Experience, Identity and Ideology

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Experience, Identity and Ideology

Sam Hill

29th June 2012

There is an integral relationship between personal experience, identity and ideology. This relationship was touched upon briefly by political philosopher Robert Nozick in the “Experience Machine” thought experiment, which he published as part of his seminal work Anarchy, State and Utopia in the mid-seventies. The relationship was also discussed in more detail about ten years ago by Harvard business academics James Gilmore and Joseph Pine in The Experience Economy.

What makes these two points of view particularly interesting is that they both attempt to place the value of experience within a greater context – spiritually, economically and philosophically. Nozick treats personal experiences, personal identity and the application of personal belief as parallel value sets (intrinsic multism), but does not necessarily assign them relative worth (only stating that experience is not the be-all and end-all). Gilmore and Pine however describe experience and transformation as progressive stepping stones towards the pursuit of something altogether more spiritual – a monistic eternality, religious imperative or transcendent value (did I mention theirs was a business book?).

Both of these arguments go some way to marginalising the value of experience. Nozick is more directly attacking hedonic utilitarianism than what might be called ‘experientialism’, but his arguments still appear (certainly at face value) to be valid by proxy. Gilmore and Pine believe experiences to be important (that is the main purpose of the book) but ultimately only as a means to an end. They don’t consider experiences to be intrinsically valuable.

Nozick’s Experience Machine

Here’s a heavily abridged version of Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment. I would highly recommend reading the whole chapter (… and the whole book) but this is all that is immediately relevant – Nozick is discussing the implications of a more-or-less permanent existence within a simulated reality:

“Suppose there were an experience machine [1]  that would give you any experience you desired… Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?… First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide… But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are?

…We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it. We can continue to imagine a sequence of machines each designed to fill lacks suggested for the earlier machines. For example, since the experience machine doesn’t meet our desire to be a certain way, imagine a transformation machine [2] which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us). Surely one would not use the transformation machine to become as one would wish, and there-upon plug into the experience machine! So something matters in addition to one’s experiences and what one is like… Is it that we want to make a difference in the world? Consider then the result machine [3], which produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity… What is most disturbing about [these machines] is their living of our lives for us… Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)”

From his exploration we can summarise the values that Nozick’s thought-experiment reveals to be apparently important to us:

To live, he infers, is the combined product of many things – reducible to a number of core values. Nozick hints there may be more then he has mentioned here.

Gilmore and Pine’s Transcendence of Experiences to Transformations

Gilmore and Pine write:

“… Remember, in the nascent Transformation Economy, the customer is the product and the transformation is an aid in changing the traits of the individual who buys it… Certainly, competitors can duplicate specific diagnoses, experiences, and follow-through devices, but no one can commoditize the most important aspect of a transformation: the unique relationship formed between the guided and the guide. It is the tie that binds.

An offering of a higher order can supersede lower-echelon relationships. But the only offering that can displace a transformation is yet another transformation – one aimed at another dimension of self, or at the same dimension but from a different world-view. By world-view, we mean a particular way – often religious or philosophical – of interpreting one’s own existence. In the years ahead, we think that companies and their customers will increasingly acknowledge rival world-views – ideologies, if you will – as the legitimate domain of business and as differentiators of competing offerings… Consider the fundamental nature of each offering:

  • Commodities are only raw materials for the goods they make
  • Goods are only physical embodiments of the services they deliver
  • Services are only intangible operations for the experiences they stage
  • Experiences are only memorable events for the transformations they guide

Then reflect on our personal belief that:

  • Transformations are only temporal states for the eternalities they glorify.

All economic offerings do more than effect an exchange of value in the present; they also, implicitly or explicitly, promote a certain world-view. In the full-fledged Transformation Economy, we believe buyers will purchase transformations according to the set of eternal principles the seller seeks to embrace – what together they believe will last.”

Now, when we compare Nozick’s derived values with Gilmore and Pine’s Progression of Economic Value we can see (assuming of course that one can agree firstly that ‘transformations’ equate to a matter of identity and secondly that any legacy we set out to achieve aligns with our life stance) the same three values are presented, but this time in a hierarchy based upon the economic principal of mass customisation. This can be shown as such:

Criticism of these approaches

Nozick, Gilmore and Pine are prolific thinkers, and I massively respect their work. For the most part these are both compelling theories (and it’s interesting to observe the parallels) but in each case I feel their ideas should be scrutinized further – mostly Nozick, who’s hypothetical experiment – brilliant as it is – was built seemingly tangentially on the way to another argument.

Nozick states: “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it”. This seems unduly dismissive. To begin with, people already do embrace fore-runners of the experience machine – the ever-growing computer game market already provides us the capacity for continuous, uninterrupted synthetic experience. Condonable or not, people have dedicated years to their MMO accounts, RTS ladders and Xbox Live scores and at the extreme this has had the predicted detrimental effects to their real-world development and activity.

One might argue then that Nozick is really saying “…we should not use it”. Well, in this case, we’d need to rule out the possibility our reservations are irrational, or poorly founded. Perhaps, for example, the association we have with the word “machine” is too strong; we can’t fathom the idea of a truly authentic digital experience – even with all the caveats in the world – if the uncanny valley has left us irreparably prejudiced.

There seems to be a disparity, for example, between what constitutes an ‘authentic’ orchestrated experience, depending on whether it is positive or negative. An individual recounting the value of a positive digital experience might be scoffed at for buying into something synthetic, but would anyone doubt the sincerity of any trauma derived from an artificial nightmare?

An important clarification should be made of how the ‘experience machine’ really functions. Does any free will still exist within the system? Would free will matter if the system still compensated accordingly to produce the same outcome? Is the individual obliged (unknowingly) into an unwavering destiny – as if tied to the front of a train – or can they exercise even a modicum of choice – like an oarsman travelling along a river? The latter still allows an individual to be something other than an “indeterminate blob”. Perhaps identity is found in choice, and the broader the scope for choice, the better one’s identity is defined.

Who we are and what we do are very difficult things to untangle. In the same way that cinema uses frames to create the illusion of a moving image, consecutive experiences might create the illusion that there is a consistency in our identity. We’re so dependent on the contexts we find ourselves in when deciding what choices to make. But does identity exist in a vacuum?  Are we really so immutable, or is this illusion a consequence of story-telling – the ubiquitous myth that we are like the characters we learn from in narratives – predictable, serialised and defined. Are we all that different from how everyone else would be, if obliged to wear our shoes?

The nature of ‘transformation’ – an effort to change one’s identity – further compounds this abstraction. How can someone will themselves to be different? How can they will themselves in the future to make a different decision to one they’d currently make? What voluntary procedure helps an individual do this?  As Nozick says: “imagine a transformation machine which transforms us into whatever sort of person we’d like to be (compatible with our staying us)”. The idea is nonsensical; the caveat is too open-ended. If identity really is a constant, then to be a different person – by definition – would stop one remaining oneself. The best we can hope for is to change our context.

This is what really happens when individuals use the closest equivalents to transformation machines – they visit therapists to re-frame the perceived consequences of their behaviour; they pay plastic surgeons to make cosmetic differences to their appearances; they take drugs to alter their perceptions and they enter lotteries to change their wealth.

Defining Transformations

It’s useful to understand personal transformation by thinking of the industries that deliver changes to ourselves. Many of these industries are more typically associated with bringing traits of inadequacy up to a median standard, but some are concerned with the improvement of oneself above and beyond what is considered ‘normal’.

We have, for example:

  • Medicine, dentistry and healthcare
  • Personal (physical) trainers and gymnasiums
  • Mental health care – psychiatry, therapy
  • Self-help literature, courses and life coaches
  • NLP and hypnotherapy
  • Skills training and further education – tutors, teachers, mentors
  • Dietary specialists
  • Libraries, wikis and learning/ information resources
  • Beauticians – plastic surgeons, cosmetologists and fashionistas
  • Bionics, mobility devices and sensory augmentation (including eye wear and hearing aids)

(it’s important to note that these are self-initiated transformations. Not included here are the coercive transformations applied to individuals by others, groups, states or organisations – such as advertisement and compulsory education)

When compared with what are considered to be established and accepted experiential industries we notice something quite interesting. For example consider:

  • Performing arts – cinema, theatre, dance, music
  • Sport – played and spectated
  • Literature – poetry and prose
  • Fine arts
  • Events and installations
  • The gaming industries
  • Leisure and tourism
  • Cuisine

What is the difference between these two groups of industry? Moreover, what’s the difference between a diet and a feast? What’s the difference between an hour on a treadmill and an hour at a theme park?

