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