meaning-making in the post-modern world

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philosophy lex-fridman

Here are some snippets from a Lex Fridman interview with Peter Wang, co-founder and CEO of Anaconda:

For a lot of human history, there wasn’t so much a meaning crisis as just a food and not getting eaten by bears crisis. Once you get to a point where you can make food there was a not getting killed by other humans crisis. Sitting around wondering what it’s all about is a relatively recent luxury.

I believe that meaning is the consequence of when we make consequential decisions. It’s tied to agency. When we make consequential decisions, that generates meaning. So if we make a lot of decisions but we don’t see the consequence of them then it feels like “What’s the point?” But if there are all of these big things happening and we’re just along for the ride, then it also doesn’t feel very meaningful. Meaning, as far as I can tell, … is generally the result of a person making a consequential decision, acting on it, and then seeing the consequences of it. So historically, when humans are just in survival mode, you’re making consequential decisions all the time. There’s not a lack of meaning because you either got eaten or you didn’t. You got some food and that’s great and you feel good. These are all consequential decisions. Only in the post-fossil fuel and industrial revolution could we create a massive leisure class that can sit around not being threatened by bears, not starving to death, and making decisions somewhat but a lot of times not seeing the consequence of any decisions they make. There is a general sort of sense of anomie [a French term] in the wake of the consumer society and mass media telling everyone, “Hey choosing between [two luxury purses] is a meaningful decision.” No it’s not.

… The point is that we give people the idea that consumption is meaning, that making a choice of this team vs. that team—spectating—has meaning. We produce all of these different things that are “as if” meaning but really making a decision that has no consequences for us. So that creates a meaning crisis. … You make a decision between these two brands and you’re told this brand will make me look better in front of other people, if I buy this brand of car, if I wear that brand of apparel. … A lot of the decisions we make are around consumption, but consumption by itself doesn’t actually yield meaning. Gaining social status does provide meaning, so that’s why in this era of abundant production so many things turn into status games. The NFT explosion is a similar kind of thing. Everywhere there are status games because we just have so much excess production. … Conspicuous consumption fueling status games is really bad for the planet, not sustainable. … [Another thing] is that you can play these kinds of status games but it renders you captured to the virtual environment. The status games the really wealthy people are playing are all around the hard resources: where they’re going to build the factories, where they’re going to have the fuel and the rare earths to make the next generations of robots that are going to run circles around you and your children. That’s another reason not to play those virtual status games.

[Talking about virtual games that can have real-world effects (both positive and negative):] It’s not that those kinds of games can’t lead to real consequences, it’s that for the vast majority of people in consumer culture … they are incented by advertisements, they’re incented by their memetic environment to treat the need to pursue status games— the purchasing of certain things, the need to buy the latest model of whatever, the need to appear however—as a driver of meaning. My point would be that it’s a very hollow driver of meaning, and that is what creates a meaning crisis because at the end of the day it’s like eating a lot of empty calories: it tasted good going down, … but man it was not enough protein to help build your muscles. And you kind of feel that in your gut. … That’s what I mean about the meaning crisis; part of it being created by the fact that we’re not encouraged to have more and more direct relationships, we’re actually alienated from relating to even our family members sometimes. We’re encouraged to relate to brands; we’re encouraged to relate to these kinds of things that then tell us to do things that are really of low consequence.

We are coming to the end; we’re rapidly entering a time between worlds. We have a world now that’s starting to really crumble under the weight of aging institutions that no longer even pretend to serve the purposes they were created for. We are creating technologies that are hurtling billions of people head long into philosophical crises, and they don’t even know the philosophical operating systems and their firmware. And they’re heading into a time when that gets vaporized. So for people in high school—and certainly I tell my middle school son this, and people in college—you are going to have to find your own way. You are going to have to have a pioneer spirit, even if you live in the middle of the most dense urban environment. All of human reality around you is the result of the last few generations of humans agreeing to play certain kinds of games. A lot of those games no longer operate according to the rules they used to. Collapse is non-linear but it will be managed. So if you are in a particular social caste or economic caste—and it’s not kosher to say that about America but America is a very stratified and classist society … —in America, unless you’re in the upper middle class you are headed into very choppy waters. So it is really really good to think and understand the fundamentals of what you need to build a meaningful life for you, your loved ones, and with your family.

Almost all of the technology being created that’s consumer-facing is designed to own people, to take the “fore-stack” of people [the layers of one’s brain functionality], to delaminate them, and to own certain portions of that stack. And so if you want to be an integral human being, if you want to have your agency and you want to find your own way in the world, when you’re young would be a great time to spend time looking at some of the classics around what it means to build a good life, what it means to build connection with people. So much of the status game, … as we create more and more technology there’s a gradient in technology and a gradient in technology always leads to a gradient in power. This is Jacques Ellul’s point to some extent as well. That gradient in power is not going to go away. The technologies are going so fast that even some of the people who helped create this stuff (like me) are being left behind. … As the world gets more and more technological, it’ll create more and more gradients where people will seize power and economic fortunes, and the way they make the people who are left behind okay with their lot in life is they create lottery systems. They make you take part in the narrative of your own being trapped and your own economic zone. Avoiding those kinds of things is really important: knowing when someone is running game on you basically. … It’s a dark message, but it’s realism; it’s what I see.

What gives me hope is that we have little tremors now, shaking people out of the reverie of the fiction of modernity that they’ve been living in, kind of a late 20th century style modernity. That’s good I think because … people are kind of burning out on some of the social media stuff. They’re sort of seeing the ugly side. … It’s quite clear these things are not quite all they’re cracked up to be.These things he is saying about the world may not be objectively true about the world, but as JrEg says, “when we talk about them, we create them."