Surrogate Activity (& Secrets, & Possibilism)

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A surrogate activity is an activity that superficially satisfies innate human drives without producing the utility that the drive exists for. It is a concept from the infamous manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. The manifesto states:

We divide human drives into three groups: (1) those drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort; (2) those that can be satisfied but only at the cost of serious effort; (3) those that cannot be adequately satisfied no matter how much effort one makes. The power process is the process of satisfying the drives of the second group.

What Kaczynski calls the “power process” is man's deep psychological desire to achieve.

According to the manifesto, industrial society has moved many activities which previously occupied group (2) into group (1) because of the efficiency of modern mass-production. Most remaining activities fall into group (3). A scientist can spend their entire career to make a single significant discovery. A worker can grind long hours at a large corporation, doing various intermediary functions, and smoothing administrative processes, without directly producing anything of value.

A surrogate activity is something that superficially satisfies (2) by giving the sense of achievement and providing the right hits of dopamine. An example would be a video game, which produces a skinner-box like feed of achievement. Games provide obstacles for the player to overcome that are difficult enough to avoid group (1) but not so difficult that they become frustrating.

More generally, a surrogate activity is any activity where people's drive to satisfy their desires outpaces the original purpose for those desires, for example, masterbation provides some of the euphoria of sex without the function of sex.

Thiels Concept of Secrets

Investor Peter Thiel's concept of a "secret" is partly based on the same differentiation between types of activities as in Industrial Society. A secret is knowledge that something meaningful can be reasonably achieved (invented/built/discovered). According to Thiel, the right mindset to have is that there are many problems that are not easy but also not impossible; they merely hard, and so we should be open-minded to discovering those problems and solving them. A company can be defined as a group of people who share a secret.

Thiel elaborates that both radical optimism and radical pessimism create a similar result. Radical optimism says that we do not have to work hard to make meaningful change, while radical pessimism says that there is no point in trying to make meaningful change. Possibilism, as a third way, says that meaningful change is not easy, but not inevitable either; it is possible, but hard. This informs Thiel's thinking about the future: not inevitable, but determined by human action.