Saturday, September 22, 2012

Living In Nature And Still A Robot

    Some of my readers may wonder why I don’t focus more on direct solutions to the problem of sensory distortion from modern technological environments.  By direct solutions, I mean moving back to those natural environments that remain, back to the land, back to rural communities.  Even if it means having to settle for a job that doesn’t pay well, at least one can benefit psychologically from communing with more organic environments.

    But there are problems here, even apart from the fact that there is less and less livable organic space for all the people in our overpopulated world today.  First of all, most of us don’t have the physical capacity to do the arduous work of jobs like farming, logging, or raising cattle.  Second, most small town jobs today involve using computers - just like everywhere else.  And sustained involvement with computers reconfigures our minds, so that we are primarily stimulated to life by discrete technological stimuli.  And it is not just computers that transform our minds.  Movies, television, video games and smartphones all work to make us feel primarily alive from technological discrete stimuli.  And, as a result, we no longer have the psychological capacity to be as receptive to the blendable continual stimuli of nature anymore.  We become bored with nature after a short period of contact.

    Many people who try to make the shift and return to nature find that they can’t tolerate it and have to return to a more urban setting.  They may cognitively feel that it is good for them to live in a natural setting, but on a level of sensation, they are unable to properly connect.

    And, in truth, this explains one of the reasons why people all over the world are making the migration from rural to urban settings - a migration opposite to what we have been talking about.  It is not just because there are better higher-paying jobs in urban settings.  Another reason is that many rural people have been reconfigured to be principally stimulated to life by movies, television, video games, computers and smartphones.  And they are no longer as capable of feeling so fully stimulated to life by their more natural surroundings.  Nature seems too slow, too low-key, too boring.  Many small towns in rural America have become centers of  synthetic drug production.  Many people in these towns need alterations in their mental states in order to come to life.  With their technological addictions, people have become psychologically ungrounded, even though they are surrounded by rich organic grounding.  And, as a result, they have difficulty absorbing the rich organic stimulation that surrounds them.

    What this means is that modern technology has the capacity to create an urban mentality even outside of an urban environment.  The screens of the movie theater, the television, the video game, the computer and the smartphone have become worlds unto themselves in which people dwell.  And these worlds have displaced and replaced the natural world of primary experience as the primary sources of stimulation for most people in modern technological society.  This is particularly true for people in rural communities who don’t have extensive technological living environments to also act as a major source of technological discrete stimuli.

    Perhaps a better approach to the goal of starting to commune more with nature might come from finding ways of first becoming more mentally receptive again to nature.  And this means reconfiguring our minds to become more receptive to continual stimuli again through smaller more contained less overwhelming patches of continual stimuli.  This means getting more involved with smaller primary experiences: face-to-face encounters with people, day visits to parks and forest preserves, and, of course, the arts and the humanities, and involvement with one‘s culture.  It means spending gradually less time with the electronic screens and the kinds of experiences that they offer.

    What I am talking about is diminishing the effects of an addiction to technology.  Unlike a drug or alcohol, which people usually can truly get away from entirely, modern technology, for better or worse, has become an essential element in the proper functioning of human society.  So people today cannot totally break the habit of technology.  Nevertheless, they can find a way of changing the proportions of time that they spend in more organic primary experience and in more technological mediated experience.  Primary experience has to become a focus in life for mental health, much as physical exercise and a proper diet have become goals for achieving good physical health.

    On another level, people can start thinking of ways of reconfiguring their minds to be more receptive to nature.  One thing is to break away from an addiction to the mechanical order that modern technology tends to create.  Try to spend as much time as possible free of scheduled slotted tasks in scheduled slotted time.  People used to love to have adventures where they would leave themselves open to the randomness of unmeasurable blendable continual stimuli in unmeasurable blendable continual experiences.  Adventures don’t occur when everything is scheduled and slotted.

    One reason that people love adventures is that adventures create the opportunity to make, preserve and receive strong organic imprints while having rich vibrant life experiences.
People can feel fully alive and leave the kind of imprints on their fields of experience and, in particular, on other people’s minds that create memories.  Strong memories mean a strong surrogate immortality in preparation for death.  So adventures are important experiential contributions to a meaningful life cycle.

    Even in today’s world of technological addictions, people still have cravings for adventures.  And they satisfy these cravings vicariously with television shows and movies.  As the opportunity for having adventures in real life diminishes, the craving for more and more intense adventures in fantasy increases.  More and more adventures in movies and television are technologically enhanced in a variety of ways.  Sometimes it can be as simple as cutting between shortened scenes very quickly, in order to heighten the suspense in detective and mystery shows.  Sometimes it has to do with the fantasy weapons and other contraptions that are used by the hero and/or villain.  A perfect example here is James Bond and his adversaries.  Also, there is Batman and his Batmobile.   Sometimes the hero or villain is himself technologically enhanced in order to become a superhero.  Spiderman has been the subject of several movie adventures.   For a while, there was the Terminator series.  Sometimes the whole story is technologically enhanced in the form of a futuristic adventure or a science fiction story.  In such a story, technological contraptions - computers, robots, space ships, outer space colonies -  are all an intrinsic part of the plot and the setting.  Two perfect examples of such stories are the Star Trek series - both television and movie - and the Star War series.  At any rate, all of these stories have in common that they create adventures that are far more elaborate and grandiose than any ordinary mortal is ever going to be capable of living.  Because of that, people get addicted to living vicariously.  They feel they never are going to be able to have adventures like those in movies and television, and that, therefore, their own lives are pretty insignificant.  So they never test themselves and do the fundamental things that give life validation and meaning.

    When we read books, we have to mentally do the work of translating verbal sentences into images, thoughts and stories.  When we read, we create part of the imprint that a book leaves on us.  In addition, when we read, we know that our mental elaboration of a story is not the same as the primary experience of living a story, an adventure.  But a television show or a movie doesn’t require any complex mental work to bring it to life.  One can just sit in front of a television set hour after hour watching stories that mimic the process of life.

    And maybe there is a connection between adventures and nature.  It doesn’t mean that one can’t have adventures in more urbanized environments.  It just means that one leaves rich organic imprints in more organic environments and an adventure is a story that lends itself to leaving rich organic imprints.  So an organic environment more easily provides the experiential surfaces for leaving imprints in the narrative of an adventure.

    Being programmed to feel alive primarily with technological discrete stimuli does not leave one predisposed to the narrative of adventures.  So just returning to nature is not enough to have adventures.  One has to find a way of reconfiguring one’s mind to be receptive to continual stimuli and grounded phenomena.  If one can do this, then one can not only take advantage of a meaningful life in a more organic environment, but one can have a richer life even in a more technological environment, taking advantage of those more organic aspects and elements that are still available there.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

With Organic Culture We Are Not Robots

    In today’s world, there are many people who preach that an important way of minimizing the possibilities of war is by minimizing the importance of a mental construct that has helped us to shape human society since the dawn of humanity. The construct I am talking about is culture.  The word culture has different meanings, but I am particularly interested in culture as a coherent system of attitudes, expectations, social rules, moral values, aesthetic styles, world views, and general beliefs.  Culture, in this sense, has traditionally been the basis by which a given society is molded.  It contributes significantly to the identity of each individual member of a social group.  And it helps to tie the members of a group into a larger unified entity that is greater than the sum total of the individuals.

    Culture also has the meaning, particularly when used in the phrase “high culture”, to mean refined aesthetic expressions such as classical music, fine literature, theater and salon art.  In this sense, the term culture overlaps with another synthesized organic mental entity we have discussed previously - namely, the humanities.  And great high culture is intrinsically connected with the meaning of culture we started to discuss at the beginning of this article.  Refined high cultural expression springs from people who are creating from within the cultural system of which they are a part.  One synthesized organic mental entity is dependent upon and interlocks with another.

    I have already discussed how, in a living environment where there are fewer and fewer actual patches of nature that are easily accessible in the daily lives of most of us, that creating synthesized organic mental entities for our interior world serves as a defense against being robotized from all the technological stimuli that surround us.  And just as there are social forces that diminish the importance of the humanities in societies that prize technological innovation to gain global economic and political power, so there are also social forces that want to diminish the importance of culture as a coherent human system.  One reason ostensively that people want to diminish the importance of culture in this latter sense is that it acts to divide people from each other and can form a foundation for war between people.  This has certainly been true in Europe with all its different cultures packed so closely against each other.  And it has been true in many other areas of the world, both in the past as well as today - areas like the Middle East.  But to throw out the good with the bad, the baby with the bath water, is not a solution to anything.  And on a deeper level, a strong cultural identity, with its foundation in grounded phenomena and rich continual stimuli, definitely can create a barrier to the robotization of people.

