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

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