Implicit in this column is not only the idea that people are gradually becoming robots, but also, that it is not a good thing that they become robots. There has been some discussion about the problems related to this transformation, but I thought it might be good to dedicate a column to the negatives involved.
What are some of the things that are missing in a robot’s existence? For one thing, a robot is activated by a series of discrete data, signals, stimuli, that are not held together by a coherent sense of self. As has been previously discussed, it is the flowing blendable continual stimuli that provide the glue that keep the sentient being that we call a human together. Without these flowing blendable continual stimuli, a person cannot feel together enough, not only to have a coherent sense of self, but also to have the coherent perception and awareness of himself and of the external world that we call consciousness. A person needs a coherent sense of himself to feel himself as a together entity. Ideally a person also has self-definition, so that he can experience himself as having boundaries that separate him from other human beings as well as from the whole external world. But to feel himself as indivisible from within, a person needs a coherent sense of self and, by extension, a coherent consciousness.
This consciousness cannot be reduced to a series of stimuli and responses for the purpose of a scientific experiment. That would also reduce the person’s sense of self to the manner in which it would be defined and circumscribed for the purpose of the experiment. Consciousness is based on a flow of stimuli leading to a flow of perceptions leading to a flow of participation, none of which can be properly accessed within the limitations of a scientific experiment. Even now, I am limiting consciousness with this description. Consciousness also includes so many different mental processes that mediate not only between stimuli and responses, but also between stimuli and perceptions. It is the way we interpret what we perceive.
This grounded mental activity is limited to animals, reaching its apogee with humans. No matter how scientists and engineers try to approximate consciousness in the machines and robots they create, they have to break down the so-called mental activity they create into component parts, and, at the smallest level, defined discrete digital parts. Scientists and engineers cannot recreate the flows of blendable continual mental activity on which consciousness is based.
Both a coherent sense of self and a coherent consciousness are essential to feeling vibrantly alive. By feeling vibrantly alive I am not talking necessarily about experiencing things that make a person feel happy. Rather, I am talking about the capacity to fully experience whatever one feels. If one becomes numb and jaded from the sensory distortion of modern technological society, one’s sense of self and one’s consciousness are broken up, fragmented. This, in turn, affects one’s capacity to feel fully present in one’s life.
Without being fully present, it is not only difficult to make and receive the organic imprints that are necessary to feel alive. It also means that life becomes a series of more distinct mediated experiences that lack the full flavor to make life feel more meaningful. It is as if one were almost going along sliding off the surface of life, not feeling fully connected to anything, not feeling fully grounded in one’s living environment.
Surrounded by lots of technological devices and immersed in a highly technologized living environment, there is no question that the intensity, the passion, the flavor have all diminished considerably for the average person moving through the events and the experiences of his daily life. One often hears the expressions “I’m not really living.” Or “I haven’t really lived.” It is quite possible that people who feel they haven’t really lived or they aren’t really living may very well be some of the people who are most obsessed with the idea of death. If you feel you aren’t really living or you haven’t really lived, perhaps it makes you want to keep hanging onto life in the hopes of finding a way of pulling yourself out of numbness, so that you can start to really live before you die and, hopefully prepare for death in a proper way.
I am sure there are some people who doubt not only that humans are gradually becoming robotized, but that the quality of life as it is lived and felt today is diminishing. Such people want measurement and statistics and concrete evidence. But a major point of this column is that many significant criteria for assessing quality of life are intangible and aren’t accessible to measurement and statistics. And yet the decline in marriage and family and the growth of drug dependency and mental illness certainly seem to indicate that we have some big problems facing us.
Perhaps the most important one is that robotization leads to weaker bonds between people and this threatens the whole flow of the human race from generation to generation. Yes, climate change and environmental degradation are very important elements in the crisis humans face today. My point is that healthy natural environments are important not only for keeping people physically alive. They are also essential for keeping people psychologically alive, experientially alive. Alive as organisms. Alive as life.
Talking about what allows people to feel fully alive means talking in terms of the way people experience flowing blendable continual stimuli, which are not susceptible to measurement or discrete definition and for which one has to use imprecise blurry language. This is why I have always taken a philosophical approach to the subjects of sensory distortion and robotization, rather than an approach related to sociology, for example, which is focused on the defined discrete stimuli of statistics.
Blurry intangible stimuli are not something that can easily be processed by a robot. A robot would be forced to attempt to convert such stimuli into defined discrete measurable stimuli. And yet a full experience of life is not something that can be done on the basis of defined discrete measurable stimuli alone. Such stimuli do not provide the basis for strong organic bonds with other people or for strong organic grounding in one’s living environment. In other words, a robot is not capable of experiencing the kind of stimuli that are necessary for feeling fully conscious and fully activated as an organism. A robot is a machine that lacks free flowing consciousness, a sense of feeling alive from within, and a capacity to blur together to different degrees with other people and with its living environment for purposes of bonding and grounding. A person has to give up a lot to become a robot. So why is it that so many people are voluntarily moving in the direction of taking on the attributes of a robot?
© 2016 Laurence Mesirow