At times, the modern wave of individualism swamps me with its egocentricity. Exaltations to ‘find oneself’, identify one’s ‘true calling’ and imbue one’s life with ‘authentic passion and purpose’ are no doubt inspirational, but also strike me as narcissistic. It’s not an evil thing to enshrine one’s self, but is it sensible?
Let’s take a rational look at the world. Homo sapiens have been walking around on this little blue planet for, oh, about 300,000 years. In that time, a heck of a lot of people have lived, done stuff, and bitten the dust. Many died–and still do–in infancy and childhood. Face it. A lot of stuff happened before you existed, and lots more will happen after you die. Against the backdrop of humanity, I’m a blip. Against the backdrop of the universe, humanity is a blip.
My point is not to detract from individual striving for achievement. Indeed, it is such external striving that propels us forward as a species, and internal striving that enables each of us to move according to an inner compass. Also, I do believe that self-reflection and self-awareness are important tools in the navigation of life. What I do hope to point out is the ludicrousness of taking authenticity to its extreme: that we each have a magical path laid out for our lives that is known through getting in touch with our souls. Do we really need to imbue every action with deeper meaning?
Those of us who have the time and money to contemplate such mystical questions are surely the privileged class. As per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is only when the basic needs of hunger and security are fulfilled that we can sit around in self-reflection.
And so I say with pomp and verve: let us count ourselves fucking lucky. Isn’t it great to be alive? I love those moments–when the realisation of your own mortality and relative insignificance slaps you in the face, and you grasp the transient nature of your existence–then, for a second, you are fully grounded in your body. A moment of thrumming energy and acute awareness. There is meaning in simply experiencing.
It is great to be alive. Let us make the most of our puny lives. Let us make and do good things, as much as we can, and help those less fortunate. I don’t need to discover my ‘authentic self’ to do that.
Some time ago, I watched an episode of the SBS documentary, Untold Australia: Strictly Jewish. The episode followed an ultra-orthodox Adass Jewish community in Melbourne, Australia over the course of a year. The Adass Jews have nurtured a close-knit, insular and self-sufficient community in the inner-city suburb of Ripponlea—with its own schools, shops, telephone directory and even an ambulance service.
The Adass Jews observe traditional rituals like Shabbat, Passover, and Sukkot to the letter, and for the most part shun technology and secular media. They are fully committed to the commandment to be fruitful, and as such—after the sexes are segregated for most of their youth—marriages are arranged, and a gaggle of children and grandchildren emerge. Their families are big and noisy; their dining tables long and lavishly decked out.
Isn’t it amazing to think of these Adass children, growing up in a world nestled within worlds—cosy in their single-sex schools and synagogues and busy homes—striving to live a good life against the backdrop of God and the Torah? They carry on a narrative that goes back for generations and centuries. They exist within a bubble, yes—but don’t we all? We exist within the bubble of our own families, religions and cultures. We think we see the world, but we don’t. We see our world: a blinkered view. Before yesterday, my world did not contain the Adass Jewish community. Now it does, and it is richer for it. But there are so many worlds that have not yet overlapped with mine.
There are different spheres that is perhaps more familiar to us. In the sphere of social media, likes are currency and followers define status. The language is one of flat-lays, selfies, hashtags and emoticons. Self-worth (I say this tongue-in-cheek; I too am well-versed in the skilful application of filters) is bolstered by a stylish and utterly unrealistic presentation of one’s keen fashion sense, food adventures or travel escapes.
There may be very few similarities between Instagram and orthodox Jews, but both are subcultures with an in-group speak and an in-group thinking.
I don’t believe subcultures, whether secular or religious, are essentially good or essentially evil. We all exist within subcultures, and they all distort reality in some way—or rather, they present us with their own realities and give meaning and structure to our lives (the meaning of serving an ancient God, or the meaning of catching someone’s attention for long enough that they double-tap your picture…). Certainly, in-groups play a role in fostering a sense of self identity and social identity: they help us to know who we are and where we stand in relation to others.
The danger, I think, is when we allow our subcultures to become consuming. If we surround ourselves only with people who see the world one way, we don’t grow. We put ourselves in a cage and allow the goals of that in-group to define us. This would be especially sad if the in-group discourages you from attaining a full education, or preoccupies you with a steady stream of hyper-filtered, unrealistic, unattainable and ultimately irrelevant goals.
Identifying with a social group also predisposes us to in-group bias and prejudice. It’s comfortable and reassuring to spend time with people who share our views and speak our slang. It’s easy. You don’t have to explain yourself; you don’t have to deal with odd opinions or odd accents. Then you start seeing the out-group—people who aren’t like you—as foreign, weird, dumb. Then you start to disparage them. Loathe them. Fear them.
How do we counter this instinctual prejudice? The first steps may be as simple as communication, outside our typical groups, and empathy. Talk, ask questions, listen with an open mind, and be slow to judge.
New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods.
— Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
I had the felicitous coincidence of watching season one of American Gods whilst reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus.
American Gods (watchable in Australia through Amazon Prime Video) is a recent television adaptation of the sprawling, modern-mythological-fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. The story follows Shadow Moon, an ex-con who gradually discovers the supernatural underworld of America, where an epic war is brewing between the old gods and the new gods.
So there I am, comfortably arranged on my couch with a bag of chips balanced on my belly, enjoying the delightful visuals of eyeballs gouged from sockets, arcing fountains of blood, and annihilation by vaginal ingestion–and hey, that’s just the first episode! I’m not sure whether I’m liking this deliberately artful and graphic adaptation with its frequent use of slow-mo’s, but its bizarreness has me hooked.
Mr Wednesday’s perpetual elusiveness and Shadow’s bumbling seriousness get a bit tiresome, but I thoroughly enjoy the banter between zombiefied Laura and Mad Sweeney. The menacing New Gods of Media, Technical Boy, and Mr World pop up and do their thang, basically fluffing their feathers and proclaiming that the world is already theirs.
This is now merging in a wacky way in my head with Harari’s theses:
‘…technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious visions, like a waiter that demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That’s why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands fantasised about different paradises than peasants and why the revolutionary technologies of the twenty-first century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.’
Harari argues that although traditional religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism still give meaning to the lives of millions of people, they have little to contribute in terms of shaping the future of humanity. In the past, they were the major organising forces of society. But now, Harari thinks, they are playing catch-up.
There seems to be truth in this. What is one of the most underrated but precious commodities in our modern world? Our attention. Our attention is our time. Our time is our energy, our efforts, and our lives. Nowadays, our attention is poured into consuming, and producing, social media.
On an individual level, this shapes us psychologically. We have a sense of our ‘online self’, as described by our Facebook or Instagram profile. We experience real-life events through the lenses of our phones: our meal or party or fun run become more real, more concrete, when it is captured in digital form. The social media world has replaced the local village as our source of connection, support and validation. Our attention spans become briefer as our brains adapt to multi-tasking and scrolling through infinite feeds of infinite information. Anything longer than a page becomes a struggle.
On a societal level, this has implications for the dissemination of ideas. News and information reach us more rapidly through Twitter and Facebook feeds than through the evening news or a periodical publication. Ideas can spread across the world in, quite literally, an instant. Does anyone else think this is f*cking crazy?! A couple of centuries ago, if you had a great idea, you told your local priest, your wife, your mates at the corner pub, maybe set up a little society in a basement to cultivate more ideas and get word out to the public, maybe, if you were lucky, spark a little cultural progress. Nowadays, a wave of fear, anger or ideology can spread across the globe in a matter of days. We can be united in congregations of thousands, millions, even billions. That’s the power of the New Gods.
On the other side of the same coin, the sources of our information have also changed. When the information that reaches our eyes is influenced by corporate giants and when anyone can become an online ‘expert’, it becomes harder but more important to be discerning about the information you trust. What slice of the world are you really seeing, when most of your news come from an online algorithm that has reams of data about your demographics, interests, and search history? Weeding out cognitive biases and dodgy sources of information are the superpowers of our age.
The new gods of today (media, the internet, technology) are already drastically different from how they looked ten years ago. What does all this mean for the future? I’m sure Homo Deus will have some speculations. Harari has packed his book with a broad reach of ideas and integrated them skilfully into his arguments. However, I wonder if he’s neglected to discuss the power of fear in the twenty-first century: a flame that is fanned by religious ideologies, capitalist self-interest and high-speed internet connectivity.