Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Contamination Of Traditional Cultures By Modern Technology

    Through the course of my articles, I have used different metaphors to describe the way that modern technological entities like computers, smartphones and robots impact on humans.  I have discussed how these technological creations seem to occupy the role of totems for people in modern society, being placed in the position of entities with complex behavior that people consciously or unconsciously strive to emulate.  People look to these devices for traits that will help them, the people, to survive in modern technological society.  It is not that humans formally make totemic emblems of computers, smartphones and robots, but that they look on computers, smartphones and robots with a kind of reverence, thinking of them as entities that extend the range of their skills, and thinking of the commercial brands particularly of computers and smartphones as quasi-tribal definers of humans.  People who own the newest Apple iPad are to a great extent a group apart not only from conventional computer users, but also even from people who own older iPad models.  Each new iPad model creates new features that create improved worlds of digital events that people with other computer devices can’t share.  People with similar technological devices can share stories about them and discuss attributes and problems.

    I have also discussed modern technology from a psychodynamic point of view, exploring the way in which the complexity of the behavior of these devices leads to their being models for conduct by users who spend so much time with them.  Not only do these devices become models to be imitated, but they also become mirrors in which people see themselves in the behavior that they perceive in these technological entities.  Again, as with totems, these psychodynamic terms represent ways in which people consciously or unconsciously are influenced in their behavior to imitate computers, smartphones and robots, whether or not this imitation is something that improves the person’s behavior or his sense of self.

    As has  been previously stated in other articles, there are humans who resist the influence of the technological entities that surround them.  These are usually people who come from traditional cultures with strong organic grounding, and they experience the rigid behavioral patterning that comes from interaction with modern machines as well as the loss of organic surfaces on which to make, receive and preserve imprints as something foreign to their way of life.  As these traditional people did not participate in the evolutionary flow of technological change, they did not have the opportunity to make the significant psychological changes necessary to adapt to this evolving technology.  These people use this technology in different ways today (cell phones, for example), but it is disconnected from the flow of the rest of their lives.  And, as has been pointed out previously, for many of them, the frictionlessness that this technology brings is psychologically castrating and provokes reactions of violence.

    These traditional people have not had time to psychologically protect themselves against the changes this modern technology brings to their lives.  Insofar as these people want to stay grounded in their traditions and don’t necessarily want to evolve into good members of modern technological society, this modern technology is a kind of foreign predator that threatens to contaminate their culture and their lives.  The technology entered their lives too rapidly; it was added to their lives through the strong influence of the dominant technological society that surrounded them.  And so these traditional people didn’t have the opportunity to evolve rules of avoidance, of taboo, with regard to these machines, particularly the devices of consumer technology.

    For a time, there were some people in traditional cultures in the Third World who did try to resist on some levels the ways of modern industrial society.  These were people who sensed the consequences that would result from adopting the technological customs of modern industrial society.  And yet their resistance proved to be a losing cause.  Technological incorporation began with Native Americans when they started using the guns of the white man.  And that, of course, was just the beginning.   

    But traditional cultures from the Third World that are very grounded in nature cannot adopt modern technology without significantly disrupting their ways of life.  It is not like the adaptations that have occurred in the Western world and in some Asian countries to ongoing technological change.  Again, Western adaptation and the adaptation of some Asian countries does not mean that the sensory distortion created by the technology that  these cultures make does not continue to be harmful to the primate natures of their members.  It just means that the people in these cultures have found a way to make psychological accommodations to their technology, so that the technology is not totally culturally disruptive.

    For many people within traditional societies, the experience of modern technology has been so culturally disruptive, because it is experienced as a form of contamination that eats away at their connections to the natural world.  Without these connections, traditional people experience disorientation, an experience of floating in a vacuum.  And as they go numb, many lash out with violence in order to feel alive.  I have spoken at length about violence directed outward towards people in the external world.  But, in truth, for many people, the destructive energies are directed inward towards themselves.  I am not just talking about people who commit suicide.  There are also people who engage in self-destructive behavior that ultimately proves to be lethal.

    Some people start drinking heavily and become alcoholics.  In some Third World countries that are producers of illegal drugs for export, many of the people in the local population have started abusing the drugs.  And, at a time when there are serious epidemics of sexual diseases and, in particular, H.I.V., many people in these cultures continue to engage in unprotected sex.  Each of these activities not only damages the abusers but also any offspring the abusers are likely to produce.

    Now obviously there are people within these traditional cultures who are able to survive and even thrive in the world of modern technology.  But this is because they are able to embrace the technological culture that is connected with modern technology.  The people who are contaminated and damaged by modern technology are the people who feel more closely bonded to the traditional culture.  So, in many cases, it is not only the more traditional people who are damaged and destroyed by modern technology but the traditional culture itself.

    This leads to the following question.  We can mourn the loss of natural environments as they become encroached upon by modern technological development.  We can mourn the loss of more organic traditional buildings, as older buildings are replaced by more technologically functional buildings and by skyscrapers.  But do people in modern society have any reason to mourn the destruction of traditional cultures of which they are not a part?

    Traditional cultures are models for people today with regard to how to ground in the organic environments that create opportunities for rich vibrant experiences that allow people to make and receive the imprints that allow them to feel fully alive and ultimately to prepare for death.  These cultures are models for people living more as primates rather than people living as robots.  They remind us of some of the aspects of life that we have given up or are in the process of giving up, as we become more and more immersed in our interactions with modern technological devices.  Traditional cultures model for us how to have relationships with other people built on the immediate intensity of primary experience rather than on the fragments of communication in mediated text messages.  And they model for us how to have more direct connections with the natural environment free of a lot of mediating technological equipment.  They teach us how to elaborate this connection with the natural environment throught the art, artifacts and architecture that we create.  And they teach us how to elaborate a grounded connection even to the vacuum environment of the cosmos through religion.  In short, traditional cultures emphasize those aspects of our human identity that we are losing as we become robots.  And this is why it is important to prevent traditional cultures from totally disappearing from the earth.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Robot Words We Use

    Words are mental entities that create boundaries for the concepts and phenomena they identify.  By creating these boundaries, words can turn different concepts and phenomena into the building blocks for thoughts.  And verbal thoughts are the basis for the way we order our world and communicate with other people.

    Now some concepts and phenomena lend themselves to more precise boundaries than others.  It is much easier to create mental boundaries around a house than around a wave in the ocean.  A wave is constantly shifting shape and size as it moves along the surface of the water.  It has an imprecise beginning and an imprecise ending.  I have called it a continual stimulus, because it continues over time and space with borders but without precise borders.

    I have also had to think of a name for stimuli like the endless darkness in a darkened room or like the hum that occurs in total silence.  In these cases, it is not a matter of imprecise beginnings and endings as with continual stimuli, but a complete lack of beginnings and endings.  To give a visual label to this idea, I came up with the name of continuous stimuli, which, of course, is very similar to continual stimuli.  But, for me, continuous carried the notion of forever ongoing, while continual only carried the notion of somewhat ongoing.

    Anyway, I think this linguistic problem I have here is symbolic of the difficulty in trying to accurately order and name all the concepts and phenomena of the world with language.  And to the extent that I come up with a name for one of my concepts, it occurs within the pre-existing structures - the words - of a given language.  In this case, it is English.  It is true that words can be created - particularly in philosophy - to describe concepts for which pre-existing words are inadequate.  But even then, no language has the words or the word components to adequately name all the phenomena in the universe.

    So the fact that I had particular difficulty giving a name to a continual stimulus - a name that adequately described its visual properties - is not surprising.  And, particularly, of all the three stimulus categories in my model - discrete, continual, and continuous - the continual stimulus has been the most difficult for me to adequately name.  Sometimes I have also used the term blendable, but blendable doesn’t describe what a continual stimulus is when it is by itself, or how it moves over time.

    Given my difficulties in naming this stimulus, it explains why I have been thinking of taking a different approach to my stimulus model.  At least sometimes I am thinking of using more philosophical terms to define stimuli instead of visual terms.  For discrete stimuli, I am thinking of the term determinate stimuli, because such stimuli can be adequately identified in terms of boundaries.  For continual stimuli, I am thinking of the term indeterminate stimuli, because such stimuli cannot be adequately identified in terms of boundaries, even though such boundaries do appear to exist.  And finally, for continuous stimuli, I would like to use infinite stimuli, because an infinite stimulus does not appear to have either spatial or temporal boundaries.

    By using these new terms, I know that I am losing something in the suggestive properties of the names I use as well as gaining something.  There is something very immediate, very experientially present about using terms that can be understood visually.  And yet there are no good words that adequately describe all the things that a continual stimulus is and does.  It may be more precise to describe what a continual stimulus isn’t, at least in comparison to a discrete stimulus.

    And this leads us to the realization that words are imprecise and incomplete instruments in conveying the reality of many aspects of human experience.  They are great for math and logic and for computer programs that are built on combinations of ones and zeroes.  And they are great for giving us streams of information on the Internet.  But they are not as good for defining natural settings, emotions, and non-logical ideas.  These are areas where words suggest and describe rather than precisely define.  Nevertheless, people can make a connection to these areas of experience through words, as long as they realize that words do not subsume all meaning in these areas.

    But increasingly today, people not only want to have easy control over their living environment through technology, but they want to have easy control over the mental phenomena they talk about.  The best way to do that is to turn the verbal field of experience into one filled with easily definable discrete concepts.  This is the world today of hard science and technology.  The verbal world people live in today is one that is reconfigured to be easily controlled and manipulated.  So, for example, we talk about a brain being hard-wired, as if it were like a computer.  By talking and thinking this way, we feel we are more able to not only fully understand the human brain, but also to control and manipulate it.  And increasingly the approach of control and manipulation is utilized in more intrusive forms of marketing on movies, television, computers and smartphones.  Very poetic indeterminate words, that are meant to be simply suggestive in poetry and literature, are used to get people to buy very focused determinate products.  Atmospheres are created to get people to buy discrete services and products.  This is the nature of advertising today.  Indeterminate words in the service of very determinate purposes.

    So not only do we begin to model our minds after computers and robots, but our language, in order to have a sense of control through precise focus, becomes modeled after the different complex signals that operate computers and robots.  In most situations, there is little room for words that only imperfectly name the concepts and phenomena that they talk about.  And poetic words are used for discrete strategic purposes in marketing and advertising.  Today, no meaningful gravity is ascribed in serious discussions to these poetic concepts and phenomena that are simply used to talk about that which is indeterminate.  Perhaps this helps to explain why poetry does not have a very large following in modern technological society.  The truth with which it deals does not lead to control or manipulation over something, but rather an intimate understanding and communion with different aspects of the flow of reality as it is.  Poetry’s language and content deal almost entirely with indeterminate stimuli.

    And this brings us back to the problem I had at the beginning of this article.  I was trying to find an accurate precise name for a phenomenon that by its nature was very imprecise.  And that is why I decided that more than one name was useful, because each name could emphasize different aspects of the phenomenon.  This notion of using different names to describe different aspects of the same phenomenon is not unique to me.  Again poets think of different descriptive names within their poetry for certain phenomena they’re discussing.  The same is true for theologians.  Look at all the different names there are for the Divinity in Judaism.  Including a name that is simply “The Name”.

    Normal everyday language is much more sophisticated than a code.  In everyday life, there is not always a simple one-to-one correspondence between words that are names and the concepts and phenomena they represent.  And if I have created a philosophical model where the names do not perfectly describe the concepts and phenomena for which they are designated, at least I know that I am not eliminating concepts and phenomena from my model and my world, just because I have difficulty finding the perfect names for them.  This is in distinction from modern technological language which is increasingly having influences in areas of life for which it was not created.  To the extent that this language or language style starts permeating non-technological areas, like most of the social sciences, it eliminates the areas of imprecision from our own self-perceptions, the indeterminate continual stimuli areas, which contribute to our perception of ourselves as organisms, as animals, as mammals, as primates and as humans.  What is left is terminology that subtly contributes to viewing ourselves within a technological framework in terms of machines, of computers, and of robots.  We are the terms we speak.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Depression As A Defense Against Modern Technology

    One of the most disabling conditions to afflict human beings, that we hear a lot about today, is depression.  Nevertheless, in spite of its negative effects, its prevalence today is an indication of a protective posture that actually has some usefulness in dealing with the sensory distortion that exists in modern technological environments.  In other words, for some people, depression is a lesser evil in comparison to sensory distortion.  In particular, I am talking here about depression as a manifestation of conative anesthesia - the numbing of the will.  People withdraw inside themselves and go numb - sort of like an emotional hibernation - in order to avoid feeling the panic and disorientation that comes from feeling a lack of organic bonds in the vacuum spaces of the world today.  People also withdraw inside themselves in order to avoid feeling the pain and irritation that come from the tension pocket segments in the environment.  However, for this article, I am going to focus more on the effects of vacuum spaces.

    Up until now in my articles, I have tended to focus more on certain parts of my philosophical model:  on the relationship between figure and ground and on the relationship between discrete stimuli and organic continual stimuli.  But the experiential vacuum patches and the vacuum continuous stimuli also have a profound effect on people today and depression is just one of the most visible of these effects.

    Particularly in the West, the vacuum is looked on as having a specific purpose.  To the extent that people think of life as affirmative engagement with figures in grounded environments, in order to have rich vibrant experiences and make, receive and preserve organic imprints, the vacuum is the place where people go to preserve organic imprints and create a surrogate immortality to prepare for death.  The vacuum is the place where people rise above the perishability that occurs in organic grounded environments and where they can live in the belief that “things”, whatever “things” may be in a particular person’s life, can go on forever.  Perhaps a perfect example of such a vacuum environment would be a penthouse apartment in a modern glass box skyscraper.  One is totally separated from the organic movement on the ground, living in a building made of cold steel and glass materials that are not subject to the perishability that wood and other organic materials are.  There are usually no wooden beams or moldings to give sensory variety in such steel and glass skyscrapers.

    The problem is that in an apartment or a condo in such a structure, one is separated from the field of experience on the ground, where one is likely to encounter the organic phenomena - the people, the movement, the encounters, the situations, the adventures, the street life, the patches of nature - that can predispose a person to make and receive imprints and to live vibrantly.  The environments that are best for preserving imprints are not the environments that are best for making and receiving imprints.

    And depression is not only caused by the fundamental experience of sensory distortion in vacuum environments.  It is also the result of the consequence of such sensory distortion - the lack of opportunity to make and receive new organic imprints and to live a more rich vibrant life.  Without such opportunities, one is in a kind of living death.

    Now, in fairness, there have been many philosophies and religions throughout human history that have somewhat different values about life than those I have put forth in my articles.  In these philosophies and religions, life on earth is simply a step on the journey to the return to the eternal cosmic oneness.  A person is trapped in the perishability of the world of matter, but eventually, he can return to that which lasts forever, an eternal spiritual world that is the only meaningful world.  With such a conviction, there is much less to impel a person to worry about the imprints that he makes and preserves in the sensory world of this life.  The whole notion of the individual with individual imprints or even a group of people with a collective imprint like a building or a bridge is much less important if one is focused on attaining bliss in the experiential vacuum of the next world.  Rather than being depressed as a result of having to live in a vacuum, people with these vacuum-affirming philosophies and religions embrace those experiences that can give them a sense of the cosmic vacuum while still in this world.  This is where meditation, mysticism and certain drug experiences come in.

    On a certain level, this orientation relates to a variation of the mind-body dichotomy that has been present throughout human history, and that I discussed in a previous article.  It deals with the existence of non-material and material worlds.  My principal concern is that to the extent that one focuses on dwelling in a non-material world that is separated from the material world, in order to embrace eternity and infinity in this life, one is minimizing the importance of the human drama.  In the fundamental human drama, one grapples to make, receive and preserve imprints, have rich vibrant experiences in the sensory world and create a meaningful surrogate immortality on the surfaces of the field of experience in the sensory world.  If one is to come into the material world only to then develop a posture to do as much as possible to stand apart from it, why bother.  If, with our highly developed cerebral cortex and our highly developed reflexive awareness, we are so afraid of death that, on a certain level, we embrace an almost death-like state, as we embrace the cosmic oneness, the cosmic vacuum, then we are avoiding the whole narrative that makes us special as humans.  We as humans are destined to tangle with the forces of organic perishability to make our small durable imprints on the face of the universe.  But we make these imprints as finite entities that are distinct from the forces of infinity and eternity that are embodied in the experiential vacuum of outer space and of the vacuum spaces in the modern technological living environments that we have created.

    We wish to have some of these imprints protected by eternity and yet, because they are imprints, they still are finite and they still have some of the vibrancy of transitory organic phenomena.  It is a human mission to try and take that which is vibrant and finite and transform it into something that partakes of eternity.  This is how humans can transcend their reflexive awareness of their mortality within the context of a meaningful human narrative.  To sink into a life of meditation, mysticism and/or drugs is to embrace the infinity and eternity from which they, the humans, came and to which they will return without embarking on their uniquely human mission.

    And yet the sensory distortion of modern technological society pushes large numbers of people to give up the grappling for more eternal meaning within the finite external sensory world.  By withdrawing into vacuum mental states, they are giving up on a fundamental opportunity in life.

    Unlike meditation, mysticism and drugs, depression, is an involuntary numbing of the will.  Rather than an affirmative embracing of infinity and eternity, it is an involuntary withdrawal into the experience of the vacuum.  And in the state of depression, one still maintains a strong awareness of the world from which one is withdrawing and one experiences feeling bad about not being properly able to make, receive and preserve organic imprints.  Yet more and more people are using this mental posture as a vehicle for dealing with the sensory distortion of modern technological living environments.  It is a posture that leads to dwelling in a living death.  And although depression is a tactic that helps people to survive today, its prevalence is not a good sign for human society.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow