Maybe MONTAG is biting off more than it can chew by addressing a concept as nebulous and atomised as happiness to write about here, in Issue 6. Is it even wise to connect technology with happiness? Isn’t happiness something we should find in dazzling art, a silly puppy, a crooked smile, or the people we hold dear, not a relentless series of #disruptive tech paradigm-shifts?
But if MONTAG is here to look at where the gap between technology and humanity becomes silvery and confusing, and if humans have shoved tech so deeply into their lives it’s essentially become one with who they are, we feel - deep breath - obliged to address something as big, formless and downright desired as happiness.
Because are we not motivated by the desire to achieve happiness in everything we do? Even in today’s troubled times - where every major decision is seemingly fuelled by apathy, fear or anger (or all three) - are we not all, rightly or wrongly, frothing against something that’s getting in the way of our personal happiness?
And if we can use the technology we have developed to nudge swathes of people into anger and sadness, doesn’t that mean we have everything we need to make us happy as well?
Nasty, Brutish and Short
In the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes described life as being ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’
There was good reason for such a pessimistic outlook: in those days, two thirds of Europeans died before they were 30. There was, one assumes, just as great a motivation to achieve happiness back then as now - maybe even more so, because living with the knowledge that you might drop dead at any moment in a painful and squelchy manner tends to sharpen one’s focus a bit.
And in this, the broadest sense, technology has of course subsequently brought wildly-increased happiness to everyone in the developed world.
Here follow some important examples, and you can make your own connections between these events and the tech that enables it.
We no longer work seven back-breaking days tilling the field, only for crops to fail because it didn’t rain enough, or it rained too much. Not only do we no longer run out of food - we have enormous surpluses of it. These days the only thing we mourn in our thirties is the passing of our youth. We pop a pill and bounce back from diseases that would once routinely kill swathes of people. We can talk to anyone, anywhere, in the world, instantly - on a video call. We can travel thousands of miles in a day, taking breakfast in London and then arriving in time for another breakfast in Singapore. We have oodles of free time in which to do whatever we want, even if that “whatever” is watching repeats of the 80s TV show Manimal.
Now here’s an utterly banal example of how technology brings happiness in tiny but significant ways. This morning I listened to the song And Then There’s You by the singer-songwriter Bill Ryder-Jones 11 times, over and over, like a lovesick teenager. A psychologist will be able to better explain how hopeless this kind of short-term obsession is, but the reason I did it was because the chorus is really, really good and, simply put, it made me really, really happy. I kept hitting play to get another warm, foggy hit of happiness.
The other reason I did it was because I could: tech allowed me to discover, obsess over, and mentally file away a song in a morning. Even 15 years ago I could not have extracted so much happiness from a song in such short time. I wrung the song dry, enjoyed every moment, and my life felt really good in that time.
So, today, we’re therefore happy, by any reasonable measure.
And yet of course, we’re not.
Happy Happy Joy Joy
(Graph: Visual Capitalist)
Look at this graph. It shows the average GDP per person over the last 2000 years. Notice how, for 1800-ish years, you could pick any year and everyone has about the same wealth. And it wasn't very much. It doesn’t matter how many more people there are, or how many years away the Black Death is, or how advanced cities were, or how much gold had been discovered - everyone has the same wealth for hundreds of years.
One answer to this wealth stasis is because, in times when work was hard and when it was mainly on the land, there was only so much stuff a human being could reasonably do and reasonably earn.
Now look at the comically massive upturn in wealth around the time of the industrial revolution. Machines were invented, which allowed us to make other machines, which made us highly effective beings for the first time, which magnified our progress… and suddenly all this wealth coincides with being able to control disease, invent magical communication devices, flying machines, print cheap books, etc. Stuff that would make anyone from years 0 - 1750 really, really happy. Technology solved our problems and made us money. The sort of stuff that brings happiness.
If rapid and huge money accumulation is a reasonable indicator, the USA, one of the richest, most developed, most populous countries in the world, should be extremely happy. But according to the World Happiness Report, it’s only ranked 15th, and the happiness level has been dropping for over a decade, and will probably continue to fall.
It’s a conundrum: we’ve developed all the technology we could possibly need to be happy in any meaningful sense. And tech means we’re more well educated than ever. So we know that happiness is found in things like nice people, beautiful views and good stories, and it's not in mashing a “like” button on a phone screen like a lab-rat.
We have enough stuff to get along, to stay alive, to stay full, to be fulfilled, to follow our own path and not become destitute doing it. And happiness, when we get it, still feels as gossamer-thin as ever.
So can tech really help? The answer is, of course, “yes”, with an “if”; or “no”, with a “but”.
M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN PLOT TWIST
Thomas Hobbes, he of the snappy ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ descriptor, believed that when everyone was told that they could get what they wanted - essentially, to be able to find happiness in a way that they could define - everyone, given the opportunity, would then fight endlessly with everyone else to get it.
Hobbes’ solution to avoiding such misery was for there to be an absolute power in charge of the people. Peace - and with it, happiness - he explained, came by giving one strongman complete control. I wonder what he’d make of the world today and the choices being made.
In front of us there may be a stark choice. We strive for happiness in a world where the opportunity for it is abundant, but the world has also changed. We can no longer use the approaches of the past: the toothpaste is out of the tube.
So either we embrace dictatorships to deliver happiness for those lucky enough to align with their dogma, or we embrace technology, which offers a chance to re-write individual happiness on our own terms, in a way that makes everyone... happy.
OUR MOTTO: HACK HAPPINESS!
So MONTAG is going to explore the better option.
We’re going to find out how technology will understand you better than you do, and will make you happy without you realising it’s doing it. We’ll see how tech is making us miserable and how it could be making us happier just as easily. We’ll figure out how we can hack ourselves and use tech to step away from both the misery industrial complex and the happiness industrial complex.
And, we’ll see how, in a zero-sum world, happiness is a win-win game. Join us over the next few months and discover - we hope - a new route to your happiness.