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

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