Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Brooms and Buttons in Human Life

Freedom is a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  To those who espouse democracy, it means things like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.  To people on the political right it means freedom to grow business without government regulations, freedom to own guns and freedom of the unborn to be born.  For people on the political left, it means freedom from hunger, freedom from gun violence and freedom of choice with regard to abortion.  In all these cases, the common denominator is an attempt to break away from a situation that is oppressing a person.  The person perceives a particular situation as boxing him in, and he conceives of a solution whereby he pushes the box away either in the form of affirmative expression  (freedom to do something) or in the form of getting out of the box and escaping (freedom from something).

In the affirmative expression solution, a person pushes to make an imprint against a situation created by other people that would prevent him from leaving the imprint.  In the excape solution, a person pushes to avoid receiving an imprint created by other people that a situation is making on him.

In this essay, I would like to explore a situation that is not normally thought of as boxing a person in, and a notion of freedom that is not normally thought about or discussed.  This is because the “box” that is boxing people in within this situation has been growing incrementally and is extremely subtle.  The freedom under considereation here is the freedom to move about freely when we engage the world.  On the surface, this idea may seem like total nonsense.  Nobody is directly controlling the way we move, as we move through the world.  People aren’t on leashes today nor are they kept in cells (unless they are criminals).

But modern technology is creating a situation today that both prevents people from making their own physical imprints on the world through physical movement and that prevents people from escaping the psychological mechanical marks that it leaves on them.  This is because the people who control modern society expect modern technology to be used for fundamental life processes.  Blue collar workers have to use industrial machines.  Students and office workers have to use computers.  Marketers aggressively convince people to use movies, television, computers, video games and smart phones for entertainment and to use complex appliances and other machines for basic household chores and personal care.

Human progress has been gradually configuring our living environments over the last few centuries to shape the way we move and interact with them.  The increasing use of more and more complex machines to accomplish our tasks in the world has had a profound effect on our freedom to make physical imprints.  In traditional societies, our work consisted of routine jobs whether hunting, gardening, raising animals, farming, fixing things with relatively basic tools, or making things like pots, chairs, houses, boats, carriages and clothing.  Because the tools were basic, there was little requirement on the part of humans to make movements in one fixed precise way.  Movement of arms and legs could flow, and the different parts of tasks flowed into one another.  Human movement could range over space in unpredictable ways.  Even routine work could be done somewhat differently from day to day.  There was a certain amount of  freedom in the way we physically engaged the world through our survival activities.  Enough freedom so that there were personal styles of doing things.

As many tasks became increasingly mechanized through the industrial age, people’s encounters with the world through these complex machines began to change as well.  Instead of using flowing continual actions to perform tasks, people were increasingly required to use precise discrete actions, performed sequentially to turn on the machine, activate different functions of a machine, and then turn it off.  This doesn’t mean that in traditional societies, work wasn’t broken into phases involving different actions.  It just means that the phases did not usually have the sharp angular separation from one another as the discrete steps do in modern machine processes.  There are different phases to hunting an animal or baking bread, but the phases flow into each other.  In terms of the transition to more mechanical human movements, there has been, at first, a transitional time when discrete step-by-step actions were mixed with some flowing continual actions.  Cars, vacuum cleaners and electric razors are examples of this mixed dimension machine.

But gradually, there has been a movement to more and more machine actions that are simply based on discrete step-by-step actions.  Some of these actions simply involve pressing a series of buttons as in operating a television.  Some actions involve the use of levers as with some industrial machines.  A lot of these actions are computer-based actions.  We can operate all kinds of processes now through computer keys.  And computer keys represent the ultimate loss of freedom of movement of our body, and particularly of our hands.

Technology is constricting our movements in our daily lives.  By doing this, we are losing the opportunity to unfold a more unique individual sense of self.  It is true that all these modern machines are supposed to make life easier by freeing us from strenuous, time-consuming routine actions.  But those strenuous, time-consuming routine actions allowed us to develop a physical style to our actions and processes which ultimately resulted in a unique physical imprint that we were able to make in supposedly standardized tasks.

Increasingly automated actions lead to freedom from engagement with the world which leads to floating in an experiential vacuum.  Too much freedom from engagement with the external world is not necessarily a good freedom to have.  People become boxed in within their mechanical interactions.  In other words, boxed in does not have to refer to simply being in overly confined spaces.  We can be boxed in through overly restricted movements that prevent our communion with our living environment within a continual flow of space over a continual flow of time.  Free-flowing movement is a major way that we can make meaningful imprints on our field of experience.

At this point, it might be appropriate to redefine a model that I had used in previous articles  for slightly different circumstances than I am talking about here in this article.  The model that I used for dividing up different kinds of stimuli is very appropriate also as a means for understanding different kinds of actions.  A discrete action has a fixed trajectory of movement with a defined beginning and a defined ending.  For example, there is no significant variation in the way a person hits the different letters and numbers on his smart phone.  It is a determinate action.  A continual action has a variable trajectory of movement with a poorly defined beginning and a poorly defined ending.  The back and forth strokes of a broom on a floor blend into each other and, for that reason, do not have a crisp beginning and a crisp ending.  Such an action is an indeterminate action.  Finally a continuous action has a totally random trajectory of movement and has no defined beginning and no ending.  An object that moves in a pure vacuum will keep moving unless a non-vacuum force intervenes to create friction and slow it down, stop it or deflect it.

The gradual technologizing of our living environment has led to a gradual change in the way we act.  Increasingly, human life is shaped by discrete actions, as we use more and more complex machines and computers to control and manipulate the phenomena in our fields of experience.  The number of discrete actions available for using these complex machines is less than the number of continual actions available for using more basic tools like brooms and hammers and forks and knives.  This again requires going back to a previous article where I talk about different kinds of infinities.  Just as the number of points on a line is greater than the number  of discrete numbers, so the number of continual actions doing traditional chores and more basic processes involving tools is greater than the number of discrete actions to perform the movements involved with activating and operating a complex modern  machine like a computer, a television, an industrial machine, or a robot.

On a smart phone, there is no room for deviation in punching in a letter.  Just a slight slip means punching another letter.  By increasingly limiting the actions we use for engaging the world to discrete actions, we are sucking the life out of our physical style of movement.  We are diminishing our capacity to make and receive physical imprints and thus diminishing our capacity to experience our full humanity.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Old Books and Illustrations

I have focused a great deal in my articles on making and preserving imprints, but not that much on receiving imprints.  In truth, making and preserving imprints is inextricably tied up with receiving imprints.  All the imprints that we make are based on the reconfiguration of imprints that we receive, both from our external world of experience and our internal world of experience.  Even the genetic material that we pass on to our child is, in turn, based on a reconfiguration of genetic material that we have received from our parents, who, in turn, received a reconfiguration of genetic material from their parents, etc.

And there is no question but that the best most vibrant experiential imprints that we make are based on the reconfiguring and mixing up of material from rich vibrant imprints that we receive.  These rich vibrant imprints come from different kinds of experiences.  But all these experiences usually have one thing in common.  They are primary experiences with at lease some significant immediate sensory content.  I mention this because the daily flow of experiences people in modern technological societies have today, has an increasingly diminished content of primary experience.

I happen to collect old books from between 1890 and 1940.  Many of the books I collect have beautiful illustrations interspersed throughout the pages as well as on the hard cover.  Some of the books have beautiful borders surrounding the text.  These books have a wonderful smell and feel to them.  They are a pleasure to hold.  Contrast these books with the electronic books that are becoming increasingly popular today.  They all appear on a few relatively  uniform electronic devices.  Such a device has a cold non-organic feel to it and no smell.  There are certainly no illustrations in the text.

Now books are a transitional experience, having some elements of a mediated experience - the text that we translate into thoughts - and some elements of a primary experience - the illustrations, bordering and typeface, the smell and feel of the book.  Yet within a little bit more than a century, books have been transformed into pure mediated experiences - the placement of text behind a screen.  It is a text that has no real corporeal presence in our lives.  Just like the text we receive on computers and smart phones and the images we receive on computers, smart phones, television and movies.

This lack of corporeal presence in modern technological environments was the subject of a conversation I had with my good friend, Dr. Jorge Cappon, the psychoanalyst from Mexico City.  The problems with electronic devices are multiple.  As Dr. Cappon stated, the majority of our contacts with other human beings today are through electronic devices: movies, television, radio, smart phones and computers.  This has to affect the way we learn how to relate to other people.  Dr.  Cappon observed that even when people are with each other, they no longer look directly at each other anymore when they are talking.

I would say that because most of the contacts we have with other people are through electronic devices, we are receiving vacuumized images of the other people, figure images surrounded by and penetrated with an experiential vacuum, figure images that we pick up through the screen or the earpiece.  They are not images you can touch or smell.  They are attenuated images that leave attenuated imprints in our mind.  Because they are attenuated, they are deficient, and we are never totally able to bond with them.  And, in truth, because we are never totally able to bond with these electronic images, most young people today never really learn how to bond with other people.  Think of all the young people who get together and sit there juxtaposed with one another, texting still other people.  Their minds become so configured for the mediated experience provided by all these electrical devices, that they become incapable of the intense multisensory stimulation of immediate primary experience.

And because young people receive mostly these attenuated experiences, these attenuated imprints from other people, they never develop the capacity to effectively make their own imprints on other people.  At a time when modern technology has overcome much of the perishability in nature to allow people multiple methods of preserving imprints, most people today don’t have the ability to make good strong imprints on other people or on other experiential surfaces in their living environments.

On one level, this is why there are so many crumbling relationships today: divorces, child abandonment, parent abandonment, the firing of employees (even long-term ones), moving from job to job and town to town, shifting friendships.  The receptivity to strong organic imprints diminishes as the world increasingly becomes technological surfaces.

The inability to be fully receptive to strong organic imprints, particularly becomes exacerbated as a result of the interactions of stimuli that people receive from different technological phenomena.  I have intimated previously that sometimes the problem is not simply the experience of one technological device, but rather the cumulative effect of all the technological devices we experience - sometimes serially, sometimes simultaneously.  What does it mean to have head phones on while using a computer to read or write something?   What  does it mean to be watching television in the back seat while riding in a car?  What does it mean to go through a whole day in an isolated cubicle in an office and experience everyone as a mediated telephone voice or an e-mail?  And what does it mean to keep accumulating new technological devices through which we receive an increasing amount of our contact not only with other people, but with the world.

Technology interactions can also produce unpredictable negative consequences just like drug interactions.  The more devices that we introduce into our daily lives, the more probable it is that the interactions from all the experiences of the devices will produce negative effects.  We live in a world that requires us to use some modern technological devices for purposes of work and communication.  But this doesn’t mean that we have to purchase every new device that presents us with an improved method for drawing us into an increasingly mediated vacuumized world.  The ideal is to use these devices with caution and moderation.  The person who is forced to sit in front of a computer all day at work, should try to find rich vibrant primary experiences, interacting with other people, or enjoying nature or art, during his off hours.  Just as people need to exercise their bodies, they need to exercise their capacity to engage on an immediate level with the world and to receive the imprints it has to offer.

Children, particularly, who spend their recreational time playing video games, watching cartoons on television, using the computer and texting on their cell phones are going to grow up incapable of tolerating the intensity of the stimuli that come from strong bonded relationships with other people.  Their capacity to receive imprints directly from other people withers.  The technology interaction has the effect of teaching them to respond primarily to discrete mechanical and electrical stimuli.  Children learn to respond to technological markings rather than organic imprints, just like the complex machines and machine components that they are using.

If from a very early age, a child is constantly bombarded with these discrete technological stimuli, how is the child going to learn to really listen when his parent tells him to do something?  As the child grows up and becomes an adult, how will the adult listen when a lover wants a committed relationship?  The person's mind becomes trained to listen to machines rather than the people around him.  And in the same way he receives all these stimuli, all these markings, from machines, he reconfigures them and adds his own markings to respond in a mechanical way.  He has become robotized.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow