The philosopher Nietzsche famously said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”. The search for meaning is an enduring quest for humankind and, historically, society has found answers in the form of things that brought structure: community, nation states, military forces and religion (or in a greater sense, spirituality). Predominantly, these organisations provided defined boundaries and moral frame-works and offered common goals. They helped us make decisions. But we are living in a digital world, and our social perimeters are changing: younger generations are growing up in a fragmented online society, where individual paths and moral codes are less clear and support networks are dissolving. We are battling with what it means to be human.
It can be a struggle to make sense of a world with few respected systems. There is tension between our role as a society and how we perform as a society of individuals; and it is hampering our search for connection, purpose and meaning. You can see it in the rising popularity of the yoga and wellbeing industries, pseudo-religions and - alarmingly - the effective success of extremist religious recruitment. The desire to find a meaning in life is essential to the human experience. Our core human needs provide the basis for every choice we make; it is fundamental that we have a sense of certainty, variety, growth and contribution, significance, love and connection. ‘Purpose’ is the compass we use to navigate these.
Our personal mantras or missions change frequently throughout our lives and too often we find ourselves drifting, or altogether lost, with no sense of direction. A sense of connection to the world and our own intrinsic spirituality is vital; but in a life online, they are filtered through the blue lens of screen-time. Rapid digital growth has left the human mind racing to keep up with exponential technological advancement; our paths are becoming less common-goal orientated. The bright dings of pseudo-pleasure from online interaction have created a pandemic social crisis, where self-regulation and the need for social approval have flourished, but community has declined. In a digital world that is evolving and mutating, how we relate to and understand others — how our relationships form and evolve — is all too dependent on how we perceive the world around us and, importantly, how we choose to be perceived.
Our lives are perfectly curated on social media, but the widening gap between the ‘self’ we outwardly portray and who we really are has never been harder to bridge. Permanent connectivity has facilitated twenty-four-hour broadcasting, from which it is difficult to truly disconnect. We are more informed, but we are less able to hide from negative effects, such as online shaming and bullying, and we are seeing this reflected in the mental health of younger generations. Teenage suicide rates in London, for example, rose this year by 107%, to four times that of the national rate.
It might feel as though there is no escape in the modern world, but new artificial intelligence can spot that behaviour and step in to provide a platform for humans to become accountable. Instagram and Facebook are developing image recognition that can identify markers of bullying and flag them. Technology has to be utilised to bridge the gap that it has created. When so much of our lives are played out through technology; the best way to enhance them, might just be through it.
Technology can make a positive impact on human potential and our ability to find our own purpose; to see our lives more clearly and define our individual impact on the world. As a species we are not yet prepared for the incomprehensible changes coming, but by harnessing it, it can help us evolve more quickly. In a comparatively new world of humans living alongside technology, we must remember that technology is, in fact, the evolution of us. It’s time to feed our habit-forming desires with products that actually create value in life.