Some of my readers may wonder why I don’t focus more on direct solutions to the problem of sensory distortion from modern technological environments. By direct solutions, I mean moving back to those natural environments that remain, back to the land, back to rural communities. Even if it means having to settle for a job that doesn’t pay well, at least one can benefit psychologically from communing with more organic environments.
But there are problems here, even apart from the fact that there is less and less livable organic space for all the people in our overpopulated world today. First of all, most of us don’t have the physical capacity to do the arduous work of jobs like farming, logging, or raising cattle. Second, most small town jobs today involve using computers - just like everywhere else. And sustained involvement with computers reconfigures our minds, so that we are primarily stimulated to life by discrete technological stimuli. And it is not just computers that transform our minds. Movies, television, video games and smartphones all work to make us feel primarily alive from technological discrete stimuli. And, as a result, we no longer have the psychological capacity to be as receptive to the blendable continual stimuli of nature anymore. We become bored with nature after a short period of contact.
Many people who try to make the shift and return to nature find that they can’t tolerate it and have to return to a more urban setting. They may cognitively feel that it is good for them to live in a natural setting, but on a level of sensation, they are unable to properly connect.
And, in truth, this explains one of the reasons why people all over the world are making the migration from rural to urban settings - a migration opposite to what we have been talking about. It is not just because there are better higher-paying jobs in urban settings. Another reason is that many rural people have been reconfigured to be principally stimulated to life by movies, television, video games, computers and smartphones. And they are no longer as capable of feeling so fully stimulated to life by their more natural surroundings. Nature seems too slow, too low-key, too boring. Many small towns in rural America have become centers of synthetic drug production. Many people in these towns need alterations in their mental states in order to come to life. With their technological addictions, people have become psychologically ungrounded, even though they are surrounded by rich organic grounding. And, as a result, they have difficulty absorbing the rich organic stimulation that surrounds them.
What this means is that modern technology has the capacity to create an urban mentality even outside of an urban environment. The screens of the movie theater, the television, the video game, the computer and the smartphone have become worlds unto themselves in which people dwell. And these worlds have displaced and replaced the natural world of primary experience as the primary sources of stimulation for most people in modern technological society. This is particularly true for people in rural communities who don’t have extensive technological living environments to also act as a major source of technological discrete stimuli.
Perhaps a better approach to the goal of starting to commune more with nature might come from finding ways of first becoming more mentally receptive again to nature. And this means reconfiguring our minds to become more receptive to continual stimuli again through smaller more contained less overwhelming patches of continual stimuli. This means getting more involved with smaller primary experiences: face-to-face encounters with people, day visits to parks and forest preserves, and, of course, the arts and the humanities, and involvement with one‘s culture. It means spending gradually less time with the electronic screens and the kinds of experiences that they offer.
What I am talking about is diminishing the effects of an addiction to technology. Unlike a drug or alcohol, which people usually can truly get away from entirely, modern technology, for better or worse, has become an essential element in the proper functioning of human society. So people today cannot totally break the habit of technology. Nevertheless, they can find a way of changing the proportions of time that they spend in more organic primary experience and in more technological mediated experience. Primary experience has to become a focus in life for mental health, much as physical exercise and a proper diet have become goals for achieving good physical health.
On another level, people can start thinking of ways of reconfiguring their minds to be more receptive to nature. One thing is to break away from an addiction to the mechanical order that modern technology tends to create. Try to spend as much time as possible free of scheduled slotted tasks in scheduled slotted time. People used to love to have adventures where they would leave themselves open to the randomness of unmeasurable blendable continual stimuli in unmeasurable blendable continual experiences. Adventures don’t occur when everything is scheduled and slotted.
One reason that people love adventures is that adventures create the opportunity to make, preserve and receive strong organic imprints while having rich vibrant life experiences.
People can feel fully alive and leave the kind of imprints on their fields of experience and, in particular, on other people’s minds that create memories. Strong memories mean a strong surrogate immortality in preparation for death. So adventures are important experiential contributions to a meaningful life cycle.
Even in today’s world of technological addictions, people still have cravings for adventures. And they satisfy these cravings vicariously with television shows and movies. As the opportunity for having adventures in real life diminishes, the craving for more and more intense adventures in fantasy increases. More and more adventures in movies and television are technologically enhanced in a variety of ways. Sometimes it can be as simple as cutting between shortened scenes very quickly, in order to heighten the suspense in detective and mystery shows. Sometimes it has to do with the fantasy weapons and other contraptions that are used by the hero and/or villain. A perfect example here is James Bond and his adversaries. Also, there is Batman and his Batmobile. Sometimes the hero or villain is himself technologically enhanced in order to become a superhero. Spiderman has been the subject of several movie adventures. For a while, there was the Terminator series. Sometimes the whole story is technologically enhanced in the form of a futuristic adventure or a science fiction story. In such a story, technological contraptions - computers, robots, space ships, outer space colonies - are all an intrinsic part of the plot and the setting. Two perfect examples of such stories are the Star Trek series - both television and movie - and the Star War series. At any rate, all of these stories have in common that they create adventures that are far more elaborate and grandiose than any ordinary mortal is ever going to be capable of living. Because of that, people get addicted to living vicariously. They feel they never are going to be able to have adventures like those in movies and television, and that, therefore, their own lives are pretty insignificant. So they never test themselves and do the fundamental things that give life validation and meaning.
When we read books, we have to mentally do the work of translating verbal sentences into images, thoughts and stories. When we read, we create part of the imprint that a book leaves on us. In addition, when we read, we know that our mental elaboration of a story is not the same as the primary experience of living a story, an adventure. But a television show or a movie doesn’t require any complex mental work to bring it to life. One can just sit in front of a television set hour after hour watching stories that mimic the process of life.
And maybe there is a connection between adventures and nature. It doesn’t mean that one can’t have adventures in more urbanized environments. It just means that one leaves rich organic imprints in more organic environments and an adventure is a story that lends itself to leaving rich organic imprints. So an organic environment more easily provides the experiential surfaces for leaving imprints in the narrative of an adventure.
Being programmed to feel alive primarily with technological discrete stimuli does not leave one predisposed to the narrative of adventures. So just returning to nature is not enough to have adventures. One has to find a way of reconfiguring one’s mind to be receptive to continual stimuli and grounded phenomena. If one can do this, then one can not only take advantage of a meaningful life in a more organic environment, but one can have a richer life even in a more technological environment, taking advantage of those more organic aspects and elements that are still available there.
© 2012 Laurence Mesirow