Driving has become more and more frictionless and more and more mediated. From gear shift to automatic. From manual steering to power steering. From manual brakes to power brakes. Then there is cruise control. Extras like computers with G.P.S. Greater and greater access to continual flow highways. Less and less physical effort and fewer and fewer meaningful decisions to make. Driving increasingly puts us in an experiential vacuum and makes us feel numb. Unless, of course, we drive very aggressively and very fast. Which can ultimately lead to accidents. So numbness can lead to a hyper use of our sense of agency in order to feel alive. This can lead to damaging and even fatal consequences. And the reflection on this situation ultimately has led to some people creating self-driving cars.
As human agency has become distorted from numbness, more and more people in the world of technology have decided that the solution is to minimize if not get rid of human agency. We see this not only in self-driving cars but also in all the household appliances affected by the Internet of Things. A voice control can set a whole bunch of appliances and mechanisms in motion in preparation for a person’s return to his house. It is all arranged so that his home is waiting to receive him in a totally frictionless way. The numbness created here is answered by an intense immersion in the abrasive friction of increasingly kinky programs available on the television screen, and particularly in reality television. Here a person can vicariously engage in the hyperrealism involved in some truly bizarre competitions. Of course, there is also the vicarious violence, the vicarious abrasive friction he can absorb in all the police dramas and all the vicarious sex discussed and available on many comedy shows and romantic dramas. Then there is all the pornography available on the Internet as well as all the violent hate groups in which one can participate at least vicariously.
Both television and computers can be turned on and off and managed as part of Internet of Things systems. Unlike self-driving cars, where the numbness can be answered by directly aggressive responses within the confines of the technology (taking back control of the car when possible and when needed), the numbness of the Internet of Things is answered by mostly vicarious aggressive responses that come from aggressive scenarios played out in screen reality. One partial exception is that the vicarious participation in hate groups through the Internet and social media can ultimately lead to primary experience participation in hate group activities in the external world. It is one thing to identify with a hate group through one’s mind alone. It is another thing to commit one’s whole being to a cause through demonstrations, through violent clashes with other groups, and even through acts of terrorism. But frequently today it can all start with sitting on one’s couch or at one’s desk and simply looking at a screen. Loss of agency can paradoxically sometimes lead to hyperagency.
And then, of course, there is 3D printing. This creates numbness and takes away our agency when it comes to fabricating things. After all, if practically everything from guns to human organs can be made relatively quickly and individually by a machine, why should humans bother with being craftspeople. A 3D printer seduces us into passivity and complacency. Granted that humans can still create the design, the plans for the machine production. But this is not the same as shaping and connecting pieces of material in an operation that involves our interaction with the external world in our use of personal agency.
Our loss of agency is particularly influenced by the effect of the ongoing use of different kinds of screens in our daily lives. It is more difficult to bond with 2 dimensional images of people on screen than it is to bond with 3 dimensional flesh-and-blood people. There is no flesh to hold onto literally or visually or even to touch on a screen. No opportunities for the stereoscopic vision that gives a person almost a visual sense of touch.
Loss of agency can be an ongoing frightening experience. It means one feels powerless to make and preserve organic imprints. One feels powerless to make the imprints that help a person to feel alive. And one feels powerless to preserve some of those imprints in such a way as to create a personal surrogate immortality and prepare for death. In short, one feels powerless to create a meaningful life narrative that is the foundation for validating one’s existence on earth. Without a meaningful life narrative, life can become empty.
Loss of agency is a consequence of the excessive frictionlessness and mediation in modern society that I have been talking about. It is an aspect of the growing numbness that has become an increasingly influential layer in our modern state of mind.
What can we do to gain back a sense of agency? For one thing, make a personal effort to not give up all of one’s daily life tasks to technological improvements. Easier is not always better, if it is going to contribute to a sense of powerlessness. Also, try to diminish as much as possible the amount of time one spends in front of modern technological screens and increasingly in virtual reality. Turn as many of one’s daily life experiences into primary experiences as possible. In particular, try doing more things and making more things instead of watching more things. In other words, one has to make oneself a stereoscopic entity by moving through the 3 dimensional process of primary experience in the external world. When one is constantly watching 2 dimensional flat screens, one becomes flat and 2 dimensional oneself. And there is no meaningful power, no meaningful agency in feeling and being flat.
(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow