Treating your techno-nihilism — Part 2/2

My previous post was about techno-nihilism, a mindset that I believe can arise as a result of digital technology enveloping and reaching into more and more of our lives. The two lines of thinking I associate with techno-nihilsm are:

Machines will be better than people in endeavors that we consider exclusively human — activities that require insight, creativity and ingenuity, resulting in a loss of purpose for those who built their lives around such activities

People will be more and more disconnected from each other as interactions with machines crowd out direction interactions with actual, live humans

In continuing my previous post, I suspect that I may have been presumptuous. I may have assumed that you, the reader, experiences some level of techno-nihilism. You may not be, in which case the rest of this article won’t be relevant to you.

In contemplating the first point, I found myself circling back to one of the tenets of Indian philosophy on attachment. The Bhagavad-Gita 2:63 says

While concentrating on objects of the senses a person develops attachment to the sense objects; from attachment desires are born; from desire anger rises

It stands to reason that the more attached you are to something, the more devastating is the loss of that thing. The thing that you stand to lose, in this context, is the craft, the pursuit and the work you’ve built yourself around. You may be a great architect, but after a generation design software has gotten so good that it can design a building or a bridge with less and less guidance from you, utilizing thousands or hundreds of thousands of exemplars that it can instantly refer to. So what are you to do?

You will have to accept the fact that your job will morph over time, and that many of the tasks you used to do have been automated away. And that will mean that you will probably need to detach yourself from those tasks you used to do and place yourself at a different point in the value chain. This could involve learning new tools and new techniques in which are you are leveraging the technology that now does much of what you used to do.

You may also have to consider the idea that you entered your profession at a particular time in its development which you did not choose — it was more of a historical accident. And if you stay attached to a particular way of doing things, you are staying attached to something that you chose partially because it was there and you were born at a particular time.

Going a step further, you may need to detach from seeing your job as inherently wound up with your identity. You will have to acknowledge that you are not your job, you are not your company, because then you are seeing something external as a form of validation, and if that something ceases to exist, or rejects you, you’re in trouble. You will have to be willing to accept the possibility that this skill you learned and spent a lifetime honing will decline in value. At the same, to continue your journey, you may have to prepare for you job and role to morph into something different.

I also wanted to consider this from the perspective of pursuing a craft as a hobbyist. Whatever it is that you do in your spare time — music, art, programming. etc., it’s very likely that there’s always going to be someone better than you at that endeavor. But getting better than that person is not a reason for a pursuit. Most garage band drummers will never get anywhere close to Neil Peart or Dave Weckl, but they will still play anyway. In the future, it’s quite possible that the best “entity” in a field will be a machine, and not a person. However that shouldn’t make a difference if the focus is on the process, on self-discovery and creating something new, which are intrinsic rewards. You may never be better than the machine, but you may still be able to reap the reward of doing something if you focus on the process, which can still be fulfilling even if the output is not the best in an objective sense.

As I stated earlier, I think that one of the root causes of a nihilistic attitude can be a perception of loss of control. If we look for new ways to exercise control over areas of life where we think we’ve lost control, maybe we can counter nihilistic thinking. In the sphere of interpersonal interactions, I feel that many of us are ceding control over to machines and doing so with little awareness. For example, when we check our phones or swipe on an app multiple times during a conversation, we have ceded control over our behavior to a machine and to an algorithm. These are often algorithms that have been finely crafted to maximize your interaction with a device and service, and as a result maximize someone’s profits. When we text message someone instead of calling them, or have a conversation on Facebook by responding to posts, we have allowed a machine to dictate the terms of our interaction with someone.

The antidote to this loss of control is not letting machines and computer programs dictate the terms of how we interact with others. We don’t have to mindlessly obey the urge to swipe another time or check our messages again. We don’t have to watch the videos that the YouTube algorithm recommends we watch. We can choose how to get in touch with someone based on what we think is best, rather than what is most convenient.

And so we can start to regain control.