Why Aristotle is the patron saint of the Digital Age

Why do we spend so much time on the Internet, blogging, Facebooking, building things together, playing games together, giving billions of hours of our time and labour for no obvious financial reward? It’s a question I, as a compulsive blogger, have often asked myself. As have my parents. And my bank manager.
Three wonderful books came out last year, which all pondered this question.The three books are Cognitive Surplus, by the internet expert Clay Shirky; Drive, by Al Gore’s former speech-writer, Daniel Pink; and Reality is Broken, by the games designer Jane McGonigal. All three books come up with the same answer: because the Digital Age satisfies our human desires in profound ways.

Shirky's Cognitive Surplus, my favourite of the three books, makes the excellent point that we tend to over-estimate the differences between generations, as if Generation Facebook could somehow be fundamentally different to the Baby Boomers. Shirky insists that we have a fairly unchanging human nature, filled with the same basic desires and motivations. However, different societies and moments in history give very different opportunities to fulfill those desires.

So what are these desires, and how does the Digital Age satisfy them? We have the basic drives for food and security, which have already been more or less taken care of by western societies. But then we have higher desires. All three writers identify the desires for autonomy, mastery, purpose and social engagement as key to human nature.

The Digital Age has created many new opportunities for the fulfillment of these desires. We give our free time and labour to amending an entry in Wikipedia, for example, or to uploading photos onto Demotix, or to making a video on YouTube, or to joining a club on Meetup.com, or to embarking on a quest on World of Warcraft, not because it necessarily makes us money (it probably doesn’t) but because these activities satisfy our desires for autonomy, mastery, purpose and social engagement, perhaps more than our nine-to-five jobs.

So are humans less motivated by financial incentives than classical economics believed? That’s what social scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester decided. Deci and Ryan carried out a series of experiments in the 1970s and 1980s, which suggested that, when you introduce a financial incentive for an interesting activity, you can actually reduce people’s motivation to do it. Why? Because something that was previously intrinsically fun and interesting then becomes extrinsically motivated: we do it merely to get the reward, and stop caring about the activity in-and-for itself.

Deci and Ryan came up with a new theory for human motivation, called ‘Self-Determination Theory’, which suggested that humans have basic intrinsic drives for autonomy, mastery, purpose and social engagement, and extrinsic motivations like money can sometimes distort these drives. Many writers on the Digital Age, including Shirky, Pink and McGonigal, are now going back to Deci and Ryan’s ideas to try and explain why we spend so much unpaid time and labour on the Net.

The Internet is an arena that is often pretty low in extrinsic reward, but high in intrinsic reward. It is the arena of the amateur - which Shirky notes comes from the Latin for ‘to love’, meaning ‘someone who does something for the love of it’. All that time we spend on the Net, we’re not just killing time. We’re making meaning. As Daniel Pink puts it, humans are evidently less the “profit-maximizers” of classical economics, but rather something else: “purpose-maximizers”. The Internet lets us find new ways to maximize our purpose.

What does any of this have to do with Aristotle? First of all, he was the first philosopher to create what the philosopher Jonathan Lear describes as “an ethical system based firmly in the study of human motivation”. For Aristotle, the good life is a life of eudaimonia, or flourishing, in which the best drives and desires of our nature are fulfilled.

And the drives that Aristotle identifies are the desire for purpose; for mastery or flow; for autonomy; and for social and civic connectedness. In fact, in an article published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2008, Deci and Ryan explicitly linked their Self-Determination Theory to Aristotle’s ethics and his concept of eudaimonia.

I’m not quite sure what Aristotle would have made of LOLcatz, of course, or Grand Theft Auto. I think he’d have laughed at McGonigal’s assertion that the ‘achievement’ of ten billion covenant kills on the online game Halo 3 is an example of ‘epic purpose’. He would have probably said that the internet allows us to satisfy our lowest desires as well as our highest. But I am certain he would have loved Wikipedia, which would have confirmed his sense that our deepest drive is the desire to discover, to know, and to wonder.

InternetJules EvansComment