Thursday, March 21, 2013

Living In A Garden Of Plastic

            I have spent most of my columns writing about how modern technology affects human experience visually.  I have mentioned in a couple of columns the effects of modern technology on auditory experience – discussing the effects of sensory distortion in noise pollution and talking about auditory consumer technology devices like iPods and MP3 players.  I have talked about the feel of a smooth frictionless ride in a modern automobile, how one feels like one is floating in a vacuum.  But I have yet to really focus on the effects of modern technology on tactile experience, how modern technology has changed the kinds of things we touch with our hands and feel with our bodies.

            Before I go into this, I want to discuss how the different senses fit into my theories about stimuli.  Generally sight and hearing involve a physical separation of the source emitting the stimuli from the person receiving the stimuli.  Most of the things that we see and hear are physically apart from our bodies.  When we look at the clothing we are wearing, our eyes are still separate from the parts of our bodies that are wearing the clothing.  Even when a person is whispering into our ear, the inside of his or her mouth is not literally right up against the inside of our ear.  These are sources of sensation that allow for the emitter of stimuli and the person receiving the stimuli to maintain their respective defined discrete identities.  And, as a result, the sight or hearing stimulus maintains a discrete identity apart from the person receiving the stimulus.  The sight or hearing stimulus maintains a discrete identity, because it has a large portion of discrete stimuli elements within its configuration of stimulation.  Each sight or hearing stimulus that a person receives is actually a composite stimulus made up of configurations of defined discrete stimuli elements and organic blendable continual stimuli elements.  Given the large proportion of discrete stimuli elements in a visual or auditory stimulus, such a stimulus lends itself much more easily to discrete measurement.

            Touch and taste are both senses that require the source emitting stimuli to be right up next to the person receiving the stimuli.  Taste comes from a chemical source of stimuli that, after coming up next to a person’s mouth, loses its discrete identity entirely and merges with the person receiving the stimuli when the food or drink goes into his stomach.  Touch comes from a source of stimuli that comes next to a part of a person’s body and is experienced as merging with the person receiving the stimuli, even though it doesn’t merge and such a sensation of merger is only temporary.  But in both of these sensory situations, the source of stimuli and the person receiving the stimuli blur together and are experienced as losing their discrete identities in the experience of sensation.  There are less defined discrete stimuli elements and more organic blendable continual stimuli elements involved with these senses, and that is why it is much more difficult to develop objective measurement for what a person experiences with these senses.

            Just to finish up with the five senses, smell would probably be classified as in between sight and hearing, on the one hand, and taste and touch on the other.  With smell, chemical elements from the source emitting the stimuli become separated from the source and merge with the person receiving the stimuli.  However, the stimuli are substantive.  They are not simply  insubstantial light waves or sound waves.

            At any rate, I went into this discussion to show why problems with touch are ignored when exploring sensory pollution in modern technological society.  One source of pollution – air pollution – involves a strong component of unpleasant smells.  Noise pollution obviously involves unabsorbable abrasive sounds.  People talk about the visual pollution in the sterile look of a modern skyscraper or the tension pocket in the juxtaposition of disjunctive unrelated buildings in modern urban neighborhoods.  The only place where I can think of that touch is normally discussed is in the brushing together of a lot of bodies on a packed bus or subway.

            But how often do people focus on the effects of touching a lot of plastic or feeling clothing of synthetic fiber?  Or just being away from the variegated tactile stimulation that comes from all the organic phenomena in a natural environment?  They don’t.  I think it has to do with the fact that touch leads to an experience of sensory merger with the phenomenon being sensed, such that there are few discrete stimuli elements involved in the experience.  This means that it makes it difficult to measure the degree of touch distortion involved in being surrounded by plastics.  And touch pollution in this case is not involved in abrasive overstimulation as in air, noise, and visual pollution.  There can be chemical irritation to the skin, but what I am primarily focusing on is the subtle understimulation that comes from constantly coming into contact with materials that don’t breathe.  It is hard for me to even conceive of setting up experiments that test this idea.  But think about the synthetic things with which we are most often in tactile contact.  I am talking about synthetic clothing.  Yes, such clothing keeps its creases.  Yes, such clothing is easy to wash and dry.  But it doesn’t breathe.  And because it doesn’t breathe, it is numbing.  So that it is hard to fully experience such clothing in the same way we experience clothing made from organic materials.

