Technological developments have long fascinated humans, not just in terms of how they help make our lives more efficient, but also for the potential they hold for influencing society beyond their immediate impact.
Take the latest examples of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney, which help in answering queries in a sophisticated manner and in creating realistic-looking images based on a single prompt, respectively. Apart from their usefulness in helping people access basic knowledge and further creativity, there have been debates over how they would impact questions of copyright, plagiarism, how human biases can creep into their output and whether they could change how homework and tests are given in schools and colleges.
With interactions between society and technology being far-reaching and fast-paced today, questions related to them have been asked in the UPSC Civil Services Examination. In 2019, it asked in the Essay paper to write on the statement: “Rise of Artificial Intelligence: the threat of jobless future or better job opportunities through reskilling and upskilling.” In 2017, one statement asked in the Essay paper read: “‘Social media’ is inherently a selfish medium.” In this context, here is an explanation of the statement “The process of self-discovery has now been technologically outsourced,”, which was asked in the 2021 exam.
What does the idea of self-discovery mean?
Self-discovery, as the name suggests, refers to the process by which a person is able to gain a deeper understanding about their own self – meaning their personality, characteristics, behaviour, values, motivations, flaws, emotions and more.
Humans have had the urge to gain this deeper understanding across cultures, since time immemorial, in order to ultimately experience life fully. Ancient philosopher Aristotle is believed to have said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” This is because knowing ourselves helps us touch upon larger ideas of emotions and psychological growth, common to all humans, aiding us to develop a sense of empathy in understanding the world at large.
It is also an important concept in the quest for leading a more contented life. American Psychologist Abraham H Maslow devised a famous hierarchy of needs for humans, where only when one set of basic needs are met, can we then effectively work towards achieving other things.
So when a person’s needs of food and shelter are not met, they may find it difficult to go towards fulfilling higher needs, such as developing a sense of self. At the pinnacle of this pyramid was the need for “self-actualisation”, meaning an ideal stage where people actually live up to their potential and are fulfilled with their lives. In this regard, self-discovery can be seen as the first step to self-actualisation.
Different methods have been suggested for really knowing oneself, such as engaging in religious teachings that champion certain values, meditation, psychological counselling, personality assessments, etc. But there are also simpler methods, such as quiet contemplation, reflecting on one’s words and actions or simply interacting with and helping others.
Today, self-discovery has become a more familiar concept, partly because living in more well-off societies allows people to look inwards and aspire for becoming a self-actualised version of themselves. It has also become important in terms of having a balanced sense of mental health.
What is the role of technology in the process of self-discovery?
Technology has, in this regard, helped people access tools to move towards self-discovery. It has made available information on subjects like psychology and it has helped connect people through means like the internet, allowing them to discuss these ideas with others.
But at the same time, technology in the form of say smartphones and the internet, have arguably taken hold of people’s lives in an all-consuming manner at times. People might confuse their social media persona with their real selves and feel the pressure to conform. They could also self-diagnose themselves with mental health-related or personality-related issues based on unverified information online. Instead of putting in the tough work of questioning oneself and analysing their behaviour, one could simply go by simplistic explanations available easily. The negative effects of social media addiction are also well-documented, but there are less noticeable effects, too.
A study from the University of Bath, England, and Trinity College, Ireland, in 2022 noted that the constant use of social media doesn’t let people enter a state of “profound boredom”, which may open the door to more creative and meaningful activity.
It said this was first outlined by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who said that there exists a level of “superficial boredom”, experienced while doing tasks like waiting for a train or standing in a long queue. Smartphones distract people in such moments. But this prevents a stage of “profound boredom”, occurring in times of uninterrupted free time, leading them to experience intense solitude and question their sense of self and their existence. And so, this boredom can be good for prompting a search for self-discovery.
So what is the way forward here?
Perhaps similar to how self-discovery works, it is important to know what exactly technology has to offer in terms of the tools and information it holds. The useful parts here can be taken to aid in the journey towards self-discovery, like mental health services from professionals, tips on how one can develop a balanced outlook in life, etc.
At the same time, outsourcing our distinctly personal sense of self and the process of evolving our understanding of it is not feasible. There are certain elements of society that cannot be completely replaced by technology, and human understanding is one prime example. Therefore, no matter how difficult the work of introspection and appraisal of the self may be, it is a task best left to humans, resisting the temptation of technology.