Don't touch that dial

I grew up in the future. My childhood room was next to an attic filled with science fiction so as soon as I could read I buried my nose in the universes of the great pulp era authors. I love it in that future because all the characters understand how to wire up a radio and all problems can be solved with a strong heart and a good toolkit.

I have a lot of fantasies about my personal future.

In one fantasy I start a bamboo farm slash maker retreat outside of Seattle. I get my hands dirty growing the crop of the future while providing quiet cottages and well stocked fablabs for creative inventors who need a break from urban pressures. When civilization falls we turn the farm into a center for resilient culture.

In another fantasy my daughter is the first president of the Moon and I am the proud father, touring the domes and looking for opportunities to foster extra-solar colonization.

And then there are all of the fantasies about electronic gear. Huge screens will make me more productive. New phones will turn my wasted time into productive time. New cameras will capture memories. New speakers will make music better. New laptops will make my compiler faster.

For a long time I've confused dopamine with oxytocin. Those are the chemicals for desire and happiness and I spent many years living on the former and ignoring the latter.

Envisioning what a little startup might become triggers dopamine. Writing a business plan and making the up-and-to-the-right graph triggers dopamine. Reading Ian M. Banks' Culture series about a lovely future where hyper-intelligent AIs luxuriously ferry humans around the universe is a huge hit of dopamine for those of us working on intellectual infrastructure.

Checking email and facebook triggers dopamine. Is there something waiting for me? Yes? Yes? Yes! But then it's cat pictures and I'm not happy.

Desires are sneaky because they will promise happiness all day long but they rarely deliver. It helps me to pay close attention to the experience of giving in to a desire. After a hard workout I gave in to my urge to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry's. It tasted wonderful for a few bites and then my taste buds stopped firing and it was like eating wheat paste. The ice cream didn't make me happy, it just relieved me of the stress that comes with desire.

The trick for me was realizing that desire and happiness have independent controls. Desire gets me out of bed in the morning so I make plans and have fantasies. Happiness makes getting out of bed worthwhile so I do the quiet, slow work of connecting to people and building things.

I still read a lot of science fiction. Perhaps too much? Maybe one day I'll read a story about a culture where everyone has little dials for their dopamine and oxytocin.

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