            It is true that some synthetic clothing is made with a loose weave, so our body can experience respiration in the spaces within the weave.  But there is still a large proportion of the space covered by the piece of synthetic clothing that is still covered by the actual synthetic fiber.

            And then, of course, there are all the objects made of plastic that are in our fields of experience.  Plastic cups and plates, plastic forks and knives, plastic pens, plastic jewelry, plastic bags, plastic machine parts, plastic furniture, plastic cars…….the list goes on and on.  It is not just a matter of tactile contact with an occasional object.  Our whole field of experience is permeated by numbing, non-breathing plastic.  Cold vacuum-creating plastic.  And almost all of these objects are smooth, so they are lacking the interesting variegated textures found in more organic materials.

            Yes, plastic is being used for many useful purposes in modern technological society.  It is being used to create new body parts to help people survive and live more fully functional lives.  It is being used for many different machine parts because it is light, durable and strong.  And it is used for many other objects, where the fact that it is light, durable and strong is an advantage.  Nevertheless, plastic is also creating a lot of sensory distortion, a lot of touch pollution  that is contributing to a total experiential aggregation that is deadening our lives. 

            Touch is a sense that we neglect in modern technological society.  We are instead focused on our visual interactions with our video games, computers, tablets and smartphones, and our audio interactions with all of these devices as well as with our iPods and our MP3 players.  But we neglect touch at our peril.  Touch is a very important part of our human nature.  It is a very important component in the way we relate with and bond to our living environment.  Without it, we are one step closer to becoming robots.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Even A Robot Could Use A Massage

            One of the aspects of modern life that people most value is that life is easier than it used to be.  Technology has gotten rid of many of the hard labor tasks in which people used to engage in order to survive.  People now have machines that can lift and move heavy loads.  Such machines are important for moving merchandise in warehouses and for constructing tall buildings.  There are machines that can drill through rock, concrete, and asphalt.  Tunnels can be put through mountains, and sidewalks and roads can be broken up in order to put in new cables and pipes.  There are machines that can plant, harvest and process agricultural products.

            There are also machines that can do all the drudge work tasks of maintaining a household.  There are vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers for clothes, dishwashers, and lawnmowers.

            Also, we now have machines to make the long-distance transporting of humans and goods more frictionless.  Trains, modern ships, cars, buses, trucks and planes.

            And machines to help us find, sort and manipulate information for all kinds of purposes.  Computers, tablets and smartphones.

            And machines that can replace humans for increasing numbers of both physical and mental tasks.  Robots.

            In the process of making life easier for humans, more and more of the work of more and more workers is being made irrelevant.  Redundant.  And as people start to fall outside of the daily processes of life, they become increasingly irrelevant to these processes.  And far from turning life into a dream where people can engage in effortless reverie, these machines create conditions where people become disoriented.  Modern people tend to have few meaningful processes to help them stay engaged with, bonded with, and grounded in the external world.  And they become numb from a lack of meaningful activities that are filled with the kind of friction that helps to stimulate people to life.  I want to differentiate this kind of friction from the kind of friction that is so painful or uncomfortable that it leads to a person disengaging from the external world.  A lot of the static friction in today’s vacuum and tension pocket living environments fits into this category.

            Perhaps the best way to differentiate these two kinds of friction is to analyze the mix of stimuli of which they are made up.  Organic friction can certainly be composed to some extent of discrete stimuli.  It is the discrete stimuli that give the organic friction its punch, its sting, its slap.  It is this component that gives the process from which organic friction is generated, its spark, its crackle.  But just because it is partly abrasive doesn’t mean that a person pushes it away.  What allows the person to absorb the organic friction for a period of time is that there is a component of organic blendable continual stimuli.  The continual stimuli coat the discrete stimuli like a cough syrup coats a throat.  The continual stimuli allow a person to absorb the intense impact of the discrete stimuli, so that the person can continue to participate in the activity generating the organic friction.

