Monday, November 21, 2016

Waiting On A Mechanical Cloud

            As most people know, Nissan is a Japanese company that produces some of the best automobiles in their particular price range.  Not content to rest on its laurels as a manufacturer of cars, Nissan is venturing into other areas of human mobility with the idea of improving the life of the average person.  One truly astounding device is the Pro PILOT Chair, a self-driving chair that is designed to take all of the discomfort out of waiting in line.  The chair has wheels to move on as well as a camera and sensors that are used to keep the chair at a fixed distance from the chair in front of it.  The chairs wait in a chair line.  When a person’s chair has moved to the front of the line, and it is time for the person to take his turn, he gets out of the chair, and the chair, sensing the loss of the passenger, moves to the back of the line.  This system of chairs is going to be tested at restaurants in Japan in the near future.

            No more spending time waiting long periods while standing on one’s feet.  Think of all the energy that a person can conserve.  And no more having to contend with people pushing you as they try to move forward or people trying to cut into line ahead of you.  Waiting in line becomes a totally orderly frictionless experience.

            Is there anything wrong with feeling more comfortable?  Perhaps, there is.  Standing creates a different mental state from sitting.  It is precisely the low-key discomfort of standing that keeps a person in a state of alertness with an attitude of  “I want to engage a situation and take control of it.”  One has the role of a dormant agent, waiting to spring into action.  It is a role similar to that of a hunter in prehistoric times or in certain preliterate societies.  One follows an animal from a distance and waits for the right moment to attack it.  The ability to wait as a dormant agent becomes a very important component of being successful at obtaining one’s next meal when one is a hunter.

            But one might say, the waiting involved in going on a hunt is part of an exciting adventure filled with meaningful risk.  Man meeting the challenge of his survival.  There is no such adventure, no such challenge in waiting in line at a very busy restaurant.  One is simply waiting in line for the passive consumer experience of a restaurant meal.  If there is meat or poultry involved, the slaughter has already taken place.  But just as one has hopes that the restaurant meal will be a pleasant passive consumer experience, why shouldn’t one expect the waiting component that comes before a meal to be a pleasant passive consumer experience?

            First, although there is no adventure while waiting in line that is analogous to the challenge of the elements in a hunt, there is a potential adventure in talking to some of the other people that are close to one in the line.  People are sometimes more open to one another when they share discomfort.  It is similar to conversations that start up in London about the cold rainy weather that occurs there.  People in line can start to talk about how frustrating it is to wait so long, and then, before you know it, the conversation moves into other areas of life.  Sometimes new friends or acquaintances can be made this way.

            Second, in general, most waiting is a frustration that creates an organic friction inside the person waiting.  And, in general, without organic friction, a person cannot gain the traction to carry on the narrative of his life  Overly frictionless environments make a person numb, incapable of having rich vibrant experiences, of making, receiving and preserving organic imprints, of creating a surrogate immortality as a preparation for death.  Waiting in a smart chair that keeps a precise distance from the chairs in front of and behind it, is simply one more kind of experience that people in modern technological society can have to put them in an increasingly encompassing experiential vacuum.  It is one more kind of experience that can make a person more numb and therefore more passive and therefore more incapable of engaging the world.

            As we continue to make our living environment increasingly frictionless through the application of increasingly advanced forms of modern technology, we become increasingly intolerant of smaller and smaller amounts of friction.  We become more incapable of tolerating any kind of discomfort, and when we want something, we require immediate gratification.  Waiting in line might be one of the last types of life situations that we encounter on a regular basis that produces low but sustained levels of uncomfortable organic friction.

 There is another kind of waiting that people encounter regularly and that is the waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  This kind of waiting occurs in a technological tension-pocket, an abrasive overstimulating situation filled with abrasive static friction that is the result of the juxtaposition of many freely moving, noisy, fumes-emitting machines.  Other cars surround a driver.  One has to be very careful not to hit another car. The noise of other drivers honking can become intolerable. The fumes of so many cars moving slowly and/or stopping in such close quarters can give a person a headache or sinus problems. In general, it is a situation that creates a lot of stress and even physical discomfort in a driver who experiences it.

            But standing in line at a very busy restaurant is usually a much more civilized matter.  The potential restaurant patron is not naturally separated and isolated from other people, the way that a driver is in a car.  He becomes a part of a flowing continual physical corporal movement as he gradually moves up closer and closer to the goal of being seated for his meal.   He can strike up conversations if he wants to.  Usually, other people don’t push or cut into the line.  In addition, the patron has something concrete and enjoyable to which he can look forward.  The waiting can be used to elaborate images of himself enjoying his favorite dishes at the restaurant.  He endows these dishes with the flowing blendable continual stimuli of his fantasies.  And then when the time comes to actually partake of the meal, the elaborated fantasies increase the appreciation of the meal.  But it is the low-level discomfort factor that increases the appreciation derived from the standing in line.  Waiting in a motorized chair in a line of orderly motorized chairs is not going to stimulate that same sustained low-key friction discomfort that leads to the greater appreciation.

            As we continue to develop technology that helps us to deal with what for many people has increasingly become the intolerable experience of waiting, the art of civilized anticipation of the fulfillment of our desires is going to disappear.  People will lose their capacity for elaborated fantasies of the future.  Living for the moment or living in numbness results not only in an incapacity to tolerate any kind of frustration, but also, as a result of this lack of tolerance, in a weakened sense of self with flattened affect.  The kind of thing that leaves a person predisposed to becoming a selfless robot.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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