Aimlessness in a Globalised World

Article published on July 21, 2014
Article published on July 21, 2014
To be aim­less in a sit­u­a­tion, a lo­cal­ity, and a space and time can be gru­el­ing. We search for stim­u­la­tion, some sort of grat­i­fi­ca­tion that we think we are en­ti­tled to. But what does grat­i­fi­ca­tion ac­tu­ally mean and in what con­text should we pur­sue it? A com­men­tary.

Re­cently I watched the movie Her (2013), di­rected by Spike Jonze, about a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives in a tech­nol­ogy-laden world set in the fu­ture and can't stop dwelling on the past. His lamen­ta­tions about his di­vorce force him to re­treat into a world filled with video games and in­ter­net porn. Other than his best friend from col­lege (Amy Adams), he has no con­tacts to the out­side world, aside from hav­ing the sem­blance of con­tact with the world through the in­ter­net. He feels help­less, los­ing con­trol over his life. To com­pen­sate, he buys an op­er­at­ing sys­tem from a com­pany that promises its prod­uct is the so­lu­tion to all his prob­lems. An ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent OS (voiced by Scar­lett Jo­hans­son) — one that he winds up falling in love with. But what does that sug­gest about the char­ac­ter, Theodore, and what im­pli­ca­tions does this story com­mu­ni­cate for our own tech­nol­ogy-sat­u­rated lives?

Of­fi­cial film trailer of HER (2014) by Amer­i­can di­rec­tor Spike Jonze. 

I've thought a lot about what it means to be a global cit­i­zen, es­pe­cially since I've been trans­lat­ing for Cafébabel, to be vir­tu­ally con­nected with any­one in the world with in­ter­net ac­cess. We get glimpses into the lives of oth­ers, lives that we may never en­counter. But what do these glimpses trans­late into? Long­ing? Envy? Or maybe a sense that the life we're cur­rently lead­ing isn't as ful­fill­ing as we think it should be?

In Her the OS 'Saman­tha' asks Theodore what's wrong as he lays in bed, un­able to sleep. He tells her that he fears that the ex­pe­ri­ences he'll have in the fu­ture might never live up to the way he had felt about sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences in the past. Theodore clearly suf­fers from ni­hilism. He sim­ply can't see the point any­more. Of course he's hurt be­cause of his di­vorce, but that's on the sur­face. Over­stim­u­lated by tech­nol­ogy, he is too con­nected to a vir­tual world to be able to ap­pre­ci­ate the sub­tler things in life. Over the course of the film, Saman­tha re­minds him of the im­por­tance of being ex­cited about life, that life is some­thing that we can be fas­ci­nated by in our daily lives, even if we feel we've al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced every­thing to its fullest. 

Great ex­pec­ta­tions of a grand life

Re­cently I spoke to a friend who at one point in my life also taught me this les­son. Al­though she has never been an in­ter­net-junkie, she has lived all over the world and ar­rived at a sim­i­lar ni­hilis­tic ques­tion: What's the point? What does it all mean? The irony when we spoke, of course, was that at that mo­ment she was going through a sim­i­lar form of ni­hilism that the main char­ac­ter Theodore goes through in the film. Her part­ner, some­one she had planned the rest of her life with, had bro­ken up with her.

To draw the com­par­i­son, ni­hilism isn't sim­ply the post-trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of a breakup: it's the over-stim­u­la­tion of the ex­pec­ta­tions of how grand life could be. The In­ter­net and tech­nol­ogy have both pro­duced that feel­ing in many peo­ple, bom­bard­ing them with imag­ines of dis­tant lands and glam­orous peo­ple. There is an over-de­pen­dence on the in­ter­net and tech­nol­ogy, which in turn stim­u­lates the long­ing for ex­pe­ri­ences. The irony in the film is that it was a piece of tech­nol­ogy that taught Theodore this les­son, but only once she was no longer in his life. 

The cir­cum­stances will never bE 'just righT'

There is a men­tal com­part­men­tal­isa­tion that arises when en­gag­ing with tech­nol­ogy or the in­ter­net. There is the sep­a­ra­tion of "here" and "there," of "where I am now" and "where I could be, were the cir­cum­stances just right." But as any of the great re­li­gions and philoso­phies have taught, the cir­cum­stances will never be just right. There will al­ways be a "here" and "there." So, in­stead of pin­ing for a life that might never exist, shouldn't we try to find a way to re­sist the rest­less­ness and aim­less­ness that tries to over­run our lives when we feel like we need in­stant-grat­i­fi­ca­tion?

It's easy to do a quick and in­stantly-grat­i­fy­ing Google search for some­thing that we think might pla­cate us, but couldn't that grat­i­fi­ca­tion come from some­thing, any­thing at all, from the things within our im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings, or maybe even some­thing from within our­selves? To me, liv­ing in the world does not mean yearn­ing for other modal­i­ties of think­ing and liv­ing, but rather em­body­ing our most au­then­tic selves so that when faced with an­other global cit­i­zen, we can in­spire them to live to their fullest. 

Ever since I've been trans­lat­ing for and read­ing cafébabel, there have been times when I've longed to be back in Eu­rope, in places and sit­u­a­tions of dis­tant lands that seem hip, artis­tic, in­spir­ing, po­lit­i­cally en­gag­ing and avant-garde. Al­though this might be a re­sult of me liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, I'm sure there are plenty of peo­ple in Eu­rope who have read the same ar­ti­cles I have and had the same long­ing for a scene that seemed fresh, or the long­ing to en­gage in po­lit­i­cal fo­rums and de­bates.

What­ever the case may be, the sto­ries that seem ap­peal­ing to us are ap­peal­ing be­cause peo­ple made the events, dis­courses, artis­tic move­ments hap­pen. These peo­ple didn't idly sit back and read how oth­ers were chang­ing the world: they were chang­ing it, shap­ing it, mould­ing it. This kind of ac­tive cre­ativ­ity — ac­tive en­gage­ment with your im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings — serves as the an­ti­dote to the aim­less­ness of a glob­al­ized world. It's the qual­ity we cher­ish most in oth­ers. And ul­ti­mately, if we our­selves take on this qual­ity, it will bring about the health­i­est and most en­joy­able form of grat­i­fi­ca­tion.