            It may require an intense abrasive outlay of energy for a hunter in a traditional hunting society to chase after an animal in order to kill it with a spear.  But the running is couched in the feet running on ground that gives as the feet press down, allowing the feet to leave imprints on the soil.  The stimuli of the feet interacting with the ground are at least partly organic blendable continual stimuli as a result of this.  When a person is chopping wood, the axe goes into a log that gives way gradually under the pressure of the logger.  When a fisherman goes out to sea to catch fish, there is the give of the line as the fisherman gradually reels in a fish.  All of these processes have a certain give to them, and that give aspect contains the organic blendable continual stimuli

            This is why no matter how arduous and uncomfortable are the activities that involve organic friction, the continual stimuli allow a person to stay bonded to the activity for as long as he has to perform it.  The person is able to absorb the experience of the activity with the organic friction.  He is able to receive the imprint of the organic friction.  And, as a result, the person is able to integrate the activity with the organic friction into his identity.  Because, not only is he able to absorb the experience and receive the imprint of the organic friction in the activity.  He is, also, as the agent of the activity, able to use the organic friction as his experiential signal or referent point that he is, in fact, leaving an imprint with the activities he is performing.  The organic friction is basically his means for impacting a surface in his field of experience.

            On the other hand, static friction from the tension pocket sensory distortion of modern technological living environments has a very different impact on humans.  Static stimuli are usually the result of two hard figure machine components grating or hitting against each other.  Or else a machine component and a human impacting against each other.  Or else a product of machines impacting against a human.  Because these static stimuli are the waste products in the human attempt to create a frictionless environment, we call them pollution.  There is the noise pollution from machine components grating or hitting against each other.  There are air and soil pollution which are the secondary material products of machines that grate against humans by poisoning them.  There is impact pollution from any modern industrial machine that requires repetitive motion from humans for long periods of time to operate it. Impact pollution from operating certain machinery that requires strength like power drills that break up concrete.  Impact pollution from typing for long periods of time on a computer.  In all of these processes, the configuration of stimuli in the friction involved is almost exclusively discrete stimuli.  What this means is that in all of these static friction processes, there is little experience of give from the phenomena being impacted by the humans.  There are few if any organic blendable continual stimuli involved in the process.  It is as if the humans involved with these processes have no stimuli to connect them or bond them to the machines they are using and so they are constantly bouncing off the machines experientially in the process of using them.  Bouncing into the experiential vacuum that is created by and that surrounds these static-producing machines.

            As a result of constantly bouncing away from these static-producing modern machines, people are unable to leave any meaningful imprints to help them feel more vibrantly alive and to help them to prepare for death.  Organic friction is the means by which people can make and preserve meaningful imprints in the external world.  Static friction just brings sensory distortion.  People become temporarily overstimulated, and then they withdraw into understimulation or numbness to recompose themselves and to protect themselves.

            But constantly ending up in numbness can be very disorienting for certain people.  They are unable to leave their imprints on the world, and they end up feeling psychologically impotent.  Furthermore, the smooth state of frictionlessness that is the result of the experiential states created by static-producing machines also results in people being unable to find experiential surfaces on which to make and preserve meaningful imprints.  Too much frictionlessness, the sensory state towards which modern technological society is constantly pushing toward, is very harmful.  We not only use static friction machines to create frictionless states; we use frictionless computer apps to create higher and higher levels of frictionlessness.  And all that frictionlessness leaves people spending more and more time floating in an experiential vacuum.

            Without organic friction, we are not grounded in the external world.  We don’t have the processes, the activities to bond us to the external world.  We are unable to leave and receive meaningful imprints on the surfaces of our fields of experience.  And some of us feel so impotent, that we lash out at the world, particularly against other humans, in order to jolt ourselves to life and in order to attempt to leave imprints in the only way we know how in a sensorily distorted environment – through dramatic destruction, violence, even murder.  If we keep making daily life more and more frictionless, we are inviting more and more senseless violence against the members of modern industrial society that maintain the structures of sensory distortion.  This accounts for the violence of the shooting spree mass killers who are themselves, apart from their killings, members of modern technological society, as well as the violence of the terrorists and the members of drug cartels, neither of which group could be considered mainstream members of modern technological society.

            So paradoxically, more and more frictionlessness will not lead to more and more peace, but rather just the opposite.  This is why we have to limit our use of modern machines and computer apps.  Too much frictionlessness is not good for anyone, even people who are not becoming violent.  The non-violent people simply feel more separated from the external world, floating in an experiential vacuum, and falling apart into fragments.  In today’s world, we need less frictionlessness and less static friction.  We need more organic friction for healthy lives.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow