(Universal) Basic Income for the Soul
In a fabulous longread at reason.com, Peter Suderman observes the expansion of a new demographic in the US:
Since 2000, men in their 20s without a bachelor's degree are working considerably less and spending far more time engaged in leisure activities, which overwhelmingly means playing video games. Over the same time frame, this group of men has also grown more likely to be single, to have no children, and to live with parents or other family members.
The surprising thing about the stereotypical aimless young man, detached from work and society, playing video games in his parents' basement: He's actually happier than ever.
The unemployment rate in the US is quite low however, but it merely masks this effect:
The economy has rebounded since the great recession, and national unemployment now sits below 5 percent. But that figure only counts people who are actively seeking work. Even as the unemployment rate has dropped, labor force participation—the number of people who either work or want to work—has dwindled.
One would expect that such a lifestyle exposes its adherents to a lifetime of dissatisfaction and extreme unhappiness.
You might think that this would be demoralizing. A life spent unemployed, living at home, without romantic prospects, playing digital time wasters does not sound particularly appealing on its face.
Yet this group reports far higher levels of overall happiness than low-skilled young men from the turn of the 21st century. In contrast, self-reported happiness for older workers without college degrees fell during the same period. For low-skilled young women and men with college degrees, it stayed basically the same.
Research has consistently found that long-term unemployment is one of the most dispiriting things that can happen to a person. Happiness levels tank and never recover. One 2010 study by a group of German researchers suggests that it's worse, over time, for life satisfaction than even the death of a spouse. What video games appear to do is ease the psychic pain of joblessness—and to do it in a way that is, if not permanent, at least long-lasting.
A vast army of young, unemployed males hardly bodes well for social stability of a country, in particular since males exhibit more extreme behavior more frequently than females.
... men are more likely to exhibit extremes of character and behavior, both positive and negative. A whole generation of men obsessively playing video games during their prime decades of life may not be ideal, but most would agree that it is preferable to riots.
Indeed, a lot of commentators are now floating ideas about universal basic income (UBI) in anticipation of large numbers of people who will presumably be displaced from their jobs by advanced AI. As Suderman remarks, the main conflict lies in human notions of joblessness and its economic and social consequences. Some economists suggest that many such displaced people may turn to video games since they instill a sense of purpose, progress and accomplishment.
Even the most open-ended games tend to offer a sense of progress and direction, completion and commitment. In other words, they make people happy—or at least happier, serving as a buffer between the player and despair. Video games, you might say, offer a sort of universal basic income for the soul.
Such novelty features make gaming a complex social phenomenon since they increase the opportunity cost of both work (since jobs need to be "good enough" for people to quit gaming) as well as revolution (organizing against your meatspace overlords is far harder than nuking fictional ones).
Yet, one doesn't need to peer too hard to see the irony: "A game provides the sensation of mastery without the actual ability."
"It's a simulation of being an expert," Wolpaw says. "It's a way to fulfill a fantasy." That fantasy, ultimately, is one of work, purpose, and social and professional success.
What's happening in the US is yet-another by-product of technology reorganizing the marketplace in ways no one anticipated. Indeed, in a way, this isn't a new phenomenon at all — just like the Simpsons, Japan already did it — witness the continued relevance of the otaku and hikkikomori subcultures over there.
A fascinating read overall — do read the whole piece in full! Highly recommended.
Master of None: The Soundtrack
Much ink has been spilt on the excellent new show Master of None on Netflix and Aziz Ansari has richly deserved the tall praise heaped on both him and on the show. For the recently concluded second season in particular, the ending of "The Dinner Party" (S2 Ep5) stands out for being a stunning scene in itself. It's a single long continuous take of Aziz's solitary cab drive set to a killer background melody weaving itself seamlessly into the narrative of his dejection.
And so it's really gratifying to see Zach Cowie — the DJ cum music producer get such good press recently for an incredibly eclectic soundtrack that is in many ways, the soul of Master of None.
Here are some recent interviews with Vulture and the BBC. Even the impossible-to-please Pitchfork applauds.