Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Individual Imprints and Group Imprints

In discussing the notions of making and preserving imprints, I have not focused enough on an important distinction regarding sources of imprints.  Some imprints are made by individuals and others are made by groups.  Some imprints are preserved by individuals and others by groups.  When an individual preserves an imprint as part of his preparation for death, it becomes part of his personal surrogate immortality.  This represents some of the imprints we have talked about like a book, a work of art, a planted tree, and a small business.  It also includes the memories he leaves with other people.  When a group preserves an imprint as part of its eventual preparation for death, the imprint becomes a part of its surrogate immortality.  Such imprints include a building, a mural, a dam, a family, a large business, a culture, and the memories it leaves with other groups and individuals.  Different kinds of mentality are needed to produce a personal surrogate immortality and a collective surrogate immortality.

A very good example of a group interested in preserving a collective surrogate immortality is the members of a traditional society, that want to preserve their culture and cultural artifacts.  In order to be able to do this, a specific kind of mentality has to be bred in these group members.  A traditional society is a group that is usually built on the continual stimuli from the grounding in a more organic environment.  The group is grounded in the environment and the individual members are grounded in the group.  The individual members have senses of self that are based on a strong sense of coherence to the group.  They are immersed in and surrounded by the continual stimuli of bondedness to the members of their family, their clan and all the other sub groups within their group as well as to the larger group itself.  The individual members of the group are allowed to differentiate themselves as individuals, but only up to a point.  For example, a crafts person is encouraged to make beautiful pieces of craft, but only within the confines of the categories of the structures and designs permitted within the culture.

Furthermore, an individual in a traditional group goes through life stages in his life cycle that flow into one another.  There is a unity to the life cycle.  A child sees the adults around him who model the roles he will assume.  He starts learning the general modalities of behavior that will lead into adulthood.  As an adolescent, he starts more actively learning, sometimes as a kind of apprentice, the adult role.  As an adult, he starts creating a place for himself in the community by getting married and forming a family, by working and by direct social participation in the community.  This place earns him the respect that allows him to grow into a revered old age, should he live that long.

Everything fits into place in order that the individual can participate in the coherent group imprints used to form the collective surrogate immortality.  The strength of a person’s sense of self in a traditional society is based more on self coherence rather than self definition.  There is some self definition, but it is a self definition which allows a person to play a particular role in the collective imprint being left by the society on the larger community field of experience.  In such a society, the danger for a person is that there is so much submersion in the group that there is not enough self definition.  The person doesn’t feel alive enough, because he doesn’t feel defined enough.  He feels too blurred in all ways to really be able to focus and think clearly and crisply.

One way a person in a traditional society can deal with such a danger is through the discrete stimulation of violence either directed towards others or towards himself.  Among the Plains Indians in the U.S., a young man sticks a bone or a wooden skewer through his chest in order to have a vision that will give him his unique male adult identity.  In some traditional societies, a man has proved his valor through different feats of war or perhaps through his skill in the hunt.  All these acts or tasks allow a man to give himself some self definition in a society and an environment that could potentially threaten to swallow him up.  There is an ongoing tension between the individual and the group.

In modern society, the focus has been on the individual, who is a free-floating figure along with all the other free-floating figures of people, animals, things and places, floating in the laminated vacuum and the tension pockets of modern technological environments.  The individual is in an environment of primarily discrete stimuli from the floating figures and continuous stimuli from the emptiness of the vacuum.  In today‘s world, a person with access to economic resources and opportunities is focused on creating and preserving a personal surrogate immortality.  This occurs as a result of the person unfolding his potential in different directions as much as possible.  As he grows up, he develops different capacities through school and additional lessons that give him a unique set of competencies.  For example, the person becomes a good trumpet player and makes the varsity baseball team at school.  He majors in mathematics as an undergraduate and then decides to go to law school, where he becomes a lawyer.  In addition, he goes to live in Italy for his junior year abroad, and visit’s a distant relative in South Africa for a summer after he graduates college.  During college, he has summer jobs at a sushi restaurant and as a  carpenter working on new homes.  I have perhaps exaggerated the quantity and diversity of life experiences of this hypothetical person to make a point.  A great diversity of life skills and life experiences leads to a unique self definition, but sometimes this very diversity leads to a kind of mental disjunction which I shal discuss shortly.

This is a very different set of developmental life experiences from a person in a traditional society.  The latter tends to stay in his community on the community land.  There are not a lot of highly individualized life experiences to have.  For the person in modern technological society, his whole life tends to be individual life experiences and a variety of life skills that mold the mind and body to leave unique imprints and a unique set of imprints in preparation for death.  And wheras the traditional society person worries about losing his sense of self to the large group, to other humans, the modern society person worries about holding together the different fragments of events, experiences and skills he has accumulated, and preventing his sense of self from breaking apart.  In other words, excessive self definition leads to self fragmentation.  It becomes harder and harder to integrate all the fragments of different life events, different life experiences and different life skills.  Unlike the traditional society person, the modern Western society person does not have to worry about loss of self from submersion in a group (unless he voluntarily joins a cult, in order to escape the vacuum.)  Instead the modern society person has to worry about loss of self to many self-fragments.

In effect, I am saying that an additional explanation for mental illness today - along with such other theories as dysfunctional families and chemical imbalances - is the sensory distortion of modern technological environments.  This latter influence leads people to experience themselves as isolated figures and eventually isolated fragments of figures.  The focus on the individual that started in the Renaissance in Europe evolves until eventually, the grounded community connection for a person withers away into relative insignificance, as the individual loses the the experiential glue that holds him together.  So it is not only the lack of organic experiential surfaces that makes it difficult for modern industrial people to leave the individual imprints that were so cherished in breaking away from traditional communities and collective surrogate immortalities.  It is the lack of a coherent impress or stamp from the self in making and preserving the individual imprints necessary for a personal surrogate immortality.

A healthy sense of self is based on a balance between internal coherence and external definition.  Perhaps, as one looks across the flow of human history, one can identify certain transitional periods in societies when there was an approximate balance between these two aspects of a sense of self.  Periods when technology was somewhat developed, but it had not yet taken over the whole landscape.  In the Western world,  such periods would probably be located some time between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century.  As one looks across the flow of history, one can see that as the push for technological dominance over the environment has moved forward, such a  period of balance has not had favorable conditions for lasting very long.  In today’s world, the imbalance towards self definition is quite strong.  And in such a hypothetical transitional period, there would have been an opportunity to participate relatively equally in a collective surrogate immortality and in a personal surrogate immortality.  Preserving the imprints of the group that gives an individual his grounding as well as preserving his own imprints.  Such an opportunity definitely does not exist today.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Defenses Against Sensory Distortion

One important way that sensory distortion from modern technological environments affects our behavior is in the velocity of our activity.  By changing the velocity of our activity, we can create a self-generated field of stimuli that supplants the uncomfortable configuration of stimuli we are experiencing around us.  There are two principal ways we can generate this.  Both involve transformations of our will.  In other words, a transformation of an internal aspect of the mind leads to the transformation of the presentation of human activity.

The first way is one that I will call conative acceleration: the speeding up of the will.  One posture for a person in sensory distortion is to speed up the will and the activity it creates to such an extent that the stimuli from the activity prevents the experience of the sensory distortion in the external surroundings.  Why is it that people seem to be moving so quickly in crowded urban environments like Manhattan.  They are creating an intense level of stimuli by moving quickly, but it is a level of stimulation over which they have control.  It is an intense organic level of stimulation.  In truth, it is like an intense self-generated field of experience.  And the intensity from the accelerated stimuli blocks the sensory distortion from reaching the brain.
Now conative acceleration can be effective against two very different types of technological environments.  It can combat the sensory overstimulation of tension-pocket environments like crowded noisy urban neighborhoods.  In many modern corporations, employees are expected to be more productive than ever and work longer hours.  This attitude is the foundation of a psychological defense.  People have to fill their time all the time, slot every moment, in order not to experience the overstimulation on the streets below.

Another posture that people can take to deal with sensory distortion is numbing themselves and psychological withdrawing from their external surroundings.  This is done with meditation or using drugs like marijuana, sometimes with the support of mystical groups, and the people become very passive and calm themselves to float in reverie. This I will call conative anesthesia: the numbing of the will.  Rather than try to grapple with and suppress the sensory distortion as in conative acceleration, in conative anesthesia, the person withdraws from the sensory distortion in the external environment and into a world of alternate stimuli inside his  head.

Conative acceleration can also act as a defense against some of the dangerous effects of vacuum environments.  Although people like to think of vacuum environments as environments where figure and ground phenomena can be preserved indefinitely, there actually is a destructive danger present.  This danger is entropy.  Entropy is the tendency for matter to distribute randomly and uniformly in a physical vacuum.  So if you leave something in a vacuum for a long enough period of time, it starts to fall apart.  But this is a much more subtle long-term disintegration than perishability in grounded natural environments.  For humans, the psychological effect of entropy is the gradual crumbling of consciousness.  All sorts of weird things happen to people when they are placed in sensory deprivation chambers.  They start imagining things and hallucinating.  This is much like the mirages thirsty men have when they are lost in a North African desert - a natural environment that is very influenced by vacuum aspects.  Miles and miles of sand particles that don’t bond with one another and that create a scene with little grounded sensory variety and with no significant figure landmarks to the untrained eye except an occasional oasis.

As a defense against the overstimulation in tension-pocket environments, conative anesthesia and withdrawal is a way of removing oneself into a calming vacuum environment.  In the internal vacuum environment, the person can temporarily preserve his psychological integrity by partly shutting out all the abrasive static stimuli that impinge on his boundaries.  These stimuli continue to impinge to a certain extent on the person and, in a way, continue to connect him to the external environment.  Nevertheless, they are not able to disrupt the psychological integrity of the person, because the person is floating in his own internal psychological vacuum space.

Now we have previously talked about how vacuum external environments do involve the subtle dangers of entropy.  But entropy makes its presence strongly felt when one is in a vacuum environment for a long period of time.  Entropy is not as much of an issue during short periods of meditation.

Finally, some people assume a meditative vacuum posture as a defense against a primarily vacuum external environment.  The advantage of the meditative vacuum posture is that a person maintains his psychological integrity, because he or she is at least in control of his own vacuum.  The person has reduced the size of the vacuum in which he dwells to manageable proportions.

So are there any significant problems for people in assuming these postures.  Each of these postures has important side effects and consequences.  Conative acceleration is exhausting and wears us down.  Conative anesthesia is numbing in such a way that we somehow don’t feel fully alive and connected to the external world.  In both cases, people survive.  But without organic grounding in the external world and organic grounding in the internal world of the mind, there are no templates to allow a person to develop deep sustained intimacy with another person.

These postures allow individuals to survive as isolated units.  They are not very helpful for the sustenance of social connection.  When one is moving very fast, they are moving too fast to bond.  When they stop moving or move too slow, there is not enough energy to reach out and engage in bonding.  There is a reason for the high percentage of marriages that end in divorce today.  There is a rhythm to organic connectivity that is very difficult to maintain in modern technological environments.

Speeding up or numbing the will is conducive to survival today, but it is not conducive to making, receiving or preserving organic imprints.  This is true both because there are fewer organic surfaces on which to make imprints in our field of experience today, and because the velocity of our mental activity is such that we are too detached from our external field of experience, even if we wanted to make, receive and preserve imprints.  This is simply one more aspect of the way in which modern technological environments interfere with fundamental human needs.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Animals, Humans and Robots

As scientists and engineers continue working on the human-controlled evolution of robots, it becomes important to try and discover, if they exist, those aspects of people that are unique to them and that robots can never imitate.  This is particularly important today, because for some of the creators of robots, one gets the feeling that they are playing God in the evolution of a new race of robots that will be everything humans are already and, in some ways, even superior to humans.  This is shown by the scientists and engineers who create robots to do things that imitate human behavior but that aren’t intrinsically in the service of humans like playing chess or having basic conversations.  In truth, even with regard to those robots that are created just to serve humans, the robots may be inadvertently moving into experiential territories that diminish the uniqueness of humans.  For instance, robots who take care of older people.  This is why an attempt has to be made to develop a conceptual firewall that will keep robots out.

To do this, I would like to work with two conceptual frameworks that have appeared previously in my writings.  First, there is the theme of configurations of stimuli and phenomena.  At this point, I would like to review two models I’ve used in the past.  Grounded phenomena are phenomena that tend to blend with other phenomena: water, clay, earth, lava, grasslands.  Figures tend to have defined boundaries and tend not to blend with other phenomena.  Any distinct object, plant, animal or person fits this category.  Vacuum is the spaces between different figure and ground phenomena.

