The process of writing my articles on an ongoing basis has started to stimulate the evolution of my thinking on the effects of modern technology on living environments and human behavior. This is leading to a fine-tuning of some of my major ideas alongside of simply exploring their ramifications in different areas of human experience. The present article represents an important fine-tuning.
In past articles, I have often referred to how people not only have the capacity to model themselves after parental figures, but also after any entity with complex behavior including animals, complex astronomical, climatological and geological phenomena (like the sun, moon, thunder and mountains), and finally computers and robots. And apart from computers and robots simply playing a larger and larger role in our daily lives, there is a particular reason why humans feel impelled to model themselves more and more on them. It relates to creating fields of experience with seemingly manageable sensory distortion.
As I have discussed, modern technological living environments create fields of experience that alternately overstimulate and undertimulate our primate nervous systems. People bounce back and forth from sensory overstimulation to sensory deprivation in the external world. They try to maintain a sense of equilibrium by creating their own fields of stimulation through speeding up their will with conative acceleration, which leads to a speeded-up flow of activity, and through numbing the will, conative anesthesia, which leads to a kind of slowing down and withdrawal from the external sensory world. Neither one of these responses is a perfect answer. Conative acceleration leads to a kind of personal exhaustion and jadedness from so much overstimulation. Conative anesthesia can lead to a person being in a kind of a living death, withdrawing from any kind of a meaningful life narrative in the external world.
In other words, neither strategy when used regularly allows a person to have a long-term trajectory for an engaging life in the external world. Nevertheless, the advances in technology have allowed for the development of a different kind of solution to the problem of sensory distortion. Sensory distortion basically results from experiencing too much discrete stimulation in the form of static or tension pockets in the external world and too much infinite continuous stimulation in the form of large vacuum spaces in the external world. Another factor is that in a modern technological living environment, there aren’t enough organic blendable continual stimuli from nature to allow a person to feel grounded and to feel fully alive. But modern technology has developed a way of mixing together discrete static stimuli, the potential source of sensory overstimulation and continuous vacuum stimuli, the potential source of sensory deprivation.
With robots, there is an alternation between discrete focused movements on the one hand and vacuum pauses on the other as the robot shifts to another direction or another action. This mode of functioning provides a subtle model for humans. Robots represent a stabilized behavioral entity that functions effectively in the fields of sensory distortion of modern technological living environments.
Computers and smart phones are stabilized sensory living environments on screens. With such living environments, extreme conative reactions are prevented, even though organic grounded environments aren’t present. Mixed together in intricate digital patterns where the use of 1 and 0 parallels the use of discrete stimuli and continuous stimuli, the stimuli experience from a computer or smartphone becomes easily absorbable without provoking an imbalanced reaction. And the computer screen becomes a kind of oasis in a modern technological living environment full of disequilibrating sensory distortion. It becomes a place where a person can regroup and put himself together again sensorily. The sources of sensory imbalance are neutralized by being intricately blended together.
So are computers the source of mental health for people in modern technological society? Not necessarily. Although digital patterning can create a kind of equilibrium in the configurations of stimuli that pass forth on the computer screen, something is missing that is important for human stimulation. I am talking about the organic blendable continual stimuli that are crucial in the presentation of stimuli to humans at a given moment and in the flow of stimuli to humans over time. It is these stimuli that provide grounded coherence to a scene in the external world, and that, in general, provide grounded coherence to the flow of stimuli over time. It is these stimuli that make a given phenomenon more organic rather than technological.
Now defined discrete stimuli and vacuum continuous stimuli are important for giving definition to a particular phenomenon, but blendable continual stimuli are necessary to give a phenomenon coherence. Without these blendable continual stimuli, it is as if the phenomenon is made up of a series of discrete points. Discrete points don’t have the continuity to provide grounding.
Phenomena like computers and robots are flawed models for humans and they provide flawed mirroring. Without blendable continual stimuli, computers and robots lack a coherent core, and they provide images for humans that neither model nor mirror in a way as to provide a strong coherent sense of self.. Human selves that are modeled after objects of modern technology are much more fragile without that sustained stimulation of coherence from the model.
It is simply not enough to have a balanced field of experience in a complex entity that is to be a model. For it to be a strong model, the complex entity also requires organic continual stimuli, something that is not readily present in modern technological devices. Organic continual stimuli are the foundation of emotional bonding among humans, of nurturance for humans that are young and dependent, of flexible guidance as humans gradually grow up and become more independent. Continual stimuli become the core of a strong independent sense of self. Without the coherence provided by continual stimuli, there cannot be a strong sense of independence in a person in modern technological society.
Granted that the discrete stimuli that come from learning and following rules, receiving training and maintaining discipline are also important for developing a strong independent sense of self. But people have plenty of contact with rules and discipline in dealing with the rigid behavior of modern complex technological entities. What is missing is the time needed in nurturing and bonding relations with other humans. To be constantly inundated with a flow of discrete static and continuous vacuum stimuli means that people become defined like machines with little organic coherence. So people develop senses of self that can easily crumble apart in different ways with mental illness. There is no doubt but that the rising awareness of mental illness starting in the nineteenth century, burgeoning in the twentieth century and almost taken for granted in the twenty-first century is, to a great extent, the result of the growing lack of continual stimuli in modern technological living environments, which has led to both a loss of sustained bonding and nurturance between humans as well as a loss of sustained bonding within individual humans. Humans are not like machines, where the parts can be assembled together with relatively tenuous contingent connections. Without strong internal bonding, people fall into neurosis, bipolar disorder, borderline personality, multiple personality and many other disorders. Without strong internal bonding, people fall into process-caused violence. Violence is a way of stimulating a numb person to life as in the process-caused violence of the lone mass murderers in the United States. But one result of being able to shock oneself to life by violence is that a person is temporarily held together. Of course, it doesn’t last long, because blendable continual stimuli are not involved. To be jolted together is not the same as being bonded together.
In truth, the equilibrated digital fields of experience on a computer screen are not a substitute for the rich vibrant fields of experience in a more organic environment in the external world. Without the component of blendable continual stimuli, computers and smartphones create a more subtle form of sensory distortion than that which is found in the macroenvironment of modern technological living environments. Nevertheless, that subtle sensory distortion can have equally harmful effects on human beings.
© 2012 Laurence Mesirow