Exploring the Human Experience and the Erosion of Fear in a Technological World

Sud Alogu
14 min readMay 7, 2023

This post is about an American philosopher with an unmistakable southern accent who lectured about Kierkegaard, and some of the interesting things he said.

Roderick has multiple lectures on Youtube on different classical philosophers. He has a way of bringing these ideas to the modern world and making them relevant. Although, it must be said that the world Roderick lived in, around 40 years ago, is different to the one we live in today.

Roderick, in his lecture about Kierkegaard said a lot of interesting things, and if you have the time, do check it out:

But I will just focus on a few examples.

Roderick explains that the desire to be obliterated, to die a concrete death, has become an almost utopian hope in contemporary society. The fear is not of death, but of banality, boredom, and despair in everyday life.

What is Roderick saying here? It sounds odd, doesn’t it? Why would someone fear banality? Is modern life so filled with despair and meaninglessness, so that even death cannot compare to it in the list of fears that people have?

The context is that Kierkegaard drew a stark dichotomy of existence.

The aesthetic existence is characterized by the pursuit of pleasure, individualism, and the avoidance of commitment. It is a life driven by sensory experiences, intellectual stimulation, and the constant search for novelty. Those who choose the aesthetic path often prioritize their desires and interests above all else, sometimes leading to superficiality and a lack of deep, meaningful relationships.

In contrast, the ethical existence is a life guided by moral principles, responsibility, and commitment to others. It involves making choices based on a sense of duty, embracing one’s role within a community, and fostering genuine relationships with others. The ethical life emphasizes personal growth and self-reflection, striving to understand and improve one’s character in relation to the broader social context.

Kierkegaard believed that each person had to make this fundamental choice between the aesthetic and the ethical way of life. He saw this decision as an essential aspect of becoming a true self, which required embracing one’s freedom, autonomy, and responsibility in the face of life’s inherent uncertainty and ambiguity. By making this choice, individuals confront the existential anxiety and despair that arise from recognizing the weight of their own existence and the responsibility it entails.

Of course, reality is far more complicated than that. One can imagine many scenarios in which people are engaged in both the aesthetic and the ethical. In fact, it would be quite strange to find anyone who is totally one or the other. Yes, Kierkegaard was describing an “ought” and not an “is”, but the modern world is far too complex to be simplified in this way.

Fluidity: Today, a person can make one choice and change their mind years later. Contemporary society is marked by shifting roles, responsibilities, and identities. People often find themselves navigating between the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of life, depending on their circumstances and the stage of their personal development. This fluidity can make it difficult to classify their life choices strictly as aesthetic or ethical.

More choice: In the modern world, people have access to a wide range of opportunities and experiences that were not available in Kierkegaard’s time. This abundance of choices allows individuals to explore and engage with various aspects of both the aesthetic and ethical life, often blending elements of both in their personal journeys.

Evolving societal norms: As social norms and values change over time, the definitions of what constitutes an aesthetic or ethical life also evolve. For example, in today’s world, the pursuit of individual fulfilment and self-expression, which may have been seen as purely aesthetic in Kierkegaard’s time, is often viewed as an essential component of a meaningful and ethical life.

Interconnectedness: The modern world is characterized by increased interconnectedness and global awareness, which can lead to a broader understanding of ethical considerations that extend beyond personal relationships and local communities.

Diverse cultural contexts: With the increased diversity of cultural contexts and individual experiences, the idea of a strict division between aesthetic and ethical life becomes less applicable. People from different backgrounds and belief systems might have different understandings of what constitutes an ethical or aesthetic life, further complicating the dichotomy.

But let us return to Roderick. In his lecture about Kierkegaard, suggests that in contemporary society, the desire for obliteration or concrete death has become a utopian hope for some individuals. This notion reflects a growing sense of disillusionment with the banality and boredom of everyday life, where people feel trapped by repetitive routines, consumerism, and the seemingly endless pursuit of material wealth.

The fear is not of death itself, but of a life devoid of meaning, purpose, and genuine human connections.

While it is true that oversimplified dichotomies between the aesthetic and the ethical don’t work so easily in the modern world, there is still a basic intuition of an empty life. For example, an entire life spent playing video games is considered by most people to be a meaningless life.

One of Roderick’s key points is that modern society has become inundated with distractions, superficial entertainment, and consumer culture. People are constantly bombarded with advertisements, social media, and other forms of mass communication, which often prioritize the accumulation of material possessions over more profound aspects of human existence, such as creativity, spirituality, and personal growth.

The daily grind of work, commuting, and household chores can also contribute to feelings of banality and boredom. Many people find themselves stuck in jobs they do not find fulfilling, working long hours for the sake of financial security and social status. This can lead to a sense of emptiness and despair, as individuals may question the value of their lives and the significance of their actions in the grand scheme of things.

Moreover, the rise of social media and the internet has changed the way people interact with one another, often resulting in superficial connections and the erosion of genuine, face-to-face relationships. This can further exacerbate feelings of loneliness and despair, as individuals may feel disconnected from others and struggle to find a sense of belonging.

In this context, Roderick’s reference to the desire for obliteration can be seen as an expression of a deep longing for escape from the monotonous and unfulfilling aspects of modern life. By contemplating the notion of a concrete death, individuals may hope to find a sense of finality, liberation, or even meaning in the face of an existence they perceive as lacking in substance.

However, it is important to note that Roderick’s analysis is not meant to promote or endorse the idea of seeking obliteration.

Instead, he seeks to challenge and provoke thought about the underlying issues that may lead to such desires.

In another section, Roderick discusses the idea that despair is a structural condition of the self, one that people face when they are trapped in a cycle of boring daily existence without any meaningful projects beyond getting new shoes or resoling Reeboks.

Kierkegaard argues that, under modern conditions, this despair is quite general and may lead to moments where one faces oneself and hopes to find a way to die.

The idea of an apocalypse serves as a social compensation for this inability, which gives people a thrill and the feeling of things being different. However, the real danger is not death and despair, but living a life that is not human. The old problem of theology was the non-believer, while the new problem is the non-person.

Think, for a moment about the culture you live in and its fascination with the apocalypse, as evidenced by the popularity of numerous movies, TV shows, books, and video games that explore end-of-the-world scenarios. This fascination may stem from a desire for excitement and a break from the monotony of daily life, as well as a subconscious yearning for a radical shift in the way society functions.

Some examples of popular apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic media:

Movies:

  • Mad Max series: Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, these movies follow the story of Max Rockatansky as he tries to survive in a world marked by chaos and scarcity.
  • The Day After Tomorrow: This film explores the devastating consequences of climate change, as a sudden global cooling event leads to a new ice age.
  • 2012: This disaster film is based on the widespread belief that the world would end in 2012 due to various catastrophic events, as predicted by the ancient Mayan calendar.
  • World War Z: A movie adaptation of the novel by Max Brooks, it tells the story of a zombie pandemic that threatens to bring about the collapse of human civilization.

TV Shows:

  • The Walking Dead: This long-running series explores the lives of a group of survivors in a world overrun by zombies.
  • The 100: Set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, the story revolves around a group of teenagers sent back to the planet from a space station to determine if it is habitable after a nuclear apocalypse.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale: Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, this series presents a dystopian future where a totalitarian regime has taken over the United States, leading to widespread oppression and suffering.
  • Sweet Tooth: This 2021 show is set in a fictional world in which a virus has killed a majority of the world’s human population, while leading to the emergence of hybrid babies that are born part human, part animal.

Books:

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy: This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows a father and son as they navigate a bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This novel explores the lives of various characters before, during, and after a deadly flu pandemic that devastates the world.

Video Games:

  • The Last of Us: This critically acclaimed game is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a fungal infection has wiped out most of humanity, and the survivors struggle to rebuild their lives amidst the chaos.
  • Fallout series: This popular video game franchise is set in a post-nuclear world where players must navigate a hostile, irradiated environment and interact with various factions and communities that have emerged in the aftermath of the apocalypse.

These examples illustrate how contemporary culture is drawn to stories of apocalypse and post-apocalyptic scenarios, possibly as a form of escape from the mundanity of everyday life, a fascination with the unknown, or an exploration of the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity.

The rise of the “preppers” movement can also be seen as an example of society’s fascination with apocalyptic scenarios and the idea of self-reliance in the face of catastrophe. Preppers are individuals who actively prepare for various types of disasters, ranging from natural disasters to societal collapse, by stockpiling food, water, and other essential supplies, as well as developing survival skills and making plans for self-sufficiency.

The preppers movement has gained traction in recent years, with TV shows like “Doomsday Preppers” showcasing the lifestyles and preparations of those who believe in the imminent collapse of society or the occurrence of a significant disaster. The popularity of this movement may be attributed to a number of factors, including heightened awareness of global risks, such as pandemics, climate change, and geopolitical tensions, as well as a general sense of uncertainty about the future.

The rise of preppers can be seen as another extension of the fascination with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes in popular culture. These individuals are taking the idea of the apocalypse and actively preparing for it, often driven by a desire for self-sufficiency, a sense of control in an increasingly complex world, or a fear of the unknown. The preppers movement, like the popularity of apocalyptic media, reflects society’s collective anxieties and uncertainties, and provides a lens through which to explore the human response to extreme adversity and the potential breakdown of established social structures.

As Roderick pointed out, long before many of these entertainment products emerged, that people, in response to this despair (from banality), may find themselves seeking solace in the idea of an apocalypse or other dramatic and transformative events. The prospect of such events provides a sense of excitement and novelty, a stark contrast to the monotonous routine of everyday life. This thrill offers temporary relief from the despair and boredom that individuals face, giving them the illusion that things are different or that change is imminent.

What does this shift mean, according to Roderick? What does it imply?

According to Roderick, the shift from the “old problem of theology” to the “new problem” of the non-person signifies a change in the way society approaches existential concerns. This shift implies that the primary focus has moved from religious belief and adherence to dogma towards a deeper examination of the human condition, the quality of our lives, and the authenticity of our experiences.

This change in focus can be seen as a response to the challenges and complexities of modern life, which often lead individuals to confront a sense of despair, emptiness, or lack of meaning in their existence. As traditional religious beliefs and structures may no longer provide adequate answers or solace for many people, there is a growing need to explore alternative ways of understanding and addressing these existential concerns.

Some background. Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulation and Simulacra” (also covered by Roderick’s lecture series) presents a thesis that explores the relationships between reality, symbols, and society in the contemporary era. Baudrillard argues that we have moved beyond the traditional relationship between the real and its representation, entering a new stage where simulations have replaced reality. This new stage, according to Baudrillard, is characterized by the proliferation of signs and images that no longer refer to an external, objective reality but instead create their own reality, detached from the real world.

In this context, Baudrillard introduces the concept of the “simulacrum,” which is a copy without an original, an imitation that bears no relation to any reality it might claim to represent. As simulacra become increasingly prevalent, the distinction between reality and representation becomes blurred, leading to what Baudrillard calls “hyperreality.” This hyperreality is a world in which the line between the real and the simulated is indistinguishable, and where our experiences are increasingly mediated through these simulations, rather than direct engagement with reality. As a result, Baudrillard suggests that the foundations of our understanding of reality, truth, and meaning are destabilized, giving rise to a pervasive sense of uncertainty and disorientation in contemporary society.

In his lecture, Roderick finally discusses the dangers of technological modern society, including the replacement of intellectual labor with machine labor and the perpetuation of the use of designer drugs to handle existential worries.

He argues that in a society where images and icons hold more value than real, tangible things, the concept of what it means to be a subject and have a human project becomes distorted and redefined. The danger lies in what is left of the human experience in a world where the line between reality and image is blurred, as suggested by Baudrillard’s thesis.

Roderick is commenting on the potential dangers and consequences that modern society faces due to certain technological and cultural developments. He discusses two main concerns: the replacement of intellectual labor with machine labor and the widespread use of designer drugs to cope with existential anxieties.

The first concern is related to the increasing automation of work, where machines and artificial intelligence are taking over tasks that were once performed by humans, including intellectual labor. As of 2023, we have finally seen this technological trend enter full swing with entire industries being disrupted, seemingly overnight. We are talking here about writers, artists, and coders who have been replaced by artificial intelligence.

Again, this is an event that took place many years after Roderick’s lectures, but this is just one example of how the perception of technology on society is quite old and increasingly relevant. I don’t think Roderick would have been able to anticipate the world we live in today, in which algorithms reign supreme. It is literally a world where people create media to please algorithms, rather than people. In fact, it is a world where people have no choice but to use AI to create content that ultimately tries to cater to algorithms. Of course, that is not to say that as a by-product, people are not gaining value from these creations, but that ultimately, the agenda, style, and content is increasingly being set by non-human actors.

This shift not only affects employment and job opportunities but also raises questions about the meaning and value of human labor in a world increasingly dominated by machines.

The second concern Roderick raises is the reliance on designer drugs to handle existential worries. These drugs are often used to escape the challenges and anxieties of modern life, offering temporary relief from the complexities and uncertainties that individuals face. However, this reliance can also lead to a disconnection from reality and a distortion of one’s sense of self and purpose.

Roderick points out that in a society where images and icons are valued more than tangible, real-world experiences, the very concept of what it means to be a human subject with a meaningful project becomes distorted and redefined. This issue is exacerbated by the blurring line between reality and image in a world where virtual experiences, social media, and superficial representations often take precedence over genuine human connections and authentic experiences.

In essence, Roderick’s commentary highlights the potential risks of losing touch with our humanity and authentic selves in a society increasingly driven by technological advancements and an overemphasis on superficiality. He invites us to consider the implications of these developments and to critically examine the direction in which our society is heading.

In a recent Joe Rogan podcast with Michio Kaku, there was a discussion about being in the wild. Joe’s point was that in the future, when most (if not all) humans become immersed in some virtual landscape, many of the therapeutic effects of the real world are going to be erased.

Rogan finds value in realizing one’s vulnerability in the wilderness, while Kaku believes that people may eventually prefer virtual reality over the real world. In other words, there is something about that primal fear that comes from knowing that at any moment a bear might eat you alive, that awakens something inside of you. It is something curative and essential to life. Kaku, of course, disagreed, and thought that a virtual simulation of this situation would be far superior. There is nothing, after all, that can compensate for the horrific experience of being eaten alive. And I think that’s a fair point.

But I think Rogan was trying to touch on something deeper, and it was essentially the point Roderick was making. It was essentially a point about fear.

Why the fascination with a post-apocalyptic world? For many reasons, as I mentioned before, but ultimately, because of a craving for fear.

Why fear? Because fear makes people feel alive. It’s why there is such a thing as adrenaline junkies, who will willingly risk their life to feel a sudden rush, why people routinely overdose on drugs, and why the best-selling forms of entertainment are usually violent and fear-inducing. It may be, that this fascination with fear is some form of malfunction, a hang up from our ancient past. Our ancestors, before the creation of this technological society, would have told you that fear was what kept them alive. It was fear that drove us. And it is still fear, in part, that drives us today.

So, it can be said that fear is an essential part of the human experience, for better or worse. Some could argue that it’s a trade-off worth having, that safety under all circumstances is superior to thrills. But evidenced by the media we consume, the fascination with post-apocalyptic worlds, adrenaline-fueled adventures, and fear-inducing entertainment suggests a deeply ingrained connection to fear as an essential aspect of our existence. While fear has played a crucial role in the survival of our ancestors and continues to drive us in certain aspects today, advancements in technology and societal changes have led to the gradual erosion of fear from our daily lives.

This trade-off between the pursuit of safety and the desire for fear raises questions about the value we place on these experiences. On one hand, a life devoid of fear could be seen as a more stable and secure existence. On the other hand, by eliminating fear, we may also be losing an essential component of our humanity, one that makes us feel alive and connected to our primal past.

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