The Dopamine Economy

"The thing that’s exploding into relevance in our era is not mass culture but the critique of mass culture — the Barthesian dissection of everything, no matter how trivial,... the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one... [For] What is the blogosphere if not a Petri dish of amateur semiology — the decoding of everything? " - The New York Times

When I read this piece over the weekend I went back and reread Barthes Mythologies.

Upon reflection it became self evident that, from Barthes ideas about the "Death of the Author", the role of the "professional" author in networked economy would be to focus their collective energies on manufacturing the fragments of signal.

Ideas and units of media that are the building blocks of culture - Or, what we know call memes - the audience gathers together from across the network to construct their own personalised meaning on demand.

I also suspect Barthes, the man who once wrote that “I believe the automobile is, today, the almost exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals”, would no doubt be writing today that “I believe the mobile phone is, today, the almost exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals,”.

As one suspects the commentators who decried the 'Brothels on wheels' of the 1920's would today lament the digital flirting of the sexting iGens.

The meaning machine. The "life as list" engine. The temple in your pocket.

My mind then drifted across to Clay Shirky's idea of the Cognitive Surplus.

Would it still speak to the next generation in the same way Barthes or a McLuhan or a Warhol does for us today some 50 to 60 years on?

Will it stand the test of time or is it destined to be, like much of the media of our time, a momentary blip on the conscious?

Indeed will it still exist? After all it is one of the great ironies that a medium constructed by a network of memory machines effectively has no memory.

One just needs to visit the Arts and Letter Daily archives for 2001 to discover the memory of the dot com era is fading away into a list of 404 page not found messages.

Indeed is surplus the right word. The studies seem to show that we are spending more time with all our screens.

So what is being disrupted here is life. Not TV.

Of course the real problem with Clay Shirky's theory of Cognitive Surplus is, as any teacher of communication studies will tell you, cognition and communication rarely co-exist in a room full of teenagers.

It's more a case of hormone social surplus than cognitive surplus.

What little is left of the cognitive surplus is spent on discovery, curation and commentary of popular culture.

The functionary task of managing filters rather than the form of creating original output.

After all why cook when there is so much freely available to consume and, if you are so inclined, to comment or share?

Does the arrival of the smartphone accelerate this activity? Undoubtedly.

As McLuhan suggested some time ago it is the medium itself - not the content - which shapes the scale, pace and pattern of human affairs, and if Google, Twitter, Facebook, PinInterest, Wikipedia, Apple and TV have one thing in common it is they are in the business of delivering Cognitive Convenience rather than capitalising on the Cognitive Surplus.

Which is perhaps why media today, in all its abundance, is little more than fast food for the mind.

24/7 Brain candy. Cognitive confectionary of the most stimulating kind.

The surplus then has manifest itself as a feedback loop.

Less cognitive. More cultural.

Less intelligence. More data.

Less signal. More noise.

Less avant-garde. More group think.

Less dissonance. More stimuli.

As Nicholas Carr would say Less deep. More Shallow

So let’s consider the question of what happens to our collective creativity and our ability to innovate once we live in a world where meaning is reduced to little more than the 24/7 hyper connected experience of an electronically induced dopamine rush?

We’ll begin with an LA times review of some Harvard research ...

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that the act of disclosing information about oneself activates the same sensation of pleasure in the brain that we get from eating food, getting money or having sex. - LA Times

Cross reference that with an earlier study on looking at art referred to by The Telegraph ...

Looking at an artistic masterpiece such as a Constable, Botticelli or Turner can give you the same pleasure as being in love, research has found. - The Telegraph

Throw in another Harvard study into Money and Greed referred to by the HBR

By using magnetic resonance imaging studies, the Harvard researcher Hans Breiter and his colleagues have found that the craving for money activates the same regions of the brain as the craving for cocaine, or sex, or any other instant and intense pleasure. - Harvard Business Review

You see the pattern that is emerging? Social, Sex, Art, Money, Greed.

Common theme Dopamine.

Let's add a few more elements to the pattern.

We'll begin with risk and return.

In recent years, it's become clear that dopamine helps to regulate decisions involving risk and reward, allowing us to experience both the thrill of getting what we want and the pain of losing it all. - WSJ

Follow it up with Game Design

Something gambling machine designers and many game designers probably intuitively know is that near-misses enhance gambling motivation. The release of dopamine tops out with near misses in gaming. - Acagamic

...and top it out with speculative investment bubbles

Why are bubbles such a persistent feature of financial history? Economists argue that these speculative frenzies are caused in part by market failures like too much liquidity or lax regulation. Cognitive psychologists, meanwhile, see bubbles as a case of pattern recognition gone awry, as people extrapolate the past into the future. In recent years, neuroscientists also have become interested in bubbles, if only because the financial manias seem to take advantage of deep-seated human flaws; the market fails only because the brain fails first. - New York Times

Here's the pattern again: Social, Sex, Art, Money, Greed, Risk/Return, Games, Bubbles. Common theme Dopamine.

Now the switch. Where we discover that Dopamine isn't discovered in the pattern. It creates the pattern.

We begin with another quote from the HRB article…

Dopamine is most reliably activated by novel stimuli — meaning an experience we haven't had before. We crave recreating that experience. But here's the problem: if we snort the same amount of cocaine the next time, or earn the same sum of money, dopamine levels tend not to increase. Money, and the power and admiration it buys, is the drug. - HBR

And follow it up with this excerpt from Seed Magazine…

What’s interesting about this system is that it’s all about expectation. Dopamine neurons constantly generate patterns based upon experience: If this, then that... Montague argues that these computational signals are also a main cause of financial bubbles. When the market keeps going up, people are naturally inclined to make larger and larger investments in the boom. And then, just when investors are most convinced that the bubble isn’t a bubble — many of Montague’s subjects eventually put all of their money into the booming market — the bubble bursts. - Seed Magazine

Now the first idea. The first point of exploration.

Consider this question. Is the frequency of the economic bubbles we see today a function of the technology we use?

I say that because if we get a dopamine rush swiping our iPhone and iPads while playing Angry Birds or Draw it.

If we get a dopamine rush every time we share a discover, a picture or a story on Twitter, Facebook or Pininterest.

Does that dopamine rush cascade as we count the growth in followers, friends, tweets, likes and influence?

Does that dopamine rush cascade up as we count the we count the growth in page hits, traffic, and the time spent online?

Does that dopamine rush cascade up as we count the growth in second market capitalisations, the IPOs, the advertising revenues, the ARPUs, the share prices?

Does that dopamine rush cascade up as we measure the economic impact of the Internet and Mobile Phones on global economic growth?

In a complex adaptive system like the web (and by extension the global finance system and the global economy) does the dopamine rush we have when we swipe and release our angry bird at the pigs nestled safely inbetween the logs have the same cascading effect on the health of the global economy as the mythical butterfly of the chaos theory?

Think about it and as you digest these last two quotes.

The first extracted from a recent article published in the New Criterion.

A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfil that purpose...The creative act in painting, sculpture, musical composition, or writing comes down to a solitary person thinking of something new and pursuing it without knowing for sure what the result will be. Any culture will turn out some audacious, self-willed people in that vein. But the more collectivist, communitarian, or familial a culture is, the fewer such individuals will emerge, and the greater the damping effect on artistic creation will be. - New Criterion

The second another extract from the article in Seed Magazine

Olds and Milner quickly discovered that too much pleasure can be fatal. After they ran a small current into the wire, so that the NAcc was continually excited, the scientists noticed that the rodents lost interest in everything else. They stopped eating and drinking. All courtship behavior ceased. The rats would just cower in the corner of their cage, transfixed by their bliss. Within days all of the animals had perished. They had died of thirst. - Seed Magazine

Now consider the risk that the potential reality of a dopamine induced butterfly effect may have on the economies at the forefront of the information revolution. (i.e. What we may loosely describe as the three rules of the dopamine economy)

1. The most talented people will come to believe that the propose of life is to feed the network (i.e. contributing to the creation of the shared meaning machine).

2. This networked collectivist activity will have a dampening effect on creativity and innovation

3. In a worst case scenario this dampening effect may well result in the economy "Blissing Out" into a dopamine induced coma.

Now go back and reread Wired Magazine's 1997 Dot Com Manifesto on the New Rules for the New Economy.

1 The Law of Connection Embrace dumb power
2 The Law of Plentitude More gives more
3 The Law of Exponential Value Success is nonlinear
4 The Law of Tipping Points Significance precedes momentum
5 The Law of Increasing Returns Make virtuous circles
6 The Law of Inverse Pricing Anticipate the cheap
7 The Law of Generosity Follow the free
8 The Law of the Allegiance Feed the web first
9 The Law of Devolution Let go at the top
10 The Law of Displacement The net wins
11 The Law of Churn Seek sustainable disequilibrium
12 The Law of Inefficiencies Don't solve problems

In the Network Economy, productivity is not our bottleneck. Our ability to solve our social and economic problems will be limited primarily by our lack of imagination in seizing opportunities, rather than trying to optimize solutions. - Wired Magazine

Then ask yourself which conceptual model best represents the economic reality and challenges of our time.

The economics of the Network Effect (as defined by the 12 Rules) or economics of the Dopamine Effect as defined by the three rules described above?

Confused? Then simply ask yourself what makes it so easy for us to blow so many investment bubbles that create so many economic troubles?

Is it the vibrant global networked economy or is it the accumulative effect of the collective dopamine rush?

Till next time…

Originally Published Autumn 2012. What are we talking about today? Follow us on Twitter

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