The distinction is not that one is emotionally positive whilst the other is negative, because that is not necessarily important for experiential richness. The distinction is instead that one is stimulating and novel, whist the other is more commonly drudgerous and repetitive. The very purpose of the transformative industries is to assist people in making changes about themselves, and the reason people have not already made these changes independently (and thus demand the ‘service’) is commonly a matter of motivation.

There are a couple of points to conclude with here. First of all, how can a transformation be considered a transcendence of an experience, as Gilmore and Pine describe? How can a calorie controlled diet be the transcendence of the food consumption experience? Secondly, what happens when Nozick’s derived values conflict – i.e. between what we want to do and what we want to be? I might want to be as healthy as an athlete, but I still want to experience sedentary pursuits and eat chocolate cake.

Earphones and Selective Reality

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Earphones and Selective Reality

Sam Hill

20th November 2011

It’s feasible an average commuting city worker might wear earphones between 5 and 12 hours a day. In some places they’re ubiquitous – on the train, in the office, on the high street – so much as to have become invisible.

This is fine of course – it’s not a criticism, just an observation. Personal experience reveals journeys are less stressful if the sound of a baby crying can be blocked; work is achieved more efficiently without the ambient distractions of an open-plan office.

But the observation does come with a hefty question in tow. It’s equally typical that the aforementioned worker might spend up to 15-16 hours a day looking at screens, but there is a significant difference: screens are not all encompassing. They can be looked away from, or around, and we can shut our eyes. Conversely, personal headphones are supposed to be all encompassing; they are supposed to override all ambient noise.

What does it mean then, to block out the world around you: to usurp an important link to one’s environment for so much of the time?


The personal stereo is about 25 years old and has gone through multiple format changes. Significantly, the MP3 player massively opened up the potential for people to carry their “entire” music collections with them. Another (slightly overlooked) innovation has been Spotify for mobile, which allows someone to listen to any song they can call to mind from practically any location through their smartphone, 3G and ‘the cloud’. Even making allowances for licensing and signal strength, that’s an incredible thought isn’t it? Any song, any place, any time. From prehistory up until 150 years ago, the only way to hear music was to be in the same space as the instrument. There is an incredibly liberating cultural power that comes with the tech we now wield.

Voluntary Schism from Reality

To take a critical sensation like hearing and hack it’s primarily informative/exploratory role to instead supply entertainment will certainly have a significant effect on one’s perception of reality. Granted, ‘reality’ is a weasely, subjective term, but the choice will still affect an individual’s capacity to perceive their immediate environment. Critically, the user of earphones has made a choice: they are listening to what they want to, regardless of whether it’s what she should listen to. They have been granted the power to exert an amount of control on sensory input, and how they engage with their environment. Whether or not there is an experiential  ‘compromise’ going on is contentious.

For example, consider a typical 40 minute train commute. Coincidently, 40 minutes is the approximate length of time of an average album. So within a week’s commute it might be possible to listen to roughly 10 new albums. Doing so would impart a constant, fairly rich supply of fresh experience. On the other hand, listening instead to the daily sounds of a train carriage would probably be emotionally and sensationally lacking, most of the time. However, occasionally the ambient noise of a journey might yield (experiential) gems: eavesdropping on an argument, a phone call or the ramblings of an alcoholic.

Most likely, the album-listening route would be more rewarding in the long term, and so within this context could be considered experientially condonable. But is this true beyond the commute?


