In 2007, Eliezer wrote Politics is the Mind-Killer. I agree that it is a mind-killer, but even moreso than being a mind-killer, I think that it is a fun-killer. Let me explain.
I'll start by summarizing the idea of it being a mind-killer. What does that mean?
Well, basically that it makes you a little dumb. At least dumber than you otherwise are. This doesn't mean that you should never engage with politics, but it does mean that you should tread carefully. If you could use an apolitical example instead of a political one, you probably should.
My response to this is something like:
Yeah. I think that's true. But like, who really cares?
How important is this? How often are people using political examples when they shouldn't be? How much does that actually improve intellectual discourse?
And how much is it actually mind-killing in the first place? Sometimes it does actually make people lose their minds but I think it's probably more typical for it to take away 5 IQ points than 15. At least amongst people I respect and would want to engage with.
Well, I'm not actually that bearish on it but my feelings are somewhere in that ballpark.
Where I am bullish is on it being a fun-killer. I claim that it is a fun-killer to a much larger extent than it is a mind-killer.
First, a premise: fun is something that you should optimize for. Why wouldn't it be?
This doesn't mean that it is the only thing you should optimize for. Sometimes it makes sense to trade fun for things like money or time, but thinking about that distracts from my main point. You shouldn't just passively browse through Facebook. If you have X hours to spend having fun, you should try to choose the most fun things.
Politics makes this difficult though. Really difficult. Especially in the attention economy of 2023 where huge companies that are Out To Get You use increasingly sophisticated techniques to win the battle for your eyeballs.
The motivating example was Facebook. Facebook wants your entire life. Users not consciously limiting engagement lose hours a day. Every spare moment is spent scrolling, checking for updates, likes and comments. This reliably makes users miserable. Other social networks share this problem.
An important example is politics. Political causes want every spare minute and dollar. They want to choose your friends, words and thoughts. If given power, they seize the resources of state and nation for their purposes. Then they take those purposes further. One cannot simply give any political movement what it wants. That way lies ruin and madness.
Yes, that means your cause, too.
It's hard to sidestep this. After all, many billions and billions of dollars are at stake for them, so they've invested a correspondingly large amount of resources into learning how to be as good as they possibly can at capturing your attention. Cal Newport talks about this a lot in his book Digital Minimalism.
I fear that I've gotten a little bit too theoretical though. Let me try making my point in a more practical, common sensical way.
When I look around, I see people spending too much time learning about and engaging with hot button issues. For millenials that probably means browsing through Twitter. For boomers it's watching the news. Regardless, it's not particularly fun. People aren't enjoying themselves the way they do when they read a good book or have a good conversation with a close friend.
And yet they spend a ton of time on the hot button stuff instead of the actually enjoyable stuff. That's a lot of fun-killing. I get the impression that it kills fun even more than it kills minds.
The wanting vs liking distinction seems relevant here. Politics can be truly fun, especially when you're discussing it with someone who's clearly presenting their views in good faith, and when you can both learn something from the interaction. However, it's easy for the wanting to stay strong long after the liking has completely disappeared.
I wonder if that's a common trait of most or all addictive things, or at least of "non-physical" addictions (things where you don't suffer withdrawals, yet still may find yourself spending more time on them than you wish while not enjoying them much or at all). These days, Twitter is the classic example of an unfulfilling time sink. But Twitter really is great, at least when you're starting out by learning news and seeing new ideas from your favorite thinkers. But the urge for "just another tweet" can persist for hours, while the fun of it, in my experience at least, lasts more like fifteen or twenty minutes.
Wow, I really like that wanting vs liking distinction! Great point! It's something that I think about a lot myself but didn't really see the relation here. I do agree that it is relevant though for the reasons you described.
״And how much is it actually mind-killing in the first place?״
a lot. as in - dumber then 7 years old kid.
i remember this time i said to smart women, with PhD, that good intentions lead to hell. and then she said that i said that I'm in hell because of her. this was ridiculous failure of reading comprehension. after that i started to notice such instances.
my country have major political battle now, and i wrote to woman on facebook that i talked to in the past, and she sounded less human that chatGPT. i have someone else, who i know in real live, behave very stupidly and uncharitably, because i didn't support some argument-solider, despite the fact i actually agreed with his position.
the mind-killing effect is STRONG.
Philosophy is fun. All politics is philosophical. If you want fun politics, just bring a philosophical angle to all political discussions and you'll be fine.
In theory I agree. I think you have to actively try to frame it in such a way that is philosophical and fun though. If you don't it'll be a fun-killer and I think that this is something that happens very frequently.