Psychology in today’s world assumes that the only significant animate agents of impact on human behavior are human. Biological psychology assumes that each person’s own brain chemistry and brain structure is the major cause of his behavior and his problems. Cognitive psychology assumes that each of us learns habits of conduct, and that a person with harmful habits can be retrained. Psychodynamic psychology assumes that family members have a profound influence on an individual’s behavioral traits. All of them focus on the human causality of human behavior.
My assumption is that the artifacts of human culture have evolved to the point where they have a complexity of behavior that exists somewhat independently of humans. This complexity means that these artifacts can no longer be micromanaged like a hammer, a knife or a spoon in a way that they can be used almost as if they were appendages of our hands. Modern technological artifacts have arrived at the point where they are somewhat independent agents. They are somewhat independent in their behavior. They have not yet evolved to the point where they can be perceived as having an emotional existence independent of humans. But their independence in behavior is sufficient such that we can say that people don’t really fully control these new technological artifacts; rather people interact with them. To the extent that modern technological artifacts have somewhat independent behavioral existences, and that people don’t fully control them, it can be said that these artifacts leave patterns of marks on people’s minds as a result of modeling for and mirroring in people’s minds.
I use the term marks in order to indicate that all artifacts leave a different kind of experiential impression on a person’s mind than what an animal leaves. Very simply, an artifact does not have any kind of a coherent mental presence behind the experiential impressions it leaves. An artifact, even a robot, has definition, but it still is the sum of its parts and its defined purposes. An animal is greater than the sum of its parts and defined purposes as a result of its organic cohesion, and certainly humans have a variety of behavior such that they can leave unique impressions on our minds in our encounters with them. And one of these impressions, filled as it is with organic blendable continual stimuli, is more truly unique than a machine impression, because, as I pointed out in one of my early articles, there are different kinds of infinity, and there is a larger infinity of organic blendable continual stimuli in the world than there is of measured defined discrete stimuli. This is analogous to the fact there is a larger infinity of points on a line than the quantity of discrete numbers. And this is why I try to distinguish between the impression left by an artifact, and, in particular, a modern machine, computer or robot, on the one hand, and the impression left by an organism. This is why I call the impression left by an artifact, a mark, implying something more standardized, more remote, less intimate. And why I call the impression left by an animal an imprint, implying something more unique and intimate.
These are by no means meant to be scientific terms relating to the kinds of stimuli an organism might receive in a laboratory. Rather I am dealing with different groupings of stimuli that impact humans in daily life in different ways. A machine is more of a defined figure dominated by defined discrete stimuli, while a human is more of a figure with blurry boundaries and a large proportion of more organic blendable continual stimuli. And with these different groupings of stimuli, it explains why machines, on the one hand, and humans, on the other, leave different kinds of impressions on the human mind.
In spite of this distinction, modern technological artifacts – machines, computers and robots – do have a profound influence on the way people grow and develop. But because they leave what I call mechanical marks rather than organic imprints, they are not usually considered as major influences in human development and psychopathology.
Because machines leave mechanical marks on the mind rather than organic emotional imprints, people usually don’t focus on ongoing flows of technological experience as sources of negative influence on the development of the human self. Computers and robots aren’t ascribed agency in their influences on people, because they don’t have a sense of self the way people do. Nevertheless, computers and robots do have a profound influence on humans through the mechanical marks they leave.
The difference between mechanical marks and organic imprints is that the impression of a mechanical mark is defined, discrete and even percussive, while an organic imprint is blendable, continual and bonding. The mechanical impressions from a machine don’t lead to the same kind of emotional connection as the organic impressions from another human. Nevertheless, the impressions made by modern technology devices, particularly modern consumer technology devices, can be just as shaping of a young developing human as adult humans. Mirroring and modeling do not require a two-way emotional bonding between human and machine for them to function as mental processes in the human. All that is required is for the human to emotionally bond to the machine.
And this is the main point I want to make in this article. Mirroring and modeling can occur in a young developing human mind, even if there is not a two-way emotional bonding between the entity that is absorbing and the entity that is emitting. The behavior of a young human can be shaped by a complex entity, even if this complex entity doesn’t love him or otherwise emotionally connect to him. And if the young human spends a lot of time with that complex entity, the consumer technology device, the person’s capacity for mature human love is not stimulated as much as it should be. A person bonds with a consumer technology device, but that bonding is not a full-fledged human love object.
Time spent bonding with consumer technology devices is time taken away from bonding with parents, parental figures and other nurturing relationships. A window of opportunity is lost for developing the capacity for deep two-way bonding human relationships. So not only does a young person get psychologically molded by the mirroring and modeling involved in the one-way bonding technology relationships, but he loses the opportunity to get properly shaped as a human by intense involvements with other humans. No wonder that so many young adults are frightened by the intensity of emotional intimacy. They never had the opportunity to develop the emotional channels for such intimacy. They are no longer very capable of absorbing the organic blendable continual stimuli that come from emotionally intimate bonding. In other words, bonding with consumer technology devices leads indirectly to the breakdown of marriage and family. This is certainly a situation that should worry all of us.
By the way, it is true that robots are getting more complex and sophisticated and eventually may appear to be very similar to humans. But they will still be primarily controlled by defined discrete stimuli, and they will still be incapable of the organic bonding that humans are capable of. And humans that become part robot, that become cyborgs, will have a diminished capacity to absorb organic blendable continual stimuli and a diminished capacity for organic bonding. To the extent a person becomes a machine, to that extent he can’t bond.
© 2013 Laurence Mesirow