Treating your techno-nihilism — Part 1/2

Suffice to say, life is transforming around us as a result of technology, and talk about the accelerating nature of change abounds. I think I could describe the two main streams of thought on this as being dichotomous. On one side, there are those who say that the pace of change will be so fast, and so unrelenting that most people won’t have time to adapt, and that mass unemployment and social disengagement will result. On the other hand, some argue that technological change has been the dominant aspect of human progress since the start of civilization, and as before, new kinds of jobs and societal roles will be created as others become extinct. One is dystopian, the other is optimistic. But these are macro-level assessments of large scale trends that don’t really address how individuals will deal with this change.

Ray Kurzweil has said the following:

“We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”

This massive transformation of humanity will be our own doing, but at the same time, at the individual level, it will be something that will “happen” to most people. This is no different than any mass social upheaval in human history, such as the Russian Civil War or the Chinese Cultural Revolution for example— the vast majority of people, both victims and perpetrators, were swept up in something that they had no control over. And at those times of massive change, the value of the individual life diminished to near zero.

Not having control over key aspects of life, as well as seeing life as having no value could be seen as key drivers of nihilism. I’m not a psychologist or philosopher, so I will be using the term nihilism in a more colloquial sense, roughly corresponding to this definition in Wikipedia:

Nihilism… suggests the lack of belief in one or more reputedly meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.

The type of nihilism that can emerge out of the rapid technological change we’re experiencing is something I call techno-nihilism. A Google search for the term only brought up a handful of matches, but that’s probably because people don’t use that specific term to describe something that I think is on many people’s minds. For me, techno-nihilism is driven by the following two lines of thinking:

You will lose your sense of purpose because no matter what your special talent or skill is, a machine will be able to do it better and faster

You will become disconnected from the people around you because they will spend more and more of their time interacting with machines than with other people

Both imply a fundamental devaluation of a person, both from a perspective of value to oneself, and from a perspective of value to others. And hence these can result in nihilism, which is something that I admittedly have struggled with.

The first point is especially troubling, because it goes to the heart of what we spend much of our formative years doing — cultivating a craft and a purpose. What will be the point, for example, of becoming a composer, if a computer program can ingest the last 500 years of music, understand it in its totality, and create an endless amount of the most perfect, beautiful music? Why bother? Moreover, this drive for technical mastery, and not money is the key motivator for most of the high achieving people in our society ( Such individuals are driven by purpose, solving problems, creating, and outdoing themselves. Yet the new technological reality can seriously threaten their sense of purpose if machines can do whatever they can do but faster, better and yes, cheaper.

I don’t think it’s too soon to think about how to approach this from a personal perspective, and that’s why I’ve put together some ideas that I think can help.

Stay tuned for Part 2.