Unfolding meaning in a digital age

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The internet holds both a promise to connect, educate and empower, and the threat to isolate, enervate and disarm. Much has been written about the dangers of the internet, but the topic of finding meaning in a digital age has been sparsely explored. That is not because the internet doesn’t hold the potential to cultivate meaning, but because the way to extract this potential contradicts the way that conventional internet use is set up. This article aims to show you a few ways to access sparks of inspiration in a digital age, without presuming that meaning lies within the internet.

How to navigate the internet

Although this article is not about avoiding the perils of the internet, it must be noted that unfolding meaning through the internet requires some competence in circumventing its threats. Before we dive into the search for meaning, let’s take a moment to consider some ways to skilfully navigate the web.

Perhaps the most concerning effect of the internet on individuals is the way it triggers an intermittent reward system. In such a system an individual receives just enough rewards at continual intervals to keep them returning to the system over and over again. Of course, it is not hard to see how the internet acts as an intermittent reward system, with its never-ending web of distractions.

Read my article about quitting social media to learn more about the effects of the internet.

To prevent falling prey to ‘distraction disease’ while finding meaning on the internet, here are a few basic tips for navigating the internet intentionally.

  • Clear digital clutter regularly, such as newsletter subscriptions, bookmarks and search history to minimise distraction.

  • Set boundaries around your internet use to guard your focus and time. Give yourself time to enjoy its blessings, but make sure to give yourself plenty of time away from the screen.

  • Use the internet with a clear aim in mind. Only open your browser with a particular intention and be mindful of avoiding any distractions or detours that will cause you to zone out.

How to find meaning in a digital age

The internet holds the collective knowledge on humanity. But let’s be honest. Most of the internet is filled with superficial, trivial and even vulgar content that does little to inspire, educate or enlighten us. There are endless writings that promise a solution to any problem imaginable in ‘3 easy steps’ and an array of news feeds and social platforms that can satisfy our hunger for information indefinitely. Information is not the same as meaning though, and neither is knowledge the same as wisdom. The flood of information found on the internet does more to foster superficiality and impatience than to inspire deep insights and wisdom.

That is not to say that the internet cannot help to unfold meaning and purpose in our lives. A carefully designed experience in the digital age can help us find connection, understanding and wisdom in ways that were not accessible to previous generations. Here are a few gentle suggestions to finding more meaning when using the internet.

1. Ask better questions

Answers rise and fall to the questions they meet. Finding answers on the internet to humanity’s most moving questions requires you to refine the art of asking questions. This requires you to think well about the type of content you would like to find that could help you cultivate meaning and wisdom. Keep in mind that good questions don’t have to solve anything. They are only there to be pondered and reflected on. Meaningful answers should ideally do the same. Rather than searching for ‘how to find meaning in life’ try searching for ‘why is meaning so difficult to find’ and see the different thoughts that people offer on this question. Don’t look for a definitive answer but see if the writings help you to live more comfortably within the questions. Remember that if a question on a complex topic elicits an easy answer, you probably didn’t ask the right question.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Google is set up to provide trivial answers. Search engines are designed to immediately give you what you were looking for, which works better for discovering facts than for finding meaning. Since Google will favour writings that offer instant gratification, even on questions about purpose, success and happiness, it is no wonder that website owners and online magazines produce so many ‘3 simple steps’ articles. It is not because they believe happiness can be found in three simple steps (one would hope), but because they know this is only way to compete for the top spots in the search results. Besides crafting your questions carefully, keep in mind that the most helpful articles may not be found on the first page of Google’s search results.  

2. Consume better content

The easiest way to consume content that you know will inspire, educate or move you is by curating a list of platforms and magazines that have previously sparked deep insights in you. That way you can come back to these platforms from time to time and discover new websites in the recommendations these platforms suggest. Bear in mind that you do not have to read every article of your favourite online magazine or listen to every suggested podcast recommended by your favourite blogger. Be selective, even with the platforms or people you trust to provide you with in-depth content. Meaningful content should provide you with insights that you can carry over to the offline world to ponder over or pour into heartfelt conversations.

Not sure where to start? These are some places I recommend.

Onbeing.org
Brainpickings.org
sloww.co

I believe a crucial key to unfolding meaning in our lives is cultivating kindness. The internet can help us to cultivate such kindness. Research has found that certain movies elicit a feeling of ‘elevation’, or positive inspiration, in us. These movies display characters with moral virtues and acts of kindness. They shift our worldviews from a cynical one to one where we believe we can be active participants in the abundant kindness around us.

I might be stretching the research a little here, but I don’t assume this effect is exclusively held for movies. Try and find some platforms that share positive and uplifting stories and see if they help you cultivate kindness in your heart.

Not sure where to start? These are some places I recommend.

goodnewsnetwork.org
greatergood.berkeley.edu

3. Contribute with intention

Contribution is another key element of a meaningful life. Asking ourselves how to cultivate meaning in the digital age should therefore contain an aspect of contribution. Most of us are not only keen consumers of the internet, but also contribute to the ever-expanding web of information. Start thinking intentionally about the things you share online, whether it is through blog posts, Instagram images or Facebook updates. It (hopefully) goes without saying that you should always speak kindly on the internet. But also think about the message you want to put out in the world. Are you sharing with integrity? Are you uplifting others or fostering a gentle and kind community? A good benchmark for deciding what content to share online is asking yourself if the content aligns with your values. For example, my values are tenderness, courage and depth and I try to only write articles on my blog that align with one of these values. (This article aims to align with the value of depth.)

To find your own core values, have a look at this article I wrote.

Closing thoughts

I am not saying trivial articles don’t have their place on the internet. I follow a few bloggers who share personal, but often superficial stories about their lives and I deeply value the entertainment, connection and positivity they bring to my days. Not every interaction with the internet has to be profound. But I hope that I have given you some suggestions to find the pockets of deep insights that lay hidden in the web of distraction and a reminder to take what you find on the internet offline more often to mull it over on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Want a little more inspiration? Why not check out the resources below:

Radhanath Swami – How to find spiritual connection (TED Talk)
Maria Popova – Mapping meaning in a digital age (Podcast episode)

Clarissa DeanComment