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The Meaning of Life in the 21st-Century

Guest blog by TrendWatching’s David Mattin.

Modernity has been a multi-century project to make the world a better home for humans.

And judging by any number of metrics, it’s been an incredible success. We lucky inhabitants of 21st-century industrialised nations are rich, healthy, educated and cultured beyond the wildest imaginings of our great-grandparents.

So what’s the catch?

Life inside modernity is radically comfortable. But it offers no compelling answer to one of the central questions of our existence: meaning. What does all this mean? What is my life for? What should I do? Pre-modern societies did answer those questions, via a set of religious principles that made sense of the world and provided a guide to action. But the scientific advances upon which modernity is based have made continued belief in those stories impossible for most of us.

Ever since then, this trade-off has seemed an unavoidable feature of life inside a modern society. We get radical new mastery of the world around us; we lose the idea that we have a special place within a cosmic Grand Narrative about life, the universe and everything.

But something important is happening. Look at three recent stories.

Back in January, 10 million people gathered inside multiplayer online game Fortnite to watch a live concert by the EDM artist Marshmello.

Wired magazine recently ran this story about how young Chinese women are falling in love with characters inside video games that are intended to simulate dating. ‘They’re more attractive than real boyfriends,’ explained one of the gamers.

Last, also in Wired, iconic technologist Kevin Kelly wrote about the emerging mirrorworld: a supermassive augmented reality landscape that Kelly says will eventually merge with the physical world around us, ‘melding the real and virtual, enabling now-unthinkable games and entertainment.’

What do all these stories have in common? At the heart of all of them is the idea that experiences inside virtual worlds are now becoming as real, and as meaningful, to people as the experiences they have in the physical world around them.

People are going to concerts inside digital worlds, and then telling their friends about how amazing it was to be there. They are falling in love inside digital worlds. And soon — and you know this already — the VR and AR worlds they’ll have access to will be orders of magnitude more immersive and compelling than they are now.

Kelly mentions the implications for gaming and entertainment, and they are surely vast. But an even more powerful shift is coming.

Humans are meaning-seeking animals.

We want to believe that our lives make sense within the context of an ultimate story about our world, its origins and its destiny. What is new now is that we’re building technologies that will allow us to serve this deep need for meaning in all kinds of new and powerful ways.

Right now we’re just at the outset of this shift. But as AI evolves and converges with other powerful technologies — including VR and AR — we’ll see this shift play out in incredibly powerful ways.

Why not create an AI companion that truly serves the need for deep social connection and understanding? One that can become a counsellor, even a friend? Why not design virtual worlds that truly offer that experience to their inhabitants? Worlds where there really is a God? World where good deeds really are rewarded, and bad ones punished?

Of course, we’re a long way from all that now. But we can see glimpses of this future in the crowd of 10 million assembled to watch Marshmello inside Fortnite, or in Chinese young women forswearing real dating for a virtual simulation. We see it in this project to create a new society inside a virtual world, with the political ground rules set by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig.

Advances in technology that bring this future closer, including advances in AI, continue apace. In the 20th-century, technology and new scientific knowledge disenchanted us. But in the 21st-century people will reenchant themselves and build new kinds of meaning in their lives via these powerful technologies.

This coming shift will mean a bewildering storm of wonder and novelty. If we want to harness the amazing opportunities that present themselves — and avoid the pitfalls — we should start thinking about the implications now.