Sunday, December 30, 2012

Storm Clouds Over Technologyland

    Perhaps sometimes I talk about organic natural environments in excessively positive terms.  This is because I feel the increasing loss of such environments has led to the development of sensory distortion which has, in turn, had such a pernicious effect on human mental health and human behavior.  Human beings are built for the configuration of stimuli that occurs in these organic environments, and have not evolved as fast as the living environments they have been transforming.  The increasing evolution of human surroundings into our modern technological living environments has resulted in environments that are alternately understimulating and overstimulating for the human nervous system.  In addition, through the screens of digital technology, the sensory configurations are such that, in their lack of organic blendable continual stimuli, they stimulate a person to behave in a robotic way.

    In fairness, grounded environments have never been pure ground and have always had partially developed figure elements that violently try to establish their boundaries apart from the ground.  This includes climactic figures like thunderstorms and hurricanes, geological figures like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and wild animals.  Perishability does not just always mean gradual decay.  Sometimes it stings.  These aggressive modalities of perishability certainly acted as strong motivators to push people to build transcendent technological living environments to protect them against the dangers they perceived.

    People have been developing increasing levels of what they perceive as technological environment protection.  This has given them a sense of security, a feeling that they can withstand whatever aggressive expressions of nature that may present themselves as well as the fundamental decay that is a constant natural process.  However, something has begun to happen in nature that was not present previously in human history and that could significantly upset the power balance between human technology and nature.  I am talking about what has been variously called global warming and climate change.  There has been a significant increase in aggressive climactic events as well as accelerated evolutionary climactic changes.  More aggressive hurricanes.  More aggressive tornadoes.  The melting of the ice caps at the North and the South Poles.  The rising of sea level such that many islands and shorelines are threatened.  More heat waves and droughts.  In general, a warming of the planet such that ecosystems are being greatly disturbed.

    So how does this fit into the philosophical model that has been unfolding through all of my articles?  On a most fundamental level, it means that the partially developed climactic figures in organic environments, like the hurricanes, tornadoes, storms, etc., are breaking away more completely from their attachments to organic grounding, from their participation in more conventional weather patterns, and becoming more free-floating figures, figures that wreak unusually terrible damage on human living environments.  This results not only in the damaging of technological artifacts and technological living environments that have evolved and been superimposed over nature.  It also means wreaking terrible havoc on those patches of organic natural grounding that remain.  In other words, nature as well as those more organic traditional human communities that remain are significantly degraded as a result of the free-floating figures of very aggressive climactic phenomena.

    In addition, organic grounding itself is changed as a result of climate change.  In some ways, it begins to more aggressively move towards swallowing up the figures of humans and other organisms that live within its boundaries.  The rise of water levels from the warming of the ocean water and from the melting of the ice caps threatens to swallow up the homes of people who live on islands in the oceans. 

    Furthermore, some organic grounded environments are turned into experiential vacuums for humans.  Unusually severe droughts are impeding the growth of life on a lot of farmland.  And the melting of the ice cap in the Arctic Circle means the destruction of a complex ecosytem that affects the food supply of Eskimos among others.  So the new environment is a vacuum for Eskimos who are used to relating to a living environment that is covered with ice and that has animals that are intimately connected with such an environment and that provide food for humans.

    As climates shift all over the planet, the organic grounding is destroyed, particularly for humans in traditional cultures and for most animals and vegetation.  To the extent that traditional cultures have evolved for hundreds or even thousands of years in particular ecosystems, to the extent that climate change can drastically alter a particular ecosystem, the new ecosystem becomes an experiential vacuum for a traditional people.  Of course, it is also true for other animals and plants that can’t survive easily outside of a particular ecosystem.  So there is a loss of organic grounding for humans, other animals and plants, even if nature is simply significantly changed and not destroyed.

    Traditional humans develop beliefs and myths based on relationships they have developed with particular ecosystems.  When these ecosystems are drastically changed, the beliefs and myths are no longer based on natural referent points that actually occur in physical reality for these people.  In effect, when modern technology creates such significant changes in natural environments, it is like nature is expelling humans from a strong grounded intimate connection.  And then humans end up floating in a climactic experiential vacuum.  It is a climactic experiential vacuum filled with the tension pockets of the catastrophic climactic events like super strong hurricanes, tornadoes, and storms.

    Such dramatic climate change can act by itself as a significant factor in the destruction of traditional cultures that is occurring today, and although this climate change does not destroy modern cultures that are based to a great extent on modern technology, it does nevertheless have a significant effect on the people who inhabit modern technological living environments.

    If nothing else, it creates a significant setback for the belief that humans can create totally transcendent living environments through modern technology that are truly impervious to the process of perishability that is part of the organic environments over which the modern technological environments are superimposed.  The exploited and repressed organic environments are, in a sense, striking back and no longer acting so much like safe nurturing grounding. 

    One partial solution is to find a way of preserving those aspects and patches of organic living environments that remain and recreate more aspects and patches where possible.  In particular, we should start developing more ways like alternative fuels that cultivate our relationship with organic grounding rather than simply exploit it in a damaging way.  We can only hope that there is still time to undo some of the damage that has been done.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Machines That Surround A Robot

    In the process of studying the influence of modern technological devices on human behavior and thinking, particularly in the area of consumer technology, I have focused on the relationship of individual humans to individual technological devices.  What is the effect of sustained interaction of a person with a single television or computer or smartphone?  More precisely, what is the pattern of influence of a single television or computer or smartphone on humans?  I have tried to show how each  television, computer or smartphone screen is a world unto itself, that sucks a person in and influences a person through the mediated experience provided.  That mediated experience establishes a relationship between human and complex machine such that the complex machine is dealt with in some way similar to another human.  Two mental processes that occur among humans unfold in this man and complex machine relationship: mirroring and modeling.  Through these processes with complex machines, humans are subtly reconfigured to become more and more like the complex machines with which they are interacting.

