Tech's search for meaning - Part I

This will be a long rant so I will break it over a few pieces

Part I

Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people loses the feeling that their way of life is worthwhile, they may stop reproducing, or in large numbers simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish …” - Ernest Becker - The Birth and Death of Meaning

The famed Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, lived a troubled life. Despite an affluent upbringing, his life was filled with tragedies. Three of his four brothers committed suicide and his closest friend, David Pinsent, died in a plane crash at the age of 26. By his own account, Wittgenstein considered suicide multiple times in his life. However, he persevered and went onto produce arguably the most important philosophical work of the last century. On his deathbed, he is known to have said:

“Tell them I have had a wonderful life”

These are odd last words from a person who, by all accounts, lived a depressing life.

I often wonder why Wittgenstein said those words. Was it one last act of self-delusion from a dying man? Or did he really stumble upon some truth that most of us might never get to? Perhaps then a better question is ‘What makes a good life? - or vice versa, what makes a bad life?’ These are obviously questions best suited to philosophy departments at large universities. However, ask an ordinary man and they will likely mention some level of physical or emotional comfort in their answer. Ask a policymaker and they will cite measures of wealth, mortality, equality and liberty in their answers. But in my mind, all these measures miss the mark on one fundamental thing. A critical thing that we all need to live a fulfilled life: a hardship or a challenge. The famed author and journalist, Sebastian Junger notes this point in his book:

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

And as Junger notes, it is on this yardstick where modern society - notably modern technologies and tech companies fail. Consider this, any technology’s general push into a new industry generally follows a familiar pattern:

  • A new product or service offering a somewhat superior customer experience

  • A reduction in total ‘jobs-to-be-done’ and removal of the old industry guard

  • A reduction in informational asymmetries

  • A monopolization of resources and power by the new player

And while the democratization of information makes for an inspiring idea, it generally reduces associated challenges for all consumers and producers alike. And over time, as another task gets weeded out of the day-to-day worries of a person, he must increasingly turn to entertainment to fill these gap in time. [More on this later]

Most humans live unfulfilled lives today because we confront few real challenges. On the one hand, technologies like social media stroke our egos and convince us that we are the absolute center of the universe. And yet, we spend our days in white-collar jobs doing mundane tasks like perfecting formatting on slide decks or increasing the size of some buttons on some navbars. The real challenges inherent to activities of the industrial era remain absent from output in the internet age. Similarly, other activities in one’s neighborhood or city - e.g. community activism or social action get reduced to meaningless substitutes like online petitions or virtue signaling on Facebook or Twitter.

As the protagonist in the movie Fight Club would say:

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

There is a certain sense of innate cynicism that every educated person develops after they shell out a $200K on a private education only to realize they now must spend their days perfecting email copy for an e-commerce website. And as David Foster Wallace would say, this cynicism has no redemptive quality in itself. The whole meta-awareness shtick gets old fairly quickly. Maybe you tweet a meme about it and get some retweets. Maybe you show off your chiseled abs on Instagram and garner a few likes. Maybe you blog about it to show off some sense of superior intellect. But very soon, you must confront the fact that all this time you to have been living an imagined reality, that doesn’t exist.

There is no metaverse. There is no SaaS disruption. There is only mankind and his story. The story of how he used technology and his own ingenuity to improve his life and build newer tools. But like Gollum’s ring, this technology has an addictive quality that he is unable to resist. And the closer this technology gets into his day-to-day life, the more his life loses meaning.

So what is the antidote? The only way to build meaning is through reflection and actual shared experiences. The legal philosopher, John Gardner, has said:

Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.

[To be continued]