Human Programmability and Happiness

On: September 22, 2019
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Perception pushing art from Dries Verhoeven talks about pharmaceuticals and makes us question our humanity.

Happiness by Dries Verhoeven

Until 20th October, you have a chance to immerse yourself in a new art piece created by Dries Verhoeven at NDSM Werf in Amsterdam. His work pushes us to look at or humanity and civilization from a different perspective and this piece is no different.

At the end of the summer concrete block with a white pharmacy cross appeared on the parking lot in front of Sexyland. So plain from the outside you might just miss it, but once you see it, a spark of interest appears. You enter the block and you meet a humanoid pharmacist. She is ‘selling’ Happiness (which is also the name of the artwork). Shelves behind her are full of drugs, both prescribable and illegal. She shows you a product, tells you how to use it and describes the feeling you encounter under the influence. Her eyes close and open and her hands dance with big gestures as if she has just taken the drug. She never talks about the side effect, but you might get a glimpse of it if you watch her carefully.

Artist’s Inspiration

Through these substances, people are able to change their mood, sharpen focus or turn off pain. That makes us question how different are we from this programmed humanoid anyway? We question the line between organism and machine, just like the artist intended. (Wenselaer 151) Dries Verhoeven talks about his inspiration by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, the main idea of her essay is that boundaries between animal, human and machine are thoroughly blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms and that  “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.” (Haraway 36, 60)

However, the concept of programmability through drugs goes to the beginning of the word cyborg itself. The originators of the word cyborg, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, first came up with a thought of hacking human bodies for space travel both mechanically and chemically: “Administration of presently available drugs, such as epinephrine, reserpine, digitalis, amphetamine, etc. … offers one possibility of changing the cardiovascular functions so as to fit them for a particular environment.” (Clynes and Kline 75) Nowadays we don’t necessarily use drugs to fit our functions for an environment but rather to fit our needs and desires.

Widest Spread Drug Today

Drugs showcased in the Happiness affect mainly our serotonin and dopamine levels, resulting in self-confidence and feelings of happiness. Recently the debate around dopamine started to focus on a new subject, that is new media and especially social media.

Dopamine is a neuro-chemical released in our brain to signal pleasure. This helps us learn behaviors and habits. (Berridge) When we learn new habits our dopamine releases once we get a reward, if you are opening your first social media account and you publish the first post dopamine releases once you get a like or comment on that post. Once we establish a habit the dopamine releases not during reward, but earlier, during the cue, that means that you don’t need to wait for the likes, you get a dopamine high right when you open the app, because you already anticipate the reward. If the reward doesn’t occur you get a small drop in dopamine level but not that significant to stop you from checking your phone again. (Schultz, Figure 1)

Figure 1: “Dopamine Signals Mimic Reward Prediction Errors.” Nature, 25 June 2013, Edited.

Social media companies take advantage of this by building apps that trigger these cue-reward mechanisms in our brains. Use of dopamine-driven feedback loops by Facebook was even confirmed by Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook Senior Executive. (Snyder) 

Instagram might be trying to trick us into thinking they are making a change and disrupting these happiness highs by hiding the number of likes, that is not the case. The new hidden like count feature hides the number of likes only for followers, not for the content producer, therefore it doesn’t change the way social media programs our habits. They hope for this new feature to “help people focus less on likes and more on telling their story.” (“Instagram Hides Likes”)  I highly doubt that, since likes and comments are the main way people interact online and those same things deliver that dopamine high. (Krach et al.)

Is It Bad Though?

It doesn’t seem like a bad idea, everyone profits, social media company makes money, user gets his/her ‘drug’ dose and everybody is happy. Unfortunately, that is not the case, dopamine highs might lead to long-term effects on our lives.  A person affected by dopamine irregularity: jumps between thoughts, can never draw attention to a subject, thinks fast, has increased attention, does not miss the tiny details, but cannot keep his attention on a certain subject for a long time. (Macit et al.) Apart from these symptoms, it can lead to depression as well. (Belujon) Which brings us full circle back to the drugs used for depression treatment being present in the artwork. 

Are we also as users running in circles chasing that happiness? Media shape the way we see the world around us, but now we know that they also program us in a certain way and there might be other ways we haven’t uncovered yet. We are what the media made us and what we made them. You might not be using regular drugs, but you carry your drug everywhere with you. Do you see yourself as a cyborg yet?


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“Instagram Hides Likes Count in International Test ‘to Remove Pressure’.” BBC, 18 July 2019, .

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Snyder, Bill. “Chamath Palihapitiya: Why Failing Fast Fails.” Stanford Graduate School of Business, 12 Dec. 2017, .

Wenselaer, Selm. “De Drek Moet Ergens Heen” NDSM Magazine, 17 Apr. 2019, pp. 148–153. Available from:

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