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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 2, 2023

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The Penfield Mood Organ and Me: Are We Already Transhuman by Chemistry and Mnemonics Rather than Engineering?

Background: Read or re-read the first scene of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Read the whole book, one day, but just the first few paragraphs should do us for the moment, this scene is almost a standalone story and got me thinking, leaving aside the rest of the book. I was also inspired by this post on theMotte and the discussion around it to think about what responsibilities we have to dial up what mood at what time.

TLDR: Phillip K. Dick gives us the Penfield Mood Organ, a magical yet dystopian device that can stimulate the brain to put the user in different moods as appropriate, from Interested and Businesslike to Erotic Mania to Self Accusatory Depression. I thought through all the artificial tools, chemical and electronic and mnemonic, that I use to put myself in the mood I want to be in for any activity. Where do we draw the line between the dystopian Mood Organ, which would destroy some essential concept of humanity or natural life by putting a mood in my mind artificially, and the “normal” and traditional use of chemicals and other tools to create moods in the human mind?

I came home stressed out and tired from work one night, but still had plenty to do around the house. We had a dinner party planned for the next evening, and I was anticipating another busy day at work the next day, I would be lucky to have enough time to shower and clean myself up before the party, let alone to clean, so I would have to clean everything tonight if I wanted to get it done at all. Not being much in the mood to clean the house, which is hardly one of my favorite tasks to begin with, I popped in my earbuds and queued up an audiobook I hadn’t listened to yet, and took a couple of hits on a marijuana vape pen to calm my nerves and make the book a little more interesting. Just a couple of hits of the right stuff are perfect: calms the stress of the day, makes the book feel a little more profound, makes cleaning a little more pleasant. The book was a sci-fi classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I understand was later made into a movie a lot of guys like, so I was figuring on escapism and good writing while I worked.

The first chapter of the book opens with the protagonist arguing with his wife, a domestic squabble made sci-fi through the Penfield Mood Organ, a home appliance which could through “Penfield Brain Waves” put the user into whatever mood desired. The protagonist wishes to dial a Businesslike Attitude appropriate to the day’s work, his uncooperative wife wishes to dial a Self Accusatory Depression, they wrestle over which moods they are going to dial, maybe they’ll make themselves angry for the argument. This little vignette shook me, maybe the weed covering the stress opened my mind too much, as I realized all the things I did every day to put myself in the right mood artificially for every task. The weed, even the book I was listening to that had so shocked me, had been meant to put me in the mood to clean; and I can’t tell you how many times I’d fought with my wife when I came home around then and found her rewatching something on Netflix that I found likely to be pinning her in a depression. I was shook, it wasn’t helping me do dishes or vacuum, I switched to a Blocked and Reported episode, where I heard about some nonsense going on Twitter, this was a while ago I don’t even remember what the drama was, and probably no one else does other than the people actively involved and I’m sure even they have a different view on the matter now. This was the mood I needed (thanks @tracingwoodgrains), light and distracting, and it put me in the right headspace, I cleaned the house.

The book barely expands on the Mood Organ, but it didn’t need to, just that one background scene about their marriage made me think about all the things I use every day to put myself in one mood or another. I pictured the Mood Organ as something like one of those fancy Grundig shortwave radios I bought at an auction and thought was really cool but never actually used for much; but my real Mood Organ is more of a duffle bag, or perhaps a filing cabinet. So what’s in my bag of tricks? What moods can I dial up? What methods do I use to do it?

In this drawer we have chemicals, substances. Caffeine in various forms, the double latte I make every morning for my wife and I to drink in bed and enter a Businesslike and Professional mood before work; the much better extra foam latte we might order on a coffee date at our local after church, meant to be enjoyed for a leisurely half hour with conversation; the Celsius or pre-workout I chug before going for a new 1rm; the Kirkland knockoff Five Hour Energy that I keep in my glovebox as a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” supply of energy for work or a long drive. Alcohol in various formats: white wine for a romantic evening; good whiskey and cognac to be sipped with friends; Jaeger to be shot to get wild and pretend I’m still a college student; beer to get just the right buzz for a social event or ballgame.

Then there’s the marijuana section: a knockoff Pelican case filled with vape cartridges, edibles, little tubes with different strains of bud for different effects. I used to think weed was just weed, but as I’ve become a connoisseur I’ve realized how different one or another hits. Lemon Fuel or Robot Girl are energizing, great for a fun Moon Board workout or cleaning the house; BlueBerry Kush or Schnozzzzzberry put me couch locked, sleepy; Durban 95 has my mind racing with new possibilities and interpretations of everything I see, enough and it is almost hallucinogenic. And the delivery matters: the vape pen or tincture I can dose precisely, taking just one or two hits to get a mild buzz going without obstructing anything; an edible is a wild ride going wherever it wants to go for hours; the mechanical vape is somewhere in between, depending how much I load I can stick to a more energizing strain but I have to vape quarter of an oven at least and that can be too much for some things. Get the dose just right and I’m having a good time, vacuuming the house and doing laundry or hanging out with my parents watching an old John Wayne movie with no indication anything is amiss. Get it wrong and I’ve blown it, I’m sitting on the couch reading theMotte and giggling. All the different applicators and strains producing different moods for different tasks, carefully chosen and dosed by experience.

And then there are the pills, not something I use a lot of but something I’m experimenting with a little. Modafinil, a pile of little quarter pills I cut up for tiny doses, which is magic when I’m tired and need to go for a long drive or work late, so much cleaner burning than caffeine, though I’m cautious so far to avoid hurting my sleep cycle and have barely touched it yet. And, for when I want to dial up 069 Ecstatic Sexual Bliss for my partner and I, a couple little packets from Roman with generic Viagra and Cialis in them. I didn’t medically need the pills, but as I said to a friend Barry Bonds won multiple MVPs before he took steroids; it’s nice to be able to dial up perfection whenever I want it without worrying.

1/2 Continued Below

2/2 Continued

Over here on this shelf we have the phone an amazing mood organ all by itself. Spotify playlists are set for workouts, long and short, intense and recovery. My primary workout playlist is songs I like to sing along to, with a good helping of comedy because nothing makes me push through a pump like laughing at Imagine What I Could Do To You. But there’s also a 10 minute snatch test playlist, that contains only songs with no intros or bridges, all killer no filler. I play instrumental deep house or prog rock when I’m typing, classical or jazz when I’m relaxing, and a big Cole Porter songbook playlist for romance. That’s just the music. Headspace gets me to sleep every night, and theoretically has a bunch of other features I don’t use. There’s also podcasts, which can inform me or entertain me, distract me from boring tasks; infuriate me with Culture War bullshit or make me feel superior dunking on my outgroup. TikTok is a unique mood organ, it both reflects and stimulates moods, but ultimately all it does is pin me to my seat and waste time, the mood of inspiration that Roman History guys try to create is fleeting and false even by digital standards. I won’t get into theMotte and what it does for me. If I’m horny or I want to be, snapchat and telegram beckon with partners current and recorded, available at a moment’s notice. And Netflix offers me thousands of options for moods from tragic sorrow to optimistic inspiration to comedic soothing.

Beyond that, we have the mechanical and mnemonic tools I use to control my mood. My accupressure mat can relax me, can put me to sleep for a 30 minutes nap reliably. Some of my clothing, I’m a big believer in look good feel good play good, when you put on a sharp suit it’s a mood, when you put on your lucky shirt you hit a PR. My rosary beads produce a mood, so does carrying my ccw, so does the art on my walls and so do the shoes I wear. Candles, soaps, massage guns, even just knick knacks and tchotchkes that make me remember great moments in my life.

Now you start adding all this together, and it really becomes possible to dial up moods, and I do it all the time. I wake up and have a big day at work, I’m putting on a sharp clean suit and drinking a double espresso, listening to The Economist podcast to feel informed quickly. I’m stressed and want to hang out with my wife, I’m putting on comfortable clothes, lighting a candle, turning on a Tribe Called Quest playlist, loading Blueberry Kush into the vape, and watching a comedy. My wife and I are having a "special guest star” over, we’re pouring wine and putting on Cole Porter, I might surreptitiously pop a Tadalafil Citrate for confidence and top performance. I’m getting psyched to hit a big total in the gym, I’m dry-scooping pre workout and blaring Amon Amarth and Bolt Thrower.

I’m dialing up a mood every single day, maybe a little more laboriously than punching a number into your Penfield, but how different is it in principle, ethically? Let’s return to Deckard and Iran and compare. Is he right to ask her to dial up the mood he wants rather than what she wants to dial? What does it mean to tell someone to change their mood, is that overriding their natural emotions? If it’s horrifying for Iran to dial up a depression, is it horrifying for my wife to re-watch The Office for the umpteenth time? Alternately, if we say that’s what Iran wants so she should be allowed to do it and it is horrifying for Deckard to try to stop her, is it wrong when I criticize my wife for re-watching The Office when she’s upset on the basis that a show that shallow and over-done won’t snap her out of anything but just allow her to wallow? If it’s depressing and unnatural for Deckard to dial up a business-like attitude when he needs it, is it depressing for me to drink a coffee and put on a suit to get myself in the mood for work? If the idea of a woman dialing up erotic abandon artificially is dark and sort of ruins the point, how much Cole Porter and white wine and tadalafil ruins the point in the real world?

Some would probably answer yes, and some would probably answer no, to each of these questions. I’m not sure how I answer them! But, (and this was a side effect of dialing up “Open Minded and Creative” at the wrong moment, right?) it’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since it first occurred to me. Part of me thinks that this is enhancing me, making me more human, making me more of a tough lifter guy when I need to be, more of a lawyer when I need to be, more of a lover; work hard and play hard and relax hard. Campbell cites the idea that we’re all always playing roles, and speaks of a courtly Japanese affectation of referring to all actions as play: “I’m playing at running the company” “He is playing at driving” even “I heard your father is playing at being dead.” Maybe this is just one more prop to help me play my role every day.

And part of me wonders if I even know what real is any more. My world is so mediated that I can’t even recognize it. Facing the world without caffeine would be honestly unrecognizable some mornings; I realize that for others that is a world without weed, a world without alcohol, a world without prozac or nicotine or dmt. At some level it horrifies me, but I don’t know what that level is. I can’t find the limiting principles.

And then the problem of others. Let’s say we’re all playing our role, who is the director? Who gets to tell who that they aren’t trying to play their role right, that they shouldn’t be dialing up anomie and empty pleasure but ferocious ideological aggression? What right do I have to tell people they should or shouldn’t have what feelings at what time, or what tools they can use to induce those feelings?

I’m curious to hear the answers of others, and to hear what’s in your Penfield Mood Cabinet.

Great post thanks for writing it! My Mood Cabinet is pretty similar to yours weed/alcohol/audio stimulus. One you did miss but I think will seem obvious once I say it is food. And I think this probably has some important interactions with obesity in the west. If I'm in a foul mood I'll reach for comfort food, which contains the whole idea in the name. I don't think any of this is really transhuman so much as a natural and ancient human tendency done with modern tools. Consider the various definitions of "habit".