Early on in writing my articles, I discussed how modern technology had so changed the nature of human lives, that it was necessary to create some fundamental new ideas and attitudes in human morality. After having written this column for a while, I feel it’s time to revisit this notion. Traditionally, morality referred to rules of conduct that prevented our human sense of self from sliding into more savage animalistic tendencies. However, modern technology has so changed the situations of our lives that the very nature of morality has to shift as well. So when I discuss morality, I am referring to rules of conduct that not only prevent our human sense of self from sliding into more savage animalistic tendencies, but also that prevent our sense of self from sliding into more android robotic tendencies. And given the accelerating takeover by modern technology of our modern living environment, it is the android robotic tendencies with which I am most concerned for today’s human beings.
Ultimately, none of us at present can erase the modern technological living environment and the sensory distortion which it brings. But there are areas of our life in which we can control our interaction with it. We can voluntarily choose either to have more primary experience or to have more experiences mediated by technological devices during our free time. As it is, more and more of our time in work and study consists of situations where sophisticated machines, computers or robots control the principal activity in the situation. There is less and less opportunity for face time with other people or surface time with tools, raw materials and books made out of paper. Machines are very important in manufacturing, in transportation, in farming, in mining, and in making buildings and roads. Computers are essential today in offices, education, and research. But your recreational time is you own. You can be master or mistress of this time. And this means you are not obligated to spend your free time in front of a television, a video game, a computer or a smartphone.
You can directly engage a forest preserve, a sea shore, a jungle or a mountain. You can directly connect to a friend, a lover, your family or a group of people. You can directly immerse yourself in a work of traditional architecture, a painting or a sculpture. Books have elements of both primary and mediated experiences but are certainly important components of a well-lived life.
Sometimes, primary experiences relate more to the style of one’s participation in a situation rather than to the content. Yes, communing with people, with nature, with traditional architecture and with art are very important ways of receiving the organic blendable continual stimuli that are so important for giving a person organic cohesion in our modern technological living environments. But we can also generate these organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves by the way we do things in our everyday lives. I am talking about the importance of breaking away from routine as much as possible, particularly in our free time. Machines shape their actions in predictable patterns. To the extent that we fill our lives with routine and ritual actions, we are, in today’s world, approximating ourselves to machines. As has been previously stated, we have little control over the penetrations of machines and machine patterns of behavior in our work and in our education. This is how these aspects of our lives are increasingly organized.
But we do have control over our free time, over our recreational time. And during this time, we can exercise our capacities for creativity, for spontaneity, for receptivity to randomness, and for immediacy. When we constantly find different ways of doing things, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves as a result of engaging the variations in the flow of experience. When we respond suddenly to new opportunities for engaging in novel interactions, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves from the novelties in the experiences. When we are open to unforeseen situations impacting us, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves as a result of the surprise elements in the experiences. And when we allow ourselves to get close to the phenomena with which we are interacting in our daily life situations, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves as a result of the bonding aspects of such close encounters.
So the way we use our time away from work and study takes on a new moral dimension. In the pre-industrial times, people cherished work routine as well as religious routine in the form of ritual as a vehicle for focus and for defining themselves, so that they could rise above the constantly transforming creation and the spontaneity and the randomness and the enveloping immediacy of more organic environments. People rose above being merely animals through the cerebral detachment gained through the patterned actions in their lives. Routine and ritual brought a formal order to people’s lives and definition to their senses of self. In this way, they were able to balance off the large amount of organic blendable continual stimuli in their organic living environments with some bracing defining discrete stimuli.
But the needs of more traditional people are very different from the needs of modern technological people. People today have too much exposure to defined discrete stimuli in the structured processes of high-level machines and the mediated experiences with computers. And this is why people have to behave differently from the past in order to maintain their humanity. Strong rigid moral rules will only reinforce the tendencies toward robotization created as a result of interactions with all the new modern technology. Rather than focusing on rigid prescribed determinate moral actions, people today should create blendable continual guides to experience within which to have creative, spontaneous, random and immediate experiences. Rather than focusing on the one right moral answer to a situation, people today need to acknowledge the varied different possibilities to respond to a situation, depending on the grounded moral contexts created by the technological living environments they are living in. In other words, creativity, spontaneity, randomness and immediacy become important moral components of human actions in the need today to fight against sensory distortion and robotization.
This new orientation can be adequate for dealing with creating an appropriate style of living for everyday life today. But it still does not deal with confronting a particular problem situation in human life. In a situation like this, should one not try to recur to the application of standard moral principles – strong free-floating moral figures that exist in the eternity of human vacuum mental space? The problem is that the contexts of meaning in human relationships today are so different from those of the pre-industrial past as a result of the sensory distortion created by modern technological living environments and the tendency to become robotized from the ongoing interaction of humans with consumer technology devices. And, in addition, the world of experience is changing so fast as a result of ongoing change in technology from the proliferation of new apps and new devices.
Traditional moral principles taken by themselves tend to make a person even more robotic today than he is from his interaction with modern technology. To make moral decisions today, we have to focus on uncovering the psychological grounding of a particular problem situation. This means emphasizing that situations can be complex and that sometimes there are special circumstances for overruling or directly modifying a moral principle considered appropriate for application in a particular situation. If there is not grounding in the physical aspects of a particular human situation, we have to focus on uncovering the grounding in the mental aspects of a particular human situation. This makes for a much more flexible moral approach. But, at a time when people feel alienated from traditional religion and traditional morality, because they make a person feel psychologically boxed in and ultimately robotized, a more flexible situational approach will help to restore the humanity to a particular moral situation.
This doesn’t mean that traditional moral principles have to be thrown out. It just means that one can take the traditional moral principles as figure starting points that can be embedded and submerged and modified by the complex grounded context of a particular human situation in our modern technological living environment.
And the truth is that modern technology has set the occasion for the development of many human situations that have little to do with life situations from the pre-industrial past. Many of them have to do with breaking traditional moral principles as a means to combat sensory distortion. Free love, drugs, drinking and many different potentially dangerous risk-taking activities have to do with desperate attempts to restore sensory balance and balance to one’s sense of self. Traditional so-called immoral activities have to be viewed and judged within the contexts of these modern sensory backgrounds.
In dealing with moral questions regarding a human’s interactions with another human, one always has to take in consideration the template of the living environment that allows two or more humans to interact. For a long time, people have made the assumption that abstract virtues like love, trust, courage, accountability and respect can be implemented in a patterned way independent of the living environment in which they are expressed. This assumption was easier to hold during the thousands of years before the industrial revolution when living environments evolved relatively slowly and when moral systems were created that were implicitly connected to these traditional living environments. But now living environments are evolving fast and this change is directly affecting the way humans connect to each other. Both the nature of this evolving and the rate of this evolving have to be taken into consideration, if we are to develop moral attitudes that allow us to maintain our human balance during these extraordinary times.
© 2013 Laurence Mesirow