Human Philosophy vs Artificial Intelligence
If technology is affecting your quality of life, you might be looking for an antidote to the poison. There is one, and it is not an app — the solution can be found in philosophy that persisted offline through the centuries.
Unlike Big Tech that sacrifices our wellbeing for profitability, philosophy literally means “love of wisdom”, and its purpose has always been to help us live a good life.
People throughout history found one branch of philosophy especially helpful to keep themselves together while dealing with hard situations. Given that today’s digital technologies are intentionally designed to make us fall apart into heaps of depression, anxiety, and anger, we could benefit from the same techniques.
Philosophy best suited for the task of digital resilience is Stoicism. It originated in ancient Greece and Rome over 2,000 years ago, with Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius as its most famous authors.
The Stoics believed that a happy life is a virtuous life, based on four Stoic virtues: Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, and Justice.
To design a good life, to respond well to bad situations, one has to start with these virtues. The idea here is cultivating the best in our human nature.
What is the alternative offered to us by the attention economy that built its entire business model on emotional reactivity and the very worst in human nature?
Life based on Stupidity, Impulsivity, Helplessness, and Prejudice?
That’s the life many of us are living on our digital platforms.
The more we engage with digital media, the more it undermines our character and with it, our wellbeing. Assuming the industry is not going to change (it will likely get much worse), and the government will not help us (when did they ever), what can we do as individual users to protect ourselves?
It’s not a small task to outsmart sophisticated AI with our limited human brain, but if we care about our happiness, we owe it to ourselves to try. Stoic habits of mind can help restore our digital wellbeing.
Let’s investigate how an individual can weaponize ancient philosophy against modern technological manipulation.
Stoic Virtue #1: WISDOM
What is Wisdom?
Wisdom is understanding the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and choosing good to guide our actions.
“Wisdom they define as the knowledge of things good and evil and of what is neither good nor evil… knowledge of what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent.” — Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers
How Digital Media Undermines Wisdom:
- Degrades the brain. Replacing sensory inputs with virtual ones interrupts normal brain development, creating permanent neurological damage to cognitive abilities.
- Destroys the mood. High digital media usage is strongly correlated with depression.
- Distorts reality. Misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news prevent us from making sense of the world.
- Distracts. Digital distractions compromise our ability to think deeply, focus, and pay attention.
- Prevents exchange of ideas. Isolates people from opposing views in digital echo chambers.
Stoic Solutions for Wisdom:
- Stop and think before you click
- Only worry about things you can control
- Base your judgment on values, not trends
- Do what is right — not what “feels right”
Viktor Frankl said in his Holocaust survival memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
Is it wise to click on the news headline that is clearly clickbait designed to enrage? Is it wise to waste our life following shallow celebrities on Instagram? Is it wise to engage in a pointless spitting match with an angry stranger online? When our digital choices are informed by wisdom, we take action — or refrain from it. Clarity about right and wrong means a better life.
Digital media wants us to be reactive, but wisdom instructs us to stop and think before we click.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own” — Epictetus
This means that we are to take action only if there is something we can do about the problem. If not, it’s wise to simply accept what is. What are the things in our control? Our thoughts and actions. That’s it. What is not in our control?
- Other people’s opinions on social media
- Manipulative advertisers
- World events and the onslaught of the news
- Everything else.
Here is how Epictetus sums it up:
- “We should always be asking ourselves: ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’”
- “What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgments about these things.”
- “Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.”
When we follow the advice of the Serenity prayer — to change the things we can change, accept the things we cannot change, and have the wisdom to know the difference — that’s really the only way to achieve contentment and focus on our goals. Without such a philosophy of life, we can easily be pulled in a thousand different directions by manipulative digital media and end up in dysfunctional rabbit holes of toxic content.
The danger here is that we accomplish nothing, feel anxious and helpless, and simply waste our life.
Stoic Virtue #2: TEMPERANCE
What is Temperance?
Temperance is another word for moderation. It is our ability to control our emotions and refrain from excessive consumption. Temperance is discipline. Temperance, simply put, is self-control.
“Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” — Marcus Aurelius
“You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.” — Seneca
How Digital Media Undermines Temperance:
- Makes us addicted
- Displaces healthy human activities
- Destroys self-control
- Compromises productivity
- Sucks up time
- Breeds emotional reactivity
- Stirs envy and social comparison
- Makes us desire things we do not need
There is no moderation in our consumption of technology. The attention economy designed it to be a bottomless pit to have us glued to the screens at the expense of every other human activity. Not only does it destroy our peace, it also robs us of time that we should give to our families, work, and self-care. Time that’s irreplaceable. So the question of moderation, of claiming back our time from technology becomes existential.
Temperance, then, seems to be the best solution to the problem of digital distractions, after all, self-control is completely free and always available inside your own head. Just resolve to ignore digital temptations, how hard can this be?
Bad news: self-control does not work when it comes to addictive technology powered by the complex AI whose main task is to break down your willpower at the subconscious level.
Stoic Solutions for Temperance:
- Become your own attention engineer
- Be selective in your tech tools
- Don’t multitask
- Avoid extremes
- Don’t fall for more, but be content with less
Digital media wants addictive engagement from us, but the science of behavior design they use to achieve this can go both ways. They engineer our bad habits to engage us with their apps, we can respond with good habits to disengage from them. When we design our environment so access to addictive tech is hard or impossible, we circumvent our weak human nature with life hacks.
We become our own attention engineers. For now we can still physically separate ourselves from our devices, delete that app, block WiFi, and thus automate the virtue of temperance so that we behave AS IF we had self-control, even if we don’t. Discipline is a practice, not a character trait. Big Tech has not put a wire in our heads — yet.
Our excessive consumption of digital media is the opposite of temperance. We are drinking from the firehose. We are on multiple social media platforms, and it is overwhelming. My daughter, who does not have a smartphone, is grateful to opt out of group chats with thousands of messages per day. I do not know how kids these days can accomplish anything while keeping up with online chatter.
Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, calls this trap “any benefit approach” — if there is anything remotely interesting happening on the platform, we jump in, disregarding the costs to our time and sanity. What he suggests instead is the craftsman’s approach to selecting our digital tools: use the platform only if benefits outweigh the costs. Temperance in action.
Greg McKeown in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less emphasized that the path to achievement is in concentrating our effort on one essential task instead of wasting it in a thousand different directions and getting nowhere. Let’s close all those other tabs while we work.
Another danger to temperance is extremes of any kind, and extremes are exactly what is being magnified by digital media for maximum user engagement. Extreme political opinions from the left and from the right. Every issue is black or white, “for us or against us”. There is no compromise, no nuanced thinking.
Online experience is all about extreme pleasure of digital fun and extreme pain of digital anxiety.
The philosopher would be wise to disengage from such user engagement.
Stoic temperance also advocates for LESS, which is directly opposed to the instant gratification culture of digital media. The Internet wants us to get MORE — attention, money, possessions — the Stoics teach us to be content with what is. Online advertisers would not want us to become philosophers. They need to sell stuff, so they need users to be perpetually dissatisfied.
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” — Epictetus
Social media quantifies our worth in Likes — Stoic philosophy abhors the desire for fame. How many likes and followers are enough to feel good about ourselves? The answer should be none. Otherwise we hand over control over our happiness to Facebook, and their track record of making people happy is not good.
“When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.” — Epictetus
Stoic enjoyment does not depend on approval of others, on having the right stuff, or on favorable circumstances. Stoics delight in what they have and if it’s taken from them, move on to delight in what’s left, first and foremost — their character, which no one can ever take away.
Stoic Virtue #3: COURAGE
What is Courage?
Courage is bravery, endurance, and honesty. It is standing up for what is right, even at risk to ourselves. Another name for courage is fortitude: one remains strong and in control of their emotions, especially in challenging situations.
“Persist and resist.” — Epictetus
“If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.” — Marcus Aurelius
How Digital Media Undermines Courage:
- Deplatformed and silenced: suffer economic and reputational damage if your beliefs are deemed politically incorrect
- Intolerance of dissent: difference of opinion is not allowed within digital echo chambers
- ”Cancel culture”: punishes those who dare to speak out. Conformity rules.
- Algorithmic discrimination: anything you say will be used against you — forever
- Compromised democracy: expressing views online becomes dangerous
- Digital reputation: easily destroyed, no right to be forgotten
Courage is a hard sell in the digital world. How do you stand up for what is right when everyone is living in their own custom-made filter bubble of algorithmically curated content? Everyone has their own truth. Or their own lies — which does not matter as long as it’s “viral”.
If you stay true to your principles, they will offend somebody and you will get “canceled”. With a large enough audience that is a guaranteed outcome. Someone would wake up in a bad mood and forget to take their pills, and your principles would become a convenient target for their rage.
Courage will cost you.
You may not be physically killed by your enemies like Seneca was by the deranged Roman emperor Nero, but your online self will be damaged when you voice an unpopular opinion. In places like Russia you can be imprisoned for a social media post opposing the government. So for self-preservation, people stay silent — and who can blame them? In America you may not face imprisonment if someone does not like your views, but be prepared to lose your job.
One can argue that political persecution under totalitarian regimes and the “cancel culture” in Western democracies are different degrees of the same phenomenon.
Once labeled “enemy of the state” by an online scandal, algorithmic discrimination would follow you for the rest of your life. And since our professional and personal lives are now almost 100% dependent on our online personas, by standing for what you believe in, you’re dead.
Stoic Solutions for Courage:
- Say little
- Ignore the critics
- Cultivate intrinsic worth
There is no easy answer to the question of courage online. There seem to be only two options: keep your views to yourself, or develop a thick hide.
Let the nasty comments roll off you. The brighter the light, the more bugs it attracts. But be prepared for catastrophic consequences. If you voice unpopular opinions that someone deems politically incorrect, you can be fired, expelled, and publicly shamed by millions. Each one of us can be lynched online.
Forget the first and fifth amendment to the US Constitution, those that talk about the freedom of speech and the right to not incriminate yourself. Everything we say can and will be used against you.
When everyone’s digital footprint is a minefield, it’s in our self-interest to keep it as empty as possible. Any opinion could be misinterpreted. I advise my children to practice caution and stay offline. Maybe, the Stoics would call this cowardice.
Or maybe not, because they believed in speaking little, and only saying things of value. They would not approve of the many empty words filling our screens.
“I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.” — Cato
Another antidote to persecution for courage is our intrinsic self-worth, which should stand independent of online public opinion. Our value as a human cannot be “canceled” no matter what we have done, no matter what anyone thinks of us on social media. Even when we are stripped of our dignity on digital platforms, our human dignity remains. We can choose the courage to face our digital misfortune, to hold on to our values, to stand alone and offline. People survived concentration camps with this attitude.
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” — Seneca
Stoic Virtue #4: JUSTICE
What is Justice?
“Cancel culture” is not justice, it’s a lynch mob. For the Stoics, the virtue of justice meant treating people fairly, controlling your anger, and serving others.
“And a commitment to justice in your own acts. Which means: thought and action resulting in the common good.” — Marcus Aurelius
“Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.” — Epictetus
How Digital Media Undermines Justice:
- Anger-provoking content to increase user engagement
- Cruelty to others, false sense of anonymity
- Lack of empathy as digital media replaces real relationships
- Algorithmic bias by race, gender, religion, politics, and everything else
- Divisive views developed in digital isolation
- Toxic comparisons of digital facades: I am better than you!
The idea of justice persisted through the centuries: from the Christian Golden Rule (Treat others the way you want to be treated), to the Hippocratic Oath of doctors (Do No Harm), to the civil rights movement.
The other three virtues of Wisdom, Temperance, and Courage are about us, but Justice is about others. It’s about subordinating our self-interest to the greater good.
Stoic Solutions for Justice:
- Do good deeds online to serve others
- Be kind
- Don’t respond to provocations
- Take it offline
- Overlook the offense
How would you treat your fellow user online?
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” — Seneca
Kindness has found abundant expression online. Technology is used for the good of humanity. There are support groups for every kind of misfortune — disease, war, oppression, poverty, discrimination, disability, grief. There is fundraising for every good cause under the sun. There is organizing, volunteering, and donating, all made easier by technology.
But how good are we at controlling our anger online? According to Seneca, “All cruelty springs from weakness.”, and the algorithms have found how to get each of us “triggered” by exposing our fight-or-flight animal brain to inflammatory content. Attention economy exploits extreme emotions for profit. Keeping us enraged makes a pile of money for social media. It also wrecks our peace of mind and destroys relationships.
On Telegram channels that manage to stay civil, good chat moderators remind people to be respectful to each other and not deviate from the purpose of the discussion into mutual accusations, which we humans tend to do in digital spaces.
Perceived anonymity of online interactions brings out the worst in us. How do you oppose an online culture where moral definitions of good and evil no longer exist, where “you do you”, even if it hurts others? The remedy is to imagine the communication as happening face to face. If you still feel that justice is being violated by you or your opponent, and you both are becoming angry — stop the exchange or, if possible, take it offline.
“The greatest remedy for anger is delay.” — Seneca
This is golden advice. Do not text right back. Do not hit “Reply All”. Do not rant in the comments. Wait. Sleep on it, so you do not regret impulsive angry words that would stay online forever and breed more injustice.
“The best answer to anger is silence.” — Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius had never been on social media, but he suggests a solution of how to be kind to those who make us angry: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
So there you have it — we are all imperfect, and those who offend us online have…issues. The philosopher should have compassion and overlook the offense.
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius
Digital Resilience for the Virtuous
When digital media triggers negative emotions and undermines our values, we should follow the advice of Marcus Aurelius and use “Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance — now, at this very moment — of all external events.”
Stoics never expected people and circumstances to be perfect. On the contrary, they developed psychological techniques to deal with life when it’s hard. They expected troubles to be the natural course of events. Today, troubles find us online.
Take algorithmic bias. Any decision making process presided by an algorithm is by definition discriminatory, because the data that drives it separates humans into categories. Each human is judged by characteristics that describe them, and even if obvious culprits like race and gender are removed, other variables remain. Without algorithmic transparency, the machine could deny you a job and you would never know why.
Colleges admit students, and companies hire employees by algorithmic quotas, not by merit. Racism turns to reverse racism. Groups of people that are prioritized or marginalized might change, but the bias remains. It’s still the same old injustice, but it now happens inside the algorithmic “black box”, not accountable to anyone.
What can we do about any of this as individuals? We cannot expedite government regulation of tech. We cannot change the extractive nature of the attention economy. According to the Stoic dichotomy of control, we can only control our own attitude. How we engage with technology, and what sources of wisdom we choose.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” — Marcus Aurelius
In a world where our choices and feelings are increasingly corrupted by invasive and manipulative AI, ancient virtues provide clarity and guardrails against new technological harms that invade every area of our life.
Philosophy does not fit well with modern 3-second attention spans. It cannot compete with TikTok videos. But for those who choose to work on their value system, philosophy, the “love of wisdom”, is a timeless blueprint for a life well lived.
When we let Stoic virtues guide us, we choose to control our thoughts and actions, and let go of anxiety about everything else. And even if no one notices and appreciates our good behavior online, that’s ok. It’s enough that we became a better person and made the digital world a slightly better place.
Self-gratification is popular, maintaining good character is not. They are not mutually exclusive though — virtues protect our wellbeing, therefore character and self-interest are very much aligned. Virtue guards us against the worst influences of the digital world. Online trolls attacked us? Their problem, not ours. We can’t change their nature, but we can certainly attend to our own and respond with dignity, or better yet, not respond at all.
Virtues protect our peace of mind. Digital stressors will only multiply, but nobody ever lived free of trouble. Stoicism was created to help people face any hardship, stay joyful, and keep living their best life.
“What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly?” — Epictetus
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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