Has society had time to adjust to the power of being able to limit depth of engagement with the physical world? Do we understand the point at which the benefit becomes a hurdle – when a delivery mechanism for experience becomes an obstacle? The thought first occurred to me when I saw a father carrying a toddler in his arms through a park. The father had white earphones hanging from his ears and a vacant expression. The kid was babbling and humming and blowing raspberries at his dad but he was completely oblivious. The sight, an abuse of technological power, made me instantly uncomfortable. The fact this man had wilfully placed a barrier between himself and his son, to the detriment of them both, made me incredibly angry, actually. In this instance it wasn’t strangers on the tube being phased out of attention but immediate family. It seemed wrong by every measure of quality.

I’ve also been amazed to see cyclists weave through traffic whilst listening to music. In my experience it seems necessary to dedicated every possible faculty to cycling in a built-up environment. Granted, there might be marginally more experiential value in cycling to music, but is the pay-off worth the risk of failing to identify peripheral hazards? After all, a premature death will reduce an individuals net lifetime experience acquired, quite drastically.

By Analogy

In a recent workshop we held at Goldsmith’s College, a design student ran a quick experiment to limit their exposure to unpleasant smells. They subverted their olfactory sense by keeping a perfumed cloth over their nose whilst walking through bad smelling places.

The student realised within a few hours that living with a single abstract ‘pleasant’ smell was less desirable than having access to countless neutral and unpleasant odours – odours which were still relevant and contextually grounded.

The Gadget Show – FPS Simulator

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The Gadget Show – FPS Simulator

Sam Hill

25th October 2011

Earlier in the year I mentioned the potential of computer gaming and digital interaction in the future. Recently Channel 5’s The Gadget Show combined several state-of-the-art technologies to produce one particular vision of what this future might be. The build took 6 weeks, an unreleased copy of Battlefield 3 (a nice little PR coup there) and £500,000. The end result went on to be a bit of a prolific meme, and temporarily shot C5’s armchair-consumer review staple into the tech world’s periphery.

The package included:

  • A 9m wide 360° (X-Z plane) geodesic dome with 5 HD projectors
  • A roller-driven omni-directional treadmill (one of a kind, produced by MSE Weibull)
  • 10 infra-red tracking cameras, synchronised with the players orientation by APS Events and Media
  • An (Illegally modified VCRA – Sec 36.1.b) “appBlaster” gun
  • A PC, with the platform copy of Battlefield 3
  • 12 paintball guns (which were allegedly triggered by pixel mapping software reading areas of red/ blood on the screen) automated by Robo Challenge
  • ambient lighting for peripheral vision (supplied by Extra Dimensional Technologies)
  • X-box kinect with infrared motion tracking, hacked by Running In The Halls for detecting player crouching and jumping

It looks like there might be some issue with looking and moving in the y-axis as the top of the geodesic dome is not projected onto. No doubt also there were many other issues that were deliberately overlooked, such as switching weapons, reloading, climbing ladders, etc. but it’s still a very convincing proof of concept model.


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Sam Hill

8th August 2011

Playmakers is a film on immersive gaming – a collaborative project between Hide & Seek, NESTA and ThinkPublic.

It features a good range of speakers from the sector and contains some interesting insights. It also demonstrates (in a surprisingly frank way) the ad hoc and experimental nature of immersive game development, illustrating why it’s important to remember the KISS principle when orchestrating events that are designed to be engaging and fun.

Some of the other difficulties and objectives of experiential events are outlined – the need to avoid esoterism, the importance of having objectives and narrative seamlessly work together and the psychology of keeping players immersed. Interesting parallels are drawn throughout to other social activities that “share DNA” – protests, carnivals, parkour and theatre. Obviously, theatre is a biggy. Computer games are slightly conspicuous in their exclusion.

An interesting idea is presented near the beginning of the film [01:50] by Hide & Seek’s Alex Fleetwood. He appears to be describing the four quadrants of their interest. Here it is visualised:

It’s a really nice territory for enquiry. What’s more, Alex’s criteria reveal a robust set of parameters when extrapolated:

Immersive gaming incorporates a dedicated core of researchers and creative thinkers. The industry seems to be gaining plenty of momentum and makes an excellent case study for the development of a broader experience culture. A lot can be learned from a decade of keenly analysed experiential events and the potential within the sector remains huge and continuously changing.

The Conflicting Nature of Computer Games

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The Conflicting Nature of Computer Games

Sam Hill

21st June 2011

It’s difficult to describe precisely how excited I am about the upcoming Bethesda game Skyrim, which is due to be released in November this year.

Specifically, I’m looking forward to fighting dragons. In my day-to-day life I’m unable to fight dragons, you see, so the prospect is quite exciting.

This is an important consideration when evaluating contemporary computer games. Their status, somewhere between the legacy of Pong (1972) and the potential to be Nozick’s theoretical Experience Machine implies a complex question:

How much experiential value do they really impart?

The case against computer games

  1. Computer games are synthetic experiences. They are approximations of situations built from rendering software, conversation trees, scripts and flags. They are built by finitely sized teams of people. Ultimately, they are limited by the comprehension of the human mind – a condition from which reality does not suffer. They are as incomparable from that which they simulate as a train crash is from a mathematical collision model; as a fruit salad is from a fruit salad.
  2. They are played through a bottleneck of sensation. We input though fingertips – or more recently through gesture. Feedback is received as light and sound. Occasionally primitive haptic feedback devices like “rumble-packs” are involved but generally most of the human range of sensation remains unstimulated.
  3. Computer gaming is a time-consuming activity. Hours can disappear when playing. It is entirely foreseeable that whole childhoods, and adulthoods too, can be lost to a digital interface. This time could be spent doing many, many other things in ‘the real world’ – outdoor activities like running, building, swimming and climbing might be missed out on. The smell of grass, the feeling of the sun on skin, or breathlessness from activity cannot be emulated by a computer.
  4. The long-term rewards of gaming are debatable (though not entirely deniable). Time spent gaming might otherwise be invested in developing skills and knowledge, or pursuing other hobbies, interests and activities. Missing out on these knowledge-experiences can have a cumulative effect in denying future opportunities to learn.
  5. It’s possible for excessive gaming to be described as an addictive behaviour. This can impede social interaction from friends, family and other people, restricting socio-cultural development, and the enrichment this provides experientially.

The case for computer games

  1. “Gaming” is a misleading term. Though most platforms will have puzzles, goals or skill-based challenges, things have changed a great deal since the arcade era of Tetris and Asteroids. It might be more accurate to state that products like L.A. Noire, for example, are simulators, interactive narratives or synthetic experiences. Here, the potential for what might be simulated is bounded only by the imagination of developers. This might sound contradictory to the first argument against games – but it’s not the case; merely the the other side of the coin. As stated before, we cannot actually go out and fight dragons on mountain tops, nor tackle crime in nineteen-forties’ America. But through synthetic experiences we may save the world countless times. We can explore space and solve mysteries and battled demons. We can be gangsters, tycoons and blue hedgehogs. Reality could not deliver these situations, but here we are having lived them -to a very limited extent, yes, but the difference between these simulacra and nothing is huge.
  2. Skilled developers at companies such as Valve and Bethesda absolutely understand what is required to make exciting, fun and memorable titles. Games are consumed actively, not passively. Their immersive nature is virtually unparalleled amongst other creative mediums – being far more interactive than literature, more dynamic than film, more bespoke than most theatre. Though rarely considered a cultural medium, they are annihilating competing products in terms of both intensity and duration of experience. Imperfect though they are, games probably represent the absolute pinnacle of human-engineered experience.
  3. Games are a pragmatic, utilitarian solution for the service and consumption of experience. They are easily replicable and relatively cheap to produce (compared to, say, holidays, leisure activities, or Hollywood blockbusters). Games can exist entirely digitally, so they are a very sustainable form of experience consumption. They also offer good value for money as a medium, with successful titles providing many more hours of immersive entertainment per pound than other forms of consumption.


It’s important to remember: the richest experiences possible are not necessarily man-made at all, and even when this is the case they may not be easily replicable or sustainable. These salient circumstances and events – valuable, definable moment in time – should not be undermined by the inferior, if ubiquitous industry of gaming.

However, games certainly have their place, and in moderation can augment an already experientially rich life with an immersive level of fantasy and escapism. It is also foreseeable that advances in technology, changes in culture and expansion of platforms will help reduce some of their current limitations.