Everest or enjoy a daily sponge bath from Jennifer Lawrence while we out-write Proust.

It is Nozick’s view, and that of his fans, that people of sound mind would refuse congress with such a machine. “Would you plug in?” he asks throughout a text that sets out to prove that the fulfilment of human desires is not of central importance in determining good. We would not choose, he says, to plug in, because feeling satisfied in ourselves at the expense of doing real good is something we instinctively know to be unethical.

That many do choose to plug in to the pleasure provided by the cruder “experience machines” of Johnnie Walker and Nintendo notwithstanding, there are problems with the experiment. These have, notably, been identified by Peter Singer. In short, the refusal of (some) people to plug in does not disprove that human happiness is a measure of ethical good because such a machine cannot provide happiness to all. If your happiness depended on living a complex life reliably free from delusions, for example, then the thought experiment fails as badly to deliver on its ethical checkmate as Arnold’s virtual holiday does to bring him peace in Total Recall.

Whether or not you are a utilitarian who believes that good can be measured in terms of a healthy supply of pleasure and a minimum of pain, the “experience machine” continues to be a fun thing to consider ethically. What, after all, is wrong with a benign singularity whose simulated twilight comes with a sponge bath from Jennifer Lawrence? There you are, with your brain in a super-duper formaldehyde spa, doing no one any harm and yourself much good. You can be whatever you want. You can be a fearless revolutionary.

You can imagine yourself to be hauling chunks off the Berlin Wall, lying in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square or singing in a knitted bikini with Pussy Riot at an Orthodox church. These are the sorts of things you might imagine you are doing when you attend a protest like the March in March.

These are the sorts of things some might have expected from last Sunday’s experience machine.

Instead, participants found themselves unplugged.

There was a “total disconnect between what might be termed citizen-initiated reportage on social media and mainstream coverage”, wrote my colleague John Birmingham to no little approbation. His was one of several voices in a scolding chorus that demanded better and broader coverage of these mid-sized rallies. When Crikey’s Myriam Robin offered an account of traditional media indifference — including the practical PR advice to avoid marching on a Sunday in this era where even press workers are stripped of penalty rates — she was decried by some readers as a Murdoch stooge who’d be first up against the wall when Jennifer Lawrence leads the People’s Revolution.

Just as there were many reasons people marched last Sunday, there were many reasons the press failed to cover it. Not the least of which is that trying to express a new and complex set of disagreements in an old and simple way just doesn’t make great copy.

Not that there ever has been, as can be inferred from the Birmingham comment, much great copy on protests in Australia. Even if reporters had been available and dispatched to join the protesters in the nation’s Sunday city streets, which are otherwise seen only by tourists, they would have said, as they always have, “rabble”.

The only time we see protesters depicted as brave or worthy is when they are underneath a tank, on top of the Berlin Wall or in an idealised past. It is distance that affords protesters the appearance of nobility they always crave and sometimes deserve. Sure, today’s press is a husk. But it was never so verdant that it did not fertilise itself with bullshit accounts of protest.

Protesters never see themselves depicted as they would like: brave and numerous and complex. Birmingham’s “disconnect” is not just the sound of an out-of-touch press but of the experience machine shutting down.

A junior at worries about “ignoring the feelings of more than 100,000 Australians” when perhaps the real concern here is how to reactivate the engine of a machine that manufactures these positive and noble feelings.

There is not only nothing wrong with feeling good — the only result that the March in March can have been said to produce — but according to utilitarian argument, it’s an ethical end in itself.  So reconnect with Nozick’s experience machine whenever you like. Just don’t disconnect it, and you’ll stay convinced that you are performing a civic instead of a personal good.