What's so great about tunnel man?

What's so great about tunnel man?

Nov 2023

We all have our peculiarities. One of mine is an obsession with tunnel man.

A few years ago, a 31-year-old man inherited some land and decided—for no particular reason—to dig a tunnel. He found that he liked tunneling so he kept doing it. He gradually spent more and more time on the tunnel. After a year, he rarely saw his girlfriend and had little social life. He expanded the tunnel to a great depth and added beams, lights, and some furniture.

His girlfriend became worried both because what the hell, and because it seemed dangerous. This led her to ask, “How can I get my boyfriend to stop digging his tunnel?”

Most of the responses were unnervingly reasonable:

  1. He should be careful, because the tunnel could collapse.
  2. He should be careful, because he might run out of oxygen and die.
  3. If tunneling makes him happy, then you should be supportive.
  4. If tunneling is hurting your relationship, then you should talk to him.

A week later, she posted an update: She’d talked to tunnel man and he was receptive. He promised to install a ventilation system and halve tunnel time. They planned to spend the whole weekend together, but on Sunday afternoon, she could tell he was getting antsy and told him it was OK to go work on the tunnel. He did, and she felt fine about it.

No further information seems to be known. But I like to think he’s still out there, devoting a moderate and healthy amount of time each week to tunneling.

I often bring this up in conversation.

Dynomight: Oh! Speaking of [unrelated], have you not heard about tunnel man?

Victim: (sensing danger) …no?

Dynomight: OK, you have to hear this! A 31 year old—

Victim: —that’s OK I should—

Dynomight:a 31 year old man inherited some land and—

(5 minutes later)

Dynomight: …some say he’s digging to this day.


Dynomight: Isn’t that awesome?

Victim: Mmmm.

Dynomight: So awesome.

So far I’ve failed to get anyone else to share my enthusiasm. But that hasn’t stopped me from spending more than a year trying to figure out what makes tunnel man so damned fascinating.

Is it the good vibes? Everyone seems reasonable and caring, including tunnel man, his girlfriend, and most of the commentators. Still, there are lots of nice stories, so this surely isn’t the explanation.

Is it just that tunneling is weird? I guess, partly. But there are lots of weird things. If he spent all his time playing Zork, no one would care.

Is it that he has unusual motivations? No. He explained why he tunnels:

It’s just pleasant. When I’m down there, I feel safe and calm, and I’m always happier when I leave than when I went in.

Doing something because it makes you feel good is normal.

When stuck on a design problem, Seymour Cray—he of the supercomputer company—liked to do hobby tunneling. He said, “While I’m digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem.” Cray made time for tunneling through his (probably apocryphal) car buying algorithm of (a) going to the nearest dealership (b) pointing at the first car, and (c) saying “that one”.

So what makes tunnel man so interesting? Here’s my least-bad theory: Tunneling is a kind of “anti-pornography”.

That sounds a little infantile, even to me. (Team Dynomight fiercely opposed titling this post Tunnel Man as Anti-Pornography.) But the idea is that most of us spend out lives obsessed by the same things, like:

  • food
  • money
  • fame
  • sex
  • power
  • physical safety/pleasure/comfort
  • family
  • social status
  • fun
  • excitement
  • beauty
  • “interestingness”
  • meaning

We try to get these things in different ways. (For example, why am I writing these words? Probably some unconscious desire for some of the above—this seems like a wonderful thing to not think about.) But mostly everyone gets up and chases after the same stuff.

To get at what makes tunnel man unique, I took a bunch of human obsessions, and tried to rate them along two axes. First, how much did evolution select for us to enjoy them? And second, how much have they been engineered to make us more obsessed with them?

evolution vs. engineered

Evolution didn’t program us to tunnel. No company optimized digging to increase engagement. Tunnel man has no “plan” or branding strategy. So maybe a giant pointless tunnel is a physical embodiment of the idea that we can choose to do things, rather than being chosen by them?

Are there other “anti-pornographies”—things close to the lower-left corner in the above graph? Here’s what I can come up with:

  • Keeping a diary
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Staring out into space
  • Gardening (not for food)
  • Writing poetry in the dirt
  • Sitting at the beach alone without reading or sleeping or looking at your phone

It’s interesting to speculate: Would people have been equally kind if tunnel man had instead spent his time smoking weed and playing video games? And if not, is that because on some level, they appreciated his demonstration of the human spirit?

Or is that just a complicated way of saying that people are disarmed by anything that’s unconventional yet wholesome?

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