When Jean-Paul Sartre outlined his theory of existential angst he used the analogy of a man standing on a cliff edge knowing that given his absolute freedom, nothing was stopping him from throwing himself to his death. It is this unnerving liberty that led him to coin the phrase “man is condemned to be free.”
I too have this freedom. I’ve quit my job and nothing is stopping me from, let’s say, moving to New York tomorrow. There is of course a lot stopping me - I don’t think Sartre took crippling debt and student loan repayments into account. However, as a member of a generation that lives in a far less prescriptive society than its predecessors, I am surely on the edge of my metaphorical cliff of opportunity, free to do anything I please. Throw in the advances in technology and affordable travel that my generation has seen, and we clearly have the world at our fingertips.
So why are we always whinging?
Perhaps we are the 'spoilt brat' generation. Whether fast food or fast data, we have what we want, when we want it, served to us on a plate (or tablet.) The thrill is no longer in the chase. Why put in hard graft when Google can do it for you? So, like a child that is used to getting its own way, the web gives us what we want. Back in the good old days children knew the value of waiting patiently and adults knew that hard work would eventually reap rewards. Now, good things come to those who Google.
In addition to our voracity for data, advances in social media allow us to constantly compare our lives to others. Sartre also famously said “hell is other people.” He’d obviously just seen a Facebook album of a couple sickeningly in love flaunting their newborn incarnation of perfection. How can we be content when we are always subjected to others (seemingly) doing better? No matter how artificial their happy tweet, we are always judging others and they are always judging us. (Another very Sartrean concept - the ‘other’ hindering our freedom, although little did he know that the ‘other’ would be so magnified by social media.)
So is there a solution to technology objectifying us and stifling our freedom? When Rousseau said “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” he probably wasn’t talking about iPhones. But the same technological advances that have granted us unprecedented freedom of knowledge and expression have left us chained to our smartphone screens. One giant leap for technology, one massive regression in terms of the ability to make conversation without checking your Twitter feed. So when I find myself on Sartre’s cliff, maybe the key to untangling the chains and unlocking true freedom of the mind is to throw my smartphone into the precipice. Just as soon as I’ve tweeted a link to a pretentious blog post.