I have written a lot recently about the form that moral rules have to take in contemporary technological society in order to help people maintain their human essence. I have also written about two ways that moral living environments can be created, in order to protect people from the dangers of technologically-based sensory distortion: through grounded social groups and through grounded mental organic entities like the humanities. And although some content for what to morally avoid to protect our human essence has been implied by my discussions of the consequences of the use of modern technology, there has been relatively little direct discussion of the ways in which people should limit certain activities in order to maintain an organic human sense of self.
Now that we know that the use of modern technology does have some negative long-term consequences, it is time for individuals to reflect on their own personal uses of modern technology and to minimize use wherever possible. I don’t have a formula for when to use and when not to use modern technology. I don’t have a formula for which programs and which apps one should use on one’s computer or smart phone. I do know that people should stop thinking about always using every available labor-saving device and should stop thinking about always using every major device to create more frictionless mediated communication with other human beings. And people should start finding ways to make their own life narratives more rich and vibrant with more primary experience, rather than to sit like vegetables in front of movie screens, television screens or computer screens and watch the life narratives of other people.
Labor-saving devices have been created in order to free people from everything from supposedly exhausting back-breaking work to supposedly boring routine chores. The problem is that traditional work outlets have been an important way we have connected with the external world to make and preserve imprints. As more and more traditional work outlets have been defined as either exhausting or boring, there have been fewer and fewer channels to make and preserve meaningful imprints on the surfaces of our fields of experience and so to feel fully alive and to prepare for death. Supposedly labor-saving devices free up time, energy, and state of mind to use in more meaningful work and more meaningful leisure activities. And yet, for most people, modern technology not only frees up their time, energy and state of mind, but then it superimposes alternate technology-based worlds where people have vegetative mind-numbing work and vegetative spectator leisure activities. Technology increasingly not only frees people from supposedly exhausting back-breaking work and supposedly boring routine chores, but from all meaningful engagement with the external world.
Modern technology creates effortless communication from a distance through computer e-mails, cell phone calls, texting, Skype, Yahoo Messenger, etc. And yet the more people are seduced by modern technology to communicate at a distance, the less likely they are to have meaningful primary experiences that connect them to the external world through bonded human relationships. It is just not the same to engage in a conversation through text messages as it is through face-to-face conversations. But as people engage in more and more technological processes through all of their different technological devices, they gradually lose their capacity to feel as stimulated by organic continual stimuli. People become primed to receive more and more technological discrete stimuli.
In order to retain their human essence, people have got to gradually find the self-discipline to start turning off their televisions, their computers and their smartphones, and to start using all of these modern technological devices less and less. People have to stop being more passive spectators of life and have to find ways to engage the world directly. This means making a point of making time for direct social interaction with people after school and after work. Ideally, it would mean finding ways of introducing more “face time” into the modern office, so that people don’t have to spend all their time sitting in front of a computer.
And people have to stop finding ways to use more and more apps that put order and predictability in their lives. With more and more apps, people lose more and more the flavor and the adventure that comes with a more friction-filled life narrative. Apps remove people from primary experience. They remove people from the opportunities created by chance or luck. One app that people love is the Global Positioning System. With this app, people always know where they are in a geographic sense, and they never have to experience getting lost. But what is wrong with getting lost? Then one has to grapple with the problem in the external world. One has to look at his surroundings and figure out where he is in relation to street signs and landmarks on his route. Or one can ask directions and perhaps strike up a conversation with some interesting people who can tell him where there is a good restaurant in the neighborhood. Such experiences leave a meaningful imprint on a person and make his life more rich and vibrant. Do we always want to make life more simple and streamlined?
If everything is organized for us and done for us by computer programs and by apps, where is the opportunity to receive imprints directly from the external world with its random occurrences that require our spontaneous responses? How do we get to involve ourselves in situations that allow us to receive and to make the imprints that allow us to feel fully alive? How do we get to engage our fields of experience in such a way that we can preserve the imprints that we make?
The Global Positioning System gives people predictable security at the price of a loss of adventure, a loss of engagement with the world, and a loss of an opportunity to feel more richly alive. For those people for whom such losses would be meaningful, now is the time to minimize the use of modern technology to what is necessary for functioning within modern society. It may not be easy to withdraw from dependencies that have developed, because people have become reconfigured to feel stimulated primarily from the discrete stimuli of technology. It is like trying to break an addiction. Modern technology has become, to a great extent, like a drug. However, unlike a drug, people today are only going to be able to partially withdraw from technology, unless they go and live on a desert island far away from contemporary society. Modern technology is too much a part of all of our lives. This partial withdrawal that I am discussing will be difficult. Nevertheless, the rewards of feeling more fully alive and more fully human will make the painful transition worth it.
© 2012 Laurence Mesirow