Continual stimuli are stimuli with indeterminate borders and with blurry beginnings and endings: a wave, a legato sound from an organ, the taste of chocolate, the smell of perfume on a woman.  Discrete stimuli are stimuli with determinate borders and with crisp beginnings and endings: a line, a dot, a staccato sound from a drum, a puff of air.  Continuous stimuli are stimuli with no beginning and no end.  The total darkness in an unlit basement and the soft hum in total silence are examples of continuous stimuli.

Animals are figures that are still highly connected to their grounded environment.  Their minds operate on the basis of a relatively few instinctual determinate discrete stimuli and a lot of intermingled indeterminate continual stimuli that produce gross responses.  Domesticated animals operate on the basis of more discrete stimuli than their wild relatives as a result of human training.

Now some people at this point might wonder where I have the evidence for these statements.  Basically I am postulating the existence of a kind of stimuli that are not subject to the precise study, measuement, classification and control that determinate crisp stimuli are.  Scientific studies have difficulty working with indeterminate stimuli.   Science tends to look at anything blurry as somehow not real and substantive.  Blurry is perceived as a deficient focus on the world.  When it can, science will convert blurry stimuli and ground phenomena into crisp stimuli and figures, and in doing so, it distorts them.  But as long as we experience blurry stimuli, frequently in the process of trying to make a precise focus, then they have real and substantive value.

Returning to animal minds, my map is based on soft empiricism and inference.  Animals do have structured behavior, but not of the complexity of humans.  Humans, with their cerebral cortex, balance the continual stimuli they experience as animals with many more discrete stimuli.  Humans use the discrete stimuli they experience in the world and in their minds to build an environment filled with a lot of figures and defined surfaces.  As human history unfolded, humans developed the increasingly complex figures of industrial machines, computers and robots as well as the hard laminated surfaces of modern technological living environments.  They became increasingly surrounded by sources of discrete stimuli rather than the natural grounded sources of continual stimuli necessary to activate and keep alive their more primitive fundamental animal nature.  For humans, unlike animals, are not so immersed in the grounded phenomena of nature and the continual stimuli it produces. They rise above nature and become more distinct from it than animals.  And yet unlike robots, they do have a grounded base, they are still partly activated by blurry continual stimuli.  Robots are activated by mechanical discrete stimuli.  Granted that there are attempts today to combine robot parts with biological parts, it is still important to note that the robot parts are still operated by complex mechanical signals that at their base are still discrete signals.

The other conceptual framework within which I want to work for distinguishing humans from robots is the framework of imprint theory and purposes for existence.  Just as the cerebral cortex of humans allows them to focus on and create more figures and discrete stimuli, so it allows humans to be conscious of their own mortality and to prepare for death by preserving a lot of the imprints they make.  Animals can leave imprints in very basic ways like having offspring and marking their territory.  But this pales beside the complex imprints made and preserved by humans.  Humans create complex cultures, societies and civilizations.  They create art, artifacts, monuments, ideas and the means for preserving these ideas in tangible form.  Humans create preserved imprints and they create vessels for containing and protecting these preserved imprints like museums, galleries, libraries and archives.  But the important thing to remember is that all these preserved imprints start from vulnerable human imprints that are made by the human mind sometimes initially to feel richly alive and sometimes directly to prepare for death.  There is an organic beginning to these imprints and a human mental beginning to these imprints.

And part of the content of these imprints is the continual stimuli emanating from the structural coherence in the mind that allows the imprints to have meaning.  The very notion of an imprint as opposed to simply a mark implies a mind that coheres together because of internal continual stimuli.  Because robots are activated by discrete stimuli, the foundation of engineering, they really leave marks rather than imprints.  In previous essays, I have talked about robots leaving imprints, but I was only talking within such perameters to emphasize that a particular mark was made by robots rather than humans.  But, in truth, robots make marks on their external world, while humans make imprints.  As complex as robots get,  their mechanical robot parts will never have the human base of continual stimuli to give them consciousness and an unconscious, and the blurry dreams that lead to concrete plans that lead to the development of complex imprints in society, culture and civilization.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Purpose of Work in Modern Technological Society

What is the purpose of work?  The answer may seem obvious, but maybe work is more than what it seems to be in modern industrial society.

The answer for most people in modern industrial society would be to make a living so that they can survive economically.  By surviving economically, I mean to produce goods or services, so that one can survive materially.  There are people who enjoy their career, but for most people today, their life is where their work is not.  Sometimes, they have to work constantly simply in order to survive, and therefore have little or no “life“.  Whether it is some of the time or all the time, work for modern industrial people is mostly to make a living.

Nevertheless, I would say that there are other equally important purposes that are not being satisfied for most people in today’s industrial world.  First, there is work as a vehicle for rich vibrant experiences.  In the old days, work provided the opportunity for a person to engage the world in stimulating ways.  This was possible because there were a lot of experiential surfaces available for organic imprints.  In saying this, I am aware that life could be nasty and brutish for many as, for example, peasants confronted a multitude of hazards from the socio-political environment as well as natural environment.  In terms of the natural environment, the grounding of nature contained a lot of partly differentiated figures like wild animals, poisonous plants, diseases and dangerous weather and geological phenomena as well as difficult rocky terrain that could make life difficult.

But even with these problems, work closer to nature had rich vibrant experiences intermixed with the dangerous ones which allowed a person to feel intensely alive.  Engaging with the external natural world generates wonderful feelings that are not reducible to anything else.

Work has also provided the opportunity to prepare for death.  In preliterate societies, many sacred artifacts are passed on from generation to generation.  My home town, Chicago, was known for having a totem pole from the Northwest Coast Indians on the Pacific coast of the U.S. and Canada.  It was in a park, and it was a landmark where many young people used to gather.  However, it was a sacred totem pole, and the tribe wanted it back.  Chicago very graciously gave the totem pole back to the tribe, and the tribe gave Chicago a new less valuable totem pole to replace it.  The older totem pole was a sacred artifact, a preserved imprint, that the tribe wanted to keep.  Many civilizations have produced all kinds of preserved imprints:  monuments, castles, churches, buildings, works of art, written music, books, written law, constitutions, and roads.  These involved work that went beyond present economic survival.

For Americans, like other modern pioneer peoples with a Protestant work ethic, work became a mixture of economic survival, rich vibrant experiences  and a strong desire to prepare for death.  Americans enjoyed the experience of engaging with their physical surroundings.  But while they experienced the rich vibrant experiences engaging with their surroundings, Americans wanted to conquer the surroundings and be transcendent over them.  In the process, many of the organic imprints that were made in the rich vibrant experiences, were also fixed in a photographic sense or preserved.  As America evolved, it became very successful at developing technology to help it preserve the imprints it made.

Like making imprints, preserving imprints is a distinct purpose from economic survival.  People like to know that some of their work efforts will remain in some form, even after they, the people, perish.  Work has been a major vehicle for preparing for death.

During the early years, Americans engaged with the basic materials of the world like more traditional peoples and made durable things with tools as carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, weavers and potters.  But as they have evolved, Americans have been so successful at preserving imprints, creating whole technological living environments, that it is more and more difficult to find organic surfaces to act as templates for future rich vibrant experiences.  And there are fewer opportunities for leaving meaningful preserved imprints.

We are left with the idea of work for financial survival.  Factory workers work with industrial machines; office workers work all the time with computers.  Factory workers provide mass produced, machine imprinted products.  Office workers work with preconfigured formulaic contracts and forms to provide impersonal services.  Making as much money as possible through products and services becomes a substitute for the lack of rich vibrant experiences and lack of opportunities to leave meaningful imprints.  And actually those people who do a lot of their work on computers take their office with them when they leave their office.  Or else their computers simply become their offices.  So they never have to leave work.  And there is little to life beyond this work.

But because it is work primarily for economic survival and not for making and preserving organic imprints, it is work that is depleting rather than reenergizing.  And it is work that exists outside of a meaningful life cycle that focuses on patterns of making and preserving imprints.

One other angle from which to examine modern work: because modern work is not very involved with making or preserving imprints and because it involves intimate interaction with machines and computers that mirror and model for humans, modern work tends to convert humans into robots.  We deal with the ungrounded, free-floating figures of machines and computers in the experiential vacuum of modern technological living environments.  We deal with the free-floating figures of tons of discrete defined data within the vacuum of a computer screen and with a lack of a larger cognitive context for this data.  It is these ongoing technological experiences that lead people to think of themselves as being “wired” like machines.  And the machine becomes the model for how we view our mental and physical organization as humans within the framework of science.  And we become more what we think we are.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mirroring and Modeling in Modern Technological Society

An important theme in the history of Western Civilization has been the increasing domination over natural environments through technological development.  This flow of improving forms of technology not only enables humans to rise above and separate themselves from the perishability caused by wild animals, poisonous plants, diseases and climatological and geological catastrophes, it also allows humans to pull themselves away from the inadvertent mirroring and modeling that occurs with the interaction with natural phenomena and, in particular, with wild animals.

By mirroring, I am referring to how different natural phenomena reflect back certain characteristics that a person then sees in himself.  By modeling, I am referring to how a phenomenon, through certain characteristics acts as an idealized version of what a person aspires to be consciously or unconsciously through emulation.  Both of these terms are customarily used in modern psychodynamic psychology to refer to relationships that an individual has with parental figures.  The focus is on how parental figures mirror a person and how parental figures act as models or are turned into models for a person.  But I feel that a controlling psychological influence can issue from any powerful phenomenon, even when a person thinks he is standing apart from it.  The influence leaches out, even from phenomena held at arms length.  As long as the phenomenon has a sustained presence in the person’s experiential neighborhood and has active complex processes, it can end up being a mirror and/or a model.  This is true for phenomena like animals, natural climactic and geologic phenomena, and complex machines.  It is also true of subject peoples or individuals who can have a very strong indirect influence of mirroring and modeling on the dominant peoples or individuals.  A subject person can be a very good analogy for a “subject” machine that also caters to the wishes of its master.

Anyway, people in traditional organic environments naturally became and aspired to become like the natural phenomena that surrounded them.  In most cases, these natural phenomena represented potential dangers.  By incorporating some of the traits of these natural phenomena, people could then protect themselves against the dangers.  The people would end up having their own strengths as well as the strengths of their adversaries.  The incorporation of these phenomena occurred through religious practices:  animals were anthropomorphized into totems who protected clans within tribes.  In some early civilizations still close to nature like Babylonia and Egypt, animals were combined with human beings to become gods.  Various inanimate natural phenomena were anthropomorphized into deities in Babylonia and Egypt as well as other polytheistic religions like those of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Norse.  The sun, the moon, the sea, the sky, agriculture, thunder, the earth among others were all incorporated into the gods of these polytheistic religions.  To the extent that these phenomena mirrored people, it was as if certain traits naturally leached into people’s minds and behavior.  To the extent that natural phenomena were models for people, people aspired consciously or unconsciously to become more like certain traits of certain phenomena in their living environments.

As Western cultures industrialized and modernized, people from them looked at people from certain more traditional cultures as “savages” - people who were still immersed in living environments with wild animals and other potentially dangerous phenomena, and who, to survive, had seemed to take on some traits of these potentially dangerous phenomena.  According to people in the West, “savages” were not people who had evolved into a more culturally transcendent state where they could hold themselves away from the seemingly wild uncontrollable phenomena that surrounded them.

So “civilized” Westerners became more and more separated by their increasingly technologized living environments from the leaching influences of the dangerous phenomena from traditional organic environments.  In terms of my previous models, these phenomena could be categorized as incipient figures: figures rising into differentiation from the undifferentiated and undifferentiating aspects of a natural environment that swallowed up perishable phenomena through decay and rot.  Violence was a way by which many people in traditional preindustrial organic environments could psychologically separate themselves to some extent from organic living environments that threatened to swallow them up.  Violence is sharp and direct and focuses the mind and makes it more defined.  It was a way that humans could imitate some of the totem wild animals and anthropomorphized natural phenomena and create strong psychological boundaries and fight perishability.  The irony is that “civilized” people have continued to behave with agression and violence but in more mediated ways.  As modern technological society continues to move people away from natural environments, guns and bombs allow people to express the violence of animals but in more transcendent ways.  The influences of animals and machines come together here as we transition to a more and more technologized society.

In modern technological living environments, humans have succeeded in separating themselves, to a great extent, from the ongoing perishable tendencies found in traditional organic living environments.  They live in sanitized environments with laminated surfaces free from decay and rot.  They no longer have wild animals present except in zoos, and most dangerous natural phenomena like lightning and floods are kept at a mediated psychological distance from most people.  Earthquakes and hurricanes are somewhat the exceptions, but modern technological cleanup and rebuilding responses are relatively swift and thorough.  Today, people feel fairly safe from natural danger in their technological evnironment.

But there are the dangers that we have discussed related to sensory distortion.  These are the new dangers that people have to deal with in modern technological environments.  And just as people would identify with totemic animals and anthropomorphized natural phenomena to survive in traditional organic environments and use mirroring and modeling to do this, today people are unconsciously beginning to identify with modern complex machines - computers and robots - to survive the dangers of modern technological environments.  Modern complex machines mirror and act as totemic models for humans.  Computers, smart phones, and video games.  According to Dr. Jorge Cappon, a well-known psychoanalyst in Mexico City and professor emeritus at the UNAM, we surround ourselves with different brands and different models that correspond to different totemic animals.  For example some people swear by Macs, others by P.C.’s.

And as we immerse ourselves in these different consumer machines, we begin to take on the traits we experience in them.  We think we have control over them, but through our interactions with them, they indirectly shape us.  The influence from them leaches out.

Just as before in traditional living environments, there are phenomena that reshape us into becoming not-fully human beings.  In the traditional living environments, there was the threat that we would imitate too much the animals and other natural phenomena that filled our environment.  There was the threat that we would become wild and unregulated.  Today, the problem is that we are imitating too much the computers, robots and other high technology phenomena that surround us now.  And as long as we regularly interact with such phenomena, their influence will continue to leach out.  Instead of being wild and unregulated, today the threat is of our becoming numb and remote and losing our social connection to other people.  Computers and industrial machines make it possible for people to be available for work 24/7.  We get drawn into the rhythms of the technology that surrounds us and with which we interact.  We move in pace with the discrete well-defined processes that require our involvement to complete tasks.  Today, instead of having to worry about sliding into becoming “savages”, we have to worry about becoming androids or cyborgs.  And society is not providing a concerted effort to break the slide in any way.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Foundation of Rich Vibrant Life Experiences

In the last essay, I discussed the importance of rich vibrant life experiences for validating a meaningful life.  At this point, I want to break down the composition of a rich life experience from an unusual perspective, in order to more fully comprehend what is missing today.  To do this, I wish to present a classification of stimuli.

Discrete stimuli are stimuli with defined borders, a defined beginning and a defined end.  They are perceptually determinate stimuli.  Examples are a staccato sound like a drum beat, a dot, a line from 0 to 1 on a graph, and a puff of air.  Well-defined figures are bordered by and infused with discrete stimuli in our fields of experience.  Things like a chair, a table, a hammer, a saw.

Continual stimuli are stimuli with poorly-defined blurry borders, poorly-defined blurry beginnings and poorly-defined blurry ends.  Examples are a legato sound like a note on an organ, a wave on the ocean, the smell of chicken cooking on a grill or of perfume on a woman.  They are perceptually indeterminate stimuli.  Grounded phenomena like natural surfaces - fields, forests, and lakes - are infused with continual stimuli.

Finally, there are the continuous stimuli, which correspond to the stimuli that come from a vacuum, the spaces in between different figure and ground phenomena.  The two major stimuli that come to mind are the pitch blackness where there is no light and the slight hum that occurs when there is total silence.

Now there are truly infinities of different discrete and continual stimuli in the world.  However, modern mathematics teaches us that there are different kinds of infinities.  One kind of infinity is all the natural numbers: 1,2,3,4,5, etc.  Another kind of infinity is all the points on a line.  It can be demonstrated that the number of points on a line is actually a larger infinity than the number of natural numbers.  So if you have a line that goes from 0 up to 1 inch, there are more points on that short line, than the number of natural numbers.  And although a defined line  or a single point can be considered a discrete stimulus, the endless flow of non-demarcated points that blur together within that line is like the flow of waves, a flow of continual stimuli.  And just as there are different kinds of infinity to represent different sets of numbers, there are different kinds of infinity to represent different groupings of stimuli.  And there is a greater infinity of continual stimuli in our fields of experience than there is of discrete stimuli.

Put another way, there is a greater infinity of indeterminate stimuli in our fields of experience than determinate stimuli.  The very way that this idea is set up makes it very difficult to verify through a determinate scientific experiment or observation.  I can only arrive at this idea through analogy, deduction and inference.  In today’s world, we increasingly feel that all meaningful phenomena in our living environment are determinate and, therefore, can be controlled and examined through determinate science.  An awful lot of reality gets eliminated as a result of this assumption.

At any rate, when we increasingly spend our time focusing on the discrete points of pixels on a computer screen or on the discrete points of data on different computer screens, we are dwelling in diminished experiential infinities of stimuli in comparison to the rich continual stimuli available in primary experience.  On one level, what makes a rich vibrant life experience is a rich flow of continual stimuli, a rich flow of immediate sensory stimuli.

Reading a book is an interesting hybrid experience.  It represents a transitional experience between the experiences from traditional organic living environments and those from modern technological living environments.  On the one hand, one is experiencing the determinate forms of letters and words.  On the other hand, the continual stimulation of imagination is stimulated by stories, and the continual stimuli of the free association of ideas is stimulated by essays.  The flow of ideation is much more activated  by a book than by a movie or a television program, where so much more is given for one’s field of experience.  The more pure discrete stimuli of facts predominate in text books and manuals and are much more similar to the formats of short factual presentations that appear to predominate on the Internet.

Anyway, to the extent that we get rid of more organic environments and build modern technological living environments, we get rid of the templates that make possible flowing continual stimuli interactions with our living environment and flowing continual stimuli interactions with other people.

This analogy can also be extended to the mental processes within our brains.  We use discrete cognitive thought processes to simplify our mental experiences by organizing the flow of continual sensations we absorb from our field of experience.  Without these discrete cognitive thought processes, our highly developed sensory nervous system would be overwhelmed by the vast number of unfiltered sensations it receives.  And it is our discrete cognitive thought processes that have continued to transform the world by sensorily simplifying iit into the cognitive structures of what has finally become modern technological civilization.  But in the transformation of the natural world into modern technological living environments, the field of sensory experience has been simplified into a diminished infinity of cognitively controlled and developed sensory stimuli.  Cognition, which was developed by humans to protect them through control and manipulation of the natural sensory environment, has actually supplanted the natural sensory environment and populated the fields of experience with a diminished infinity of cognitively controlled and developed stimuli, that lead to diminished opportunities for rich vibrant life experiences.

I know that most people today are somewhat accepting of the worlds of experience created by the processes of industrial and consumer machines and the activities created on the other sides of the screens of their televisions and computers.  And that is because they have learned to believe in the fields of experience in which they have grown up as the primary relevant fields of experience for modern human beings.  People have adjusted psychologically to these modern technological fields of experience, even if their nervous systems haven’t totally evolved to feel comfortable in them.  Even with psychological acceptance of modern technological worlds, there is still sensory distortion with which human nervous systems have to deal.

And this is because we are primates and not robots, and we have difficulties living on such an intense diet of determinate discrete stimuli.  Robots don’t need to concern themselves with rich vibrant organic experiences to validate their existence.  As a matter of fact, robots don’ have the capacity for rich vibrant organic experiences.  Robots are built to respond to determinate discrete stimuli.

We humans have adapted imperfectly to deal with and respond to all the cognitive information we receive and all the sensory stimuli of static that impinge upon us from our sensory world.  And as we do so, we become less capable of properly absorbing the rich infinities of organic continual sensory stimuli we need to feel fully alive and that exist in our fields of experience less and less.  This is the case, even though humans still have the same basic strong needs for organic continual sensory stimuli.  We become less capable of properly absorbing what we need.  So an excessive cognitive development, as a result particularly of intense interactions with computers, creates conflicts between the differing requirements of our cognitve nature and our sensory nature.  Perhaps this conflict will resolve in the direction of humans becoming like cyborgs or androids as we take on more and more mechanical parts and experience changes in our sense of self and the configuration of our sensory receptors.  At such a time in the future, perhaps the need for rich vibrant organic experience will significantly diminish or will dissolve altogether.  But then we will no longer be truly human.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Effects of Sensory Distortion in Modern Living Environments

Up until now, I have focused in this blog on how modern technological environments influence one very important purpose of life: the need to prepare for death through the imprints we humans leave on other humans and on other experiential surfaces around us as a kind of surrogate immortality.  By creating overly defined hard laminated surfaces on all the technological figures that fill our environment, there are few grounded surfaces left to make and preserve new imprints.

However, there is another very important purpose of life that is also affected as a result of the sensory distortion resulting from technological experiential surfaces.  This other purpose is that of feeling fully and richly alive.  People cannot simply spend their whole lives focused on preparing for death.  In order to validate their existences, they also have to feel intense experiences in the present.  Just like preparing for death, feeling richly alive is a fundamental need.  When life feels flat and boring, people feel like they aren’t really living, or that their lives are living deaths.  Sometimes, rich life experiences are turned into memories or into some kind of more permanent phenomena like a book, a building, or a baby.  An imprint is made, and then it is preserved.  But sometimes, rich life experiences occur to make imprints with the primary purpose of helping a person to feel richly alive at the moment.  Many diversions fall into this category.  Dining out at a fine restaurant, traveling to an exotic country, going to a lively fun party - in all of these experiences, the focus is on feeling richly alive rather than preparing for death. In terms of even more fundamental experiences, participating in activities in nature like hiking, fishing, swimming in a pond, climbing a mountain are all instances of making and receiving organic imprints and being stimulated to life at the moment in the process.

But when the grounded surfaces gradually start receding from our fields of experience as a result of the encroachment of modern technology and the structures it creates, many opportunities for engaging in rich experiences in the present simply disappear.  We are left with living environments with configurations of stimuli that are alternately understimulating for our primate nervous systems and overstimulating.  We create frictionless vacuum living environments like modern homes and highrise apartments with technological devices that eliminate routine chores from daily life.  Modern living environments have climate-controlled atmospheres.  They are frequently free of sensorily interesting moldings and beams that added texture and interesting contours to spaces in more traditional architecture.  And they are often set apart from the flow of life either in homes in isolated suburbs or in high-rise buildings above the swarming city.

Apart from the understimulation in such living spaces, there is the overstimulation from speedy noisy cars and motorcycles, the crush of people on the streets in overcrowded modern cities, the disjunctive clutter effect of modern buildings in cities that don’t fit together with one another, the crush of cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic on highways and the abrasive noise and dust created by modern construction machines and vehicles at building sites.

So people today become alternately understimulated and overstimulated by the configurations of phenomena in their fields of experience.  Technological change has been occurring more rapidly than the evolution of the human nervous system.  People have worked hard to create frictionless vacuum living environments that are free from the perishability  that occurs commonly in more organic natural living environments.  In the process, people have created all the different waste stimuli - noise, clutter, dust, industrial smells, crowding - that they as human beings are not built to absorb.

Without a lot of grounded surfaces to commune with, people turn to abrasive stimuli to pull themselves out of the numbness of the vacuum.  Motorcycles, loud electronic-based popular music, strobe lights, some drugs.  All are attempts to shock oneself out of numbness.  Other drugs as well as meditation and meditation music are used for an opposite purpose: to withdraw from those parts and aspects of the living environment that create sensory overload  and to put one into self-induced vacuum states.  In neither case do people have the kind of experiences where there is rich engagement with the external world and that create an intense sustained feeling of being alive.  People become down and numb from withdrawal into a vacuum, and then they become overagitated and jaded from the experience of the abrasive static stimuli previously discussed.  They bounce back and forth, feeling fully comfortable in neither experiential configuration.

One way that people try to stabilize their sensory reactions in spite of a lack of significant organic grounding is through complex electronic phenomena like movies, television and computers.  In each case, there is a highly mediated presentation of stimuli, the creation of a vacuum that surrounds a piece of life experience.  This vacuumized presentation by itself is numbing.  However, in order to stimulate people to life from beyond the vacuum, the content frequently is very intense and abrasive.  Violence and sex seem to be the most common popular themes in movies and television today.  In terms of structure of content, scenes are short, and there is a quick shift between them in order to create greater intensity.  A rapid flow of intense disjunctive images in order to give people kicks and pull them out of the vacuum enclosure of the screen.  Pockets of static surrounded by a vacuum.  The same with computers.  A rapid flow of intense disjunctive presentations of information surrounded by a vacuum.  All these are microcosms of the vacuum and static pocket larger environment that people live in within modern technological society.  But on a microcosmic level, one can balance the understimulating  vacuum and the overstimulating static pockets in such a way that one doesn’t have to bounce between them.  Nevertheless, this mediated experience does not give people experiential surfaces on which to make and preserve organic imprints.  Without the presentation of organic surfaces, the people using these machines are missing out on the truly rich life experiences that allow them to feel intensely alive, let alone leave imprints that allow them to prepare for death.

In an environment of sensory distortion, people are reduced to a third purpose separate from preparing for death or feeling fully alive.  People become focused on basic psychological survival, holding themselves together in an environment where the configurations of stimuli offer little psychological grounding, and the configurations of surfaces offer little opportunity to make and preserve new imprints.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Impediments to Leaving Imprints Today

In my last essay, I discussed the importance for human beings of leaving preserved imprints on their living environment as a form of surrogate immortality in preparing for death.  It is imprints that are our vehicle for validating our humanity.  They are our means for feeling alive and for preserving an aspect of this state of aliveness we are in, after we are no longer actually alive.  To a certain extent, we experience our total living environment in terms of surfaces with the potential to receive imprints as well as surfaces that are resistant to new imprints.  The first group of surfaces represent phenomena that are more easily imprintable, because they do not have rigid surfaces and rigid boundaries.  They are receptive to change of shape by means of impressions.  Such phenomena as earth, clay, bodies of water and fields of grass are obvious  physical natural phenomena that belong to this first group.  However, some easily imprintable surfaces are mixed in with phenomena that are more rigid and more resistant to new imprints.  Organisms have boundaries; they are discrete figures.  And yet, they leave imprints on one another’s experiential surfaces in many different ways.  Humans leave imprints on one another through sex, love, fighting, teaching and learning, negotiations, deals, good and bad deeds, and exchange of information and emotional statements through daily communication.  Humans are figures with imprintable physical and mental surfaces - surfaces that are impressionable like the earth on the ground.

Fast forward to the modern industrial environments of today.  In modern cities, we are surrounded by brick, cement, steel, glass and asphalt.  Buildings and streets and cars.  Phenomena that are resistant to being imprinted.  And then there are computers and robots.  Computers and robots are imprinted by the people who design them, who create them.  And programs are created to be operated in them in certain ways.  But most individual people do not create programs and do not leave significant uniquely synthesized imprints on computers and robots when they - the users - operate them.

It is true that people can write on a computer, using it as a word processor.  But I would still submit that writing by hand with a pen, because a person leaves more unique imprints with his personalized handwriting, leads to the person receiving feedback from this more unique creative physical imprint, and this stimulates more creative thinking.  Furthermore, one more effectively experiences oneself leaving an imprint with one’s thought.  There is simply a repetitive formulaic motor process involved in pressing on keys on a computer keyboard.  There is no feeling of leaving unique organic imprints in pressing on computer keys.

Most robot operations and most computer programs are fairly formulaic.  They are mostly pre-conceived processes.  As are the operations of most industrial machines.  The purposes for which they are used may be uniquely human, but the processes are mediated and formulaic.  It is almost as if the complex entities of modern machines, computers and robots are somehow leaving their own imprints on the rigid laminated surfaces that are resistant to the organic imprints of human beings.

Particiularly, to the extent that computers and robots and complex modern machinery mediate between us and our natural environment - our primary experience living environment, all this technology and the structures it creates become our new living environment.  And computers are micro-living environments that have well-marked boundaries.  They are highly defined as figures, and they supplant the grounded surfaces upon which we press down both literally and metaphorically to leave unique organic imprints.

Modern living environments consist primarily of highly figured technology and structures as well as the spaces in between.  In more organic traditional living environments, many phenomena are  fairly pure ground in the experiential sense of a phenomenon that can blend with other phenomena.  Examples are  soil and water.  Or else they are imperfectly defined figures like organisms with large experiential grounded surfaces that are highly open to communion and blending and imprinting with other grounded surfaces.  As in forests, packs of animals and villages.  Different organisms, traditional architecture -  that blends in more effectively with its natural environment, traditional art and handicrafts.  All are examples of imperfect figures with highly grounded surfaces for communing and blending and imprinting.  And the art, handicrafts, and architecture have imprinted surfaces that we leave among the imprintable surfaces of natural phenomena.

And the spaces in between the phenomena in this traditional environment reflect the traditional structures and complement them.  The emptiness - the vacuum - becomes infused with a kind of somethingness that we experience in our minds.  We populate the vacuum with our psychological imprints.  The vacuum becomes the home to the spiritual world and spiritual phenomena that enhance and reflect the activity found in the grounded natural environment.  The vacuum becomes infused with psychological grounding from the spirit world and with the grounded surfaces of supernatural entities that interact with us.  And to the extent that we humans interact with these supernatural entities, we experience ourselves as leaving another level of imprints on the spaces in between the different figure and ground phenomena in traditional environments.  We do this with prayers and rituals and ceremonies and with the modification of the figure and ground phenomena in our field of experience in order to comply with the requirements of the supernatural world we experience in the vacuum.

In modern living environments filled with highly figured scientific ideas, the vacuum, the spaces in between, is pretty empty of grounding.  The vacuum does not reflect back in any way the figure and ground phenomena found in the natural living environment.  And this is because increasingly, the phenomena in the modern world are highly figured pieces of technology: complex machines, computers, and robots.

That which does fill the spaces in between, nowadays, is the free-floating facts and images of cyberspace.  These are lifeless bounded discrete stimuli, little figures with no organic surfaces for blending and interacting the way supernatural entities do.

Of course, we have also had the vacuum images of TV and movies for a while, but these are images sent from a projector to a screen or from a TV station to a TV.  With computers, we have facts and images that exist in cyberspace.  This is what fills the spaces in between for humans today.  These facts and images are mediated bounded phenomena that do not accept our direct imprints in our minds in the same way supernatural entities do.

