Universe 25

(a not-so-magic kingdom to warn about)

Universe 25

“The only thing that gives me comfort is the knowledge that we are smarter than mice. This would be a grand time to prove it.” – Ted Gioia

1968. Dr. Calhoun wondered if he could build a magic kingdom for 8 mice (not that mouse, not that magic kingdom). He built it, and it wasn’t at all what he expected. 

The mice received unlimited food, drink, relaxation time, zero threats, and perfect peace. 

It was a Garden of Eden. It was called Universe 25. And one other weird but key feature, no mouse was allowed to leave or escape. 

Calhoun imagined the population would boom, and that’s what happened at first. 

But 55 days and 620ish mice later, the population peaked. 

The dominant males became jerks. They’d clean, preen, and gorge food, but they lost interest in mating. 

The less-dominant males became inactive. They aggregated en masse, uniformly disinterested in interaction. 

The females became aggressive. They’d attack each other, attack their own children, and with no male-protection instincts from nest to nest, they (gender-equally) withdrew from the mating pool. 

The population stopped growing on day 560. By day 600, no new mouse would survive to adulthood. 

Ted Gioia describing the experiment again, 

The last living mice in Universe 25 were totally anti-social. They had been raised without maternal affection and nurturing, and grew up in a society of extreme narcissism, random violence, and disengagement. 

Eventually the entire mouse population in Universe 25 died out. They couldn’t survive Utopia. 

Gioia connects all this to modern society in “Is Silicon Valley Building Universe 25?” You should read it. It’s not fun. 

But it is important. 

If your deepest, most trusted, most sacred relationship in your life is with your smartphone - we all have a problem. 

We feel addicted. We feel like our needs can be met through a singular portal. We feel, dependent (or is it co-dependent?) on a device.

Gioia invokes Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Anomie is the sense that life has no purpose or meaning. Durkheim tied it to suicide. 

Durkheim (and Gioia) also point out that anomie increases when social norms are lessened.

The less rules and regulations you have - and we are not talking about tax policy here, we’re talking more like social rules and regulations - we counter a crisis of meaning. 

Anomie is the sense that our life has no meaning or purpose. I can’t help but tie it to anemoia, a sense of nostalgia for a place or time one has never known, usually because people sense that spot had some meaning or purpose. It all feels related. 

Gioia thinks much of the AI related social tech developments are both bad and inevitable. The acceleration is coming. He’s not making a call for where or when or exactly how it ends, apart from referencing the Universe 25 story, but he’s making a call it certainly isn’t going well and we should take warning. 

I can’t disagree. 

Put the phones down, in full or at least more often. 

I’m trying too. It’s hard. 

It feels anti-social even if it’s more social. But,

Go meet with friends - in real life. 

And take the kids with you. 

Your own, your grandkids, your nieces and nephews, the neighbor, a couple of “yutes”…

Just - gather.

If one thing is clear, it’s what we do and how we act around each other, in community, is what makes us human. 

Maybe not always beautiful, maybe not the best, but certainly better than the mice in Universe 25.  

I’m keeping the hope over here.

ps. this graphic from Gioia’s post… yeesh (but, seriously, think about it):