the challenge of life planning in a digital age

I just got back from the CSO workshop in Paris where I gave a paper on the challenge of flourishing amidst variety. My interest is in how social digitalisation ‘opens up’ the archive, albeit in a deeply uneven way, as well the implications this has for the process of shaping a life. 

However the paper needed a bit of work in order to elucidate the mechanism connecting these two factors. I’ve argued that the digitalisation of the archive tends to create more awareness of alternative ways of looking at the possibility available to a subject at a given point in time. The missing concept here could be what Daniel Little terms ‘space of choices’ in this insightful post on life planning:

A life plan isn’t like this, however. Consider the space of choices that confronts the 20-year old college student Miguel: what kind of work will satisfy me over the long term? How much importance will I attribute to higher income in twenty years? Do I want to have a spouse and children? How much time do I want to devote to family? Do I want to live in a city or the countryside? How important to me is integrity and consistency with my own values over time? These kinds of questions are difficult to answer in part because they don’t yet have answers. Miguel will become a person with a set of important values and commitments; but right now he is somewhat plastic. It is possible for him to change his preferences, tastes, values, and concerns over time. So perhaps his plan needs to take these kinds of interventions into account.

The space of choices can become overwhelming for contemporary adolescents, as well as complicating the relationship between perceived choice and materially feasible possibilities. Coupled with an increase pace-of-change which means that stable circumstances cannot be relied upon in any domain of social life, other strategies for shaping a life may be necessary, as Little suggests:

It is worth asking whether life plans actually exist for anyone. Perhaps most people’s lives take shape in a more contingent and event-driven way. Perhaps guided opportunism is the best we are likely to do: look at available opportunities at a given moment, pursue the opportunity that seems best or most pleasing at that point, and enjoy the journey. Or perhaps there are some higher-level directional rules of thumb — “choose current options that will contribute in the long run to a higher level of X”. In this scenario there is no overriding plan, just a series of local choices. This alternative is pretty convincing as a way of thinking about the full duration of a person’s life, as any biographer is likely to attest.

There are simply too many contingencies to plan for. I explored two possible responses to this some time ago, looking at the strategies of Ken Gergen and the CEO of Spotify. The former advocates embracing the situation, while the latter aims to enact five year long missions:

Ek describes himself as “missionary,” by which he means he likes to formulate five-year missions for himself. “That’s how I think about life,” he said. “Five years is long enough for me to achieve something meaningful but short enough so I can change my mind every few years. I’m on my second five-year commitment on Spotify. In two years, I will have to make my next one. I will need to ask myself if I still enjoy what I’m doing. I’m kind of unusual that way, but it gives me clarity and purpose.”