The 4 Specters of Modernity
Many people are faced with old, familiar problems: get water, get food, get shelter. While these problems still exist, they are on the decline overall (Stephen Pinker has some arguments to support that).
However, as technology and society march on in lockstep, new problems appear. In fact, the whole evolution of humanity can be viewed as the gradual upgrading of the types of problems that we're faced with.
And that is what I want to talk about today—the newer, sneakier types of problems. I say sneakier, because they are in many ways less straightforward than get water, food, and shelter. These old problems are often physical, while the new problems are often psychological, and hard to even see as problems, since they play on some of our innate biases and so yield themselves to easy justifications. These new problems continue to haunt us like specters, following us around as we go about our day, becoming visible only once we've turned off the lights and want to go to sleep.
So what do these specters look like? Let's look at them in broad daylight (part 1), so that you may find more enlightened ways to deal with these sneaky problems (part 2.
Why would convenience be a problem?
Here's the short version:
When all choices to you are presented in a convenient way, anything inconvenient will seem difficult by comparison. As a result, fewer people do inconvenient things, even though they might be the best course of action to take. Hyper-convenience makes it easy to avoid effort, forever.
(I wrote the slightly longer version in this post on the soft tyranny of convenience.)
Capitalism and technology are good at making things more convenient for the "end user." This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. One of the main reasons why we build technology in the first place is because it makes hard things easier, and impossible things possible. We conserve energy. Sisyphos doesn't need to push the stone anymore, he gets in the Cat dozer, gets a donut, and lets the machinery do the work. Easy.
But all that convenience comes at a price. There are people who don't need to leave their place at all. They can Doordash a burger, put on Netflix, and chill. Day in, day... no, just day in, every day.
People get so habituated to convenience that anything inconvenient will provoke outrage. That's already happening with people on Twitter complaining about minute inconveniences and tagging corporations to "hold them accountable."
if my @united flight doesn’t have the celtics game tonight i will kill myself
While the impulse to avoid exerting effort has been a key part of human nature, I wouldn't say that glorifying it in business ("customer is always right") and hyper-optimizing the way in which modern technology enables it (1 click purchase) is good for us.
Struggling makes things meaningful. It's an innate part of confronting reality. It makes us humble. It makes us better. And having a meaningful life is all about deliberately making an effort. But more on that later.
When everything is convenient and easy, we do less of what is hard but ultimately meaningful.
2. Endless passive entertainment
It's never been easier to be entertained 24/7 and that has changed the world forever. Not for the better.
Now, some people will discount this as a problem. An hour here, an hour there, that's not a problem, right? You need something to watch on Friday night, right? I'd argue that those people underestimate the problem. They aren't the people who've spent countless hours scrolling their life away, looking at the lives of others who are seemingly doing better than them.
Entertainment is not evil in itself. Good comedy and fun videos have their place, certainly. However, when you mix entertainment with technology, you get an unholy mix of endless content optimized to keep you glued to your screen.
Purely as an experiment, I spent about 15 min watching Instagram reels today. Hm, I might have conducted that experiment yesterday too. And the day before... Anyway, I watched the reels. A couple were interesting, most were meh, but they were just meh enough that I kept scrolling until the App Limits feature reminded me that almost anything else would be a better use of my time.
While this is but an anecdote, I don't think I'm alone in falling into scrolling stasis. There's great stuff on all these platforms, but the behavior patterns those platforms produce (passive scrolling, increased attention-switching in search of cheap dopamine, or hyper-mimetic desire pursuit) in their negative effect far outweigh any fleeting benefit of the content provided.
Endless entertainment is the black hole that's sucking people in all day every day. And just like with hyper-convenience, it's easy to justify and defend passive entertainment ("I need to relax somehow, right?"), even though deep down many of us know it's just a massive waste of time. It's entertainment just good enough to stop us from finding other, more effortful but ultimately meaningful activities. Or just good enough to stop us from going to sleep, which is a big problem in itself.
When we can be passively entertained well enough, we will explore and participate less in real-life.
It would seem that the Internet has allowed us to form many more connections. And on the surface it appears to be true. What is discussed less often, however, is that the strength of those connections is weak.
Messaging back and forth is not the same as having a conversation in person. Watching a concert play on your TV is not the same as being there. Watching a TikTok of a comedian is much less fun than being at an actual comedy show.
The Internet has introduced a layer of abstraction that creates a sense of faux connection, in many cases becoming a way for the introverted to thoroughly cut themselves off from others. And if the Internet is the web, the social media companies are the spiders keeping their victims barely alive, cocooned in comfort, with only their eyes and thumbs moving to get them to look at more ads. Too dark? Perhaps, but perhaps also not.
(If you can't relate to anything in the last few paragraphs, I congratulate you. May your good luck continue.)
In any case, it's becoming easier and easier to be atomized in today's world. Social media promises connection, but it stretches it out soooooooooooo much that it might as well not exist. And so it creates atomization.
At this point, you might say that there are certain connections that you wouldn't have made without social media that changed your life. Neat. Happened to me as well. Yet, were I inclined to analyze it, I'd say that I could have made an equal or greater number of connections offline (were I not trapped by the web). Yes, perhaps I wouldn't have found people who think quite like me because they'd be hidden away in a small town somewhere in Peru, but the alternate local connections would most likely be much stronger.
When it's easy to isolate ourselves, more people will do it and it will result in society with fewer meaningful bonds and greater loneliness.
4. Limitless optionality
Modern technology gives us options. An infinity of them. But sorting through an infinity of options is not what our minds are good at.
There's a plethora of studies showcasing that the more options we have, the less likely we are to make a choice. Think about that. Now we have a multiverse of choices presented to us about any single thing. From food to experiences to dates.
On the other hand, of course, having no options is also hardly optimal. Yet, that's a circumstance that we are much more prepared to deal with.
The ideal scenario is having some options. Narrowing your choices down to 1-4 things. 1-4 tasks to tackle, 1-4 restaurants to choose from, 1-4 channels to switch between. I think that would lead to a much more equanimous life, instead of the life of constantly having to choose out of the infinity of possible actions, the real "Infinity War." But how to go from ∞ to 4 to 1? More on that later.
We're not good at sorting through an infinity of options. It puts more pressure on us and often either paralyzes us or makes our choices worse.
I hope now you can see the specters of today's society: hyper-convenience, passive entertainment, atomization, and limitless choices. Whether we realize it or not, they haunt us, some more than others.
Since I introduced these problems, I'll share some ideas as to how to go about solving them. However, they won't be precise how-tos, merely some thoughts on each one of the issues, based on my experience. Your experience is likely different, and so your solutions will likely be different. My words here are mere suggestions for contemplation.
With that, let's take it issue by issue.
1. Hyper-convenience → deliberate inconvenience
This is straight-forward. Most things that are worth doing entail some amount of resistance, inconvenience, or struggle. Or in other words, the vast majority of actions that are worthwhile don't involve scrolling. This could be called the convenience heuristic: if it's easy, it won't be that meaningful.
That's why many feel drawn to the whole genre of "discipline porn". On some level, we know we have it too easy. We know that most humans who ever lived suffered more. We know that comfort leads to stagnation. And so we have an urge to look for ways to escape that prison of convenience, we look for ways to experience a sense of meaning as a by-product of successful struggle.
People like Jocko Willink, David Goggins, Jordan Peterson, or Joe Rogan point the way to escaping convenience. While they are easy to make fun of, the harsh truths they speak often elevate the collective standard. They offer an excuse, reason, way to pursue potential, to become better, and lift something heavier than a smartphone.
The short version is: make an effort. You could take the elevator, but take the stairs instead.
Choose inconvenience to bring out meaning.
2. Endless passive entertainment → finite active experience
Scrolling, watching, tapping. Easy to do, and so often not worth it.
Active entertainment is harder: a dance class, a dinner with friends, a long bike ride. It requires effort, planning, and coordination.
And it's bloody worth it.
The expletive is necessary. Just today, I had a choice to stay at home and do whatever, or take a train and take a dance class. What choice did I make?
Well, I wouldn't be writing this if I didn't take the dance class. I learned something new, met new people, had good fun. It made me feel alive. When I think back on so many evenings when I could have chosen to do something but didn't, it makes me sad. I was trapped in my own patterns of behavior. It speaks to how powerful inertia is. I continued with my past behaviors: watching videos, reading, messaging... Until one day, I decided to do something active. A friend mentioned that swing dancing was fun so I found an open class and went there. In retrospect, it seems it was an easy choice, but I still remember a certain nervousness. Not enough to stop me, but enough to feel uncertain. It's the nervousness associated with doing something I decided to do of my own volition that I've never done before. Unfamiliarity. Looking back (just a couple of weeks back, though it seems much longer), I'm quite happy that I made that choice. Every subsequent lesson becomes easier. The unfamiliar grows familiar. Incompetence slowly transforms into competence. It's the sort of journey that one enjoys in life.
That's missing from all watching- and scrolling-based entertainment. The unfamiliar becomes familiar, but there is no change in competence. And there's no connection to people.
The lesson is simple: avoid passive consumption. It's without transformation. Beware of the passivity that is reinforced by the infinite feeds of social media. To build on the previous point, embrace the inconvenience, effort, and nervousness of active entertainment that you actually engage with your mind, your hands, your feet. Not just your thumb.
When you do that and immerse yourself in active-ities, the spectator syndrome created by scrolling social media abates. Obvious? Perhaps. Common? I'm not so sure.
Seek active finite experiences.
3. Atomization → Connection
When I look at my life so far, I think I've atomized myself quite effectively. Growing up in a tiny village, I've always been used to spending time on my own. Later, as the Internet became a thing, I spent more time there, sitting in my armchair like professor X, my laptop being the Cerebro. I joined Facebook and later graduated to Twitter and eventually Discord.
The relationships these services facilitate can be genuine. I've experienced many moments of brilliant and genuine connection.
But no matter what Zuckerberg says, it's not enough in most cases. I would consider myself better than most people at staying isolated without a mental toll, and yet, when months turn into years (remember Covid?), isolation does weigh on the mind.
The scientists found a particular molecule called tachykinin that is associated with fearfulness, paranoia, and weakened immune system. I mention it because the release of this molecule is upregulated after prolonged social isolation. In short, scientists seem to agree that social isolation is not good for us.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I'll then articulate a simple principle to counteract this trend towards atomization: court connection.
I've started to look for opportunities to meet more people, online and importantly offline. But it doesn't end at just meeting them and saying hi. No. I've found that even then people are drawn to screens. And when a screen enters the chat, the quality of the conversation approaches 0 over time.
I'm just old enough to remember being on trains in the pre-Internet era. You sat down next to people and since all present had nothing to do, a conversation commenced. At the end of the ride, the participants typically came away feeling enlivened by the exchange.
I still go on trains, but in the vast majority of cases, there is no conversation. I understand some people don't want to talk, I feel the same sometimes. But I realize that tendency may not act in my best interest. That's going towards more atomization.
Since I started thinking about this topic more consciously, I've made minor but meaningful efforts to go towards connection. Offering gum to a stranger on the train. Joining a conversation with 2 students when I heard my high school mentioned. Saying hi first when I see a familiar face that I can't connect to a name... These are moments of serendipitously courting connection. I don't want to join every conversation happening near me, but I'm on a lookout for opportunities to converse, and to use a term corrupted by the idea of networking, to connect. And perhaps my cautiously questing questions will make the other person feel just a bit less like an atom, and more like a person.
4. Limitless optionality → Self-filtering
When we go from the problem of scarcity to the problem of abundance (and it is a problem), what then? How to navigate the endless reality? What to do with endless choices?
Fortunately, they are not really endless. Our upbringing, our financial means, and our preferences narrow down our choices significantly. And that's good.
The more nostalgic of us might be inclined to ruminate on the circumstances we find ourselves in, the choices one could be making or could have made differently. I won't write about that here, now. There's little to do about this than sigh or become a Stoic bro and declare amor fati.
In any case, I think the self is the most vital and filtering mechanism in the era of infinite choices. You, me, Jon—we all have different backgrounds and different preferences. Leaning into the self is essential, but perhaps not in the way social media incentivizes.
Now more than ever, it is important to know who you are, as best as you can tell. Having an inkling of your True Self ™ can save you a lot of trouble.
To ground this point, here's an example. When I was most active on Twitter, I noticed that every time I opened the app, I became more discontent. Why am I not making millions? Why am I not Rock-jacked? Why am I not living in Austin, Texas, like all the cool kids? So on, so on.
I know the answers to these questions, if I have a moment to think about them. But I don't have that moment. This is one of the more sinister effects of social media. As you scroll, more and more questions accumulate, unresolved, generating discontent.
One aspect of this problem, I realized, was that I followed people who fundamentally aren't like me. The cognitive dissonance created by comparing myself to them was not productive, because I wasn't going to do what they were doing, in large part because that's not how I'm wired. For instance, I started as a coder, not a sales bro. I can sell, but it's not my natural inclination. If I were to go in that direction, there was a big wall to scale, whereas other directions (less prominent in the feeds however) had no such walls because they fit my personality and circumstances better, and in doing so would enable me to go faster, longer, further, and actually make something good, not mediocre. When I realized that, I unfollowed many people who are simply not like me, and instead looked for others who seem to have exhibited the same character traits, preferences, and experiences as me. The feeds emphasize certain kinds of individuals and content, but they are but a tiny sliver of population, and most people should not aspire to copy them.
(Important note: one has to be careful with that sort of reasoning as it can too easily become an excuse for not trying new things. I'm extremely wary of that.)
But back to the topic of sorting limitless choices. It's more important than ever to be aware of who you are at the moment and at the same time, it's now harder than ever to realize that because of how easy it is to fill our minds with inputs. That's why I wrote this whole post about creating input-free time. Walking, meditation, journalling, talking to friends, thinking with your eyes closed, looking out of the train window, pondering life—all those help us get self-centered, in a good way.
Input-free time gives us the space we need to ask questions that help that go inward.
What do I want to do?
What do I need to do?
What problem do I need to tackle right now?
What's the best course of action right now?
What am I not dealing with right now?
(A couple more useful questions here.)
If we actually take 10, 15, 30 minutes to think about these prompts, we become more centered and more certain of the direction we want to take.
We have enough inputs from the world—tweets, blog posts like this one, videos, podcasts, books, etc. What we need is to look inward to understand who we are, so that we can sort the information and find what is relevant for us, specifically. The self is the filtering mechanism, though it's hard to see sometimes.
Don't filter by new, filter by self.
- Passive entertainment
- Limitless optionality
These are the sneaky spectral issues of today. They thrive in the dark recesses of our subconscious mind. I hope this reflection casts a bit of light on them for you.