Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Morality for Humans in a Field of Robots

Recently, I have discussed the need for developing a morality based on more contextual blendable rules.  Such rules would reflect the need to act in a more organic way as a defense against all the technologically-caused sensory distortion in our living environment and the rapid change over time of our living environment as a result of rapid technological change.  The rapid technological change creates constantly evolving life situations with constantly evolving sensory distortion and a need for constantly evolving postures and rules to deal with these experiences.   The nature of the boundaries of our moral rules and actions are as important as the content.  Today we need more fuzzy boundaries for many of our rules to deal with these evolving life situations in a more flexible way.  These fuzzy boundaries of rules reflect the more fuzzy blendable boundaries we want to promote in ourselves to survive the evolving sensory distortion.  As more fuzzy organic beings, our sense of self is not defined as much by a very specific rigid discrete self-definition, but rather by a more flowing continual self-coherence.  Through our words, our actions, our beings, we need to will a more organic presence for ourselves.  Although we still need some basic well-defined moral rules, too many rigid, discrete, moral rules will cause us to become like all the angular technological machinery that surrounds us with its choppy discrete rhythms and processes.  Within the context of our modern technological living environments, these rigid moral rules would contribute to making us robots.  Again, I want to emphasize that the use of contextual blendable rules does not mean bending or breaking rules in an opportunistic immoral way.  It means the ability to be flexible and to adjust rules to survive rapidly changing and potentially harmful environmental circumstances.

        We need a morality that supports our organic coherence.  This means supporting those situations that create an experiential organic grounding within ourselves.  This means creating more continual blendable situations in our external environment, situations that can exist in spite of all the technological sensory distortion.  Such situations include strong family relationships,  committed sexual relationships, and committed community interactions and activities.  We need people holding together their human essence through continual explorations in all the categories of the humanities, a mental area of creation and intellectual exploration with an emphasis on more intuitive truths that help people to bond with others.

Modern technology puts a wedge between people.  Many of you will ask how that is possible with all the new forms of communication available through technology: e-mails, texting, teleconferencing, Facebook, Skype, Yahoo Messenger……..the list just goes on and on.  But all of these are mediated attenuated forms of communication that displace the kind of face-to-face interaction that leads to meaningful organic bonding.  If anything, technological communication reinforces our sense of isolation.  It reinforces the sharp discrete boundaries in us of robots.

So if technology reinforces robotic isolation, we must make moral decisions to reinforce our humanity with surrogate organic grounding.  If the boat of humanity is tipping over to one side as a result of excessive immersion in technological experience, we must make a moral commitment to put weight on the side of the boat where we can get more organic experience in order to keep the boat afloat.

If we can’t have as much organic stimulation in our external physical living environment as we would like, then we must dwell in the organic stimulation we generate amongst ourselves and in the complex mental entities in which we dwell in our heads.  This is a time when most industrial countries are pushing science and engineering as vehicles for giving them power.  Science and engineering are the intellectual careers that are given honor.  There are fewer and fewer courses in the humanities, as careers in the humanities are increasingly considered impractical and irrelevant.  Who has time to read great classics reflectively and to think anymore, when there is so much seductive technological activity at our fingertips.  But the humanities get us in touch with deeper human truths that allow us to connect more deeply with the people around us.  The humanities, which include artistic and philosophical works created in more traditional organic times, are a surrogate mental traditional organic world that can help us to survive sensory distortion from technological living environments.  It becomes a moral decision, in order to maintain our humanity, to spend meaningful time reading serious fiction and essays, looking at and reflecting on serious works of art, and listening to serious music.  This activity creates a protection against the crumbling apart of our sense of self and our consciousness from the isolation we experience as a result of all the technological media that surround us.  Movies, television, computers, smart phones, video games, all put us in a vacuum where we become numb to ourselves.

And when we become numb to our senses of self, we become vulnerable to technological control by other people.  I am afraid that at some point, people in their technological isolation and their robot-like mentalities will lose their independence as organic entities.  Many corporations today treat their workers like robots who have little down time and are on call 24/7.  Where is the moral outcry from traditional sources of moral protection?

In previous articles, I have discussed the concept of a surrogate immortality as a means to have something live on from us, after we die.  The surrogate immortality consists of all the meaningful imprints we have both made and preserved on the surfaces of the field of experience around us: children, businesses, works of art, trees we have planted, buildings we have erected, sporting titles we have won, all the memories we have left in other people’s minds.  Just as we need a surrogate immortality to prepare for death, so we now need surrogate mental organic  entities to create mental living environments where we can feel fully alive as organic human beings.  Yes, some of us live close to patches of nature, and that is wonderful.  However, few people today have intense interactions with organic environments.  Few people feel a part of an organic ecosystem that in turn stimulates them to feel at one with themselves.

So it is my belief that people today have to work at staying organic mammalian human beings and this involves focusing on organic grounded interactions with other people and organic grounded mental interactions with themselves.  The world of the humanities creates a surrogate mental grounded organic entity for us that allows us to stimulate the organic aspects of ourself through the imprints we receive from already created works, through the imprints we can make from the comments we can make on these works in conversations with others and through the works that we are stimulated to create by ourselves.  Immersion in the mental activity generated by the humanities is like doing exercise for the organic aspects of our senses of self.  It is a way of pushing out all the vacuum and static stimuli from our modern technological living environments that increasingly are making people more and more robotized.

The humanities are one very important way of keeping people in a mental state that allows them to defend themselves against their gradual transformation into robots.  The humanities are not a sharply defined place of existence and they involve many different kinds of phenomena.  They are complex, but we need complex mental organic entities to create surrogate mental organic fields of experience for us. These fields of experience can act as surrogate organic grounding and help us fight the effects of sensory distortion in our modern technological living environments.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Moral Consequences of Television, Video Games and Smartphones

In my last article, I started to explore a little the changes in the approach to morality that may have to take place today in order for people to maintain their human essence in the face of modern technological living environments filled with rapid technological change.  There is a basic kind of change that we should consider in order to develop appropriate moral postures for today.  Just as the content in our living environments is dramatically different from the periods of history when most modern religions were created, so we may need some different content in our moral rules today.  There are not too many fully developed analogies from traditional living environments that we can use for developing proper moral postures in order to maintain our humanity in sensorily distorted technological living environments.  There are no fully developed analogies from traditional living environments that we can use for developing proper moral postures to movies, television, radio, computers, smart phones and robots as technological entities.  The revelations from traditional religions proclaim eternal application, but the living environment is the template for human interaction, and different living environments trigger very different kinds of behavior.  Some of the kinds of behavior generated from technological environments have uniquely destructive aspects.  There is a moral dimension to sitting hour after hour in front of a television, if it results in a person’s loss of capacity to be with himself and to develop a rich interior life.  There is a moral dimension to a child sitting hour after hour with a video game, if it means the child never develops an appreciation for reading books and means that the child never develops the capacity for critical thinking.  There is a moral dimension to the extensive use of a smartphone by a teenager, if it results in his loss of capacity to properly develop and maintain face-to-face social relationships.

Modern technology has created life situations that the founders of traditional religions could never have imagined.  Not only do technological environments trigger kinds of behavior, as a result of sensory distortion, that traditional environments never did, but computers, smartphones and robots generate human interactions with them, as a result of unique configurations of stimuli, that are very different from human interactions with other animals, with plants and with geological and climatological phenomena.  And yet we continue to expand the technological environment and to fill it with more and more complex technological entites that are supposed to serve the greater human need.

What are some of the categories of human needs within the greater human need that technology is supposed to serve?  One is to make human life easier, more frictionless, as a part of a greater sense of transcendent control over the living environment.  This means diminishing hard physical work, diminishing drudge housework, and diminishing drudge paper work in an office.  But as more and more categories of human work get taken over by machines, there is less and less experiential connection between people and their living environments.  People end up floating in an experiential vacuum along with all the complex technological entities.  They become numb from the vacuum and jaded from knocking into all the clusters of other free-floating figures in the vacuum.  To survive, they become hardened like a robot.  And that means losing something of their human essence.

So in certain ways, to make life easier is actually to make life as a balanced human more difficult.  And people have to develop moral postures to help them in dealing in small ways with the threats to their humanity.

One category of human needs relates to creating alternate worlds that appear eternal, because they are free from organic perishability.  This includes all the modern consumer technology that gives people a sense of control over their living environment by creating shrunken alternate worlds.  Immersing oneself in the fields of experience created by these technological entities gives one a true sense of being able to live for eternity.  But in living in these alternate worlds, one has less and less time to make and preserve imprints on the surfaces of the primary experience world and so to prepare for death with a proper surrogate immortality.  One lives deluded in a false experiential world of eternity, until one is about to die and he realizes that he has left a minimum of meaningful imprints as a realistic and solid preparation for death.

So in certain ways, to make life seemingly more eternal, actualy makes it more vulnerably mortal.  The eternity on a movie screen, a tv screen, a computer screen and a smartphone screen is an illusion.

Another category of human needs relates to creating medicines through modern technology as well as machines that prolong human life.  This includes medicines that help to keep people alive from chronic health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and Alzheimer’s.  It includes machines to keep people alive and functioning like dialysis machines, breathing machines and prosthetic limbs.

This is a very noble category of technology that would appear to have only positive consequences.  However, two concerns must be noted.  Keeping more and more people alive longer and longer means contributing to the overpopulation on our planet that not only puts our planet at risk as a living environment, because of pollution and diminishing non-renewable resources, but that also creates increasing sensory distortion, which reduces the quality of our lives.  Sensory distortion makes it more difficult to make and receive the imprints that help us feel alive as well as to preserve the imprints that help us prepare for death.  It is not only the physical damage to our planet that could make it unlivable.  It is also very much the sensory distortion.

We are in a moral bind.  Certainly doctors and scientists are going to continue to do everything that they can to lengthen human life and to increase the biological quality of human life.  This is based on our fundamental belief in most of the world  in the dignity of each human life.  And yet there is a question of what does it mean to live longer and with continued high functionality, while at the same time living with diminished quality of experience.  And here I am not talking about the diminished quality of experience that comes from limitations imposed by a health problem.  I am talking about the limitations imposed by the diminished quality of experience imposed by the external environment.  When it gets too bad, the sensory distortion can contribute to impoverishing life experience.

This leads us to the possibilities created by the next category of human needs.  There is one category of creating an alternate “eternal” world that would appear to be almost completely positive.  This is the category of space travel both to explore other galaxies and solar systems and perhaps to find other planets to which to move, should the planet earth become too physically damaged, too overpopulated and/or too sensorily distorted.  Space travel could be the key to preserving the human imprint, if not for eternity, at least for as long as our universe exists.

If keeping the human essence alive can be considered an important moral principle, at a time when the destruction of human grounding on the present planet which humans inhabit is a real possibility, then space exploration and travel must be considered a moral use of technology.

However, even within space travel, humans must examine different aspects in order to develop appropriate moral postures.  All this is new.  Analogies from the examples given in traditional religious texts may hold in some cases, but, in other cases, they will be tenuous at best.

It is so important that humans drop their uncritical acceptance of every new technological device or application that comes on the market and start developing new moral criteria for dealing with them.  If anything, some serious critical thinking has to be done on an ongoing basis to deal with the accelerating pace of technological development.  We need people who can understand the nuances and consequences of different technological developments, and who can form appropriate judgments as to the circumstances for the use of a given development in technology, if at all.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Friday, June 1, 2012

Maintaining Our Humanity In A Technological World

I have seen my role in writing this column as someone who is trying to push back a little against an overwhelming tide of transformation of the human living environment  and of the people inhabiting that living environment.  In order to push back, I have made stark contrasts between the more natural organic living environments in which traditional cultures flourished and the modern technological environments, which I perceive as creating terrible sensory distortion.  This sensory distortion has significant ramifications in terms of diffuse discomfort in the fields of experience in which we live and in terms of our own capacity to make meaningful imprints to feel alive and to prepare for death.  It affects our capacity to form a coherent sense of self and to find surfaces in our field of experience on which we can leave imprints.

So I try to push back a little against this rush of change and indirectly hold up a more purely natural life style as a way for people to defend themselves against the harmful effects of this change.  In truth, I know that there were and there are many harmful aspects of living this more natural or traditional life.  If not, why would people have tried to evolve out of it?  I have spoken often of the vulnerability to perishability in such natural environments.  However, because nature is not the major problem today, I have focused more on the dangers of modern technology, particularly because most people take modern technology for granted and look on it anyway as something that is unquestionably positive.

In trying to push back, I have glossed over the fact that we have gradually evolved from more traditional  living environments to modern technological living environments over a long period of time.  I have had discussions with some people who are attuned to my way of  thinking, about whether perhaps there has been a point in time along the flow of technological evolution in different countries when there was a proper or, at least, adequate balance between nature and technology.  A point in time that could be considered an appropriate model for people to look to today as a period when the living environment could have been considered very desirable.

Many Americans consider the 1950’s in the United States to have been such a time of balance.  It was a time when the industrial revolution had reached a point in development where most American lives were made comfortable and secure by technology.  And yet the technology had not so taken over the living environment through the computer revolution as to create an imperfect substitute reality for individuals.  Yes there was radio and television, but there were only a few channels for television.  Popular programs like “I Love Lucy” were almost communal experiences, because everybody watched them at the same time.  The next day, after the airing of a program, people would talk about it, as if they had attended a play together.  Apart from this electronic programming, people lived pretty much in the external sensory world.  They read real hard-copy newspapers and books instead of computer screens or e-books, wrote by hand and by typewriter, and actually talked to each other, rather than on their cell phones, when they were juxtaposed next to each other.

Nevertheless, there was a dark side to the U.S. in the fifties.  Factory work was well-paid, but it required using robotic repetitive motions and breathing the polluted air from waste products and listening to constant loud noises.  Air quality in big cities was bad from automobile exhaust and industrial waste, and some cities like Pittsburgh were under grey skies a lot from this pollution.  Furthermore, all Americans lived under an ongoing threat of nuclear annihilation from the Soviet Union, and there were bomb shelters everywhere.  School classrooms had drills for what should be done if a nuclear attack should occur.  So technology and the technological living environment impinged strongly on human life even in the fifties.

I am not sure if a perfect balance between a traditional natural living environment and a modern technological environment can ever be found.  I do know that living environments automatically trigger parts of our behavior as a result of our direct responses to configurations of stimuli and as a result of unconscious mirroring and modeling responses based on human reaction to other significant complex phenomena. These other significant complex phenomena include other animals as well as plants, geological and climatological phenomena and modern machines, computers and robots.  And because these configurations of stimuli and significant complex phenomena threaten to create imbalances in us that diminish our humanity, it is up to us as humans to espouse behavior and attitudes that go against the flow of these behavioral triggers sometimes, in order to reassert a balance within us.

In a more traditional organic environment dominated by continual blendable stimuli, humans must espouse a moral code with some strong discrete rules and discrete rituals.  Rules and rituals that are fairly unbending and even absolute in order to give people strong moral definition.  Rules like the Ten Commandments that influence three major religions.

Our modern technological environment is filled with the continuous stimuli from the vacuum base as well as  the discrete stimuli from all the floating disjunctive figure phenomena like modern buildings, all the different manufactured goods and all the technological devices.  All of these together create alternately vacuum and static realities - the understimulation and the overstimulation.  To survive these realities effectively, we must develop a moral code that has more blendable contextual rules.  There are so many new kinds of life situations today that lead to sensory distortion.  Blendable contextual rules give people the opportunity to develop moral postures that allow them to deal with these new life situations, that are constantly evolving as a result of technological change.  These new rules can give people the opportunity to feel a strong moral coherence, a strong moral grounding, in spite of the lack of real grounding and roots in their external world.  Strice discrete rules give definition, but by themselves they don’t support a strong moral human and humane essence.  Too many strict discrete rules in the wrong environment turn people into robots.

And people today are experiencing situations that have never been experienced in human history as a result of technological change.  They are inevitably going to have reactions that seem to break from traditional norms.  Sensory distortion is a powerful force that has not received the attention it deserves.

It is particularly intense because, not only is there the distortion that comes from a technological environment  with configurations of stimuli to which the human nervous system is not accustomed, but there is the distortion that comes simply from the accelerating rate of technological change.  New forms of technology bring new configurations of stimuli, so that humans today constantly have to readjust themselves psychologically in order to be appropriately receptive to the new configurations.  As the situations evolve, so should the reactions.  Constantly new situations create moral questions to which old moral rules are only partly or not at all applicable.

Certainly for survival in a vacuum and static environment,  people have to push back against all the stimuli that trigger reactions of an inflexible robot nature by means of expressing behavior of a more fundamentally organic mammalian nature.  And this means more continual flexible blendable rules that allow for the difficulty of maintaining psychological balance and coherence in such evolving technological environments.  But by talking about continual flexible blendable rules, I am not talking about corrupt rules that allow for selfish exploitative responses.  I am talking about maintaining moral responses in dramatically shifting external circumstances.

And yes the living environment is always a third party in moral questions involving the interactions between two human beings or between two groups of human beings or between a human being and a group of human beings.  This, of course, goes against the whole notion of human transcendence that has been a part of traditional moral systems based on traditional religious beliefs.  With the goal of human transcendence comes the notion that humans are who they are independent of the environments in which they live. It is becoming increasingly clear that technology and technological environments, both directly and indirectly, are creating all kinds of variations on old moral dilemmas as well as totally new moral dilemmas that the traditional moral systems cannot address effectively.  This is why it is important that people start acknowledging that the technology and technological environments that they have created are not simply controllable extensions of them any longer.  Rather, this technology and these technological environments are increasingly independent agents that require appropriate and effective responses on the part of people in order to maintain their psychological survival.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow