About a year ago, a strange thing happened to my roommate and me. The two of us were sharing one small room in a sort of boarding house in Harlem, full otherwise of French exchange students and travelers. We’d arranged the space symmetrically, with two beds pointing out of the left wall, a channel of dirty clothes running between them, a few steps of open space, and then two desks, both facing the right wall. Sitting at our laptops together, we felt like copilots of a comfortably junky spaceship. On the century-old fireplace between us teetered our commingled stacks of too-proudly displayed books. “It looks like a startup in here,” a housemate’s girlfriend once quipped, leaning through the door to ask for a lighter. We both cringed, but it was true, and partly my fault: I had bought a whiteboard and hung it up, though I had yet to write anything on it besides one large ellipsis: …
In most ways we were a typical pair. Him, a recent Georgia transplant, who’d come to the old cold city to write; me, a product of the green and liberal Jersey suburbs, in New York because that’s where those people go. He had a publishing internship; I had one at a health clinic. Our OkCupid profiles matched 96 percent. And, typically, we spent most of our time being confused and anxious about how we should be spending most of our time. Alone and together we fingered timeless worry-stones: What kind of job? Whence comes this surplus value? Why’s everything bad?
Our one irregularity, maybe, was our mutual closeness to harder, colder skills. In college—ach—I majored in math, and in the process more or less learned how to write computer programs. David had mostly studied English but also managed to pick up a degree in cognitive science, which is almost a science; he’d played mad video games as a kid and knew a bunch about computers. This was our hinge—that, with some time and effort, we could probably become junior web developers.
Sometimes we’d trade anecdotes. His brother, a WordPress designer, working twenty hours a week and living large in Nashville, playing in bands and loafing in dog parks; my college friend, a database engineer, 23 years old and planning to buy a sailboat. But, cozy in our small but romantic enough (if you took a picture of it with a disposable camera) everyday, we never seriously considered an attempt at it, not even with all the New York Times trend pieces Dad kept emailing over. Derrick was an adjunct zookeeper with a hungry family; fed up, he remortgaged his house, enrolled in a $25,000 Front-End Design & Inspiration Boot Camp, and now see he is all fulfilled and, yes, rakes in over $87,000 annually, GUARANTEED.
At some point, on one of our regular treks through the forest-bog of the slightly left-leaning internet, we read about Effective Altruism. The idea, posed and propounded by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, is not complicated. A quick distillation might be “pics or it didn’t happen,” the same mantra that unites hundreds of tech startups and nonprofits under the sign of the datum. Singer’s is a popular utilitarianism, packaged for the Facebook age: Doing Good made easy, quantified, the returns maximized in visible and trackable ways. You should always push the fat guy in front of the train. That is, you should take that job at the branding firm and give between 10 and 70 percent of your $90,474 annual income to one of a handful of charities deemed most “efficient.”
Like lots of things on the internet, EA feels marketed right to our social group: young, educated, confused little guys, swimming the God’s-dead world in search of some half-decent values, able to imagine them actualized only in terms of a handful of career options and art hobbies. EA’s charm partly comes, I think, from its neatness in distilling our built-in morals, our technocratic wiring. Singer and his allies present a clean, simple, and familiar calculus, one that perfectly aligns with this default market pietism. In their painfully limpid prose, we see ourselves reflected: and these selves, to us, make sense.
The move is to squash ethics down to a series of simple transactions, all convertible into the same currency, i.e. literal currency. For me and David, this squashing functioned first as a sort of reductio ad absurdum. If that’s the logic our culture basically runs on, we said to each other, then our culture is crazy and sad. If the best we can manage is to aspire to become hedge-fund managers, altruistically bankrolling ambiguously imperialist development efforts in the third world with one hand while creating the conditions for interventions with the other, then—what’s the point? Might as well get that MFA in Mixed Media and land a job in advertising, rack up some vacation days, find a reliable dealer, hope the ice-caps hold out a few more decades, call it a life.
But lower down, in our more emotional parts, we felt a realer, less reflexive pull. It had to do, I think, with a certain dream: a dream of certainty. EA appealed as a knife, a dependable method for separating those many claims to ethical living that are reducible to vanity and egoism from those that actually enact the True Good. That knife looks real desirable to those of us who spend much time on the millennial internet, which just boils over with desperate advice re: how to live A CREATIVE AND MEANINGFUL LIFE. Sure: but how many cataract surgeries has your Etsy storefront funded, brother?
Whatever it was that got us , the effect was weirdly real. That shining knife cast the cookie dough of my life in an oddly colored light, and neatly sliced it in half as it oozed toward the future. In its cartoon glow I saw caricatures of possible selves, cheaply animated future mes. My potential was split in a new two, and the old question—How to live an alright life in a bad world?—took on a probably false but maybe also productive clarity.
Which new two?
The first was more or less the classic life of an affluent American Liberal, the one on which I was well started, that long and basically dissembling reaction to born privilege. Nonprofit job, artish hobbies, moderate drinking, hope the friends stay funny and nearby. While young: shared apartments, cheap whiskey, n+1; older: art in the house, Spanish wine, the New Yorker. And when God or the workers’ council weighs our fates, hope the scales might be tipped by the weight of a book…
The second life embraces what the other cringes from, power and privilege. It goes the way of my more confident college-mates, the ones who became consultants or surgeons or even financial operatives. Behind it is legitimacy, hard facts, popular science; it’s decisive and clear, it has authority, it doesn’t resent. Maybe it can tilt some widget of the Big Machine in a slightly more human direction, by raising cash and influence for well-chosen political campaigns, or by giving a chunk of its substantial yearly income to NGOs installing mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa, and maybe convincing others to do the same. At the pearly intake, then, no need for scales; they’ve already seen the spreadsheet.
Mightn’t the second life have more political weight, more active power, more, yeah, effect?
We bought in. I set up an interview with Google, and David began a series of trainings and tests for web-development boot camp. Sitting parallel at our desks, the eggshell wall our shared horizon, we drafted schedules, worked through daily exercises, quizzed each other on the most efficient problem-solving strategies. I ordered the whiteboard. Down the block, someone had left out a small table; we took it home, put it in front of the fireplace, and set our dusty chessboard on top, the pieces arranged facing across the room’s axis.
Quickly we found ourselves in a two-node feedback loop, and began to feel far more committed and convinced than either of us had imagined we might. I remember us jogging—exercise improves “fluid intelligence,” important in problem solving—down Fifth Avenue, from our apartment toward Central Park. Weaving around the people and baby carriages outside the MLK projects on 115th, we traded sentences in a co-spun self-narrative, like the story games kids play on the bus: how we both grew up decently smart, cruising through public school but lacking any particular talent; how, as a result, we never did hard things, not for very long anyway; how coding was hard, was frustrating, was a different way of thinking; how this was good for us; how this was helping. Yes.
We were propelled by certainty, advancing on clear goals and (finally!) some social prestige. At the cycle’s height, I was surprised to feel kind of powerful. In the clinic office I was expansive, almost manic, no longer covertly scrolling Facebook in my cubicle but strolling around the floor, chatting about football scores and lunch options. David received a flood of messages on OkC and started sleeping through the night.
An idea is a kind of cartoon. Inhabiting one, we get that thrill of clarity: everything simple and certain, with sharp black borders. But at some point this cleaner world turns oppressive, like the grandparents’ condo after a few days’ visit, and we look to escape. That too is another sort of thrill. We get out, and the fuller world rushes back to meet us, in all its grubby confusion. Woosh.
The break was unexpected and decisive. We both got home one day, three or four weeks in, and instead of sitting down to practice building little virtual boxes, we picked up some book or other, Homer or Harry Potter or our own journals; and that was that. We canceled the remaining interviews and tests; David said goodbye to an already-guaranteed $90,000 job. Just a few days later it all seemed a bizarre and sort-of boring dream, a micro-group fantasy we’d witched ourselves into. One of us bumped the running chess game, which I was losing, and we never put the pieces back, leaving the crooked board on the table as a sort of monument to our stumble out of grace.
David’s since found a good part-time position that lets him write, and he has put a lot of words on digital pages. I’ve continued to work a string of more-or-less depressing nonprofit jobs, clicking through antique databases for hours every weekday, though at least I have health insurance. That summer, our room became infested with bedbugs, and we started looking for a place to move.
In “The Will to Believe,” William James notes, “To say, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision—just like deciding yes or no—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.” We’re always believing something, James argues, even if we think we’re not. And what we believe determines what we can see.
Leaving EA behind, we imagined ourselves returning to a subtler, more nuanced world. But the line between subtlety and justification is a wiggly one, and nuance often gets employed just to help us rationalize. Cartoons, in their simplicity, can point. They draw us out. EA’s horizon, yeah, might have been a dull and uninspiring one. But it was something to head toward. What have we got in its place? We worry that the answer is: our selves, again.
James ends his essay with this image, comically overwrought:
We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one.
At some point, maybe, stumbling through this storm, we notice ourselves at the door of a small cabin. Desperate for a place to rest, we try the door, which is unlatched. Inside there’s just a single small room, cozily furnished, dusty, dimly familiar. We’re at once relieved and confused. How’s there a cabin, all the way up here? Whose room is this? Have we been before? Some titles on the shelves ring faint bells, a faded poster tugs at the corner of a memory. On the left wall, crooked and slightly incongruous, hangs a cheap whiteboard…