I am re-reading Max Weber’s classic sociological work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”
The main thesis (as I remember it from grad school) is that the Enlightenment represented a splintering of Worldview such that traditionally shared belief systems about God, humans, and the role of human beings relative to the rest of nature could no longer be taken for granted. As a result, Protestants (guided by the notion of a ‘priesthood of all believers’) began searching for external validation of the extent to which their beliefs and actions were true and good. And the form that external validation took was the creation of wealth.
Fast forward to today, the effects of this shift are felt more than ever before. The proliferation of worldviews that has taken place since the Reformation is tremendous. Everyone is looking for validation. I believe that this need for external validation is at the root of how important social media has become since its invention. And it is most certainly this need for external validation that is responsible for most economic activity in the West.
We want meaning. We want to to be worthy of salvation. And we look for external rewards as a way of signaling in our value.
But all of these signals are ephemeral. The money I make today provides me with validation in the moment, but what about the next? The attention I get on social media provides me with the relief of approval now, but what about later?
We are all striving for evidence of our salvation, even if we don’t have a clear or shared conception of what salvation is. The popularity of super hero movies is a symptom of this widespread neurosis. We all want to be special. We all want to be chosen. We all want proof that ours is a life worth living.