The seed of the philosophy that came to be known as existentialism began in the cafes of Paris following the Second World War when writers and philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir launched their postwar approach to life, one which put forth the idea that one has absolute free choice in all life situations just as long as one is willing to embrace the sometimes terrible price which that sort of limitless freedom might bring. Heavily influenced by the philosophies of those such as Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Friedrich Nietzsche, existentialism sought to confront what Sartre referred to as the nothingness which lays at the center of our beings, a void which can be both terrifying but incredibly liberating as long as one does not try to escape from the burden of free choice which exists at the center of the void; the idea being that one is indeed free to do whatever one wants with his or her life as long as one is first able to realize this basic truth.
Appropriated in this country by members of Beat Generation such as Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, the freedom sought by the Beats had a great deal to do with embracing the same freedom which the existentialists had offered by attempting to live beyond the the restrictive barriers of American society through a rejection of things like a career path to personal fulfillment, exclusive monogamous relationships, or simply the choice to pursue inner fulfillment rather than external success while still living within the fabric of society; with the idea of existential freedom still residing at the core of their culture. Needless to say, the Hippie Generation continued this same search for freedom with consciousness expanding drugs and an incredible message driven rock and roll that caused many young people to move ever further outward beyond the fringes of their society.
However, as time went on, the original existentialists began to die off, while members of the Beat Generation were forced further outward toward the edge of society, where a number of them either conformed or were forced to destroy themselves in some manner (Jack Kerouac through his melancholy use of alcohol, Neal Cassady through hopeless despair). And the counterculture of the Hippies was ultimately destroyed by being fully assimilated into our society (the best way to destroy any alternative culture being to merely assimilate it) until it too no longer existed; its last vestiges remaining until the advent of our current digital age; one that is consistently touted as providing us with a greater degree of freedom by allowing us to communicate with seemingly anyone at any time in transcending the boundaries of time and space.
Yet now, whether or not many of us realize it, there is a new barrier standing between people and the free choice that the philosophy of existentialism touted. Although unlike the barriers of conformity and morality that previous generations had to transcend, this new barrier is entirely internal, part of our very own networks of thought. It is the digital barrier that now very much determines how we remember, learn, and think creatively as a certain subtlety of mind necessary to achieving a larger awareness begins to rapidly disappear. As people become increasingly inured to their use of the Internet to communicate, as well as receive information about their world, the digital networks of powerful search engines are controlling the organic pathways within their brains as those sites increasingly determine not just what information people will have access to, but likewise how they will access it. As a result, learning is ever more becoming a process that originates outside one’s own mind.
As we jump from one website to the next in pursing information or attempting to connect with others, our own networks of thought are becoming increasingly controlled by the algorithms and coding inside those websites which often have as their purpose directing us to certain sites where we will encounter the advertising they wish to sell us. That is, as we sit at our keyboards feeling that we have complete control of our journey through cyberspace in accessing information and knowledge, we really don’t simply because the domains of our searches have been already narrowed in a highly predetermined manner. In point of fact, Google is already experimenting with using organic pathways within the human brain in order to create their own more effective digital pathways. And so, the difference between those two things is sure to begin to evaporate into the realm of a digital world based on how our own thinking mind works even as powerful search engines endeavor to control it by using that same knowledge.
So in today’s age, if people want to genuinely confront the true nature of what it means to be free, in the same manner in which the post-war existentialists, the Beats, and the Hippies of the baby boomer generation confronted it, they’re going to have to dig much deeper. That is, we’re going to have to begin to confront the reality that the new barriers to existential freedom are no longer so much political or social as they are internal; existing in the very ways we communicate, think, and access knowledge and information. In other words, it may well be that our capacity to achieve a larger awareness about our lives is now under assault, more than anywhere, within in our own networks of thought; those that are being rapidly assimilated into digital networks which control them even as we feel that it is still we who are freely finding our ways through the maze of cyberspace.
Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism eventually led to his political action in protest of the French involvements in Algiers, and then the Vietnam War. Jack Kerouac’s revolt took the form of a stream of consciousness writing which began to break down the barriers of a reactionary logic that was part of 1950s America. And the Hippie generation of Ken Kesey and others simply walked away from the entire ladder of career advancement that had always defined success in American society. So what will be the action of those who might be in revolt against the conditioning of our minds that is the result of the current digital age? One suspects that revolt, rather than being political or social, is going to have to be by its very nature psychological and inner-directed. Otherwise, it seems, it will never reach the core of the problem.