(originally published on Medium)
The invisible made visible, a literal monster from the id. “Forbidden Planet”, 1956
Lurking behind our thin, rational facade is an impulsive demon. A demon that takes control of us, acts without thinking, and serves its own purposes regardless of the impact to our ultimate well-being.
That demon is your id.
Your id, your lizard-brain, your ‘animal’ impulses, that piece of you evolved in a context wildly different from the one in which you now live.
Our vast technology network, now held and ever-accessible in the palm of your hand, push-notifying for your attention wherever you go- that tech is the make-shift key that not only unlocks your inner-demon, but amplifies him & allows him to run your life unchecked & afoul.
This isn’t a new observation- it’s the central warning of 1956’s classic science-fiction film, “Forbidden Planet.” Explorers discover the remnants of an advanced alien civiliation (“the Krell”) & attempt to uncover its secrets while under attack from an invisible monster. The great reveal of the movie: the peaceful Krell created machinery so advanced it turned desire into matter. But even the most rational Krell were evolved from creatures less noble, and at the center of every Krell brain still hid a lizard-core, a place of base instinct… a place of pure id. The Krell’s machinery faithfully transformed even the darkest subcioncious impulse into a literal “monster from the id,” wiping one-another out. The explorers realize dramataically that the invisible monster they fight, is in fact themselves.
Someone dreamt that up in 1956 (kudos to you, writers!)
Back to 2015: Would you like cheap, gut-inflating chinese food delivered to where you stand… in under 5 seconds of tapping? Why not add libations delivered with equal ease? Slightly inebriated and upset: reach across space & time to speak (read: thumb-scribe) your mind to someone who has wronged you, regret for drunk-texting can wait until morning. Even then, you can console yourself by splurging thousands on luxury fashion, confirming the indulgent transaction by simply pressing your thumb over the small circle at the bottom of your phone, all financial hesitation set aside by easy credit. Never mind driving yourself deeper into debt, ignore it and satisfy the impulse to order the next plate of General Gao’s chicken instead.
The fundamental problem is that our well-meaning side is the slow-side of our mental machinery, while our impulsive animal side rapidly & frequently seizes on whatever it can, after it all, it evolved in a context of relative scarcity. Which is why we crave sweets & fats… because they were rarer historically. We consume such treats not in moderation but until they are gone, because that is what it used to take to survive. Over-supply was not a problem in the ancient world, but certainly a problem if you’re drunk-shopping at 7/11, or hungry-walking the aisles of Market Basket in 2015.
Information technology not only efficiently matches supply with demand in the palm of our hand, but increasingly jujitsus our minor vices (boredom, insecurity) into demand-generating opportunities. These desires, freshly heightened by rapidly evolving, data-driven marketing, can be satisfied instantly by equally scientifically developed products & funnels…. long before the rational mind can speak up and say “hey wait, woah there!”
Your mental machinery remains the same, meanwhile every product & marketing department the world ‘round is leveling up.
Worse still, the negative effects of id indulgement essentially compound: bad habits are more easily reinforced than good ones, quickly entrenched, and willpower erodes. The battle for self-control isn’t lost, but if we aren’t proactively fighting & improving, we should be aware we are actively losing by default.
I welcome technology that can keep up on the positive side of the arms-race, though by nature, the consumer markets (and thus capital ones) favor catering to the id. Therefore, the only remedy I’m aware of is to deliberately take control of your environment in greater measure than those who are paid to market directly to your id. Willpower itself is not the solution, we must erect automatic, high-friction walls to provide breathing room for our slower, rational-brains to work their magic, and automate proper decision making, removing as many opportunities for failure as we can.
The battle for control over our id will not easily be won back, and our collective well-being hangs on the outcome.
Instead of waiting for the world to provide more productive tooling, I have tried employing various strategies to construct more id-barriers in my own life, a few of which are listed below:
- Deleting all my “food delivery” accounts to prevent eating poorly.
- Owning neither a microwave or toaster, in effect forcing myself to eat fresher.
- Never stocking any unhealthy snacks at all, no exceptions.
- Pre-making healthy breakfasts on Sunday so I have no excuses during the week’s rushed mornings.
- Buying weeks worth of pre-made paleo dinners so during my lowest energy point of the day (evenings), the right decision is the by default the easiest/fastest.
- Not owning a TV to prevent time-wasting (or cable, or Netflix, etc)
- Uninstalling social media apps from my iPhone (no more Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, etc).
- Installing a Chrome extension to limit social-surfing to under 10 minutes per day.
- Checking email in batches.
- Daily meditation.
- Daily goal-setting w/ social accountabiltiy via a “goals group”.
- Generally living as minimalist to keep financial & psychic ownership costs down.
- Fully automating my finances all the way down to a weekly allowance (that hard-bounces) to prevent wasteful shopping.
- Un-installing & deactivating on-demand/e-commerce *accounts* when consumption becomes subconscious or habitual.
- Favoring predictability/automation of purchases over price-optimization.
For those also fighting their inner monster, I welcome your own suggestions & insights.