A quarrel in a far away country

Two things are happening. First, there’s a fight for net neutrality in the US. The loss of it would allow internet service providers like Verizon to manipulate traffic, charge for access to certain sites, and censor whatever they think is threatening. Second, EA is taking flak for the use of microtransactions in its games, specifically in Star Wars Battlefront II. The choice they are presenting gamers with is this: you can either play to win, or pay to win. As the title of a Reddit thread puts it, “Unlocking Everything in Battlefront II Requires 4528 Hours or $2100.”

But how are these two happenings related?

Elsewhere on Reddit, there are threads with titles like “If you people would get even half as mad over Net Neutrality as you did with Battlefront II, we might get to keep our nice internet.” and “If Reddit was half as verbal about net neutrality as they are about Star Wars Battlefront II, then we could stop ISP’s and the FCC.” See the link?

In one case, people are “outraged” about EA’s slimy-but-effective business model. In the other, people are “outraged” about the loss of net neutrality. The former hits close to home for gamers; it directly affects their playing experience. The latter is more of a distant threat; an ISP’s ability to manipulate and censor access to the internet is a scenario that requires explanation and imagination. Thus, the link between them concerns our ability to act from abstraction. Consider the following 2×2:

The loss of net neutrality in the US falls into quadrant four. For most, it is an abstract, negative possibility. EA’s use of microtransactions falls into quadrant three. It is, to gamers, a concrete, negative possibility. Which are the people concerned more likely to act on?

What about the other two quadrants, “good concrete” and “good abstract”? Humans are notoriously good at deriving action from both. The quadrant of “good concrete” is concerned with the immediately realisable good. The feeling of hunger is intimate and real; by eating, I can alleviate it. So I act. The quadrant of “good abstract” is concerned with positive outcomes that exist in the future. It’s why we save money. It’s why we practice and try to do what we love. It’s why we choose suitable long-term partners. We’re imagining what that hoard of cash can get us. We’re imagining what it would be like to be good at something and get paid for it. We’re imagining a happy family with a happy future. Fitted to the 2×2 above:

As you can see, out of the four possible motives, we are good at acting from only three. Good and bad, concrete possibilities incite action effortlessly. Our instincts and intuition respond to them in almost-animalistic ways; to avoid or reduce pain, and to bring, prolong and intensify pleasure. Good and abstract possibilities, on the other hand, function as deeper motives. We will fight and endure much in order to arrive at the promised land, for the visions of personal and societal utopias that we hold in our minds. But bad and abstract possibilities are our weakness.

The best example I have of our unwillingness to act on bad and abstract possibilities concerns the plight of the Jews during World War Two. First, the Jews themselves heard whispers of the slaughter and atrocities being perpetuated by the Third Reich. Some tried to flee, some tried to fight, but many others remained as they were, where they were, resolutely clinging to the belief that humanity could not be so inhumane. Second, citizens of the distant Allied countries also heard tell of the death camps, exploitations and channelled hatred. And just like us, when we hear about abuse and poverty in far-off countries right now, they shook their heads and spoke mournful words. Far more motivating was the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the threat of German forces on the other side of the English Channel. That is why we fought. 

Of course, it’s possible to twist bad and abstract possibilities into motives that we can use to encourage us to fight for the good and abstract. This is what happens, to some degree, when we revise history. From our perspective in time, we have a slightly fuller understanding of what happened during World War Two, and because of this privileged perspective, we can manufacture the notion that our soldiers fought to aide the Jews and other oppressed peoples. But in reality, our motivation to fight was drawn from imaginings less lofty and profound; we felt threatened. We fought for ourselves and for those close to us. If you do not believe me, consider some of the statements from the Appeasers in the run-up to World War Two, when we were flirting with Hitler. For example, from the mouth of Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister at the end of the 1930s, came these words: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” 

Life throws us into a maze of possibilities whose consequences are both good and bad, concrete and abstract. And out of those four combinations, we will act consistently on three. We will act for the immediate good; we will act for the immediate bad; we will act for the abstract good; but we will avoid strong activity when faced with abstract bad. 

What does that says about me, you and the rest of humanity? I don’t know.