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

No comments:

Post a Comment