Choosing Preferences

In Ray Kurzweil's fascinating book "The Singularity
is Near" (2005) he predicts of the future of humanity, and I
feel like my mind is bigger. Expanded. It's wonderful. I highly
recommend it.

He's very optimistic about the future of technology, and if he's right
then within my lifetime it might be possible to alter your brain and
mind in very exacting ways. It got me thinking about preferences, and
under what circumstances one would want to change them. My question to
you is this: if you could change your preferences and opinions, which
would you change?

Currently, we can sometimes change our preferences, but it takes work and
time. Growing up I didn't like coffee, but sometimes it was the only
thing around to drink. I really wanted to like coffee, so I just
started making myself drink it. It worked! Now I can tolerate a cup of
coffee, and even enjoy it if it has enough milk and sugar in it (to
quote my man Ad-Rock "I like my sugar with coffee and cream."). I
don't want it every day, but at least now I can go to a coffe shop and
find something on the menu I can stomach.

Back to rapid change...Here are some examples of things people might
want to do:

  • Make yourself enjoy broccoli as much as you currently like chocolate
  • Make yourself find your spouse the most attractive person in
    the world, for as long as you're with him or her
  • Make yourself find funny things about twice as funny as you do now
  • Make yourself love jazz
  • Make yourself dislike video games

It's interesting to think about, because on the one hand our
preferences are part of what makes us who we are. For example, I adore
Reece's Pieces Sundaes from Friendly's. If I changed my adoration for
them, I think, in a small way, I would be less "me." I might be a
better me (if you believe in nutrition), but I'd be different.

There are some things I really don't like, such as most alternative
rock music from the 90s (e.g. Green Day and Nerfherder). I have
temptations to be proud of my dislikes. I often get a laugh when I
refer to a band as "some asshole with a guitar." But ultimately I'm
surrounded by this stuff, and it just hurts me overall that I don't
like it. I can say pretty confidently that if I could just flip a
switch and suddenly appreciate that whiney whiteboy crap, I would.

People who knew me would be all "Jim, I thought you hated that stuff!"

To which I would reply "That was before I flipped this awesome

One thing that's disturbing about it is that once you like something,
you usually don't want to give it up. For example, I love hip hop
music, in spite of (not, mind you, because of) the sexism that's
rampant in it. I feel like if I suddenly didn't like it anymore, I
would lose a huge part of life that I now enjoy. I probably would
feel similarly about alternative rock if I found myself liking
it. This means that the trend would probably be toward liking more and
more things, because you probably would not decide to turn back once
you've appreciated something.

Now there are bad habits too, and such a switch would be great for
people with addictions or other bad habits. You might wish you hated
picking your nose or gambling.

It's uncharted waters. Changes that might happen probably would, in
the short term, have unseen consequences. For example, if you changed
yourself so that you liked yourself more, then it might have the
inadvertant effect of making you not want to change anything else
about yourself!

The scariest part about it is just that: changing yourself so that
your preferences about changing yourself are changed. Maybe you'd
change yourself to be more open to change, which might lead to more
changes in yourself. Or maybe you'd change yourself in some way that
would make you want to stay very much the way you are. I can imagine
scenarios in which both would hurt you.

I'm reminded of some cults who have instructions in place to keep
people from leaving the cult. E.g. don't talk to anyone outside the
cult, don't think about questioning the cult, etc. Such things help
the cult's success by insuring the cult stays legitimate in the mind
of the individual. (Seductive Poison, by Deborah Layton, is a
fascinating memoir about living in the Jonestown cult. It gave me a
lot of insight into the cult mindset and lifestyle.)

Anyway, it's interesting to think about your preferences, how you
might want to change them, and what that means for your
identity. Someday we might have the power to change them

Some react strangely to the question. If you want something, why would
you want to change that? Dennet in his book Brainstorms distinguishes
between first and second order desires: What we want and what we want
to want (1981).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder makes this difference very clear. The
victims want to wash their hands because it gives them temporary
relief to their compulsive urges. But they don't want to want those
Indeed, those urges can ruin their lives (Rappoport, 1989).

What preferences would you change?

Pictured are me and my fellow improvisor Mitch in a recent improv show.


Dennet, D. (1981). Brainstorms. MIT Press.

Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity is Near. Penguin books.

Rappoport, J. L. (1989). The Boy Who Couldn't Stop Washing: The
Experience and Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
. Plume,
Penguin Books, Markham, Ontario.


Daniel said…
Awesome post. There's a great Greg Egan story called Mister Volition, about a man who's wife was raped and murdered, and he knows by whom. But he also knows he's much too decent and mild-mannered to kill this man. But what he can bring himself to do is buy a neural patch that will turn him into the kind of guy who's good at bloody vengeance...

One thing this overlooks, I think, is that enjoying something can be an artform, with it's own rich intricacies, that I don't believe could be generated all in an instant. It probably takes a lifetime of effort to fully appreciate certain kinds of high art, and all the sf books I've read since adolescence are contributing to how much pleasure The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks gave me. (also see
Daniel said…
The point is, it's more than just a jolt of pleasure. Of course, if there was always a jolt of pleasure associated with it, you might start confabulating reasons you like it pretty fast...

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