One of the most important foundations of human experience is our apprehension of the world through the five senses. In a previous article, “Living In A Garden Of Plastic”, I discussed our experience of the five senses through the theories I have developed about stimuli. In that discussion, I said that sight and sound involved a human being at a certain physical separation from the source of the stimuli, while touch and taste involve a person being right up next to the source of the stimuli. In the case of taste, the source of the stimuli merges with the person.
Smell falls somewhere in the middle. Chemical elements separate from the source of stimuli and then merge with the person through sensory experience. In merging with the person, smell sensations are experienced primarily as flowing, blendable, continual stimuli. However, the source of the smell stimuli usually remains separated from the human experiencing it, and, therefore, there are more defined discrete stimuli involved, as a result of a human being able to see the smell entity as apart from him while he smells it. This is distinct from an entity that he senses primarily through touch or taste. But the major end experience of smell is still primarily an immediate rather than a mediated experience, an experience of flowing blendable continual stimuli from the chemical elements going into the nose.
Modern technology has worked to change this equation with smell. According to Dave Le Clair, writing for gizmag.com the article “Peres e-nose sniffs out spoiled food”, a new device is being developed that indicates how fresh food is. It is called the Peres, and it is a device that is held over food and that monitors certain qualities in the air around the food: “temperature, humidity, ammonia and volatile organic compounds.” So there are four sensors that are included for monitoring, and the information that is gathered is directed to the person’s smartphone or tablet through a Bluetooth.
What this means is that a person no longer has to rely on the direct experience of his own nose to determine whether or not a particular food item is safe to eat. A wrong decision based on the imperfection of one’s own sense of smell could lead to eating spoiled food and maybe getting an upset stomach or even deathly ill. Le Clair does not indicate if the Peres can detect poison, in case someone is trying to poison you. Supposedly, American mafia leaders used to have tasters – subordinates who would try any food first that was to be served at meals – to protect themselves against rivals trying to poison them. A whole expanded market could be developed if the Peres detects arsenic or strychnine.
I myself have never had any problem differentiating safe food from spoiled food. If a food item in my house does not smell fresh, I know how to deal with it. Having to experience the olfactory friction of bad-smelling food doesn’t bother me. I smell it for a second, wrap it up, and throw it out. The smell of bad food is part of the flow of organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that is a part of life. Some foods like certain French cheeses and like papaya have terrible rotten smells even though they are perfectly safe to eat. Does the Peres differentiate these smells from the smells of truly spoiled food?
And then there is restaurant food. I make an effort to go to restaurants where they have a lot of customer turnover and, therefore, serve fresh food. I think that most of the restaurateurs that I have known have the cultivated instincts to distinguish fresh food from spoiled food. But I myself have the capacity to discern the occasional dish of spoiled food I am served in a restaurant without the help of an electronic nose.
The implied message of the Peres is that people can’t trust their noses, can’t trust their judgment. A machine can do a better job, even with a relatively intimate immediate experience, than a human can do by himself. It says, in effect, “Don’t trust your nose! Your senses are deceptive. Your senses could lead you to become very sick.”
Could this be a forerunner of other machines that could protect against potentially uncomfortable or harmful immediate experiences? What about a portable machine that analyzes how soft and smooth is the fabric from which sheets and pillowcases are made, in order to determine how comfortable it is for sleeping? Or a machine that measures how much give there is to the fibers of a carpet to determine how comfortable it would be to walk on it.
We could use sensor devices to determine comfort or safety levels in almost any experience involving smell, taste or touch. We would never have to trust our own sensations again. We would have the certainty that comes from the precise measurement of defined discrete stimuli. All of our own blurry organic flowing blendable continual experiences would be translated into precise numerical data.
The only problem is that we would gradually lose our capacity to trust our intimate sensations. As we stopped focusing on them, they would diminish in their importance to our lives. Our connections to the immediate world of sensory experience would be mediated by mechanical sensors.
Intimate sensations from smell, taste and touch, sensations that involve a lot of organic blurry flowing blendable continual stimuli, are essential for keeping us connected as humans to our field of experience. Without our direct experience of these stimuli, which can’t be measured by mechanical sensors without losing their essence, we are mechanical figures floating in an experiential vacuum. Without these stimuli, we experience no sensory grounding. We merge with the mechanical sensors in devices like the Peres, as we trigger new robotic reactions, actions and processes in ourselves. We become gradually disconnected from the organic as we become more connected to the mechanical.
Our mechanical aids are transforming us in unforeseen ways. They become wedges that separate us experientially from the organic world from which we came and to which we will eventually return. How can we truly experience the pleasure of fresh food, if we don’t experience it in contrast to our direct experience of smelling and even tasting spoiled food sometimes. We need odors alongside of the aromas. We need the total world of smell. And we need to think and act based more on our own organic senses, if we are to continue to remain fully human.
© 2014 Laurence Mesirow