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The High-Tech Revolution is Transforming the Very Foundations of Human Existence

Bruce Ackerman—

For the first time in history, all of us are living two lives at once — engaging  in distant relationships on the internet while dealing with one another in face-to-face fashion in the real world. Our double-lives are the source of a distinctively postmodern predicament.

Its source is a fundamental feature of the human condition:  We all need at least five or six hours of sleep, leaving us eighteen or nineteen hours a day to confront the competing demands of friends and families, schoolmates and workmates and co-religionists and many other associates. Yet it is utterly impossible to fulfill all their demands. Even before the rise of the internet, it was tough to satisfy the expectations of our most important partners-in-life — and failure could readily lead to shattered lives. Our most intimate companions will abandon us in despair if we don’t spend enough time attending to their concerns; and our bosses will fire us if we don’t keep up with our workplace demands. Yet, during the internet age, we are spending four or five hours in virtual reality — leaving only fourteen or fifteen hours left for constructive engagement with real-world partners — presenting a clear and present danger of enormous increases in bitter marital break-ups and failed careers. To be sure, the internet can vastly enrich our lives as well as destroy them. The challenge is to define the real-world contexts in which our double-lives threaten us with profound disappointment — and come up with realistic reforms that can decisively reduce the tragic dynamics unleashed by the high-tech revolution of the twenty-first century.

Thinkers-and-doers can deal with this question from three different angles. The first considers the ways in which the technocratic revolution has transformed the very nature of the postmodern life-cycle. Thanks to high-tech medical advances, twenty-year olds today can expect to live until they are ninety or even longer — but in the 1950s, Americans could expect to die by the time they reached seventy.

What is more, the current generation confronts its future with very different educational resources.  During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, only 8 percent of whites and 4 percent of blacks had graduated from college — and 50 percent had dropped out of high school. By 2020, 50 percent of whites and 38 percent of blacks are gaining college degrees by the age of twenty-five — and less than ten percent are high school dropouts, with many completing two years of college-level training that enable them to play a significant role in the high-tech economy.

This double-transformation — in life expectancy and educational opportunity — has revolutionary implications for the struggle for a meaningful life in the twenty-first century. Seventy years ago, people found themselves in a race against time. If they didn’t get married by twenty, they might not have time to raise a family and celebrate their children’s successes as grown-ups. This meant that, in the 1960s, the median age for first marriages was twenty one for women and twenty three for men in the United States and Western Europe — but in 2020, it was thirty for women and thirty-two for men. Young adults no longer engage in a desperate “race against time” before committing themselves to a particular partner. Instead, they engage in an on-going exploration of intimate opportunities before making strong marital commitments in their early thirties. The same is true in their search for a fulfilling career. In short, postmoderns confront an entirely new phase of human development that sets them apart from their twentieth century predecessors — call it the age of exploration.

Once they make decisive family commitments, and especially if they decide to have children, they confront a new series of challenges during the age of achievement — between thirty five and fifty five — as they try to deepen their married life and devote enough time and energy to fulfill their ambitions at work and other spheres of engagement. Even if they succeed, however, they must once again redefine the terms of their search for meaning once they retire from work and their kids leave school and begin their own “periods of exploration” — frequently in places far away from their hometowns. In the twentieth century, these decisive turning points came when people were in their sixties — unless they were lucky, they only had a few more years to live. Yet when most Americans reach sixty-five nowadays, they will have twenty-five more years to live — requiring them to confront their “age of maturity” in ways that will allow very different modes of fulfillment, depending on the character of their previous successes and failures in life. As they proceed into their eighties and nineties, moreover, they confront different dilemmas when dealing with the challenges of physical and mental decline. During each phase of life, the internet offers different prospects for enhancing face-to-face relationships — or betraying them. 

The second angle approaches these revolutionary life transformations from a philosophical perspective.  It follows the path marked out by a series of great existentialist thinkers of the twentieth century — most notably, Martin Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Of course, these thinkers tried to make sense of twentieth century predicaments and left it to novelists like George Orwell to imagine the future awaiting humanity in  1984.  However, these existentialist thinkers developed fundamental insights that greatly enrich an understanding of the double-life dilemmas we currently confront. In contrast, philosophers like John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas define the problem of social justice in ways that make it impossible for us to make sense of the “double-life” predicaments we confront as we endlessly click from the real world to virtual reality, and back again.

Once we deploy existentialist insights to clarify the distinctive challenges we confront at each stage of the postmodern life-cycle, we are in a better position to take a third-and-final turn in our exploration of contemporary dilemmas — and confront the current crisis in constitutional democracy that is currently sweeping the world. To be sure, the current crises in Europe, India, Japan, Latin America, and the United States have their distinctive roots in each country’s culture and history. Nevertheless, everybody everywhere is also dealing with the unprecedented demands imposed upon them by their double-lives: Does the distinctive character of these personal struggles for meaning help explain the polarized condition of our politics?

Books like Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, are already asking this question. Yet their proposals should only serve as the beginning of a more ambitious conversation on the ways in which internet reform can help bring citizens together rather than split them apart — and reinvigorate their nation’s democratic commitment to social justice.

Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University and the author of numerous books on political philosophy, constitutional law, and public policy, including Revolutionary ConstitutionsSocial Justice in the Liberal State, and the three-volume series We the People.

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