Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Losing One’s True Path with a Global Positioning System

I have written a lot recently about the form that moral rules have to take in contemporary technological society in order to help people maintain their human essence.  I have also written about two ways that moral living environments can be created, in order to protect people from the dangers of technologically-based sensory distortion: through grounded social groups and through grounded mental organic entities like the humanities.  And although some content for what to morally avoid to protect our human essence has been implied by my discussions of the consequences of the use of modern technology, there has been relatively little direct discussion of the ways in which people should limit certain activities in order to maintain an organic human sense of self.

Now that we know that the use of modern technology does have some negative long-term consequences, it is time for individuals to reflect on their own personal uses of modern technology and to minimize use wherever possible.  I don’t have a formula for when to use and when not to use modern technology. I don’t have a formula for which  programs and which apps one should use on one’s computer or smart phone.  I do know that people should stop thinking about always using every available labor-saving device and should stop thinking about always using every major device to create more frictionless mediated communication with other human beings.  And people should start finding ways to make their own life narratives more rich and vibrant with more primary experience, rather than to sit like vegetables in front of movie screens, television screens or computer screens and watch the life narratives of other people.

Labor-saving devices have been created in order to free people from everything from supposedly exhausting back-breaking work to supposedly boring routine chores.  The problem is that traditional work outlets have been an important way we have connected with the external world to make and preserve imprints.  As more and more traditional work outlets have been defined as either exhausting or boring, there have been fewer and fewer channels to make and preserve meaningful imprints on the surfaces of our fields of experience and so to feel fully alive and to prepare for death.  Supposedly labor-saving devices free up time, energy, and state of mind to use in more meaningful work and more meaningful leisure activities.  And yet, for most people, modern technology not only frees up their time, energy and state of mind, but then it superimposes alternate technology-based worlds where people have vegetative mind-numbing work and vegetative spectator leisure activities.  Technology increasingly not only frees people from supposedly exhausting back-breaking work and supposedly boring routine chores, but from all meaningful engagement with the external world.

Modern technology creates effortless communication from a distance through computer e-mails, cell phone calls, texting, Skype, Yahoo Messenger, etc.  And yet the more people are seduced by modern technology to communicate at a distance, the less likely they are to have meaningful primary experiences that connect them to the external world through bonded human relationships.  It is just not the same to engage in a conversation through text messages as it is through face-to-face conversations.  But as people engage in more and more technological processes through all of their different technological devices, they gradually lose their capacity to feel as stimulated by organic continual stimuli.  People become primed to receive more and more technological discrete stimuli.

In order to retain their human essence, people have got to gradually find the self-discipline to start turning off their televisions, their computers and their smartphones, and to start   using all of these modern technological devices less and less.  People have to stop being more passive spectators of life and have to find ways to engage the world directly.  This means making a point of making time for direct social interaction with people after school and after work.  Ideally, it would mean finding ways of introducing more “face time” into the modern office, so that people don’t have to spend all their time sitting in front of a computer.

And people have to stop finding ways to use more and more apps that put order and predictability in their lives.  With more and more apps, people lose more and more the flavor and the adventure that comes with a more friction-filled life narrative.  Apps remove people from primary experience.  They remove people from the opportunities created by chance or luck.  One app that people love is the Global Positioning System.  With this app, people always know where they are in a geographic sense, and they never have to experience getting lost.  But what is wrong with getting lost?  Then one has to grapple with the problem in the external world.  One has to look at his surroundings and figure out where he is in relation to street signs and landmarks on his route.  Or one can ask directions and perhaps strike up a conversation with some interesting people who can tell him where there is a good restaurant in the neighborhood.  Such experiences leave a meaningful imprint on a person and make his life more rich and vibrant.  Do we always want to make life more simple and streamlined?

If everything is organized for us and done for us by computer programs and by apps, where is the opportunity to receive imprints directly from the external world with its random occurrences that require our spontaneous responses?  How do we get to involve ourselves in situations that allow us to receive and to make the imprints that allow us to feel fully alive?  How do we get to engage our fields of experience in such a way that we can preserve the imprints that we make?

The Global Positioning System gives people predictable security at the price of a loss of adventure, a loss of engagement with the world, and a loss of an opportunity to feel more richly alive.  For those people for whom such losses would be meaningful, now is the time to minimize the use of modern technology to what is necessary for functioning within modern society.  It may not be easy to withdraw from dependencies that have developed, because people have become reconfigured to feel stimulated primarily from the discrete stimuli of technology.  It is like trying to break an addiction.  Modern technology has become, to a great extent, like a drug.  However, unlike a drug, people today are only going to be able to partially withdraw from technology, unless they go and live on a desert island far away from contemporary society.  Modern technology is too much a part of all of our lives.  This partial withdrawal that I am discussing will be difficult.  Nevertheless, the rewards of feeling more fully alive and more fully human will make the painful transition worth it.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Helping to Keep Our Lives Together with Concerts, Plays, and Art Exhibits

As the pressure to be successful in different sectors of technological research and development builds in the United States and other modern industrial countries, the emphasis on producing more and more scientists and engineers becomes an increasingly large factor in the educational strategies of these countries.  More and more money is given to science and engineering  programs in universities, and students are encouraged to enter these programs with the knowledge that lucrative salaries await them upon the termination of their studies.  In the United States, foreign students who finish these programs are frequently encouraged to stay in the States as a result of the good jobs that they are offered.  To those countries that can create large sectors based on new cutting-edge technologies go the economic rewards that come from being able to monetize these creations. And monetizing is the result of being able to legally protect and control these new technologies through patents.  In other words, many strong economies today are, to a significant degree, based on intellectual property and technological know-how.

