In response to an old post of mine, Eli Dourado has some skeptical thoughts on what you could call “brain mounted computers”. This is really a collection of technologies, but the gist of it is computers increasingly integrated with our minds. The screens float before you using augmented reality, and you control them using your thoughts, and probably before that with hand gestures in the air or some sort of projected input surface, like skinput:
Eli is skeptical though, but I think his skepticism is motivated by a common error people make when projecting what the future will look like: they think about what kind of future they would like, instead of what kind of future is probable. You can see this in the case Eli makes, which appeals quite a bit to his preferences:
…when I think about a world of increasing wealth, I don’t think of one where everyone is part computer. I basically think about vacations. What do I like to do when I’m on vacation? I like to eat good food, see and try new things, lay in the sun, be creative, have good conversations with friends, have plenty of sex, read books, and generally unwind….
…What do I not like to do when I am on vacation? Near the top of my list, at least if I am doing it right, is “be notified that I have email.” This is why I am skeptical of widespread adoption of permanent brain-computer interfaces with augmented reality capabilities. As we get wealthier, we will accept fewer interruptions in our lives. It’s also part of why I think Google’s Project Glass will be a failure….
Unfortunately for the world though, most people aren’t like Eli. I feel fairly confident in claiming that Eli is quite far from the median person in terms of preferences, and so imagining whether a future populated with Eli Dourados would adopt various technologies won’t make for accurate forecasts.
I can agree that one somewhat plausible future is one filled with a lot of leisure time, but how are we likely to spend our marginal leisure time? Eli imagines we’ll do what he likes to do on vacation, like relaxing, having conversations, and eating good foods, which he claims are “all things our distant ancestors enjoyed as well”. I think most people are more likely to spend their new marginal leisure doing similar things that they spend their marginal leisure time on now, which are connected things, like Facebook, and what you might call mindless things, like watching TV. My categories of things people do with leisure time on the margin suggest that people will desire using augmented reality and brain mounted computers in their newfound leisure time. Eli’s categories suggest they won’t. So who is correct?
Well we can get something of a look at this by seeing how people are choosing to spend their marginal leisure time now by at the extra leisure time resulting from the recession. Of course this sample of marginal leisure time will be biased away from fun things, since the people with extra time now are likely suffering an income shock, so you might imagine they would spend much of their time doing things that are more substitutes for work, like household production. But when it comes to the things Eli thinks people will want to do with more leisure -like lying around in the sun, having conversations with friends, and eating good food- none of these are necessarily more expensive than other cheap leisure options. Sure, good food with friends can be expensive, but as Tyler tells us in his new book, it needn’t be.
So what are people doing with their extra time? Watching TV and sleeping mostly. The Wall Street Journal reports:
What did people do with that extra time? Mainly they slept and watched TV. Time spent in front of the television rose by 12 minutes, to two hours, 49 minutes a day in the two years through 2009. Sleep was the next big gainer, increasing by six minutes to eight hours, 40 minutes a day.
The data also show what Americans aren’t doing with their extra time: There was virtually no change between 2007 and 2009 in the time devoted to volunteering, religious activities, exercise or education. In sum, time people might have used productively is instead being squandered, says University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh.
You could argue that sleep is sort of in Eli’s category, since it is certainly a primitive activity. But the extent to which sleep is going to fill up our future leisure time is pretty limited. TV on the other hand, can take up a whole day if you want it to. A more sophisticated analysis of American Time Use Survey results verifies where marginal leisure time during a recession goes:
…roughly two-thirds of the increase of leisure time associated with the decline in market work at the business cycle frequency are concentrated in television watching and sleeping. To the extent the individuals consider recessions to be a period of increased leisure, the bulk of the leisure increase shows up as an increase of time in these two categories. Given the large movements in the time allocated to these two categories, our results suggest that economists need to think hard about how individuals value the marginal time spent watching television or sleeping when computing the welfare costs of business cycles. We do not ﬁnd that socializing (spending time with one’s spouse, extended family, and friends) increases signiﬁcantly during recessions.
Perhaps the wealthier future word will filled with high-brow individuals like Eli who prefer primitive entertainment. I think that would be a more rewarding world in many ways, but I also think a wide swath of mindless, easy, entertainment and connectedness is here to stay, and Americans will continue choosing it for their leisure. Except in the future it will be more directly connected to our brains.