Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When There Are No More Stories To Tell

            One thing that a human being needs in order to make his life meaningful is stories.  I am not just talking about the stories that an adult tells a child or the stories that a person reads.  I am talking about a meaningful flow of events and experiences within a person’s life that leads to meaningful imprints both on the person himself as well as on other people around him.  These lived stories form the foundation, both directly and indirectly, for told stories.  Even imaginary stories have a connection to lived human events and experiences.  And rich vibrant lived stories lead to rich vibrant told stories.  Of course, to have the opportunity to live a rich vibrant story, one needs to live in an environment with some organic grounding.  The organic grounding acts as a template for meaningful encounters with other people or with different aspects of the living environment.  As people today live increasingly submerged in modern technological living environments with ever greater participation of more sophisticated machines that do more and more things, it becomes more and more difficult to have the opportunity to live meaningful stories.  Activity in the living environment becomes increasingly reduced to formal mechanical processes – free-floating activity segments (temporal figures) in a vacuum that are created as a result of the detachment from the organic grounded flows and cycles of more natural environments.  Each mechanical activity segment, consisting of defined steps, has a precise discrete beginning, a precise discrete middle and a precise discrete end, and the segment is repeated over and over without variation.  In such an environment, there is little in which a person can engage that will provide the substance for a good interesting coherent story.

            However, some people have attempted to overcome the difficulties generated by modern technological life by creating certain situations in which they can begin to develop some kinds of coherent stories.  In Chicago, a new kind of theater was developed in which groups of people can develop life stories together.  It was called improvisational theater, because groups of actors would work together to create life situations and characters, and from these premises, to improvise funny comedy skits through the interaction spontaneously created by the actors.  Sometimes, the audiences suggest the situations and the characters for the actors.  The actors have to be very quick in creating organic interactions that lead to something happening.

            Traditionally, actors have taken on the lines written for them in plays by playwrights.  This, of course, can be a very satisfying experience.  But some actors today have needs that exist beyond the traditional parameters of theater.  These are actors using a theatrical experience to put some coherent narrative theater in their own personal storylines.  Improv (a nickname for improvisational theater) serves to pull many actors out of the experiential vacuum in which their lives are stalled.

            But it is not only the actors that develop the storylines through the improvised skits.  Many times, members of the audience are asked to suggest ideas or characters for skits.  In so doing, they are not simply acting as secondary participants in the theater activity.  They are also helping to build stories for themselves.  In this way, one could say that improv theater acts as a psychologically rebuilding activity where people can try out new roles and new situations both directly, if they are actors, and indirectly, if they are members of the audience.

            One key element of improv theater is that the fundamental theatrical unit is a relatively short skit.  The reason is that when one is starting to build meaningful life stories, one has to take small steps at the beginning, before one can move into longer life narratives.  And these small improv steps seem to be effective, because improv theater seems to be everywhere that you turn in North America.  People are trying to organically grow meaningful stories for their lives.

            And yet there are developments in modern technological society that indicate a future of technological control and manipulation of just about everything such that organic story development will be suppressed.  Internet connections and communication are moving way beyond computer devices and are invading all kinds of everyday mechanisms and things.  Sensors to pick up data that are used for sorting and protection, and, on a deeper level, control and manipulation of people are present in the tags of all kinds of retail merchandise.  Sensors are present in pacemakers, and they are beginning to be present in cars that drive themselves.  They are in towel dispensers and faucets and toilets in public washrooms.  They are present in credit cards and passports.  This whole category of internet inlay in everyday objects and devices is called the “Internet of Things” (IoT for short).  It is also called “Machine-to-Machine (M2M for short).  Emily Adler wrote in Business Insider, an online magazine, on November 22, 2013 about “the transition of once-inert objects into sensor-laden intelligent devices that can communicate with the other gadgets in our lives.”  According to Adler, there are presently 1.9 billion such devices in the world, but by 2018, there will be 9 billion.  That will be equal to “the number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers, and PCs combined.”

            In order to maximize productivity, minimize risk and create security, we are moving towards turning the world into one enormous mechanism.  A mechanism where humans are increasingly needed less and less.  Actors and audience members may work to create the foundations for richer more vibrant storylines in improv theater, but, in the real world, increasingly to where will they graduate?  If every movable object increasingly has a sensor to allow it to be controlled and manipulated by some remote computer, where does one graduate into the real world from improv theater?

            Yes, some of the projects that these sensors will do seem very important.  Waste management and water management are two excellent examples.  And pace-makers keep many people alive.  But all in all, these different manifestations of IoT are coming together to create an environment where all organic friction – necessary to help people stay vibrant and truly alive – is eliminated.  And without organic friction, people cannot create or participate in stories in their lives.  And without stories, people are just going through the motions in their daily lives.  In this transition period, where there is still work that people have to perform in their engagement with machines, people become like the machines they use.  More and more, the people perform impersonal mechanical processes in conjunction with their machines.

            Without organic friction, people cannot engage in the events and experiences that bundle together into stories that form templates over time for the creation of meaningful organic imprints.  But what really worries me is that the need to put internet sensors into everything might one day extend to human brains.  Right now, sensors are planted under the skin of pets for purposes of identification.  A move to the control of humans would be an easy progression.  It might start out at first with convicts to keep order in prison.  Then it might extend to anyone who seems to be a troublemaker, however that may be defined.  Hyperactive kids, addicts of all kinds, political dissidents and other kinds of freethinkers, and just plain eccentric people.  And eventually, to keep society running smoothly, internet sensors could be put in everybody’s brains.  And this will be a means by which people will become cyborgs: human robots.

            This is why we need to have government agencies that regulate the use of this technology and think tanks as well as departments in universities that deal with technoethics.  Technological change is happening so fast, and it is like a runaway bulldozer.  We have to find a way to slow it down and even apply the brakes sometimes.  If not, there may no longer be people capable of doing meaningful improvisational theater, let alone making, preserving and receiving organic imprints within the context of fully developed life stories.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

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