Thursday, October 26, 2017

In 25 Years, Your Employer Will Directly Control Your Moods

[Edit Oct. 28: After discussion with friends and commenters in social media, I now think that the thesis should be moderated in two ways. First, before direct mood control becomes common in the workplace, it probably first needs to become voluntarily common at home; and thus it will probably take more than 25 years. Second, it seems likely that in many (most?) cases the direct control will remain in the employee's hands, though there will likely be coercive pressure from the employer to use it as the employer expects. (Thanks to everyone for their comments!)]

Here's the argument:

(1.) In 25 years, employers will have the technological capacity to directly control their employees' moods.

(2.) Employers will not refrain from exercising that capacity.

(3.) Most working-age adults will be employees.

(4.) Therefore, in 25 years, most working-age adults will have employers who directly control their moods.

The argument is valid in the sense that the conclusion (4) follows if all of the premises are true.

Premise 1 seems plausible, given current technological trajectories. Control could be either pharmacological or via direct brain stimulation. Pharmacological control could, for example, be through pills that directly influence your mood, energy levels, ability to concentrate, feeling of submissiveness, or passion for the type of task at hand. Direct brain stimulation could be through a removable TMS helmet that magnetically stimulates and suppresses neural activity in different brain regions, or with some more invasive technology. McDonald's might ask its cashiers to tweak their dials toward perky friendliness. Data entry centers might ask their temp workers to tweak their dials toward undistractable focus. Brothels might ask their strippers to tweak their dials toward sexual arousal.

Contra Premise 1, society might collapse, of course, or technological growth could stall or proceed much more slowly. If it's just slower, then we can replace "25 years" with 50 or 100 and retain the rest of the argument. It seems unlikely that moods are too complex or finicky to be subject to fairly precise technological control, given how readily they can be influenced by low-tech means.

I don't know to what extent people in Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and elite universities already use high-tech drugs to enhance alertness, energy, and concentration at work. That might already be a step down this road. Indeed, coffee might partly be seen this way too, especially if you use it to give your all to work, and then collapse in exhaustion when the caffeine wears off and you arrive home. My thought is that in a few decades the interventions might be much more direct, effective, and precisely targeted.

Premise 2 also seems plausible, given the relative social power of employers vs. employees. As long as there's surplus labor and a scarcity of desirable jobs, then employers will have some choice about whom to hire. If Starbucks has a choice between Applicant A who is willing to turn up the perky-friendly dial and otherwise similar Applicant B who is not so willing, then they will presumably tend to prefer Applicant A. If the Silicon Valley startup wants an employee who will crank out intense 16-hour days one after the next, and the technology is available for people to do so by directly regulating their moods, energy levels, focus, and passion, then the people who take that direct control, for their employers' benefit, will tend to win the competition for positions. If Stanford wants to hire the medical researcher who is publishing article after article, they'll find the researcher who dialed up her appetite for work and dialed down everything else.

Employees might yield control directly to the employer: The TMS dials might be in the boss's office, or the cafeteria lunch might include the pharmacological cocktail of the day. Alternatively, employees might keep the hand on the dial themselves, but experience substantial pressure to manipulate it in the directions expected by the employer. If that pressure is high enough and effective enough, then it comes to much the same thing. (My guess is that lower-prestige occupations (the majority) would yield control directly to the employer, while higher-prestige occupations would retain the sheen of self-control alongside very effective pressure to use that "self-control" in certain ways.)

Contra Premise 2, (a.) collective bargaining might prevent employers from successfully demanding direct mood control; or (b.) governmental regulations might do so; or (c.) there might be a lack of surplus labor.

Rebuttal to (a): The historical trend recently, at least in the U.S., has been against unionization and collective bargaining, though I guess that could change.

Rebuttal to (b): Although government regulations could forbid certain drugs or brain technologies, if there's enough demand for those drugs or technologies, employees will find ways to use them (unless enforcement gets a lot of resources, as in professional sports). Government regulations could specifically forbid employers from requiring that their employees use certain technologies, while permitting such technologies for private use. (No TMS helmets on the job.) But enforcement might again be difficult; and private use vs. use as an employee is a permeable line for the increasing number of jobs that involve working outside of a set time and location. Also, it's easier to regulate a contractual demand than an informal de facto demand. Presumably many companies could say that of course they don't require their employees to use such technologies. It's up to the employee! But if the technology delivers as promised, the employees who "voluntarily choose" to have their moods directly regulated will be more productive and otherwise behave as the company desires, and thus be more attractive to retain and promote.

Rebuttal to (c): At present there's no general long-term trend toward a shortage of labor; and at least for jobs seen as highly desirable, there will always be more applicants than available positions.

