Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Moral Consequences of Television, Video Games and Smartphones

In my last article, I started to explore a little the changes in the approach to morality that may have to take place today in order for people to maintain their human essence in the face of modern technological living environments filled with rapid technological change.  There is a basic kind of change that we should consider in order to develop appropriate moral postures for today.  Just as the content in our living environments is dramatically different from the periods of history when most modern religions were created, so we may need some different content in our moral rules today.  There are not too many fully developed analogies from traditional living environments that we can use for developing proper moral postures in order to maintain our humanity in sensorily distorted technological living environments.  There are no fully developed analogies from traditional living environments that we can use for developing proper moral postures to movies, television, radio, computers, smart phones and robots as technological entities.  The revelations from traditional religions proclaim eternal application, but the living environment is the template for human interaction, and different living environments trigger very different kinds of behavior.  Some of the kinds of behavior generated from technological environments have uniquely destructive aspects.  There is a moral dimension to sitting hour after hour in front of a television, if it results in a person’s loss of capacity to be with himself and to develop a rich interior life.  There is a moral dimension to a child sitting hour after hour with a video game, if it means the child never develops an appreciation for reading books and means that the child never develops the capacity for critical thinking.  There is a moral dimension to the extensive use of a smartphone by a teenager, if it results in his loss of capacity to properly develop and maintain face-to-face social relationships.

Modern technology has created life situations that the founders of traditional religions could never have imagined.  Not only do technological environments trigger kinds of behavior, as a result of sensory distortion, that traditional environments never did, but computers, smartphones and robots generate human interactions with them, as a result of unique configurations of stimuli, that are very different from human interactions with other animals, with plants and with geological and climatological phenomena.  And yet we continue to expand the technological environment and to fill it with more and more complex technological entites that are supposed to serve the greater human need.

What are some of the categories of human needs within the greater human need that technology is supposed to serve?  One is to make human life easier, more frictionless, as a part of a greater sense of transcendent control over the living environment.  This means diminishing hard physical work, diminishing drudge housework, and diminishing drudge paper work in an office.  But as more and more categories of human work get taken over by machines, there is less and less experiential connection between people and their living environments.  People end up floating in an experiential vacuum along with all the complex technological entities.  They become numb from the vacuum and jaded from knocking into all the clusters of other free-floating figures in the vacuum.  To survive, they become hardened like a robot.  And that means losing something of their human essence.

So in certain ways, to make life easier is actually to make life as a balanced human more difficult.  And people have to develop moral postures to help them in dealing in small ways with the threats to their humanity.

One category of human needs relates to creating alternate worlds that appear eternal, because they are free from organic perishability.  This includes all the modern consumer technology that gives people a sense of control over their living environment by creating shrunken alternate worlds.  Immersing oneself in the fields of experience created by these technological entities gives one a true sense of being able to live for eternity.  But in living in these alternate worlds, one has less and less time to make and preserve imprints on the surfaces of the primary experience world and so to prepare for death with a proper surrogate immortality.  One lives deluded in a false experiential world of eternity, until one is about to die and he realizes that he has left a minimum of meaningful imprints as a realistic and solid preparation for death.

So in certain ways, to make life seemingly more eternal, actualy makes it more vulnerably mortal.  The eternity on a movie screen, a tv screen, a computer screen and a smartphone screen is an illusion.

Another category of human needs relates to creating medicines through modern technology as well as machines that prolong human life.  This includes medicines that help to keep people alive from chronic health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and Alzheimer’s.  It includes machines to keep people alive and functioning like dialysis machines, breathing machines and prosthetic limbs.

This is a very noble category of technology that would appear to have only positive consequences.  However, two concerns must be noted.  Keeping more and more people alive longer and longer means contributing to the overpopulation on our planet that not only puts our planet at risk as a living environment, because of pollution and diminishing non-renewable resources, but that also creates increasing sensory distortion, which reduces the quality of our lives.  Sensory distortion makes it more difficult to make and receive the imprints that help us feel alive as well as to preserve the imprints that help us prepare for death.  It is not only the physical damage to our planet that could make it unlivable.  It is also very much the sensory distortion.

We are in a moral bind.  Certainly doctors and scientists are going to continue to do everything that they can to lengthen human life and to increase the biological quality of human life.  This is based on our fundamental belief in most of the world  in the dignity of each human life.  And yet there is a question of what does it mean to live longer and with continued high functionality, while at the same time living with diminished quality of experience.  And here I am not talking about the diminished quality of experience that comes from limitations imposed by a health problem.  I am talking about the limitations imposed by the diminished quality of experience imposed by the external environment.  When it gets too bad, the sensory distortion can contribute to impoverishing life experience.

This leads us to the possibilities created by the next category of human needs.  There is one category of creating an alternate “eternal” world that would appear to be almost completely positive.  This is the category of space travel both to explore other galaxies and solar systems and perhaps to find other planets to which to move, should the planet earth become too physically damaged, too overpopulated and/or too sensorily distorted.  Space travel could be the key to preserving the human imprint, if not for eternity, at least for as long as our universe exists.

If keeping the human essence alive can be considered an important moral principle, at a time when the destruction of human grounding on the present planet which humans inhabit is a real possibility, then space exploration and travel must be considered a moral use of technology.

However, even within space travel, humans must examine different aspects in order to develop appropriate moral postures.  All this is new.  Analogies from the examples given in traditional religious texts may hold in some cases, but, in other cases, they will be tenuous at best.

It is so important that humans drop their uncritical acceptance of every new technological device or application that comes on the market and start developing new moral criteria for dealing with them.  If anything, some serious critical thinking has to be done on an ongoing basis to deal with the accelerating pace of technological development.  We need people who can understand the nuances and consequences of different technological developments, and who can form appropriate judgments as to the circumstances for the use of a given development in technology, if at all.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow

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