The Ironies of Modern Life

“It’s an irony. The world is full of them.” 1

A friend recently told me that in the aftermath of one of my infamous rants. The more I think about his statement, the more I realize he was absolutely right. Take the issue of entertainment. These days, we are constantly being bombarded with information. For those who want entertainment, it’s easier to get than ever. TVs have thousands of channels, new blog posts are being published every second of every day, and we can even read tweets on the toilet thanks to that wonderful invention called the smartphone. By any measure, we should be the most entertained group of humans to ever walk the earth. And yet many of us live life in a state of constant boredom!

So that’s irony #1: We have more ways to be entertained than ever before, yet we’re just as bored as everyone who came before us.

The smartphone: friend or foe of boredom?

Irony #2: Technology has made us more productive than ever. Every day, we hear about some new task that used to require manual labor but is now being automated. (E.g., driving a car.) We now have spreadsheets and software that can do work that used to require an army of accountants and “computers” (remember, a “computer” used to be a human armed with a pencil!). So we should be working fewer hours than ever, right? Ironically, no. Americans today work still work well over 40 hours a week, despite being way more productive than their predecessors.

And the list goes on: We’re more connected than ever, yet many of us feel terribly alone. 2 We know more about health than ever, yet on a number of measures we are astonishingly unhealthy compared to our ancestors. 3 It is easier than ever to meet new potential mates and to vet each of those potential mates thoroughly for a perfect match, yet divorce rates are as high as ever. 4 Each of these ironies deserves a blog post of its own. Yet what I’m most interested in is not the ironies themselves, but the deeper truth behind all these ironies.

You see, these are not ironies of the modern world — rather, these are ironies of life. Life, at its core, has always been the same, and will probably always stay substantially the same. While the individual acts that make up our day-to-day lives will change dramatically as science and technology progress (and even the very environment it takes place in will change drastically once we start colonizing other planets), the core of life will never change. We will always have our ups and downs — moments of boredom and moments of excitement. And life will always be characterized by a constant struggle (i.e., work). Even when we no longer need to work to satisfy our biological needs (because we have developed robots that can farm food for us, supply water to us, etc.), we will still strive and struggle because that is simply what living things do. The names of our worries, hopes, and dreams will change, but they will remain our constant companions even as the ground we walk on ceases to be Earth’s soil but rather the cold dust of Mars or the sodium flats of distant Europa.

Just imagine how tedious it will be to dust your furniture when we all live on Mars...
Just imagine how tedious it will be to dust your furniture when we all live on Mars…

For a while, I thought that neuroscience might be the one field that proves this theory wrong. I thought that even though smartphones failed to eliminate boredom, maybe some clever neuroscientist could come up with a chip that makes it literally impossible for us to feel boredom. But the more I think about this, the more I think that attempting to make such a chip would be a fool’s errand. Even if we manage to eliminate the pathways in our brain that cause us to feel bored, some other unpleasant emotion would crop up to take its place. Just like how we eliminated the unpleasantness of having to do manual labor in life only to find that the unpleasantness of doing office work has taken its place as the #1 complaint of modern workers.

So maybe striving to eliminate unpleasantness (which is, if you think about it, an unstated goal of basically every modern corporation) is a pointless goal. Maybe we should strive for something more meaningful — maybe a search for truth? Or meaning? But in a sense, even the search for truth is simply a struggle to eliminate the unpleasantness of not knowing. The longer one considers it, the more likely one is to conclude that struggle is an inescapable and defining feature of the human experience — meaning that at our core, we are paradoxical creatures. To wit:

“Paradoxically, we thrive on difficulty by striving to eliminate it. [One] philosopher has observed that the word ‘game’ can be defined as ‘a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles,’ and argues that games must be a central part of any utopia. Most visions of transhuman utopia agree: they resort to either transhuman enemies to keep the struggle for existence real, or games of actual or pretended struggle for existence.” 5

We live to strive, and we strive to make striving unnecessary — and in doing so, work tirelessly towards our own oblivion. Given the irony of it all, one has to wonder if this cosmic joke was planned in advance. And indeed, some believe precisely that:

“One theory about God is that being dissatisfied with omnipotence, He split himself into tiny parts — us — in order to again experience limitation. Perhaps that is what a singleton will do after conquering the galaxy. Perhaps this has already happened.” 6

TAL

1. Recommended soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqRZ2_w56U0

2. See also: http://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together?language=en and https://twitter.com/melissakorn/status/609015860737519616.

3. For example, we are eating less healthy with time. We are also more likely to experience depression than previous generations. And indeed, this trend holds true even if you look back thousands of years: here’s a great example of a prominent anthropologist arguing that since the time of hunter/gatherer societies, we’ve become less healthy in at least three ways: (1) the quality and quantity of human diets has trended downward; (2) early societies suffered from fewer infections and suffered lower overall rates of parasitization than most modern societies; and (3) primitive populations were less prone to degenerative diseases than us, even after corrections are made for the different distribution of adult ages.

4. Online dating, despite its potential to match us with someone perfectly aligned in terms of interests, passions, desires, etc., out of a pool of millions of potential mates, actually produces marriages less likely to last than the old fashioned way of dating — perhaps because online dating’s promise creates higher expectations, and makes one more aware of “what else is out there.”

5. http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/mfz/the_person_as_input/

6. http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/mfz/the_person_as_input/

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