In today’s world, people increasingly define themselves and are defined by others with regard to what they do rather than who they are. The more that daily life becomes easier, becomes more frictionless, the more people feel a need to generate abrasive friction through their daily activities, in order to pull themselves out of their numbness. In truth, many if not most workers today are on call 24/7. The fact that people can be shocked or jolted out of their recreation or rest by a text or an email, requiring them to perform some task for work, is to be expected in today’s world and, on some level, almost welcomed, because it pulls people out of the numbing routine involved in their work. So, on one level, keeping busy with work can be considered an anti-numbness strategy, because the person has to stay somewhat conscious and focused in order to carry out his work activities. On the other hand, doing frictionless mediated routine work on a computer or a smartphone has a highly numbing aspect to it.
So the paradox today is that as life gets more and more frictionless, and, in general, easier, people feel a need to work harder and harder in order to pull themselves out of the numbness that their frictionless way of life creates for them. In order to pull themselves together and prevent the entropy and the resulting entropic disintegration that is a part of any vacuum, people keep moving. In a physical vacuum, entropy means the random distribution of atoms that occurs to matter in such a situation. In an experiential vacuum, the random distribution and disintegration within a person’s mind and sense of self is more subtle, but nevertheless, very present. And numbness is the obvious external symptom.
Anyway, one can relax in an organic natural environment filled with organic stimuli, an environment that provides real grounding such that relaxing doesn’t lead to disintegration. Of course, in an organic natural living environment, one does not have the framework of modern technology to make daily work activities so frictionless. So life requires more effort and exertion to survive both physically and economically. But it is precisely this effort and exertion that allows one to actively engage with his living environment, that is used to make and preserve organic imprints on this more natural living environment in order to help create a meaningful life narrative and prepare for death with a surrogate immortality. So a certain amount of friction is good and necessary.
Which is why people are conflicted today. On the one hand, they embrace all the new devices that make life more and more frictionless, and they embrace the ease that is created by them. Furthermore, they like what they feel is the sense of control that they have by pushing the buttons or keys or by giving the voice commands that set all these processes in motion, processes that replace what used to be all the efforts and exertions that humans used to have to expend. It really is almost a sense of magical control, because all one sees are one’s rational efforts which set going a whole bunch of technological processes with which, in truth, one has no direct participation. On the one hand, one deludes oneself into thinking one is doing something really significant, making a meaningful imprint by pressing buttons and keys and giving out voice commands. But these actions are so shallow and require so little effort. They don’t engage a person, and they do nothing to pull him out of an experiential vacuum.
The same, of course, is true with modern work patterns. A person spends hours working on a computer or sending and receiving texts and emails on his smartphone, keeping busy. But at the end of the day, he remains stuck as it were in his numbness. Keeping busy is not the same as being truly engaged, and feeling truly alive.
But people today continue to seek out more and more labor-saving technology, thinking that it will give them a life of ease. They keep searching for more and more ease through technology, and then to defend themselves against the numbness, they search for more and more ways to keep busy through technology. They can’t tolerate this technology-based ease that ultimately results in more and more uncomfortable numbness. People become addicted to labor-saving technology, while at the same time, they have to fight back against its numbing effects. There is a conflict, a tension between what is needed in the short term, in order to satisfy the addiction, and what is needed in the long term: the organic stimuli from more natural, more traditional living environments after a person is reconfigured to be able to absorb organic stimuli again. The conflict or tension creates tremendous stress for an individual. A stress that affects both mental and physical health.
An addiction is an attempt to satisfy oneself with an abrasive tension-pocket experience or experiences that has been internalized in order to fight numbness. And because the internalized vacuum can never be truly filled with abrasive tension-pocket experience, the addictive behavior just goes on and on and on. Today people are becoming increasingly addicted to busy behavior. They go from task to task, from email to email in an attempt to fill the experiential voids in which they live. Perhaps, the exception to this rule is those people who are fortunate enough to be able to retire comfortably. In the U.S., many of these people go to live in retirement communities in Florida, California and Arizona. They move to places that have warm organic natural fields of experience in which to live, at least, with regards to the basic living environment. But one of the things that make these living environments so appealing is that they have an overlay of modern technology to make life so frictionless. It is like living in paradise, only without the need for the primary experience work needed to maintain it. However, many of these people end up living in an experiential vacuum in “paradise” without even the busy work needed to defend themselves against entropic disintegration. So many of these retirees end up dying after a few years. The retirees have difficulty tolerating their retirement in a modern technological world.
One important point has to be emphasized again. Years of labor-saving technology during their pre-retirement years has left many of these retirees incapable of properly absorbing organic stimuli even without the distractions of labor-saving technology. They go south to embrace the organic stimulation there, but by that time, they are too numb to do it. By the time they are economically ready to retire, they are psychologically incapable of absorbing it.
Compulsive busy-ness is simply a symptom of a much deeper problem that affects all of us to a greater or lesser extent. As long as we continue to live in the experiential vacuum created by modern technological society, this busy-ness will continue to serve as a defense against falling apart.
(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow