If Happiness Were Measured

speculative fictionethics

Imagine a world where happiness could be quantitatively measured via brain waves and sensors (I'm not a scientist, just imagine this could happen). This could shift society to focus more on what keeps people happy rather than other metrics like wealth and status. Instead, people could strive to be the happiest and most fulfilled.

Now take this a step further and imagine that devices that could measure happiness signals were available for every person in the world to use. In fact, governments, in the spirit of measuring their people's happiness, made it so that every household could get their happiness measured. Data would be processed in the cloud and made available for population analytics. As they say, if you aren't paying for the product, you are the product.

The utopian

With the world shifting to a focus on happiness, people would take better care of the environments they live in - both digital and physical. Relationships would improve as those in unhappy relationships would have quantitative data to back their decisions to leave them. Companies would be on the hook to provide supportive and welcoming environments for employees to keep their employee happiness scores up. Policies could be made in the interest of keeping the maximum amount of people happy.

Parents could be at ease knowing that their children are happy or take steps to improve their happiness when their scores go down. In the medical world, mental illnesses could be more easily diagnosed. People have gotten really good at lying to themselves about whether they enjoy what they're doing and the life they are leading. Now they can no longer do that as the numbers don't life. Following your dreams and finding your calling in the world is made easier by data.

The obsession with data driven metrics on human emotions leads to advances in brain wave mapping and neuroscience. Research into mental health becomes the world's top priority as nations fight to be the happiest. This leads to more harmonious societies, deeper care for nature and safer communities.

People love the work they do. Creative code becomes the default as technologists value the joy that is sparked from engaging with playful software rather than the profits generated. Every person cares for their tools they use in the same way musicians care for their instruments.

The dystopian

If you give someone a metric, they will try to optimize it. Happiness is required to be hired in prestigious jobs. After all, no employer wants unhappy employees - they are less productive. The focus on happine

Anonymized data on happiness gets investigated by tabloids to reveal which public figures are secretly unhappy. The privacy to your own emotions are gone. People who are consistently scoring low in happiness metrics are sent away for rehabilitation. Those who voice injustices are sent away for disturbing public happiness. It's a utopian but only if you're in the in-crowd.

People who are consistently unhappy are marked as ill and hold the lowest status in society. They are drugged up to maintain minimum happiness thresholds and forced to suppress their emotions. Dark art does not exist. Their work ethic is cited as the cause for their unhappiness. Generational happiness is passed on with happiness-rich circles able to provide experiences for their communities to continue building happiness.

To game the system, moderately happy people realize there are drugs that can enhance happiness signals that the machines can read. This causes a drug epidemic in the moderately-happy class.

Policy favors the happiness of those in certain groups. Using weighted quantitative metrics to decide on the outcome of new policies – citing population happiness optimization to push policies that marginalize the have-nots. Who's happiness matters more?

Those who are consistently displaying negative metrics could be flagged as potentially violent. It's impossible to decouple happiness data from racial, gender and socioeconomic factors. Faith in algorithmic integrity drops.

Can we truly live in a world that indexes on happiness rather than capital? It sounded like a good idea at first. But it feels like the more I think about it, the more my mind veers into dystopian paths. No technology is inherently bad. But humans are good at bringing the worst out of the technologies we create. How can we responsibly build technology that contributes to a better future?

This is a work in progress. I did Speculative Fiction exercise as part of Camp Reboot in March 2022. I had never heard of Speculative Design until this workshop but it sparked a new motivation in me to start writing more of my thoughts. More to come hopefully :)

Thanks for dropping by :)

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