Premise 3 also seems plausible, especially on a liberal definition of "employee". Most working-age adults (in Europe and North America) are currently employees of one form or another. That could change substantially with the "gig economy" and more independent contracting, but not necessarily in a way that takes the sting out of the main argument. Even if an Uber driver is technically not an employee, the pressures toward direct mood control for productivity ought to be similar. Likewise for computer programmers and others who do piecework as independent contractors. If anything, the pressures may be higher, with less security of income and fewer formal workplace regulations.

Thinking about Premises 1-3, I find myself drawn to the conclusion that my children's and grandchildren's employers are likely to have a huge amount of coercive control over their moods and passions.



"What Would (or Should) You Do with Administrator Access to Your Mind?" (guest post by Henry Shevlin, Aug 16, 2017).

"Crash Space" (a short story by R. Scott Bakker for Midwest Studies in Philosophy).

"My Daughter's Rented Eyes" (Oct 11, 2016).

[image source: lady-traveler, creative commons]


howard b said...

psychopharmocology is messy and very imprecise. Do you expect that to change? What makes you think your typical employer could afford specialists, moreover, to correctly apply the agents?
Furthermore, Star Trek not once aired an episode in which such a scheme happened. So it is unprecedented.
Even more, there may be other easier and more nefarious ways of eking out profit.
Contra Star Trek, sounds like a Kurt Vonnegut short story. Were you inspired by any sci fi plot?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Howard!

I was partly inspired by Bakker's "Crash Space" on the dangers of direct mood control (though he doesn't explore employer-employee so much in that story).

I agree that psychopharmacology is currently messy and imprecise. That might change or it might not. I don't see why it wouldn't become at least somewhat more precise. Even if pharmacology stalls, it seems likely that TMS and related technologies are on a trajectory to become more precise.

Unknown said...

Are American people today already showing mood swings brought on by capitalism gone awry...
...That the 2016 election was a result of a subordinate devotion to making money instead of a what Americans use to do, to use/trade money to make a life for, shockingly lingering, barely as a memory, in the admonition 'life liberty and pursuit of happiness'...

Its hard to go on with this as a mood of helplessness has inhabited me...You might be on to something with this post...

Anonymous said...

There's no way people would ever consent to this. One of the biggest values people hold onto these days in a world increasingly out of control (to echo Unknown) is the value of self-discovery, of figuring out who you are. People are already rebelling against workplaces that don't offer them some additional forms of fulfillment. Now, it seems like essentially scrambling our emotions will not only lead to a more serious kind of misery (is it seriously part of the proposal that people will go home to have an emotional crash - really a breakdown - every night as their minds recalibrate?) than the misery of a caffeine crash, but it's going to cause serious self-alienation as the ordinary relations between our emotional reactions and the environment are being overridden - 1) an increasing lack of trust in one's own emotions starts to become reasonable, and 2) the crucially important human activity of carving a self takes a hit as we lose the ability to know about how we feel... sorry, maybe I'm just feeling a bit cranky, but this proposal feels a bit horrifying!

Howard Berman said...

The flip side- will they control our thoughts and abilities or just moods? And will people like it and enjoy the ride or buck the ride of being tamed?

Callan S. said...

There's a doctor Who episode with exactly this going on, with little sliders on a tablet - the boss altering the employees 'compliant' slider, and the employee going 'Did you just tweak me?'

The synopsis doesn't go into this part much, I suggest watching the episode if you can get it.

Nick Alonso said...

Interesting Argument.

Two thoughts:

1) I wonder if there isn't already a sort of "mood control" being utilized by corporations. There's research, which I assume is at least partly funded by corporations, which investigates the sorts of work place environments (from wall color to floor plan) which yield the most productivity. This is a less direct manipulation of mood than chemical/electrical brain manipulation, but the intent is the same: put workers in a mental state such that they will produce the highest quality/quantity of work.

2) In response to comments above, there is no need for corporations to directly require employees to use mood manipulators. Consider this situation: a few workers in a company begin to use chemical or TDCS mood enhancements to gain a competitive edge. The company promotes them. Others then begin to use mood enhancers so they can gain an edge too. Pretty soon everyone uses mood enhancers because they feel that they must in order to remain competitive, or to keep up with the rest of their coworkers who are using enhancements. Companies can indirectly "require" their workers to use mood enhancers by promoting an environment in which enhancement is the only way to stay competitive.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Nick, I'm on board with both your 1 and 2.

Callan: Thanks for the suggestion!

Howard: Odds are, people will like it! If you can control someone's mood, you might as well make it pleasant -- reduces the odds of rebellion, right?

Anon Fri: I think there probably will have to be some intermediate stages before consent. It would be taboo in our current culture. My ETA regarding home use would be one possible intermediate stage.