Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Rituals of Machines

Overpopulation is one of the major consequences of the success of human beings in transcending the perishability that is an intrinsic aspect of more organic natural environments.  Better protection against the elements, better nutrition, and improved treatments of disease have all led to people living longer lives and occupying more and more of our planet’s space.  The best protection against the elements in nature comes in the crowded living environments of modern urban settings.  And yet, these environments are pockets of tenson, bundles of static stimuli that create stress through sensory disruption.  Bundles of tall buildings surrounded by streets and highways that criss-cross the landscape filled with lines of honking, smoke-emitting cars.  On the other hand, the interiors of the tall buildings and the cars protect people from the overstimulation outside by putting people in vacuum spaces.  People bounce back and forth between the overstimulation of the crowded external environments and the understimulation of the vacuum internal spaces.  And the total amount of sensory distortion they experience creates pathological side effects that we have been discussing in these columns.

The overpopulation acts as a limiting factor in terms of the amount that can be done on a large scale to transform living environments back to more organic natural states.  As dangerous as the sensory distortion from modern technological environments is, there is no way that our large population could survive totally apart from this environment in today‘s world.  Modern urban areas allow for concentrations of factories, transportation hubs, office and communication centers, and, in general, easy access to people in a variety of occupations to carry out complex economic transactions.  We need these economic entities to keep all of us alive as long as possible.  Our modern centers of sensory distortion not only protect us against the perishability in nature, they keep us economically alive within the machine processes and rhythms they create.

Granted that computers allow many people to work anywhere.  There are still significant numbers of people who must work in human agglomerations.  And even the fact that some people can work in the increasingly large concentric circles of suburbia and exurbia may mean they escape the intense population densities.  But suburbia and exurbia also have their skyscrapers as well as highways and streets with bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Suburbia and exurbia frequently have block after block of strip malls and enormous regional malls which take people away from the sense of community to be found in organically-evolved town centers.

Some suburbs have row after row of ugly tract housing that create an enormous sensory vacuum.  Some people live in beautiful bedroom suburbs where children grow up totally disconnected from the flow of significant societal activity.  The homes can be in beautiful organic settings, but the families are tucked away totally apart from the flow of human activity in a meaningful town center where significant things happen in which the families can participate.  These beautiful bedroom suburbs, in their strong sense of physical isolation from the flow of life,  create an enormous psychological vacuum environment.

So what is to be done if sensory distortion is practically everywhere.  The first thing to be done is to be aware of it.  By being aware of it, one can recognize it as an issue to be reflected upon and dealt with.  The second thing is to recognize that our involvement in modern technological environments involves moral considerations and moral issues that were not present in ancient times when religious traditions evolved.  In those times, moral doctrines were developed to help separate people morally from other animals by developing cognitive restraints on the excesses of their actions.  Religion taught people how to channel their sexual and aggressive energies in socially non’disruptive ways.  By being aware of their need to transcend the impulsive and instinctive expressions of animals, people occupied a mental space that allowed them to feel somewhat otherworldly or holy.  Their reflexive awareness and their rules of conduct made them totall different from the other complex entities - the animals - in their living environment.  Humans transcended psychologically above the everyday flow of organic processes around them long before they had the technological means to physically separate themselves from these organic environments through the creation of technological environments.  Because their transcendence initially was only psychological, humans still maintained a strong connection for their more mammalian side with the organic landscapes and the more organic architecture and economic processes (hunting, horticulture, agriculture, animal husbandry) that surrounded them.  There was somewhat of a balance between the natural mammalian side and this uniquely human transcendent side. It was a psychological balance that was the foundation of what we think of as a human essence.  It was the balance between these two sides that created the human sense of self.

But gradually over time, first through the industrial revolution and then through the development of computer technology, this balance has shifted.  To understand this shift, it is first necessary to understand the strategies used for human separateness in traditional living environments.  An important example of such a discrete action is a religious ritual.  Religious rituals for people in traditional cultures were extremely focused discrete actions that allowed a person to enter a mental vacuum state where he was totally apart from the continual stimuli he experienced in the daily processes of nature in the traditional living environment he inhabited.  That apartness allowed for the experience of transcendence, where a person could feel temporarily free from the perishability - the rot and decay - that are the other side of the natural growth in more organic environments.  However, in modern technological environments, the danger of  perishability has receded, and as traditional living environments have evolved into modern technological environments, it is possible that the focused ritual processes of religion may be merging into all the other discrete focused actions of the mechanical and electronic processes of the appliances, the cars, the televisions, the computers, the smart phones and, increasingly, the robots that surround people today.  Discrete actions like religious rituals may not be providing as much of a sense of transcendental apartness for people in modern technological environments.  Rituals today might actually lead people to merge experientially even more with all the technological entities that surround them.  And in so doing, some of the balance between different elements that lead to the development of a strong human sense of self is lost.

As a matter of fact, it might be said that modern technological life activity is indirectly trivializing the participation of people in religious ritual.  This is why so many people in modern technological societies feel less of a desire today to participate in religious services.  Why so many people in modern technological societies are keeping the most minimal contact with their traditional religions.  They need a rest from discrete actions and discrete processes.

One might ask how one can speak of the sanctity of religious rituals in the same breath as the everyday human interactions with technology and technological environments.  But seemingly distinct phenomena can come together as a result of growing commonalities.  Just as religious rituals give us a sense of transcendental control over the world through mysterious processes, so the precise interactions with technology also give people a sense of transcendental control over the world through mysterious processes.  How many people really have a feel of how modern machines and computers and cyberspace work and what makes them operate?  The repeated processes in which people participate to activate and run technology are like secular rituals.

The big difference is that working with technology may give a sense of transcendental control in relation to the natural environment, but it certainly does not offer a sense of transcendental apartness from the technological environments in which one is living.  All the other complex entities in modern technological environments - the machines - are involved in transcending above the natural living environments just like humans.  The machines, like the humans, are free-floating figures in a sterile vacuum living environment.  And to the extent that religious rituals put people in vacuumized mental states, they contribute to making people somehow similar operationally at those moments to the complex machines around them. And to the extent that a lot of people in modern technological societies feel overly robotized already, they have been moving away gradually from religious ritual.  It doesn’t mean that people don’t need to find a meaningful way to deal with their animal tendencies.  It just means that, on some level, many of the answers that people are presently getting from aspects of organized religion are no longer as relevant to their lives in modern technological society.  Too many people are falling away from a formal moral path.  Yes, there are some people who have moved to participate in very religious movements, and I would say this constitutes a form of conative acceleration - a form of speeding up of the will and the activity moved forward by it.  It is speeded-up religious activity to block out sensory distortion from the technological environment.

Returning to our original topic, if there is truly a danger of people becoming robotized today, then moral discussions are going to have to deal with what kinds of experiences are necessary to restore a greater sense of humanity in people in spite of the limitations created by overpopulation and sensory  distortion.  We are moving into a psychological realm where very different solutions may be necessary in determining the appropriate strategies for protecting people from the dangers of sensory distortion today.  These dangers are here and they can be ignored only at our peril.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Subject Peoples and Subject Machines

One of the ongoing themes in my writing has been the tendency of complex machines in modern society to have a leaching influence on people.  Obviously, I am using the term metaphorically and not talking about the leaching that occurs in certain chemical processes.  I use the term “leaching” to describe the influence of these complex machines as sources of mirroring and modeling for human beings much like parental figures and totemic animals can be.  The concepts of mirroring and modeling usually refer in psychodynamic psychology to the influence that older more powerful human beings have on younger less powerful and even helpless human beings.  In anthropology, they can be used to refer to the attempts by technologically less-powerful societies to try and make a psychological connection to certain powerful elements in their natural living environment that could be potentially threatening or that could offer them secrets to survival.

Modern humanity supposedly has a certain control over its natural environment as a result of the incredible technological progress it has made over the last few centuries.  Technology has allowed people to transcend above their natural living environment and to transcend above many sources of perishability that occur in more primitive environments.  During these times, the official posture was not to let the psychological influences of perishable phenomena leach into or blend with people’s psyches, but rather that people should stand apart from the things in their environment in order to control and dominate them.  People stood apart from other people, when one group conquered another people and set up a colonial or master-slave relationship with them.  Granted that, as I have said previously, subject peoples did have an influence that leached out to their conquerors.  But for a long time, conquerors made the attempt to maintain a stand-apart relationship in some areas of life with their subject peoples.

The question is at what point do people that are trying to stand apart from the phenomena in their environment, lose control and become more open to mirroring and modeling, to psychological leaching and blending.  It seems to me that people are most predisposed to leaching and blending precisely at that point when they have psychologically cut themselves off from the significant organic surfaces in their field of experience or when there really are too few organic surfaces in their field of experience.  In both situations, a lack of opportunity to commune with grounded surfaces makes people feel starved for grounded surfaces with which to commune.  In the case of colonial or slave societies, the need for some dominant people to maintain brittle boundaries in order to stand apart from the subject people they control, leads to an explosive desire in some of them to break through the boundaries that have been created.  The colonial and slave society master mentality just leads to a person cutting himself off psychologically from too many grounded surfaces in his living environment in order to keep his dominant position.  The enforced psychological distances that are maintained means that the ruling person ends up in a psychological vacuum.  So it is not only the subject people that gets hurt in a colonial situation.

The breaking through the boundaries by the master people can take different forms.  However, it generally means that the master peoples start “going native” and become more like the subject people they rule.  Frequently, it means racially mixing with the subject people,  although in the American South, racially mixing with blacks primarily resulted in the creation of light-skinned slaves, who maybe had a little more power and a little higher status.  Nevertheless, the fact that the white daughters of plantation owners began to pick up the English dialect of the black slaves in the plantation house led to the daughters being sent to boarding schools, where they could learn proper English again.  Some boundaries had to be maintained in order to maintain white domination.  However, an important point is that in a situation like this one, the subject peoples were human beings, who had grounded surfaces and were open to blending with their colonial masters.

A very different situation exists for people living in modern technological societies.  The subject technology - the computers and robots and smart phones and other consumer technological devices - are not organisms and do not have grounded surfaces with which to commune and blend with their human masters.  So any leaching influence of modern machines on human behavior is not done as a result of a predisposition of these machines to blend organically with phenomena in their environment.  The blending is all done by the human masters in their minds.  The machines are not overtly seducing their masters the way a pretty woman from a subject people might in order to gain some power through a connection with the master.

Master people lose control of their capacity to stand apart in a power relationship from a particular complex phenomenon, when the phenomenon has a large enough critical mass in numbers, that it can surround the master people in their field of experience.  Colonial Americans adopted few customs from the Native Americans, because, from the very beginning, the British had brought over their wives.  Therefore, there was little racial mixing with the natives.  Furthermore, the Indians in North and South America died in vast numbers as a result of contact with European diseases.  Nevertheless, there was much more influence from native customs in Spanish, and French colonies, because the men in these colonies tended not to bring their women over to the New World very much initially.  For the Spaniards, their colonies were initially primarily places to exploit natural resources like gold and silver, rather than places to establish permanent self-sustaining settlements. The colonial Portuguese were much more influenced by their African slaves, with whom they mixed a lot, rather than the Native Americans in Brazil.

At any rate, the period of technological transformation is well advanced, and modern people are totally immersed in technologically-based laminated environments and surrounded by machines.  This is a much more extreme situation for brittle boundaries than the situation of colonial and master-slave societies, because it is the environment itself that enforces strong experiential boundaries.  Machines and technological environments cannot naturally open up and develop grounded surfaces, even if  the master people would change their attitudes.  The only literal blending that can be done is through replacement of body parts and the development of cyborgs.  But for most people today, the merging occurs in the mind through the implicit mirroring and modeling that complex machines like computers, smart phones and robots can provide.

What we have with both colonial societies and slave societies on the one hand, and modern technological societies on the other is a situation of a subservient subject phenomenon taking a subtly controlling position over a supposedly master group of people as a result of the latter’s need to make and receive imprints and, in so doing, revitalize itself.  The phenomenon fills a fundamental need that can’t be filled within the normal boundaries of the dominant people.

Some sources of mirroring and modeling remain dominant throughout and overtly controlling throughout their relationships with the people seeking the connection.  But the point I am making is that the sources of mirroring and modeling and leaching and blending do not always have to become dominant and overtly controlling.  Sometimes they can take some control by being simply seductive, and also by providing the possibility of communion and blending in a situation where the dominant people are experiencing overly rigid boundaries.  This is paradoxically true even for sources of mirroring and modeling like modern complex machines: computers, smart phones and robots that have strong figure boundaries themselves.  But with the destruction and displacement of traditional sources of grounding, communing and blending like nature and nature-inspired art, archtecture and artifacts, people psychologically reach out in a communing mode to these modern machines.  These machines are the major complex phenomena in the human living environment today.  But by reaching out to commune with phenomena with such strong boundaries, people open themselves wide psychologically to selfless machines.  In the process, the integrity of the sense of self of these people is greatly damaged.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow