• Nicholas Pihl

Welcome to the Digital World

If you want to understand the last 4 decades of technology, consider the following thought experiment. “Ignoring everything connected to a screen, if you look around your house, what do you see there that wouldn’t have existed 40 years ago?” Make a list before you continue. Odds are, it’s a short list. Mine includes a miniature speaker, some “athleisure” wear, and LED lights. Not much worth writing home about to 1980. By contrast, between 1900 and 1940 you saw the adoption of indoor plumbing, electric lighting, refrigeration, automobiles, commercial aircraft, air conditioning, radio, washing machines, coffee filters, hair dryers, frozen food, movies with sound, ballpoint pens, and the electric guitar. The modern world was built in those decades. I would argue that over the last 40 years, we have been building another world of equal or greater importance. The virtual world. To appreciate that, just recall the first part of my question, “ignoring everything connected to a screen…” Sure, “the screen” hasn’t changed in any profound way, but I think the fact that we spend such a large and growing amount of time staring into it suggests an increasingly rich world on the other side. Think about your life. Like me, you have probably found a growing portion of your attention drawn into that virtual world. Your relationships have been intermediated by social media. Your mental bandwidth has migrated to the world of podcasts and streaming music. You spend evenings inside Netflix. If you’re under 25 and male, it is statistically likely that you do more socializing within video games than in person (especially during Covid). This has a few implications, but only one that I’ll delve into here. The most important thing is that your identity in the digital world has become just as important as your identity in the physical world. Especially for the self-employed, your online reputation is more visible and more frequently examined than your physical self could ever be. This can be powerful for getting your message out. At the same time, you are now expected to have a message worth getting out, something that will set you apart from the other 4.67 billion people online. The beauty of this is that it has never been easier to connect with interesting people. There are huge, unstructured communities centered around shared interests, where people share endless gigabytes worth of ideas, memes, and art. In fact, many engage with these communities more habitually and more frequently than they use the bathroom. These shared discussions can lead to thought-provoking connections that would never have happened if you’d been required to encounter one another in person and stumble onto that topic organically.

This is all the more reason to write a blog, start a youtube channel, or host a podcast to put yourself out there. In fact, I have several friends I met through my podcast who I’ve never (or rarely) met in real life, but who I stay in touch with. This sort of thing just isn't unusual anymore; it's become normal, even preferable to starting relationships in the real world. The reason for this is the tremendous search-ability of the online world. Increasingly, people are not only open to these kinds of relationships, but actively invite them because they offer the easiest way to connect with someone who shares their interest in a niche topic. You can always meet up in person later, if you'd like, but the world has become so big and full of information that you almost have to make that first connection digitally. If finding the right people in the physical world is like finding a needle in a haystack, then the digital world is like ordering a package of "size 12 sewing needles, $2.49" off of Amazon. For example, on my podcast, I’ve recorded numerous conversations with my friend, Chris Kiefer who I originally met through yet another podcast guest. We live 6 hours apart, making any real-world friendship unlikely on its own. Yet, we share a set of values that few of our other friends do. We are fascinated with the pursuit of purpose (Chris literally named his podcast “Pursuit of Purpose”) and see our business goals as fundamental to supporting our life goals. We do our podcasts to help show other people the wealth of possibilities out there and to help inspire people to pursue their own paths. I’m thankful for this relationship. To summarize, it doesn’t make sense anymore to ignore the online world, because the digital world is changing the way we develop the most vital of all resources: relationships with other humans. Whether friendship, romantic engagement, or business connection, our ability to thrive depends on our ability to discover and nurture relationships that matter. Nothing has changed in terms of the importance of relationships, or our desire for connection. It's just that now, more and more of them are starting online. We’re still in the middle of something big. The sooner you embrace that, the more you'll get out of it.

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