    What I didn’t take into consideration is the effect of being surrounded by a whole field of experience filled with different consumer technological devices: televisions, computers, smartphones, iPads, video games, digital cameras…..the list goes on and on.  With so many different consumer technological devices being produced, people are buying more and more devices and spending more and more time in front of a screen.  With so many different consumer technological devices, one can spend practically the whole day shifting from one technological device to the next without engaging the external world through primary experience for any significant period of time.  It is my belief that there is a synergistic effect that occurs from experiencing all these different devices serially, and this effect is different from just the intense focus on engaging just one device for a long period of time.

    In previous articles, I have discussed how complex technological devices impact humans as a result of two processes: mirroring and modeling.  In mirroring, a person sees himself reflected through the conduct of a complex technological device.  The behavior of the device is actually controlled by the manipulation of the person through the discrete focused stimuli that he generates.  Nevertheless, to the extent that the person sees the machine accommodating itself under his direction, he then absorbs the perception of the machine as something that reflects who he is.

    In modeling, the person actively tries to imitate the clean angular efficient activity of the machine.  The computer and other complex technological devices are perceived as entities that get things done along an efficient linear path.  There are all kinds of corporate models today for doing work in an efficient linear manner and for urging units of people to operate like machines.

    In these particular situations, mirroring occurs during engagement with the machine, while modeling occurs after engagement with the machine.  Mirroring comes from a more immediate sensory connection while modeling comes from a more mediated cognitive connection.  Nevertheless, in both of these cases, the impact of the consumer technological device comes from the direct one-to-one encounter with the device in the external world.

    It is not that I am now dismissing the impact of mirroring and modeling in those situations where a person engages with just one of these devices.  Particularly, with computers, there is a lot of of focused one-to-one interaction, where mirroring and modeling can be a strong conduit for technological influence on a person.  And yet, nowadays, a person is surrounded by so many different devices- many smaller and more mobile - that he spends way more time engaged with a screen than with an environment in the external world.  And because of this, on one level, all these screens together have a cumulative effect that is different from the one-to-one effect of mirroring and modeling with a single screen.  This is something that I didn’t take sufficiently into consideration when I first started writing my articles.

     I have also discussed how computers and other modern digital devices neutralize, to some extent,  the effects of sensory distortion in the external world as a result of mixing together  the vacuum continuous stimuli and the discrete figure stimuli that are found in vacuum and tension pocket environments.  This is done in order to create island worlds of relatively stable configurations of stimuli on which to focus so as not to have to suffer from sensory deprivation and sensory overstimulation in the external world.  A person is drawn to one of these island worlds of experience and, in the process of engaging with one of these technological devices, he is drawn into a mirroring and modeling relationship with it.

    But my whole model so far has been built on the construct of a person engaging with only one significant technological device.  In truth, most people who were engaging with a computer were also engaging with a television and a movie screen.  A significant portion of them, primarily young people, were also engaging with video games.  And then smartphones and iPads came along.  And of course, although I haven’t discussed them up until now, I should really consider the technological devices involved with audio fields of experience: radio, phonograph, cassette player, CD player, MP3 player.  So people have all of these different consumer technological devices to engage them and draw them out of primary experience in the external world.

    It is my belief that all of these mediated fields of experience fuse together in the mind and form one wraparound field of mediated experience filled with defined discrete stimuli and vacuum continuous stimuli, and this wraparound configuration of stimuli reprograms a person’s mental processes and subtly contributes to robotizing him.  The reason for the fusion is that it is simply difficult to keep all the different screens or audio fields of experience compartmentalized and separate from one another as distinct mental images for an indefinite period of time.  And even if the modern external world is filled with defined discrete stimuli and vacuum continuous stimuli as a result of modern technology, that which keeps a human mind coherent is blendable organic continual stimuli.  In this case, the blendable organic continual stimuli of the mind act as a kind of glue to fuse the images of the different consumer technological devices together.  These fused images then function as a very imperfect secondary internalized layer of grounding.  Granted that it is not as stable as real grounding in a more organic living environment in the external world, it nevertheless begins to provide a mental backdrop from which human behavior can proceed.  This represents a technological influence on human behavior that is different from the mirroring and modeling that comes from focused one-to-one interaction between say a human and a computer.  This wraparound influence is more subtle and comes from the fact that manufacturers are making a greater and greater variety of consumer technological devices and more and more consumers are buying more and more of these different devices.  The bundle of devices in a person’s life become a backdrop for the way life is processed.  It is as if in a person’s mind, the person can perceive many of these consumer technological devices with an internal peripheral vision, while focusing on one main subject device.   

    As a result of having an increasing number of consumer technological devices, a person becomes more and more likely to simply pass his life going from one screen and/or technologically-created audio field of experience to the next, while, at the same time, spending less and less time directly and fully engaging the external world through primary experience.  Although a person uses these devices one at a time, they are all everpresent in his mind, where the continual stimuli of the mind blur them together.  And this becomes a different kind of robotizing influence on the person apart from mirroring and modeling.

    One obvious way to get rid of this robotizing influence is very simply not to use so many consumer technological devices.  And to make sure that one spends significant periods of time during the day in primary experience in the external world.  We are all being seduced by marketing to buy constantly new devices and new models of devices that carry out more and more processes in more and more mobile formats.  So we never have to be away from the screen or technologically-created audio field of experience.  And this of course is where the problem lies.  It takes a lot of discipline and will power to break away from all of these different screens and technologically-created audio fields of experience sometimes.  But it is necessary if one wants to retain one’s humanity.

© 2012 Laurence Mesirow