In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicated that by 2030, his grandchildren - that’s us - would benefit from technological productivity leaps to the point that we’d only be working 15 hours a week.
He thought we'd have a future of enormously high living standards, wild economic productivity, and plenty of precious, precious time to enjoy the fruits of it all.
STERN VOICEOVER: He thought wrong.
Or did he? Today, while we work less than the 47 hours an average person toiled per week in 1930, we’re still working hard, and are nowhere near his dream mark of a day-and-a-half of gentle labour.
And yet… the arrival of the next wave of automation is loudly trumpeted, with some studies predicting that 30% of jobs will vanish by the same date.
It looks like we will have a lot of time to fill after all. Here’s an idea: whether we’re comfortable with the idea of robots replacing our boring work, or just accepting of the likelihood of it, it seems like humans still want to do something to fill the time.
What if it means that the bots become us, and we become the bots?
We all get into little loops of slightly-rewarding behaviour. Here are the stupid repetitive things this noble writer does: mindlessly chewing peanuts while watching sport, compiling meaningless Top Ten lists, marching up and down between the oche and the dartboard just to throw small arrows back at it again.
Things like that are fun. They kill time, they provide small trickles of reward and the occasional peak of a high. If you do them for long enough, they become habits or things that bring more, bigger rewards. They’re also repetitive, subjectively boring and you end up regretting putting a lot of time into them. Remind you of anything?
Work is generaloly A Thing We Don’t really Choose To Do. Even those annoying people who like to tell you how much they love their job would admit as much.
Banishing the tedium of work is the nice altruistic suit that automation is dressed up in, but actually the coming wave of automation will arrive for the same reason as every previous one: the machines can work faster than us.
It just so happens that they’re also really good at doing the boring repetitive stuff. The children in the Victorian factories weren’t replaced out of kindness: they were replaced because they were easy to replace.
So, we’re going to be replaced in our jobs. And this time it will be a bit more than the simple tasks: AI means that the complex stuff can be palmed off to a robot too, and it’ll also learn as it’s doing it, making us more and more obsolete as time passes.
We look at mice in behavioural experiments and think, “aww, how sweet - it keeps hitting the button to get the reward.” But are we so different? Maybe the need to be a cog in the wheel is… human: at heart, do we all secretly desire to be mice tapping the button to get another chunk of cheese?
What if, given the chance to do whatever we wanted with our time, we chose to do a series of repetitive and meaningless tasks? Maybe the question should be phrased another way: how long have you tapped away at a simple, repetitive, meaningless game this week?
The parallel between playing simple video games and base human desires to keep chipping away at tasks is nothing new. But there is a new slew of ultra-simple games that seem to have no more involving mechanics than to simply click and click and click and click. Some come couched in irony. Some are baldly brazen in asking the player to keep clicking for as long as possible. And millions of people are playing them, for fun, or something similar to fun.
Here’s how these clicker games work: you click something and a number goes up. So you click again and it goes up more. Eventually you are rewarded with something that means that a click is more effective, so the number goes up faster. Then you repeat the process. That’s it.
Cookie Clicker, the breakthrough clicker game, was made by its creator, French game designer Julien Thiennot, as a joke. In it, players click a cookie to make more cookies. Remember: that’s it.
As you progress though the game, your rate of production speeds up, it seems, exponentially. Pretty soon, you’re not clicking at all: you’re managing bots to click things for you! Except actually, you’re clicking other things instead: “buying” curser upgrades that click the cookie automatically, “Reinforced index fingers” and “Carpal tunnel prevention cream” to speed you up, or kindly Grandmas to help bake cookies.
As you buy more clickers, cream and grandmas, you start to keep a beady eye on certain ratios: your cookies baked per second, the efficiency of your grandmas, and so on. Meanwhile, a steady stream of notifications keep a sense of achievement bubbling; just enough to pique your interest and keep you hankering after the next hit.
After a while a lingering guilty feeling emerges after spending so long being hooked on your CpS (Cookies per second) figure. The game has no ending. You could literally spend the rest of your life playing Cookie Clicker.
Universal Paperclips, a minor online sensation which possibly caused a billion dollar dip in productivity during October and November of 2017, is even more obtuse and frivolous. At least everyone loves cookies: paperclips are useful, but I don’t know if I would miss them if they were suddenly eradicated in a planetary Paperclip Cull.
And yet, it’s more addictive than its Cookie cousin, with a story - if you can call it that - which begins with you overseeing a small paperclip-manufacturing operation and ends with - SPOILER ALERT - the conquest of the universe.
Universal Paperclips is a wry meta- twist on the clicker game: you are the AI, and you gradually become more and more intelligent until you become omnipotent.
Time investment in clicker games can be justified in two ways: sunk cost (I’ve spent so long doing this, I may as well continue) and rationalising (I am actually learning something about resource management here!)
These justifications cause you to think you’re learning something about business, or life, or investment. Maintain the balance. Hold when things are tight and spend when the going is good. The key to success follows the timeless advice of Wu Tang Financial: you need to diversify your bonds.
There are even clicker games that let you experience the thrill of being a Bitcoin-Mining computer, chipping away at creating Bitcoins through millions of clicks - perhaps the ultimate irony, considering that Bitcoins are “mined” using processing power to grind through complicated mathematical problems.
(IDEA: create a clicker game that hijacks the spare CPU power of clicker-games of users to mine real Bitcoins whilst the gamers tap away to create fake ones.)
Fundamentally, the need to keep clicking is rooted somewhere between the rationalising behaviour of the gambler and the five stages of grief. The more cookies you bake/paperclips you make, the more you can buy, refine and fine-tune. Progress feels real. Your life seems a bit better than it used to be: remember when you had to manually click a button for progress to happen?
As you click away and watch the digits rack up, other numbers start to slowly accumulate - except they’re in your real life: the number of unread emails, the number of words left to write in your article, the increasing frequency of concerned calls from the kindergarten wondering why you haven’t collected your children yet.
Are clicker games an insight into the human psyche, a commentary on our minuscule position in a Capitalist machine, a wry glance at our inherent need to follow orders, or are they just dumb things made for dumb reasons that make dumb minds dumber?
There is plenty to learn from the clicker game and its hooked participants: about the short-circuiting of human nature, the gaming of the need to work together, life’s essential feeling of FOMO, and the latent desire to keep grinding through near-meaningless tasks.
The International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University - which you’d be forgiven for thinking is the most 2017 thing that exists until you hear that they also have a Psychology Division - have put in some grind-work of their own to understand the popularity of clicker games.
Dr. Mark Griffiths told the Daily Dot that, “People don’t repeat behaviour voluntarily unless they perceive it as rewarding–psychologically, physiologically, socially and/or financially–and the rewards do come with persistence in these types of games.”
Bots and machines replicate operations quickly and reliably. AI is used to optimise these operations. Clicker games make us work like bots and think like simple AI: replicating meaningless operations in the best, fastest possible way. And we don’t seem to mind that it’s not meaningful: after all, the machine making shower-curtain hoops doesn’t mind that it’s not making iPhones.
If you think that the idea of bots and AI turning us all into fleshy versions of bots and AIis a bit far-fetched, well, you’d be right. It’s a stretch. But it’s not too much of one.
There’s something human in the bot; and something bot-like in the human. So go ahead and play some clicker games, and feel comforted that you’re exploring some of the most deep and animalistic human instincts while you do so.
Then imagine what an AI-powered machine would think if it was to observe us doing this. It’d probably look at us as we did at the mice: “aww, how sweet - it keeps hitting the button to get the reward.”
And then maybe it’d figure out how it could use that to its advantage.