    Culture provides established patterns of communication between people based on common beliefs, common values and common expectations.  It provides a social template for well-grounded, deep-bonded relationships.  Just as nature can provide a coherent physical grounding, so culture can provide a coherent social grounding.  A culture reinforces both community and family relationships and, in today’s world, can help to fight the isolation that comes from sensory distortion.  The key is to maintain an organic cultural presence independent of a strong organic living environment. 

    I have previously discussed how science is trying to reduce the world of the mind to physical activities occurring in the brain, and that the world of the mind for scientists today has no real existence apart from the material world.  At the same time, I have also pointed out how Bishop Berkeley, a famous British philosopher, demonstrated that we have no way of affirming the existence of something unless we experience it through the mind.  That if a tree falls in the forest, and no one sees it, how can we be sure it happened.  Furthermore, it is difficult to reduce all the rich variety of phenomena one is experiencing on a daily basis - phenomena with large numbers of continual blendable stimuli as well as discrete defined stimuli - to a series of events controlled in a laboratory that are focused almost exclusively on discrete defined stimuli.

    I feel that we have to affirm the existence of a world of mind independent of a world of matter, if we are to survive the growing trend toward robotization.  A robot can be given a kind of a brain, but it can’t be given a kind of a mind.  A robot can’t create profound works of thought or sensation in the humanities and it can’t create a complex coherent culture.  The humanities and culture are organic mental entities that humans synthesize.  They are mental worlds composed of complex non-reducible phenomena.

    The humanities as a mental entity are based on the mental entity of culture.  It is no wonder that culture, apart from referring to a complex coherent human mental system, also refers to the philosophy, the creative arts and the artifacts produced from within the mental system.  High culture refers to the more refined creative arts and the humanities refers to the more refined creative arts, the study of creative arts, history and philosophy.  So all these terms, all these grounded mental phenomena, overlap.

    But if high culture and the humanities are derived from the fundamental system of culture, then humans need culture in this second sense as a foundation for creating organic mental phenomena to act as a defense, as a barrier against both technological sensory distortion and increasing robotization.  The universal man, so highly prized by modern humanistic traditions, is a human denuded of a fundamental component of human experience.  The belief is that only a universal human can truly live in peace and harmony with all other humans in the world.  According to this belief, the particularism of culture as a system is what sets groups of people against one another.  But when we are denuded of culture and all its grounded phenomena and all of its varied blendable continual stimuli, we are reduced eventually to being entities operated by discrete stimuli alone.  The universal human is the technological human, is the android or robot.  Particularity in culture may have been and may continue to be a cause for war.  Belief in the superiority of one’s own culture and the inferiority of the culture of others is an unfortunate perversion of immersion in one’s own culture.  But this doesn’t mean that the solution is to do away with the notion of culture altogether.

    Perhaps one solution to the problem of arrogance from within one’s own culture is teaching cultural anthropology as a social studies course in high school.  In offering this solution, I am speaking from personal experience.  I studied anthropology in my senior year in high school and it transformed my life.  Not only did I learn about how people in many preliterate cultures had very different assumptions about what was important in life, but I was able to use anthropology to examine basic American cultural assumptions about which I had never thought.  Although I continued to appreciate my identity as an American and, in particular, as an American Jew, I was able to do it without being excessively ethnocentric.  And all this helped me enormously when I spent ten years living in Mexico City, in a culture that had very different attitudes, expectations and beliefs from the United States.  I was able to truly appreciate the cultural differences between Mexico and the United States and even embrace them.  It is good that there are different cultures in the world to offer different solutions to the problems of life.

    One final note.  There have been more robotic societies based on single cultures starting in the twentieth century.  I am talking about fascist societies and communist societies.  It would appear that in these cases culture did not offer protection against becoming a robot.  But, in truth, these societies used technology as a vehicle to aspire to universalist goals through robotizing and thus thinning out their cultures.  The Nazis wanted to use their robotized Aryan culture as a means to taking over the world.  The Communists wanted to use their robotized Soviet culture as a means to taking over the world.  Being robotic was the means by which these modern technological societies could become universalistic.  But to the extent that these societies fell into totalitarian systems, they lost their organic cultures and their capacity to produce great high culture.  To the extent that a society like Cuba held onto its organic culture, it failed as a totalitarian society with a self-sustaining economy.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow