Information overload, political polarization and distrust, mounting anxiety and stress. Best-selling books telling you how to unf**k yourself.
The current zeitgeist is characterized by a feeling of mounting chaos—a sense that the world is spinning out of control.
This perception that the world has taken a sharp turn for the worse has appeared roughly over the same time period that I’ve been going to South by Southwest. Just some six or seven years ago, the Austin, Texas conference was a place for celebrating technology and new social media platforms. To be fair, it still is—to some extent. But the focus has shifted: from technology, toward us—we who use it and who are affected by it. In the span of just a few short years, our worldview and priorities changed. Not the technology itself, but the human experience now takes the center stage.
Browsing the SXSW program turns out to be a great way of measuring the zeitgeist.
If we really have lost our sense of direction, we need to take steps to get back on track. But what is really going on? How did we end up in this predicament? What can we do about it? At this year’s Katapult Future Fest—on 14-16 May in Oslo—we’re addressing these issues head-on and saying that The Future Is You. In the meantime, here’s what I’ll be looking to get out of this year’s SXSW.
Are we really heading for dystopia? Is the world a worse place today than it was yesterday? Whether or not this is the case, there’s a more immediate problem that we need to address—before we can tackle those major issues. It’s like what you learn in the airline safety demonstrations: If you pass out, you won’t be able to help others.
Put your own oxygen mask on first.
I’d argue that a lot of these problems boil down to the fact that, instead of feeling truly present in our immediate surroundings, we’re navigating in a fragmented mosaic of reality, mediated through digital screens. It is this fragmented mosaic-world—the one we experience in our digital lives, whether or not this is the “real” reality—that is becoming ever more abstract, intangible, chaotic and distrustful.
That’s also why tech festivals like SXSW and Katapult Future Fest have a big responsibility to address these issues.
In a recent piece called “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” at BuzzFeed News, Anne Helen Petersen makes a point that millennials—roughly anyone between their early 20s and late 30s—are sometimes seen as being lazy. They can’t get around to answer their e-mails, register to vote or go to the post office. While our parent generation seems to be running errands all the time—getting shoes polished, leaky showerheads replaced, vacations planned—this generation suffers from “errand paralysis”. But this isn’t caused by laziness, she argues: it is caused by exhaustion.
We spend every other minute of the day optimizing, multitasking, learning, creating, getting input, being available. As Petersen puts it, “I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time”—and is left with too little energy to complete those mundane tasks and errands, “stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better”. We never quite disconnect, never truly log off—the next entry on our infinite, ever-expanding to-do list always lurking in the back of our minds.
In short: we’re burned out. Not as “a temporary affliction”, but as “the millennial condition”. So, what can we do about it? Petersen, again, near the conclusion, writes that “It’s not a problem I can solve, but it’s a reality I can acknowledge, a paradigm through which I can understand my actions.”
As it is, we’re hopelessly trying to multitask, trying to get everything done, all the time. But in the end, the only thing we’re doing effectively, is getting ourselves burned out and apathetic. The really big issues for the world at large become too remote and abstract to even consider.
However, by being more conscious, reflecting on our place in it all, and acknowledging the fact that perhaps we are more or less burned out, we can change the way we approach it.
To borrow a point from the bestselling book «Essentialism» by Greg McKeown: We should stop trying to get more things done and focus instead on getting the right things done. That’s not an argument to disconnect from the web or go back to a “simpler time” (which never existed anyway), but rather to acknowledge the current situation and deal with it in a more productive and ultimately healthy way.
If the burnout condition leaves us gaping after air, trying to keep our heads above the water, our minds racing, then we don’t have the calm, the consciousness or the energy that is necessary to focus on a single task and make real change.
We must become aware of ourselves, and of our responsibilities. Then we might be less prone to seek simple solutions to nuanced problems. Or too apathetic to handle those major issues.
With all this in mind, these are some of the sessions I’ll be attending at this year’s SXSW:
Keep the conversation going after SXSW: Book your tickets to Katapult Future Fest by 28 February to get an Early Bird discount. KFF 2019 is held in Oslo, Norway on 14-16 May.