I was living in New York City during the summer of 2019 when I received an unexpected call on the phone from someone who introduced herself as the head of the policy team on Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign. The election process was well underway, and they asked if I was interested in interviewing for the position of policy advisor.
I had only been living in the city for 3 months while finishing my degree online and working, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I said yes. A few weeks later I found myself working in campaign headquarters in the heart of Times Square.
I learned a lot working on that campaign, especially about the state of technology and its impending impact on economics and human life. Andrew was an atypical candidate for a lot of reasons but effectively brought to public awareness the fact that AI was already replacing people in the workplace faster than we could compensate for, and would soon be capable of replacing human beings in most industries.
And just recently, AI seemed to make another leap forward in its ability to save people time and effort in the workplace - you may have heard about ChatGPT. ChatGPT is a generative AI chatbot that can do everything from writing college-level essays to composing music, to organizing and planning your next vacation. Upon request it can generate fresh, unique content that doesn’t already exist, in mere moments, and in a way that is astoundingly sophisticated and human-like. Many speculate that jobs in writing or journalism may be on the line as a result of this new technology.
These technological advances have caused people to ask important economic and ethical questions, but I have found myself asking a more human one: in a world where machines and AI can do work faster, more safely and more efficiently than humans, what do humans live for? After centuries of living to work, survive, perform and produce, how would we spend our time? What would be the purpose of our lives?
While this question has become increasingly mainstream, it’s not a new one. Marginalized people who could never win or climb the ladder of success in traditional ways have already known the answer to this question.
We would live for living’s sake, for the intrinsic value of experiencing life.
I first struggled with this concept when I became paralyzed and had far fewer hours and resources a day to “perform”. For my entire life I had been obsessed with productivity and attached my worth to competing and winning. One time when I was in high school my older brother even said “Carson, don’t you do anything that isn’t productive?? Anything just for fun?” Offended, I said, “Of course I do, I stretch all the time, that’s fun for me” (I was working on getting my splits at the time). He didn’t seem to think that counted.
Now having been paralyzed, not only was I suddenly unable to do the splits, but I was unable to compete equally in most areas of life. My self-esteem suffered at first. I felt… useless. But as I usually do in this type of situation, I began an inquiry into the premises of my suffering. Was I really useless? Why did I feel that I have to be “of use” or “useful” in the first place? Are people just tools and machines?
After years of grappling with these questions, I discovered that I had been indoctrinated to believe that I existed to perform and produce. Over time, I began to unlearn this thinking and for the first time in my life, I had the freedom to not be productive - something I would have called laziness before. I rest, I lay down when my body tells me to, and I even play video games (former Carson would have judged me so hard lol).
This is what I learned: we are worthy regardless of what we can do or produce, and living for the sake of living is of value in itself. Consider the most memorable moments of your life - the ones where you feel god, or the universe or something more expansive. Where was it? What were you doing?
I bet you were looking at a breathtaking sunset, or having an intimate conversation with a loved one, or having really connected, beautiful sex. I bet it had absolutely nothing to do with producing, and everything to do with being alive and real.
Regardless of what happens with AI in the future, most of us could use more moments of living simply for living’s sake. I am witnessing that more and more people are feeling inner stirrings telling them they are meant for more than work. We are meant to be awake and witness to our miraculous existence. We are meant to experience the remarkable world around us from inside our own skin and with our own eyes.
In the words of Mary Oliver,
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?