Yes, there are many countries that are also doing well economically from raw materials.  Particularly oil-producing countries.  But countries can run out of oil.  And  raw materials in general can fluctuate in price considerably, so that plans for economic development can be undermined by falling prices for the raw materials being marketed.

Also, there are other Third World countries that are doing well from cheap manufacturing.  The problem here is that countries compete against one another to see who can offer multinational companies the cheapest wages and the fewest environmental controls.  So workers get paid poorly and the living environment gets poisoned.  And multinationals can suddenly leave one country to go to another country that offers still cheaper wages.  Workers in these situations are extremely vulnerable to market forces.

So an important paradigm for economic strength and stability today in modern societies is high tech.  Modern industrial societies know this and honor those people in the educational community who can advance the aims of modern technology.  Obviously, the people who can utilize the technology for practical economic purposes can potentially reap the greatest rewards.  In general, technological expertise plays an increasingly important role in modern economies.

As a result of this growing emphasis, math and science are being promoted in modern education, while other subjects are diminishing in importance.  American public schools are dropping courses in music and art as a result of the financial crisis.  Universities are cutting classes in various fields of the humanities.  Fewer students do graduate work in the humanities, because there are fewer teaching positions in which to find work after graduation.  There is a general feeling that students should focus on practical professions.  It is these professions that will meet the needs of an economy in serious trouble and that will stimulate the economy back to life.  And although many university students go into business, science and engineering students are the people who can give a country the edge in new profitable industries.

It is not just the educational system where the humanities are in trouble.  Many fine cultural institutions like art museums and symphony orchestras are finding it difficult to survive in the United States, at a time when people are more interested in techno-pop culture than traditional cultural forms.  Sensory distortion has created more and more people who have lost their sensitivity to traditional cultural production in the humanities.  Lower attendance at cultural events means a need for higher ticket prices and greater subsidies.  But many symphony orchestras have disappeared and many art museums have become so expensive they are beyond the reach of many middle class people.  And many people in American government feel that government should have the right to cut funding to those groups in the humanities that don’t reflect their views.

Yet it is precisely when modern industrial countries like the United States are going through so much turmoil as a result of technological change, that some people have to continue to support the humanities as a defense against being robotized.  It is interesting, because the humanities used to represent a refinement of human cultural production that led to a transcendence over being swallowed up by the organic fields of experience in traditional tribal and peasant cultures.  An explosion of production in the humanities was part of the Renaissance that brought Europe out of the Middle Ages.  At that point, the humanities were necessary to help create self-definition in the individual.  Today the humanities are necessary as a surrogate mental organic entity to give people psychological cohesion and organic grounding in an environment of technological sensory distortion.  In particular, we need to preserve the cultural production of people who created, when there was still grounding in more organic living environments.

To a great extent, I have focused in most of my articles on diagnosing the effects of technology on modern living environments and human behavior by breaking down many of the problems I perceive into component parts.  A lot of philosophy as well as social science deals with perceiving phenomena in terms of their analyzed components.

But in order to try and find some solutions today to the problems created by modern technology, we have to fortify and cultivate synthesized organic mental wholes that have been developed in the past, and that today can be used for new purposes in order to keep the human essence alive in humans.  The humanities as a tradition are definitely one of those synthesized organic mental entities that can serve to fortify and cultivate a balanced human essence in people, at a time when there are so many elements in society that are causing us to crumble as organic humans and to become reconstituted as robots or androids.  It is truly ironic that one of the main smartphones today is called an Android.  In our interaction with it, it becomes a vehicle by which we are subly molded to think in sharply discrete robotic categories of thought.

At any rate, many solutions to our problems with technological influence today will come from complex synthetic wholes as opposed to basic analyzed components.  These complex synthetic wholes are not really complete solutions to the fundamental problems today.  They do not actually eliminate the sensory distortion that most people today have to live with in the modern technological environments that predominate as living environments.  But for those people who are stuck in modern technological living environments, creating surrogate living environments for our mental world, that can at least partly occupy our time, energy and state of mind, can act as a means to partly maintain our human balance in the face of so many harmful influences.

So even though modern technological societies de-emphasize the humanities, because the humanities don’t seem relevant to the race for technological and ultimately economic and political dominance, the humanities are, nevertheless, extremely important for psychological survival.  Listening to the present wisdom about what is a more desirable education, which means excluding any significant psychological balance that comes from the humanities, will only put people on the road to robotic transformation.  It is very important that students today be taught to appreciate the art, music, literature, theater, history and philosophy of those times when people were still somewhat more organically grounded in their living environments.  Students can be stimulated by the organic complexity of the synthesized wholes of these works in the humanities, and in so doing, be helped to maintain their own psychological human coherence.

I will continue in this column to analyze the problems that I perceive in today’s modern technological environment, but I am also interested in focusing on what could be designated as surrogate organic solutions to the sensory distortion with which people have to live today.  I am interested in the ways that people can resynthesize a more organic living environment, if nothing else, at least in their minds.  By being able to dwell partly in mental organic grounding, they will be able to survive as balanced humans and continue to be able to make, preserve and receive organic imprints in at least one area of their lives.

c 2012 Laurence Mesirow