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To alleviate existential anxiety

PSYCHOLOGY / Is it possible to value your own time when you are struggling to make ends meet? Can the fear of an energy crisis be lessened by a fairer distribution? And can knowledge of intelligence beyond that of humans alleviate our times' uncertainty and sense of isolation?


"When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself in bed transformed into a huge, monstrous reptile" – the first sentence of Kafka's short story The transformation ("Die Verwandlung", 1915) moves everyone who feels trapped by society's limitations. The traveling salesman, dramatically transformed overnight, can no longer pretend to fit into a productive work schedule or respectable private life.

Modern slavery

Gregor Samsa's fate is given, but his new and limiting existence – where he has to stay in the room – can also be seen as giving him time for reflection – finally. Jean-Miguel Pire, who is a researcher (at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris) and writes in his spare time, emphasizes that time for reflection is still not valued enough. Despite a historical practice in which reflection – defined as 'productive withdrawal' – was associated with 'intelligence and a human right', the new norm is that the anthropologist David Graber calling pointless jobs (bullshit jobs) – positions where even time to eat and sleep is sacrificed to work, writes Pire i Otium: Art, education, democracy (2020): "Lives that are barely worthy of the designation are completely drained of blood by repetitive, meaningless micro-tasks, tasks that are no more than units of time and that are sold to algorithms that are often the only point of contact these unfortunate employees have", writes Pire. In defense of the overworked and underpaid, he concludes: "Leisure, which was long considered an aristocratic privilege, should be seen for what it really is: a human right that can enable everyone to become the main character in our own lives" – Samsa's daydream .

But how do you get time for reflection when you are struggling to make ends meet?

The value of sobriety

Downsizing tackles the problems of modern slavery in a different way. A reduction of expenses – so that one therefore needs less capital – can potentially result in a simultaneous saving of both time and resources.

However, many people experience existential anxiety over major lifestyle changes. When it comes to energy consumption, restrictions and rationing are unpopular. "In capitalist democracies, access to energy is expressed either as a right for the poorest or as a freedom for the richest. The effort to make these democracies 'greener' creates (...) for some a growing insecurity and fear, and for others the feeling that their freedom and way of life are threatened", writes Swen Ore (advisor at the Belgian think tank Etopia).

Can rationing principles offer an alternative to the current situation of increasing energy poverty in the midst of ecological crises, Ore asks, offering a practical solution, a kind of energy sobriety: "Under this system, the first kilowatt-hours consumed are affordable, and prices increase gradually thereafter . A progressive tariff thus guarantees that essential needs are covered, while large consumers pay a higher price. Political scientist and journalist Paul Ariès' well-known formula sums up this approach: 'free use and expensive abuse.'"

Complete bloodsucking of repetitive, pointless microtasks.

Unlike the carbon footprint model, where big business forced people to perceive their own consumption as the main negative environmental impact and thus shifted the blame and shame away from industry, "this principle can also be transferred to companies and industries based on their ecological, social and economic impacts to maintain and increase our collective power to live with dignity", writes Ore.

More than human intelligence

The idea of ​​dignity for all can be extended further, to include other creatures who also depend on a healthy planet. "Nature's cleverness and ingenuity, its complexity and its cooperation, are becoming harder and harder to deny," writes Jay Owens. "Some even call it intelligence."

Octopuses, bees, mushrooms – Owens describes the new main characters in literature that are about more than human intelligence. British artist and technologist James Bridle, author of Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence, says in an interview to Owens: "We are all desperately looking for a way to find meaning, in a world that has obviously gone in a terribly crazy direction, and which continues in the same direction (...). There is a need for new knowledge and insight (...). It requires reflection, it requires us to create new models and metaphors for how the world works."

Any text on anything more than human intelligence would be incomplete without mentioning artificial intelligence (AI). Services such as ChatGPT, which propose algorithmic solutions to creative tasks, have received a mixed reception. The potential to relieve employees of certain jobs may open up more developed thinking, but replacing human contact is viewed with skepticism.

To be connected

For example, Owens describes how 'long-term thinkers' worry about the risks of artificial intelligence in general – Bridle describes it as 'a new Copernican trauma' – "where we find ourselves on a broken planet, not smart enough to save ourselves, and not in some ways the smartest living creatures in existence. If we combine ecology and technology, we arrive at a new cosmology where man is no longer at the center of the universe – which may come as a shock to some".

Owens adds: “We live in a double existential moment. We have named a geological epoch, the Anthropocene, after our abilities to terraform the planet – and yet we fear that we are unable to terraform our own culture enough to make it compatible with sustaining life.”

When we seek dominance over other parts of nature, we humans have forced a division. The perception of everything that is foreign to the self, as 'other', has led to a sense of control.

A clear advantage in the new sense of being connected, of being part of something bigger, may be that we no longer have to feel so isolated. Perhaps another level of existential angst in Kafka's "Transformation," the salesman-turned-insect unable to communicate, is on the threshold of being better understood.

  1. Before writing this article, I attempted to run a typing test with KI. Perhaps I could have freed up my time for contemplation. But when I tried to create an account, I got this message: "ChatGPT is currently out of capacity."
    Back to the drawing board.

 The article was first published in English last year. © Sarah Waring / Eurozine. Translated into Norwegian by Iril Kolle.

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