Freedom is a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To those who espouse democracy, it means things like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. To people on the political right it means freedom to grow business without government regulations, freedom to own guns and freedom of the unborn to be born. For people on the political left, it means freedom from hunger, freedom from gun violence and freedom of choice with regard to abortion. In all these cases, the common denominator is an attempt to break away from a situation that is oppressing a person. The person perceives a particular situation as boxing him in, and he conceives of a solution whereby he pushes the box away either in the form of affirmative expression (freedom to do something) or in the form of getting out of the box and escaping (freedom from something).
In the affirmative expression solution, a person pushes to make an imprint against a situation created by other people that would prevent him from leaving the imprint. In the excape solution, a person pushes to avoid receiving an imprint created by other people that a situation is making on him.
In this essay, I would like to explore a situation that is not normally thought of as boxing a person in, and a notion of freedom that is not normally thought about or discussed. This is because the “box” that is boxing people in within this situation has been growing incrementally and is extremely subtle. The freedom under considereation here is the freedom to move about freely when we engage the world. On the surface, this idea may seem like total nonsense. Nobody is directly controlling the way we move, as we move through the world. People aren’t on leashes today nor are they kept in cells (unless they are criminals).
But modern technology is creating a situation today that both prevents people from making their own physical imprints on the world through physical movement and that prevents people from escaping the psychological mechanical marks that it leaves on them. This is because the people who control modern society expect modern technology to be used for fundamental life processes. Blue collar workers have to use industrial machines. Students and office workers have to use computers. Marketers aggressively convince people to use movies, television, computers, video games and smart phones for entertainment and to use complex appliances and other machines for basic household chores and personal care.
Human progress has been gradually configuring our living environments over the last few centuries to shape the way we move and interact with them. The increasing use of more and more complex machines to accomplish our tasks in the world has had a profound effect on our freedom to make physical imprints. In traditional societies, our work consisted of routine jobs whether hunting, gardening, raising animals, farming, fixing things with relatively basic tools, or making things like pots, chairs, houses, boats, carriages and clothing. Because the tools were basic, there was little requirement on the part of humans to make movements in one fixed precise way. Movement of arms and legs could flow, and the different parts of tasks flowed into one another. Human movement could range over space in unpredictable ways. Even routine work could be done somewhat differently from day to day. There was a certain amount of freedom in the way we physically engaged the world through our survival activities. Enough freedom so that there were personal styles of doing things.
As many tasks became increasingly mechanized through the industrial age, people’s encounters with the world through these complex machines began to change as well. Instead of using flowing continual actions to perform tasks, people were increasingly required to use precise discrete actions, performed sequentially to turn on the machine, activate different functions of a machine, and then turn it off. This doesn’t mean that in traditional societies, work wasn’t broken into phases involving different actions. It just means that the phases did not usually have the sharp angular separation from one another as the discrete steps do in modern machine processes. There are different phases to hunting an animal or baking bread, but the phases flow into each other. In terms of the transition to more mechanical human movements, there has been, at first, a transitional time when discrete step-by-step actions were mixed with some flowing continual actions. Cars, vacuum cleaners and electric razors are examples of this mixed dimension machine.
But gradually, there has been a movement to more and more machine actions that are simply based on discrete step-by-step actions. Some of these actions simply involve pressing a series of buttons as in operating a television. Some actions involve the use of levers as with some industrial machines. A lot of these actions are computer-based actions. We can operate all kinds of processes now through computer keys. And computer keys represent the ultimate loss of freedom of movement of our body, and particularly of our hands.
Technology is constricting our movements in our daily lives. By doing this, we are losing the opportunity to unfold a more unique individual sense of self. It is true that all these modern machines are supposed to make life easier by freeing us from strenuous, time-consuming routine actions. But those strenuous, time-consuming routine actions allowed us to develop a physical style to our actions and processes which ultimately resulted in a unique physical imprint that we were able to make in supposedly standardized tasks.
Increasingly automated actions lead to freedom from engagement with the world which leads to floating in an experiential vacuum. Too much freedom from engagement with the external world is not necessarily a good freedom to have. People become boxed in within their mechanical interactions. In other words, boxed in does not have to refer to simply being in overly confined spaces. We can be boxed in through overly restricted movements that prevent our communion with our living environment within a continual flow of space over a continual flow of time. Free-flowing movement is a major way that we can make meaningful imprints on our field of experience.
At this point, it might be appropriate to redefine a model that I had used in previous articles for slightly different circumstances than I am talking about here in this article. The model that I used for dividing up different kinds of stimuli is very appropriate also as a means for understanding different kinds of actions. A discrete action has a fixed trajectory of movement with a defined beginning and a defined ending. For example, there is no significant variation in the way a person hits the different letters and numbers on his smart phone. It is a determinate action. A continual action has a variable trajectory of movement with a poorly defined beginning and a poorly defined ending. The back and forth strokes of a broom on a floor blend into each other and, for that reason, do not have a crisp beginning and a crisp ending. Such an action is an indeterminate action. Finally a continuous action has a totally random trajectory of movement and has no defined beginning and no ending. An object that moves in a pure vacuum will keep moving unless a non-vacuum force intervenes to create friction and slow it down, stop it or deflect it.
The gradual technologizing of our living environment has led to a gradual change in the way we act. Increasingly, human life is shaped by discrete actions, as we use more and more complex machines and computers to control and manipulate the phenomena in our fields of experience. The number of discrete actions available for using these complex machines is less than the number of continual actions available for using more basic tools like brooms and hammers and forks and knives. This again requires going back to a previous article where I talk about different kinds of infinities. Just as the number of points on a line is greater than the number of discrete numbers, so the number of continual actions doing traditional chores and more basic processes involving tools is greater than the number of discrete actions to perform the movements involved with activating and operating a complex modern machine like a computer, a television, an industrial machine, or a robot.
On a smart phone, there is no room for deviation in punching in a letter. Just a slight slip means punching another letter. By increasingly limiting the actions we use for engaging the world to discrete actions, we are sucking the life out of our physical style of movement. We are diminishing our capacity to make and receive physical imprints and thus diminishing our capacity to experience our full humanity.
c 2012 Laurence Mesirow