The spaces in between are not alive today in the way they were in more traditional times.  The mediated phenomena in cyberspace are not imprintable.  The in-between spaces are impervious to our need to make new imprints.  So in our modern technological environments, the barrier against our imprints in the clusters of technological figures as well as in the space in between is fairly complete.  And this leads to distortions in our field of experience and distortions in our behavior.  The world is changing so fast, and that is why we need to get a handle on overall patterns of change, so that we can protect ourselves against their harmful side effects.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Leaving Imprints In Modern Technological Environments

The blog I am creating here will focus on how modern technology transforms living environments, and, in turn, how those transformed living environments affect human behavior.  Modern technology is changing living environments at an accelerating rate, and, with this change, comes a change in the configurations of phenomena and stimuli with which we live in our field of experience.  Our mammalian human nervous systems are not evolving fast enough to keep up with technological change, and so we experience sensory distortion.  We develop patterns of behavior which help us to deal with the discomfort from the sensory distortion, but these patterns of behavior have harmful consequences.

First, we should examine a slightly different perspective as to why technological development became such an important factor in the history of many human cultures.  Basically, technology helps us to survive by gaining control over the material world and protecting us against the perishability that exists within it. However, survival takes on a special meaning for human beings, because with their cerebral cortex and their heightened consciousness, they are very aware of their own mortality.  Most traditional cultures dealt with the fear that this awareness of mortality creates by developing elaborate afterlives within religious systems.  These afterlives gave people a way to stand apart from the decay, the disease and the destructive climactic and geological events that they experience around them.  At least, they could achieve a spiritual immortality.

But, for some cultures, these spiritual immortalities were not enough of a guarantee.  There was no way of sensorily guaranteeing spiritual immortality in this world.  These cultures felt a need to create a psychological experience of immortality in the sensory world of the here and now.  It wasn’t so much that people, on some level, didn’t know they would inevitably die in the sensory world.  But with the development of technology, technology gradually moved beyond the implement stage to the parallel environment stage.  Technology was no longer simply a way to cope with certain survival tasks in the natural world, like obtaining food, clothing, shelter and transportation.  Technology became a means by which human imprints could be more effectively preserved on the field of experience in which people lived.

Human imprints in a technological world are not subject to the same kind of perishability that they are in a natural environment.  Most things are made of almost indestructible materials or laminated with almost indestructible materials or enclosed in almost indestructible materials or sheltered in a climate-controlled room, or endlessly backed-up on computer files or on discs.  These highly preserved imprints give people a feeling of a surrogate immortality in the sensory world.  That is, there is this sense that if one’s imprints can be effectively preserved after one has died, then one has left a legacy of a part of oneself as a surrogate immortality.  And although people always tried to leave a legacy - a surrogate immortality - of a part of themselves in preindustrial times, their imperfect success contributed to their focusing on spiritual immortalities.

Today, technology makes preserving imprints from organic perishability a more successful enterprise.  Some parts of surrogate immortalities are based on collective imprints like putting up a building, voting on a law or being on a team that wins a championship.  Today, more buildings are bigger and are made of stronger materials than most traditional buildings with the exception of pyramids, castles and religious buildings.  Laws and sports records are immortalized by being preserved on computer files.  Some parts of surrogate immortalities are based on the imprints by individuals like writing a book or building a small business.  Books today are protected against organic perishability by being turned into e-books.  Parts of small businesses are preserved through incorporation which is recorded on computers today in government offices.  Some imprints have to do with our direct impact on other people.  This impact can be tangible like having a baby with someone or giving advice that was followed by someone.  Or it can be intangible: the emotional presence we create in someone.  These imprints have aspects that are individual and aspects that are collective.  We leave an individual imprint on someone else in creating a baby, but the baby is a collective imprint.  We give advice or leave an emotional presence in someone as a result of our reaction to the imprint this person leaves on us..

But something strange happens as living environments become more technologized.  Organic imprints require organic surfaces in order to make a mark on the world.  An imprint has to be made first in order to be preserved or fixed in the photographic sense.  But the modern technological surfaces are surfaces that defend against new imprints in order to preserve the old ones.  We bounce off the surfaces of the objects in our living environments today, rather than imprint them.  Perishability, at least in the traditional sense, is something that is slowed down considerably with steel, asphalt, plastic and cyberspace.  And yet we each need a field of experience in our life, a total enveloping configuration of phenomena and stimuli, that is at least somewhat susceptible to the impact of our imprints.  We need to be able to leave imprints on the surface of the field of experience that surrounds our physical presence as well as on the physical world within this field of experience.

However the people who create the programs for modern industrial machines, computers, and video games are filling the world with experiential surfaces that don’t allow for making significant original imprints by the people who use them.  When machine operators churn out their products, they leave nothing of themselves in what they create.  Time spent surfing the internet could be spent in directly making imprints and receiving imprints in the primary experience of direct human interaction.  Time spent in the formulaic actions and responses of video games could be spent in so many different creative activities or doing sports with other kids.  These modern machines, with the technological surfaces they create, mediate human processes, create formulaic mediated experiences and replace the primary experiences that allow for direct placement of organic imprints on our fields of experience. As we fight to beat death, we lose something essential for feeling alive.

With a diminished capacity to make imprints, comes a diminished capacity to receive imprints from others.  As we become numb from our diminished capacity to make imprints, we are less receptive to the imprints that others want to make on us.  We ourselves become technological surfaces.  What is missing is the organic environments that are templates for people to make imprints on one another.  By organic environments, I mean not only nature but human living environments where the architecture, the design, the art and the community organization are based on a strong organic bonding with both the people who live there and the physical world.  In modern technological environments, relationships are more tenuous, divorces are common,  families crumble, and many people don’t know their neighbors.

It is my premise that human beings are not formed, do not develop independent of their living environment.  People are not simply the result of their biological predispositions and their family upbringing, but also their total living environment.  We do observations of animals and how they interact with their ecosystems.  We are concerned about preserving the habitats of animals, because that is where they survive best.  However, we think that, because of our cerebral cortex, we humans are capable of adapting effectively to any environment which we may create  And yet, there are many environments where we can survive, although we don’t necessarily thrive.  These modern environments interfere with our capacity to make imprints and leave us vulnerable to sensory distortion, which in turn generates pathological behavior.  The effects of our modern transformed living environments on human behavior are going to be the focus of my contributions to this blog.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow