Preserving Meaning in a Technology-Driven Society

I have a software engineer friend named Ashay who is working on a process for rapidly ingesting healthcare data. He recently opened up one of the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots and began asking it to write the project code for him. Although Ashay has a graduate degree in informatics and over a decade of coding experience, he finished the project in a fraction of the time that it would have taken him to write the code on his own. He sent me a screen capture of his conversation with the AI and included the message, “This is incredible… unless we are all going to lose our jobs.”

Fear that technology will make us useless

We seem to have reached a technological inflection point. We are not just creating tools that help us perform specific tasks. We are constructing tools that design better solutions than we could have come up with on our own. No aspect of life is beyond the reach of advancing technology: work, home life, creative pursuits, travel, sports, school, and so on.

Many people today are apprehensive that AI could one day replace their jobs or that it could make them irrelevant. Certain professions, such as cashiers, drivers, and translators, are particularly vulnerable in the coming years. A recent Goldman Sachs study found that AI tools could impact 300 million full-time jobs worldwide, which could lead to a significant disruption in the job market. In a study of role exits, researchers found that over 75 percent of those leaving jobs went through a period described as feeling anxious, scared, at loose ends, or that they didn’t belong. These emotions were accompanied by a pervasive sense of being suspended “between the past which no longer existed and the unknown future.”

The threat from technology is not just that people could temporarily lose their primary source of income. It is much deeper than that. As technology solves humanity’s problems, some people will have less to contribute. Some may feel like they do not matter when the skills they worked so hard to develop are no longer appreciated. Perhaps a few will even wonder if their lives are meaningless.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith warned that the division of labor would come with detrimental psychosocial effects for many workers. One study found that automation of previously human jobs is associated with increases in drug overdose deaths, suicides, homicides, and cardiovascular deaths. People need to feel like they can make a meaningful impact on the world. They need a sense that they matter, and that they can be of some use. One of the great questions of our time is how we can each remain relevant.

Technological displacement through history

Fear of being displaced by new technology is not a recent phenomenon. The introduction of the potter’s wheel around 3500 B.C. in Mesopotamia must have concerned artisans who formed vessels by rolling clay into long threads and then pinching and smoothing them together. Scribes’ and copyists’ skills became largely irrelevant after the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press around 1455. And the Industrial Revolution ended the agrarian way of life for millions of people and left English wages stagnating for decades. People who live in the former industrial regions of the UK and US still demonstrate more mental and physical health issues than those who live in other regions.

In response to the threat of new technology, skilled artisans have a history of mustering a strong resistance. In 1589, for example, William Lee invented a machine that could knit stockings and other knitted fabrics faster and more cheaply than skilled artisans could weave by hand. Lee traveled to London to present his invention to Queen Elizabeth I hoping to receive patent protection. To his horror, the Queen refused to grant him a patent. She said, “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.”

Queen Elizabeth was worried that Lee’s machine would make the hosier guilds’ work obsolete. The guilds’ opposition was so intense that Lee had to leave Britain. The technology eventually took hold despite the initial resistance, and it displaced many skilled knitters, particularly in central England. Later, a secret oath-based organization called the Luddites attempted to destroy textile machines like Lee’s so that their skills would not go to waste. The movement was only suppressed by military force, executions, and penal transportation of accused Luddites.

Today, some talk of delaying the use of AI chatbots or regulating them. The Writers Guild of America, for example, is currently on strike. In addition to asking for more money, they want to limit the use of AI for creating source material and writing, or rewriting, literary material. They are protecting their way of life and what they see as their gift to share with the world.

Even if people choose to not use a technology, its mere existence could make their lives seem less impactful than they were before the invention. Let’s assume the Writers Guild of America is successful in banning the use of AI tools. When the technology is advanced enough that the writers’ work could be done more efficiently using modern tools, their protected jobs may begin to feel more like a handout and less like a meaningful contribution to the world. Worse, guild writers may be replaced by those willing to use new technology to produce superior content.

Technology can make us more useful

Technology is not all bad for people’s sense of meaning. Innovations generally create more jobs than they destroy. They produce a net increase in the ways someone can be useful. Research also shows that modern technologies can facilitate meaningful relationships, rewarding activities, and spiritual fulfillment. We could not maintain as many connections with friends and family without modern tools.

Instead of engaging in subsistence-level activities and hardscrabble chores needed for survival, technology affords us the free time and luxury to sit back and consider how we can be of use given our individual skillsets. Some are asking themselves what gifts they have to offer those around them. They have time and tools to learn new skills and modern methods to fix personal issues that would have prevented them from making meaningful contributions in times past.

Innovative technology also has a de-skilling effect, meaning that it takes jobs traditionally performed by artisans and experts and allows them to be done more rapidly by less skilled operators. Some modern technologies take de-skilling to extremes because the new-and-improved systems require little human intervention. Although innovations tend to threaten specialists, those with less expertise who are armed with technology may be able to produce more than an outmoded expert could.

Technology can also multiply the contribution an individual or team can make. We can think about these gadgets as productivity-enhancing tools, not as replacements for people we care about. Modern companies, for example, could not coordinate their work with teams across the globe without modern technology.

Technology-resistant sources of meaning

If you assume that technology will solve all of humanity’s problems and that it will make us all flawless, then it is easy to see how technology could slowly erode our collective sense of meaning until there is nothing left. If no one around us had any weaknesses, then we could not be of any use to them, and there would be no way for them to lift us up in return. Everyone would have all knowledge and power. They would feel such contentment and pleasure that the presence of another person could not make life any better.

So, are there sure-fire sources of meaning that are unlikely to be displaced by technological innovation soon? I believe so. Let’s talk about some of the technology-resistant sources of meaning: individual progress, suffering and death, human relationships, nature and babies, and cleanliness and order.

1. Individual human progress

Technological advances can have a multiplying effect on individual progress, but only if the individual employs the technology effectively. I, for example, am not a good skier even though there are excellent training videos and gear that could help me improve. The existence of technology does not ensure individual progress.

Technology is often more of a waste of time than it is a facilitator of human progress. In fact, the average American’s IQ score has fallen for the first time in 100 years. Some believe IQs are slipping because technology has made us complacent. Some people are so comfortable that they see less need to strive for improvement.

If individuals have room to progress, then people around them can help them along their way. Mentors, teachers, technologists, inventors, and leaders will continue to feel useful until there is nothing left to learn—no unsolved mysteries. Technology can make us comfortable, but it is the people around us who inspire us and make us better (sometimes with the help of technology).

2. Suffering and death

Life expectancy has doubled since the mid-1800s, and it’s not just because of a reduction in child mortality. In 1841, for example, a five-year-old in Wales could expect to live to 55. Today, a five-year-old could anticipate reaching his 82nd birthday—an average increase of 27 years. Life expectancy has increased over time for those in every age bracket. It stands to reason that future innovations will allow us to further limit suffering and delay death.

As long as there is suffering and death in this world, we can find meaning from taking care of those who are in pain, and we can comfort those who are reeling from losing a loved one. We can take care of family members when their bodies break down as they approach death. We will be able to find meaning until we have conquered death and pain.

3. Human relationships

I recently had dinner with Jo Aggarwal, the founder of a company that has a popular app for delivering mental health services through a chatbot. I asked her if it is possible to improve mental health without human connection. She agreed that her app could not help with loneliness, but it could teach people how to be more mindful and to see the world differently in times when no one else is listening.

So far, technology has only offered hollow approximations of relationships. It has yet to deliver a convincing shoulder to cry on or companionship that feels truly genuine. And until we, as individuals, outgrow the need for human connections, we can find ways to share affection with those around us and to accept their friendship in return. And until technology can deliver a suitable replacement for friendship, we can make ourselves useful by connecting with those around us.

4. Nature and babies

Even if technology allows human adults to become all-knowing and powerful, we could still nurture animals and plants that are less exalted. It is also safe to assume that babies will be born helpless for the foreseeable future. Someone will need to teach them what it means to be a good person. So, even in a world in which adults can do everything, we can still feel useful as we influence the rising generation.

Our solutions can take on greater scale. In addition to managing small gardens, we will construct new biospheres, planets, solar systems, and galaxies. As technology solves small problems, we can partner with it to solve larger ones. The bigger the problem to solve, the more potential purpose and meaning.

5. Cleanliness and order

Web developers understand that they must continue improving their code. If they do not, their products will grow stale and break down as their environments evolve. Once ordered situations tend to unravel over time. We see entropy all around us, and we must fight the natural tendency of the world to become disordered. Robots break down. AI chatbots will work in unexpected ways or destructive ways.

Until our technology is so advanced that it can overcome entropy and adapt to an ever-changing world, we will need mechanics to repair and tinkerers to innovate. They will use technology to devise new solutions to emerging problems. And those who design and maintain the tools that solve humanity’s problems will feel like their lives matter.

Conclusion: We can be useful despite technological progress

Each new technology is a kind of power. Some will use it to distract themselves from what matters. Others will employ it to better understand the world, connect with people, and create ideas and services that benefit those around them. A few will use it to multiply their contributions.

Technology alleviates many kinds of suffering while creating others. It offers us creature comforts and the discomfort that comes with feeling gradually less useful. So long as there is suffering and weakness, we can make ourselves useful by helping people overcome. And there are ample opportunities to help those around us who are concerned about technological advancement or who have been displaced by it.

The march of technological advancement will continue to remove the need for some human activities, but it will highlight the essential ones that are difficult to displace: the longing for human connection, the desire to nurture others, and the need to create and maintain order. Technology is nowhere close to making us useless, and we can remain relevant as we hold fast to these fundamental sources of meaning.

Michael Westover
Michael Westover
Michael Westover is the Vice President of Population Health Informatics at Providence St. Joseph Health and author of the recently released book, A Worthwhile Life: How to Find Meaning, Build Connection, and Cultivate Purpose, which traces the science behind what makes life feel meaningful. He received an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a BA from Brigham Young University.
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