There are four basic reasons for concern about the future of humanity as a result of both the rapid pace of technological change that we have been experiencing as well as the direction in which it has been going. First, there is the sensory distortion that is the result of the alternation of understimulation and overstimulation that people have been experiencing in their modern technological fields of experience. In a world in which the areas of organic natural environments have been diminishing in quantity and in quality, and in which instead we have an ongoing increase of vacuum and tension-pocket environments, it has become more and more difficult for the human mammalian nervous system to adjust to the extremes – both high and low - in the levels of stimuli to which it is exposed. The result is the growing manifestations of pathological behavior that are both self-destructive and/or destructive to the people with whom a person comes into contact. This is where two basic categories of mental postures that I have discussed previously, come into play.
First there is conative acceleration, the speeding up of the will, in which a person tries to generate a lot of his own stimuli and thus control his own stimuli environment. He does this by accelerating his trajectory of daily activity and thus blocking out the stimuli from around him, from the vacuum and tension-pocket environment to which he is constantly being exposed and over which he has no control. The rapid intense activity of modern work – of corporate executives, office workers and factory workers – and the rapid intense activities of many modern recreational pursuits – intense exercise routines and extreme sports activities like bungee jumping – are examples of this behavior. In general, manic behavior demonstrates conative acceleration.
Then there is conative anesthesia, the numbing of the will, where the person deals with sensory distortion in his living environment by withdrawing into himself, into a self-made experiential vacuum over which he again has some control. Examples of this behavior include reclusive living, yoga, Zen meditation and certain drugs. In general, depression demonstrates conative anesthesia.
In both of these behavioral postures, there is a sense that the mammalian human nature of many people does not permit them to fully adjust to the modern technological fields of experience. However, there are those people who seem to be adjusting better in their modern technological fields of experience. They are adjusting better, because, as a result of engaging with modern technology, they are becoming more like modern technology. Modern machines like computers and robots are complex behavioral entities that mirror the actions of humans and subtly guide the humans to see modern machines as models for behavior. And these humans gradually become more robotized. Somehow, they become less dependent on organic flowing blendable continual stimuli and more stimulated to life by the defined discrete stimuli they find on the television, video game, computer and smartphone screens with which they directly engage as well as the peripheral defined discrete stimuli that surround them in their modern technological living environments. It is not that these people are becoming robots yet, but rather that they are moving more in that direction. Psychologically, they are more and more receptive to defined discrete cognitive stimuli and less and less open to the flowing blendable continual stimuli found in the sensory, emotional and creative areas of the mind. Many of these people work intimately with computers, robots and other modern machines – what we commonly call geeks.
Some of these people want to take the next step and become part machine themselves, what we commonly call cyborgs. Sort of like the bionic man. This represents the means to one of the ultimate goals of human beings in their development of modern technology. Instead of being content to create a surrogate immortality in preparation for death, an immortality based on preserved imprints that survive long after a person perishes himself, people who want to become cyborgs see it as a means to become directly immortal themselves. As a cyborg, they would be more free from the dangers of organic perishability. If a part of their organic body wears out, they can replace it with a mechanical part made of metal or plastic. And if the mechanical part wears out, it can be replaced with still another mechanical part. So technically, as a cyborg, a person can just go on living forever.
Now it is one thing for a person to get a tooth implant, an artificial hip or a pacemaker. Such implants don’t affect too much a person’s sense of organic unity. But when more and more parts start being replaced, so that a person becomes what we think of as a cyborg, a person’s sense of organic unity and his sense of a coherent self are going to be significantly diminished. And a diminished fractured sense of self will lead to a diminished level of consciousness. The more a person begins to feel like and operate like a machine, the less alive and the less aware he is going to feel as an organic presence. So a cyborg may be able to live for a long time, but the quality of his consciousness, of his aliveness is going to be significantly diminished. And a person may ask what the point is of living forever, if he becomes incapable of fully experiencing himself and his forever life. He may live forever, but it will be living forever in a kind of living death.
And this brings us to our fourth concern: that robots will end up totally replacing humans as the dominant force on Earth. Whether this means that humans will become the servants of robots or will completely disappear at that point, it would be hard to say. If it’s the first, with a loss of power will come a loss of intensity of aliveness, a loss of intensity of consciousness. Humans will no longer be the complex behavioral entities driving the major narratives on the planet.
Of course, I guess it’s possible that humans could simply be put on the sidelines of major activity and not be eliminated. They could become ever more immersed in a spectator posture than they are now. At that point, life would truly be a living death.
So with all the pressures today to become robotized, perhaps the healthiest people are paradoxically those who experience discomfort, pain and suffering from sensory distortion. These symptoms of pathology indicate that the people who experience them are still sufficiently mammalian to react strongly when placed in living environments that aren’t conducive to more mammalian living. The people who suffer a lot from sensory distortion are the canaries in the coal mine, acting as a warning to the rest of us of the dangers of embracing too strongly a modern technological life style. And the real danger to the human race from modern technology is not the destructive effects of the behavioral aberrations created by sensory distortion in the people who are the canaries. Rather it is the destructive effects occurring in those people who don’t develop such obvious behavioral symptoms to sensory distortion, the people who seem to be adjusting better to modern technology. Unless we find a way to significantly modify the trajectory of technological development, this second group of people may be signaling the transformation of the human race into something we would no longer recognize.
© 2015 Laurence Mesirow