The Modern Struggle

Optimizing new technologies for well-being may require us to rediscover some old virtues.

The tools we create tend to fill us with fascination and fear alike.

They provide enjoyment and upgrade our abilities. But they also contain new traps and threats. Fire heats, but it also burns; the spear used to kill prey can also be used to kill our fellow humans. Even our most normalized inventions – from cars and planes to surgery and Instagram accounts – have brought untold suffering to their lofty altars.

Many of our most memorable myths and stories carry the message of technology as a kind of loaded gift.

In Greek myths, the titan Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and brought it to humankind. Fire was a metaphor for technology, as it allowed us to shape and even dominate nature. As a result, he was sternly punished: an eagle would come every day and eat his liver, only for it to grow again the next day, for eternity. Presumably, the Gods felt that humans couldn’t be trusted with something as powerful as fire. The myth is behind the subtitle of the original Frankenstein book (“The Modern Prometheus”) – a story about a man-made creature that drifts past the good intentions of its maker, eventually causing death and destruction.

The poet Hesiod told the story of Talos, a giant bronze statue that protected the island of Crete. Every day, it would swim around it three times, and throw boulders at incoming enemy ships. Many believe that Talos is the first depiction of the concept of a robot – technology used as a useful protector, but often made necessary because enemies own threatening technologies, too.

Then there’s the medieval Jewish tales of the Golem – a clay monster formed by prayer. Stories were told of Golems roaming the streets of Prague at night to protect the innocent. Golems were seen as useful but also somewhat dumb – mindless creatures of a kind of magic. Precursors to Frankenstein’s monster, Golems could easily cause collateral damage if they weren’t carefully controlled.

But the 21st Century brings us a whole new bag of challenges.

Technology now comes to us in waves, permeating every aspect of work, social life, health care, education, entertainment, the military – you name it. Those controlling it are no longer naively brilliant, young idealists in Silicon Valley. They’re at the helm of hyper-aggressive, multi-billion-dollar empires with heavy political influence. They deploy their toys on us before we can meaningfully study their impact. Under the rubric of progress, our society has effectively become a real-time human lab for aggressive technology R&D.

Even when we have credible evidence that technology’s hurting us, it’s taking us forever to act.

For example, it’s well established that the bizarre mental health crisis we’re facing is worsened by social media use, especially among the young – and especially among young girls. A recent large-scale online study by the Becker Friedman Institute showed how TikTok acts as a collective trap for today’s youth. While they value the app in the immediate, participants would actually pay money out of pocket ($28 per user, on average) to have everyone – including themselves – deactivate it. But the beat goes on.

In our increasingly hybridized medical-pharma sector, the widespread use of fully legal, physician-prescribed opioids has directly contributed to hundreds of thousands of “deaths of despair” – a phenomenon so large, Steven Pinker has suggested it’s the largest contributor to the lowering of life expectancy across the entire United States.

Technology landmines are nestled everywhere in our modern landscape, from the hazardous chemicals we unwittingly consume, to our toxic culture war, to the risks we’re already facing with runaway AI. They all reflect the basic warning contained in our myths: humanity’s remarkable drive to innovate is intrinsically linked with its knack for torturing itself with its own toys.

One of my favourite contemporary thinkers – Angelist founder Naval Ravikant – once offered an insightful take on what he coined as the new “modern struggle”:

“This is the modern struggle: lone individuals summoning inhuman willpower, fasting, meditating, and exercising … up against armies of scientists and statisticians weaponizing abundant food, screens, and medicine into junk food, clickbait news, endless games, and addictive drugs.”

With our tools getting more sophisticated, powerful, and ubiquitous, are we doomed to be the guinea pigs and unaware consumers of our technology cabal?

Can we overcome the modern struggle? And if so, how?

 

Many politicians push the notion that the answer lies in adopting the right laws and regulations.

As a technology lawyer, I have strong doubts about this, for three main reasons.

The first is that human curiosity is too powerful a force to bottle up. The inventive will keep inventing – as well as they should. New technologies will improve lives. We’ll eventually twist and turn our way to making many (if not most) of them net positives for us collectively. Entrepreneurs and early adopters will create new and exciting markets. Our species is unique in its insatiable drive to innovate. Curiosity and innovation still drive us forward, notwithstanding the modern struggle.

The second is that competition is hard-wired into the human condition, and technology plays an increasingly crucial part in it. It’s often the difference between winning and losing in a wide range of human arenas. The powerful have too much to lose if they don’t control it. The powerless have too much to gain if and when they can use it to level the playing field. Expecting governments to seriously reign in technological development is naive. More likely is them seeking to control and monopolize it. Governments that don’t promote technological evolution more generally would be adopting a self-defeating approach to the 21st Century for all its stakeholders.

