At times, technology can seem to be a mixed blessing. It can solve problems while creating new ones. More specifically, in a social context, it appears that technology is keeping us connected while driving us further apart. As the internet and social media have become ubiquitous, many people report feeling increasingly isolated.
And yet throughout the centuries of technological development, society has proven that the only way to go is forward. We can’t turn back the clock. The internet isn’t going away; it has already become an integral part of modern living.
But does technology detract from what makes our lives meaningful? Are the benefits of the internet being outweighed by its adverse impact on our society? Or is it a matter of each individual having to change their relationship with their devices?
Technology and meaning
In her book, The Power of Meaning, author and researcher Emily Esfahani Smith explores the difference between happiness and meaning. It’s possible for people to be happy and yet feel as though their lives are meaningless.
This is why some of the most affluent countries in the world can also have the highest rates of suicide. An individualistic, isolated lifestyle is typical of most developed countries. Too much focus on the self will detract from your sense of meaning. And it’s easy to see how technology can facilitate this negative tendency.
By spending so much time in front of our screens, we’re exposing ourselves to a wealth of information that rarely adds any meaning to our lives. Social media floods us with information that fuels and hijacks the status drive. The internet is loaded with articles on how to improve yourself. The devices we carry around everywhere regularly remind us that “It’s all about me.”
Working with the pillars
And yet, looking closely at the research on meaning, we can see that several components comprise a meaningful life. Smith calls these the four ‘pillars’ of meaning. With a closer look at these pillars, we can see how technology might interact with each one, and what we might do to improve that interaction.
For instance, you’re unlikely to experience something transcendental on an app or through social media. You’re more likely to find transcendence by joining a community church or meditating on a mountain trail. But technology can play a part in enhancing our sense of belonging. It can be a means to connect with purposeful work. And it can certainly enable us to become better storytellers.
A problem of passivity
The problem most people face in the modern world is that their default relationship with technology is a passive one. Each year presents us with shiny new devices, upgraded apps, and features. While these developments can spark heated discussions, those are usually centered on their respective merits and price tags. We don’t often question their relevance or impact in a social context.
For example, the improvements in smartphone camera technology have been a critical point of differentiation across today’s smartphones. Over the years, people have marveled at the growth in each new model’s camera capabilities. Why object to these enhancements, when everybody comes out a winner? We’re all photographers now. We never have to miss out on capturing those special, serendipitous moments.
But with the benefit of hindsight, we can also see how smartphone cameras have played a role in the decay of meaning. Without questioning the need for such features, or the rise of Instagram and an entire ecosystem of related apps, we don’t realize how they influence our lives. Why bother with the craft of storytelling or connecting on a deeper level, when you can snap a picture, post it instantly with a witty caption, and move on?
Technology itself isn’t the problem. It’s the passive relationship we have that surrenders control and makes us susceptible to negative influences. It’s our over-reliance and disproportionate use of devices and apps that make our focus continue to turn inward, not outward.
Shifting to a meaningful relationship
Seen from this light, it’s possible to use technology effectively to enable a meaningful life. You have to be in control of that relationship and be selective. Curate your online sources. Search for information on how your work is improving the lives of others. Instead of brands and celebrities, follow the people who tell stories about the human impact of what you do for a living.
Be intentional about how you use the internet and social media. Tell stories that don’t increase status pressure, but focus on the redemptive narrative instead. And use those tools to touch base with people you care about, but make a commitment to further deepen those relationships with face-to-face interactions.