The substance of my decision churned in my stomach. I forced myself to rationalize the thoughts flooding into my mind, "I've just thrown away my digital career—turned down two dream opportunities with fantastic companies. What have I done?"
I decided to write this post as a reflection for myself but also as a milestone for anyone else who might be struggling to find a fulfilling vocation and lifestyle amidst all the possibilities of this beautiful and broken world.
About six months ago, I left a top UX Design agency in order to explore how I could help refugees. I pored all my heart mind and soul into Prosper (my vehicle for exploration), and learned more than I ever imagined.
I learned how difficult it was to make sense of a humanitarian crisis. I felt the daily struggle of trying to focus and the seemingly unsurmountable challenge to make a positive difference.
But above everything, I was transformed by meeting refugees, forming relationships and hearing their stories. Standing as two humans in a room, I realized we were both lost souls on a journey to find 'home'—helping one another as best we could along the way...
I won't go into detail about our journey at Prosper (I've written a lot about our journey on the Prosper Blog). Instead, I'd like to fast forward a few months: After burning out, I decided to step back from working as a volunteer amidst the refugee crisis in effort to regain the stability of full-time employment. I had a growing desire to find a career path that would propel my wife and me toward the fruitful life we've always dreamt of living.
Discerning A New Horizon
Since leaving Prosper, I've been trying to discern the best way forward for my career. Initially I looked within the narrow field of digital design, namely 'user experience' and 'product'.
I was headed straight towards full-time work as a digital product designer with loads of questions in my head about the nature of life as a digital worker and about the role of technology in our daily lives.
In approaching these new job prospects, I started to question the digital world in which I've been immersed:
- Is technology making the world a better place?
- Is it bringing us closer to the people around us?
- Is it making us stronger, smarter and better human beings?
- What is its effect on the natural world?
- What is its effect on the food we eat?
I didn't discover immediate answers but found myself asking even more questions—surprising ones that made me wonder about the meaning of life itself and about my purpose here on this earth.
I started to do some research about the effects of technology on the human brain—specifically for children. Along with my more academic research, I began to tune into the conversations of people around me.
I heard people talking about how they can't go anywhere without a smartphone and how they used to ask people for directions but now they have no need.
I heard parents talking about the struggles their children face amidst all the social disease arising on Instagram, Facebook and other social platforms that have consumed the daily attention of billions around the globe. I heard about issues with device addiction among children and parents and its effect on the family as a whole.
I thought about my life in front of the computer and felt the pain of my wrist as I circled my fists. I straightened my back and ached as bad posture cracked in the vertebrae of my upper spine.
Digital's Role in My Life
Looking back at my life since starting university, I saw a massive shift as my daily existence migrated towards the computer screen. No matter what exercise habits I tried to develop, there seemed to be an overarching trend towards a sedentary lifestyle in front of a screen.
I used to play soccer almost every day. As a kid, I lived most of my life outside.
Even in biking to work every day, I found myself fighting against a growing sense of lethargy. The more I sat the more it hurt, and the harder it became to combat the stillness.
Looking at people around me, it was easy to see I'm not the only one. There are so many like me who have necks that protrude forward and skinny arms that have little strength. Many are much worse, suffering from severe obesity and other byproduct illnesses of sedentary life.
Sure, there are things to combat these ailments like getting a standing desk, a gym membership and many more, but still I couldn't help but wonder:
What is all of this technology and innovation heading towards?
Where Is Digital Headed?
Looking at Facebook's 10-year roadmap, I had a tiny glimpse of what that future might look like. Technologies like drones, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the internet of things are rapidly advancing and weaving into daily life.
Uber has invested millions into driverless cars, with plans to implement the technology at scale. This technology alone would put millions out of work across the globe. That is just one technology and one industry. Where else is tech-driven innovation creating monumental change? Where else is business replacing humans with computers?
Looking back at history and realizing the explosive growth of machines in an industrial age, I think we have very legitimate reason to be concerned about the trajectory of our technology-driven world. This is not a dystopian paranoia but a very legitimate concern for our lives and for the lives of our children. It seems like people are glorifying limitless innovation and not stopping to consider its effect on humanity and the earth as a whole.
What Are People For?
If most of modern society is investing in technology, automation and innovation, and if many of these vehicles are making humans redundant it beckons us to ask the question: "What are people for?".
Am I just a cog in the machine of the economy churning to produce money (which has no inherent value or worth)? Am I actually helping people by implementing 'good' digital design? Is it my responsibility to discern where this industry might be headed and tailor it to the direction of the greatest good (in an age of relativism)?
Considering Tomorrow's Technologies
If millions of jobs over the next decades will be taken over by robots, AI, 3D printing, driverless cars and other forms of technology, what will people do for work?
As expressed by many that 'code is the new literacy', humans are being forced to learn the language of computers in order to maintain employment. We are stepping up the ladder of abstraction and training to become machine operators of different forms: digital designers, developers, architects and engineers. What used to be art forms are beginning to look more and more like manufacturing roles within a factory.
Are we serving one another by spending our lives connected to a screen? Are we serving ourselves by monitoring every single thing we do, tracking every movement for the 'improvement' of our selves? Are we taking care of our bodies by hunching over devices and are we taking care of our souls by ignoring the people around us in favor of the text in our messaging apps?
Are we serving the earth by endlessly mining it of 'resources' to make the devices which enslave our attention? Are we serving humanity by by filling the limitless economy with abstract representations of value (money)?
Are we happy?
My Personal Answer
In asking all of these questions, I was confronted with the reality that I wasn't confident in the trajectory of my digital-first lifestyle nor was I happy with the influence of technology on our world. With these thoughts I couldn't possibly commit to a career in front of a screen.
By nature of my work as a digital designer, it is my job to stay 'up-to-date' with an industry that is evolving faster than any human can comprehend.
It's like strapping an obese man to a treadmill and setting the speed to 'accelerate'. It's impossible to keep up. We're bound to trip up and fall. Worst of all, we're hurting ourselves and others while we're doing it.
Most digital workers are inundated with notifications, scheduling and constant messaging. In an age where we have an infinite number of choices everywhere, what kind of life have we chosen to live?
Considering My Children
I shuddered at the thought of raising my children by such an example. I cringed when I thought about how little I know about the physical world—the context from which all of life has arisen, the perfect system which has cultivated life out against all odds. I know the names of more brands than I do plants. I don't know how to grow food or make simple shelters or clothing. I don't know how to slaughter a chicken let alone raise one. I understand very little about the things that actually sustain my life. I've become dependent on the luxuries of modernity and have abstracted myself away from anything physically real. I'm suffering from it and my guess is that if you're reading this you might be too...
How can I teach my children what is right and real when we live in a world of perpetual abstraction and relativism where those who work the ground and actually provide what the world needs receive little for their efforts and are enslaved by corporations whose sole purpose is to grow their pile of meaningless money by whatever means possible—even if it means destroying human life and the earth?
The reality of my current existence is that I am personally dependent and contributing to the degradation of local economies, cultures and ecosystems by acting as a consumer within this way of living. Even if I do my best to shop consciously and buy locally, I am still spending most of my life working for corporations who perpetuate this increasingly destructive machine.
Digital and Human Relationships
I feel as though my digital lifestyle has given me the illusion of being connected to other people, but in reality it is thinning the human relationships between me and people closest to me. This desire to be connected at a global scale while sacrificing local relationships affects all of us. Social isolation is obviously one of the most pressing issues of our time, contributing to shorter life spans and disease unlike any other single factor.
Convicted by my wrong belief
As evidenced by my initial response to the refugee crisis, I started out believing that the right response to a systemic problem was to do something at scale that could create global social change. I turned to the web, to design and to technology for solutions. I worked in front of a computer for months trying to understand the crisis at large, build a brand and communicate a vision that would attract a global team. All the while I missed refugees down the street who desperately needed housing, jobs and community.
A quote by Mother Teresa stood out to me amidst all of this:
I do not agree with a big way of doing things. What matters is the individual. If we wait till we get numbers, then we will be lost in the numbers and we will never be able to show that love and respect for the person.
These words convicted me of my backwards approach and my backwards lifestyle. How can I make a difference amidst a humanitarian crisis if I cannot stop to show love and respect for a single person?
I feel as though life in front of a computer is taking me and my life in a direction that I don't want to go, towards a life that I don't want to live and into a society in which I wouldn't dream of raising my children. I'm living at a pace that I can't sustained whilst consuming materials that cannot be restored and I'm running out of denial. Something has to change...
Migrating Towards Local & Physical
I want to find a way to work daily with local people and real human needs. I want to use whatever tools are necessary to serve people, community, nature and family.
I want to find a balanced way of living that embraces the human and the earth and discerns the best aspects of technology that truly serve mankind and the planet. I certainly cannot tolerate living my life as a servant of technology for technology's sake and economy for the economy's sake—all the while watching the tech-driven industrial machine put people out of work, destroy the earth and perpetuate social isolation and loneliness.
I don't want to demonize technology in any way. It certainly has its place in society and I think it presents us with unprecedented opportunities. I just feel as though the tech-driven economy has a certain place and its in service to mankind—not the other way around.
I can't continue to pursue a career which prides itself on discovering 'unmet needs' often for the continued accumulation of corporate piles of money while there are legitimate unmet needs threatening life across the globe. I want to actually differentiate between needs and wants and serve those in need to the best of my ability.
What About You?
How do you feel about where our society is headed with technology as a driving force? Do you crave experiences that are more 'real' and rooted in physical things? Are you frustrated with the constant attention given towards 'the economy'? What do you think?
If you have any thoughts about the above I'd be honored to hear them.