The third – a more recent one – is the phenomenon of regulatory capture. It’s a function of too much “money in politics”. Big Tech has become an influential power broker. It’s quickly risen to the rank of financial, legal and political heavyweight. Attempts to slow it down are fought tooth and nail. Its 24/7/365 lobby and legal fight cycle typically overwhelm policy agendas seeking to protect the long-term well-being of millions of fragmented, disorganized individuals. When governments finance or control these technologies, as they often do, the conflicts of interest only accentuate the problem.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to update or improve our laws. Of course, we should. I simply doubt that modern government owns the combination of speed, incentives, or independence required to do so effectively. Politicians push this path notwithstanding this only because it conveniently puts them in the spotlight as our would-be saviours.

At the same time, some are certainly working on policy agendas which would be helpful. But what do we do in the interim? In the best of cases, it can take a government decades to meaningfully regulate a new technology. And once passed, good laws can still be bypassed, gamed and contested in hundreds of ways by our overwhelmingly powerful corporate behemoths. There is a sense in which the urgency for us as humans “down here”, and the functioning of our legal and political system “up there” seem fundamentally disconnected.

What we can today call “the interim”, combined with a weird collage of outdated and compromised laws, may actually be our new backdrop as technologically advanced societies.

 

Naval’s insight suggests another approach. One that shifts the focus inward – toward our own individual choices, behaviours and values.

For all their dizzying capabilities, our technologies are still mostly elective at the individual level. We can powerfully regulate them directly through our choices and interventions.

Technology has a tendency to magnify our weaknesses. Excess, addiction, anxiety, hatred, hypocrisy, cognitive overwhelm, deadly violence – all have long been part of the human condition. But all are made more abundant via technology today.

The choice we face is an old one, but its stakes are getting higher: strengthen our inner character or suffer increasingly at the hands of our tools.

What does this mean, concretely? Or: what would the first sketch of a virtue ethics optimized for a technological society look like, in practice?

It would have to start with constant learning. The Luddite approach of smashing technology to bits – or banishing it – is lazy and reactive. Not only does it deprive us of the positive aspects of scientific progress, it also breeds ignorance. Properly studying our tools in granular detail is a far better starting point. It involves understanding their gifts, pitfalls, and evolving use modalities. Further, this knowledge requires constant updating. Shortcuts and looking away come at their own price.

Next would come the inner fortitude to impose boundaries, with an eye toward overall well-being. The makers of tools want them used as much as possible, externalities be damned. They all offer appealing excesses. Without the discipline to spot and renounce these, we fall into a series of traps. The old virtues of discipline and temperance serve us well in fighting the modern struggle.

Empathy would also be central. Isolated, as many feel, practically speaking, our behaviour impacts others, and theirs impacts us. Spewing personal hate may have become an acceptable form of speech on X, but it’s still actually just a form of toxic human expression, harmful to the speaker first and foremost. Each of us remembering we are deeply social animals with an evolved need for empathy could bring virtuous network effects we’d all benefit from.

Finally, there needs to be a way out. The good life requires us to transcend the technological landscape regularly. In-person social interactions, more time in nature, expressing gratitude regularly – technology has occulted much of what the latest research shows contributes most to human well-being.

This last point does imply a foundation of autonomy: we need to be able and allowed to opt-out.

The government compelling us by law to use technology raises serious ethical problems. This is perhaps the overriding political issue for anyone seeking to engage with the modern struggle through a personal quest of character development.

Over the last few decades, governments have gotten much larger, and Silicon Valley’s motto that “competition is for losers” has borne fruit and given us huge monopolies in the tech sector. If we don’t keep those in check somehow, we can expect more monopolistic behaviour tilting our environment in unhelpful ways: hidden power manoeuvres, externalizing costs to the public, and pushing for growth even when harmful to individuals and communities.

In the end, technology may be best understood as the amplifier of our virtues and vices.

It’s neither “good” nor “bad” in itself. It just dramatically increases our potential for both.

It can boost our lifespan and give us nuclear nightmares; unlock our hidden potential, or enslave us in myriad ways. It can support life, or become death, the destroyer of worlds.

The modern struggle calls for an era of technological vigilance – a far more cautious, human-centred approach than the naïve, almost drunken techno-optimism of recent decades, let alone the compulsive use patterns we see today.

Our tools and toys aren’t only shiny and new anymore; their dark sides have revealed themselves

Like Prometheus’ punishment, they nibble at our health daily.

Like Frankenstein and the Golem, they can be the clumsy disruptors of our lives.

Like Talos, they can protect us, but only because others are weaponizing them against us, too.

The lone caveat I’d add to Ravikant’s observation is that there’s no inherent reason why this needs to be the task of “lone individuals” only.

Coordinating our actions with those of each other as families, communities and civil society – regardless of what the government does or doesn’t do – can eventually bring us virtuous community effects.

To our new problems, old solutions with cutting-edge submodalities may be the best approach.

Then, we may have a chance to liberate ourselves from the slavery of our means and truly become masters of our destinies.

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