The anti-experience machine

Here’s an indecent proposal for you. (Imagine) you live in a fairly decent but expensive place, and you work a white-colour job (broadly construed: one you can do online). Rent eats up n% of your rent, for some big n: if you’re in Dublin, say, you might be paying 66% for a shithole.

Someone makes an offer. They’ll pay you a day of your rent, and 50% again, if you vacate your apartment. You don’t have to worry about staying elsewhere: they’ll take you to a warehouse on the edge of town, plug you into a walking-desk-cum-sofa-cum-bed (apologies for all the cum, they’re trying to remove it), and into a device that shows you and lets you interact with the internet — today’s internet. Not some magic virtual reality, just emails, social media, youtube, and so on. All you can do, for these hours, is walk or sit or sleep, and surf. Roughly around breakfast time and lunchtime and dinnertime they get some calories into you, maybe via Huel, or, like, intravenous Huel.

Consider a variant, scenario #2. (Imagine) you live in a less expensive place, but want to spend time in an expensive place. And, as before, you’re chained to your computer for work. Someone makes you an offer. For a given month, you spend 15 days in your okay apartment, ten days in the warehouse, and five days in the expensive place of your dreams — all for the cost of your rent as it is at the moment. I live in a mehish cheapish sort of place; would I trade it for some warehouse days where I could do my online job and a handful in a place I want to be in? Would you?

You might think no one will make such offers, so the question is moot. But I think one can see models in which it would make sense for someone to offer such a service. Indeed, it seems that this sort of business — ‘disruptive’, prima facie allocatively efficient, illegal and externality-producing, and requiring gobs of capital to burn through — is exactly the sort of thing people like. It seems ideal! I want to present a model of how it might work. But there’s a good chance I’ve overlooked or omitted something very important, so just think this, at least as far as its business is concerned, is Airbnb with a splash of Uber.

Here’s one model that it easy enough to imagine and that might accordingly work as a proof of concept. Landlord owns a thirty-block apartment in an expensive city — their tenants struggle. Rooms cost 1,000 a month. Landlord is also the warehouse owner. In implementing this idea, Landlord must pay a premium of around 16 per person per day to warehouse someone (i.e. (1000/30)*.5, bearing in mind the Landlord gets paid rent from tenants even for the days tenants choose to warehouse) and so around 480 to warehouse someone for a month. Then imagine they contrive to ensure that for the thirty people whom they have to house, for every night they can be guaranteed that someone (and only one) will warehouse that night — say by offering extra fees to fill up empty slots (and by lowering prices to satisfy the previous parenthesis). Assume that such a surge pricing mechanism potentially doubles the premium the landlord must pay to 32. Then at the worse case, they’ll end up paying roughly speaking 900. But for that 900, and again that’s the worse case, they’ll have an extra apartment they can rent out for 1,000. Assume, again a bit unrealistically, that things like economies of scale can keep the cost of warehousing down, then you seem to have, before considering the actual well-being of the participants, a pareto efficient upgrade (in the narrow case where how good one has it is directly a function of how much money you have), whereby the poorest come to be better off without the richest, the landlord, being affected.

This just-so story is meant to be a gesture as to how it might work. It’s empirically very unrealistic and it might contain super embarrassing mathematical errors. And extending it to cover the more interesting scenarios like my second one involves work, but I take it the idea is probably based on vast subsidies until you get enough people doing it to be able to capitalize on economies of scale when it comes to warehousing and volume to ensure rooms are always occupied.

(You might wonder, on this model, what happens to one’s home? In a sense in the above scenario, as described, you’re exchanging the right to live in one and the same room for 30 days for the right to live in a room any day you need one. But you lose your room. One can do various epicycles that would resolve this: one could have, among the thirty, a designated constant mover (a real digital nomad) who takes the new free room each night (perhaps in exchange for further rent cuts), while everyone else, when they stay in the apartment, always stays in the same room. Again, throwing volume and subsidies at the problem might make it seem at least prima facie still profitable once the numbers have been crunched.)

(As to the other things that make it ideal for the contemporary capitalist: it’s probably illegal because the psychological and physical toll of being warehoused are unknown, but if a company can be very successful whose business model isn’t killed by users riding scooters on highways then I think that probably oughtn’t be an impediment; it’s externality-producing as it’s really just yet another way of exploiting resource inequality, driving up housing prices by giving houses more lucrative uses; as to efficiency, can’t you just imagine someone giving a nice presentation of this idea with supply and demand schedules?)

Maybe it shows the idea isn’t a complete nonstarter, and so maybe it’s enough to ask the question I’m really interested in: well, would you do it?

The libertarian and notoriously handsome Robert Nozick came up with the experience machine thought experiment. From wiki, licence info.

No way, you might respond. It sounds dystopian, and really, what you’re getting (rent/30)+(rent/30)*.50 isn’t very much money. If you’re in Dublin paying 1,000 euro a month, it’s like 40 euro (minus the rent you have to pay at the end of the month). If you include meals you don’t have to pay for and so on, maybe it’s 50. Surely that’s not enough to be cramped up all day.

But then you think: for much of the past 18 months you’ve already been cramped up all day. You’ve been spending all day in front of a screen working, then — at best — moving rooms, then spending all day in front of a screen non-working. The expensive city you’ve been paying to live in hasn’t been worth it. I don’t live in Dublin, but I don’t think my life would have been in any way worsened by a few warehouse days, and I’d be a bit richer.

So, think again: during the guts of the pandemic, would you have done the deal? What if you lived in NYC and were stuck on a lease and afraid of killing your credit rating by bailing? What if you lived in Paris during one of its incredibly strict lockdowns? (The pandemic is actually a bad example to use because if the idea were ever to work, it would fail in the pandemic, because everyone would want to warehouse, and the whole idea depends on there being in aggregate at any given time many who want and many who don’t want to warehouse. But it helps make the idea vivid.) Or what if your landlord suddenly hiked the rent, and you found yourself facing an option: leave town, or spend a few days in the warehouse per month. What if the pandemic wasn’t causing you problems, but you just had a really, really pressing deadline, that would de facto mean you wouldn’t see beyond your office for a while? Wouldn’t it make sense to plug in?

The last case is the best: when you just really need to work, and when the physical world is just going to be ignored. Why bother with it? Especially if something like my scenario two were viable, and it were possible to “save up” for living in better-than-you-can-afford places for a short while essentially by economizing by warehousing.

If you told me I could warehouse for three days in a month, when I could really race through the emails and docs that need written, and in exchange, and for no extra cost, I could stay in a fancier city for a couple of extra days, I think I’d say yes.

I’m interested in this question because for a few reasons. Partly, I think it’s fun to think about; partly, for the reasons mentioned above, I could imagine someone proposing it; partly, I like these sorts of silly economic modelling games. But mainly it seems to be sort of the opposite of a famous thought experiment owing to Robert Nozick, which asks us to

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?.

What I have suggested is an anti-experience (and slightly more realistic) machine. Plugging in would suck. You couldn’t see people, sunsets (nature, all that crap), eat, have sex (temporarily). But the anti-experience machine nevertheless poses a question worth posing. People deride philosophical thought experiments as being so far divorced from reality as to be useful as a guide to moral thinking. And I guess most are. But maybe one of the virtues of the anti-experience machine, in addition to making us think about what sort of costs we’re willing to bear for access to the physical world in a digital- (and resource-unequal-)age is that it could potentially both be realistic and show how moral decision making is invariably swayed by extra-moral, in this case economic, concerns. And that in turn forces us to ask whether certain unnegotiables (the physical world!) actually are only so because no one has yet tried to negotiate them away from us, something that we shouldn’t be too confident will continue.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/