Monday, April 29, 2013

Using Smartphones To Avoid Taking Risks

            To take a risk means to take a special kind of path.  It means to make a discrete decision or a series of discrete decisions in order to guide oneself through a blurry situation filled with blurry continual blendable stimuli.  It is an attempt to take a determinate path through an indeterminate situation.  One can avoid the situation and thus avoid the need to take the risk.  But if a person has to move through the situation, he has to make choices that affirm one possible path to the exclusion of others.

            Normally, when we think of risk, we think of the consequence of taking a wrong path as that of losing something.  If we bet in a card game or invest money in the stock market, we could lose money if we make a bad bet or a wrong investment.  If we promote a marketing plan in the company where we work and it fails, we could get demoted or fired.  If a guy gets a gift for his girlfriend, say a necklace, and the design of the necklace doesn’t appeal to the lady, she could get angry with him and temporarily withdraw her affection from him for not better understanding her tastes.  Or she could simply return the necklace to the store and exchange it for one she would like.  In this case, the negative consequences of the risk turn out to be minimal.

            In some situations of risk, one has greater control over the outcome than in others.  A good risk is one where there are more determinate defined discrete stimuli than indeterminate blurry blendable continual stimuli in the situation, so that there is a greater probability that one’s decision or decisions will lead to the desired results.  In other words, there are more controllable defined aspects and fewer variables.  By contrast, a bad risk is one where the indeterminate blurry blendable continual stimuli outnumber the determinate defined discrete stimuli in the situation, so that there is a greater probability that one’s decision or decisions will not lead to the desired result.

            A lot of times, the negative results of a risk have a more intangible effect.  An artist risks losing a lot of time and energy exploring an aesthetic style that later proves to be  very unappealing.  Furthermore, the unappealing aesthetic style could damage his reputation with his public.  And here, I am not talking about the artist for whom the damaged reputation is temporary and who gets discovered as a genius later in life or after his death.  I am talking about the artist who never recovers from the damage. Unfortunately, some artists never can find out if their artistic risk was worth it in the end. Nevertheless, unless an artist takes the risk, he will not have the opportunity to make an imprint or imprints that will be preserved in society.

            Another way of looking at risk is that it is taking actions for a desired result based on imperfect knowledge.  If a person has control of all the factors involved in a process as a result of perfect knowledge, there is no risk.  It also means that the action is mechanical or routine, and there is no meaningful imprint involved in the result of the process.  Any meaningful imprint involves some kind of risk.  One moves with imperfect knowledge on a path through continual stimuli in order to leave an imprint on a grounded experiential surface.  That surface can be a literal physical surface, or it can be the metaphorical surface of the minds of people.

            But with modern technology, humans are trying to eliminate risk in life.  Not only the bad risks that have a high probability of negative outcomes, but also the good risks that have a high probability of positive outcomes and that can stimulate a person to meet a challenge and be positively transformed by it.  It is like in modern medicine where so many drugs eliminate the good microbes that our body needs along with the bad microbes that pose a danger.  People need good microbes, and they need the challenge of good risks in order to grow and develop and flourish.

            Modern technology tries to eliminate the possibility of mistakes or failure.  But people need to experience mistakes and failures in order to be able to learn and to focus their actions towards meaningful successful outcomes that leave meaningful imprints.  Young people in particular need the opportunity to take good risks in their lives in order to grow and develop.  And yet it is precisely this group that is most predisposed to using the modern consumer technology that eliminates so many risks as well as rich vibrant experiences.  It is this group of people that is most predisposed to buying the newest most advanced computer devices and to downloading the newest apps.

            Young people are seduced by modern consumer technology to live their lives where more and more life tasks can be controlled and manipulated, such that there are always positive outcomes.  This protects them from failure.  As a result, they increasingly live their lives in a bubble, a vacuum bereft of experiential surfaces to make and preserve imprints.  Risk is an element that is intimately tied up with meaningful imprints.  As more and more opportunities for taking good risks in everyday life tasks dry up, many young people recur to taking bad risks in order to feel alive and to make and receive some kind of imprint.  They take drugs.  They become binge drinkers.  They engage in unprotected sex.  They participate in criminal activity.  They participate in extreme sports.  They go off on dangerous adventures.  In short, they engage in potentially self-destructive activities in order to pull themselves out of their experiential bubble.  By losing the opportunity to take good calculated risks, they end up putting themselves in situations where they take bad uncontrollable risks.  And many times, the consequences of these bad risks leave a young person hurt or traumatized or both.  Lasting negative effects that could have been avoided if the young person had only been allowed to grow and develop in a natural flow of primary experience.

            To take a risk means to perform a task with imperfect knowledge as to what is the best way to perform the task.  When a young person uses his smartphone to find out as much information as he can ahead of time in order to gain control of a situation and diminish the risk, he is not only taking the adventure out of a situation, but he is taking the opportunity to test himself out of the situation as well.  Among consumer technology devices, it is the smartphone that most effectively acts to give a young person a distorted control and that prevents him from grappling with uncertainty in the world of primary experience.

            By looking at life as a series of discrete interactions with a machine in order to make one’s actions in the world as risk-free as possible, a young person today is missing out on life.  He becomes like the device he is using.  He becomes a machine.  The only entities that almost always succeed in their tasks in a relatively risk-free way are machines.  It is normal for humans to fail sometimes as a result of trial and error in the world of primary experience.  And in the process of taking good calculated risks, a person generates healthy friction that stimulates him to life, allows him to have rich vibrant experiences, and allows him the opportunity to make meaningful imprints, some of which he can use to preserve and to prepare for death.  In short, one eliminates risk only at the cost of eliminating life.  And humans, in eliminating risk and life, are becoming robots.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How Modern Consumer Technology Is Swallowing Up Our Lives

            When we were very young, we all experienced at some point, parents, teachers, family, family friends and adolescents reading stories to us.  If you were like me, you would find this an enthralling experience.  The stories were bible stories, myths, fairy tales or simply real life adventures. Most of them had one thing in common.  They dealt with rich vibrant narratives that were far beyond the realm of possibility for average people to experience.  They involved adventures in which heroes or heroines were tested in some unusual way.  The protagonists were forced to overcome obstacles by creating their own unique solutions.  In the process, they received the imprint of the total experience and were transformed into wiser more powerful people.  At the same time, they themselves created a strong imprint in their solution to the problem, and this imprint was very stimulating to everyone who experienced it.  Furthermore, the imprint was a very memorable solution that acted as a surrogate immortality – a preparation for death – for the hero or heroine who made the imprint.

            Such stories were inspirations to all of us.  Even if it was very unlikely that anyone of us was going to be able to have such rich vibrant adventures as the stories we heard and later read ourselves, these stories unconsciously taught us the importance of rich vibrant life narratives in order to make, receive, and preserve imprints and in order to have meaningful lives.  These stories indirectly inspired us to the achievements, the involvements, and the relationships that allowed us to feel truly connected to the world.  They were definitely more than just entertainment.  And their capacity to instruct went far beyond their capacity to reinforce a fundamental moral principle of good and evil or right and wrong.  In truth, on a deeper level, the narrative was the message.  Without some kind of meaningful narrative, there is no human life.

            But the narrative in stories we heard and read was never meant to replace our lives.  It was meant to inspire our lives and guide our lives.  Stories are too distinct from an actual primary experience to ever be a real substitute.  Stories are built with words, which are the building blocks of cognitive thought.  We think a story through as we hear or read it.  Granted there are pictures in children’s books.  There used to be more pictures in the novels and story books of adults.  But there is no way that these pictures can lull a human into thinking he is actually living a primary experience in the narrative of his life.

            When we see a story acted out in a play, there is a strong sensory component.  We see actors going through motions, even though there is a limit to the motions that can be performed on stage.  We see the costumes of the actors and the sets that act as backdrops for the interaction on the stage (although for a long time in Western theater, there was no scenery).  Sometimes we hear sound effects and music.  This is very different from the cognitive engagement involved in a story and even from the more minimal sensory engagement involved with story books and novels with pictures.  A play is a little closer to life.  And yet there is a limit to what can be done in the confines of even a technically sophisticated stage.  Most plays are still built primarily around words rather than action, and even when there is action, it is qualitatively different from action in real life as a result of the limitations of space.  And stage sets cannot truly reproduce normal human surroundings, again, because of the limitations of space.  When we sit in the audience of the play, we still are fully aware that we are seeing something different from a normal life narrative.

            When we see a story acted out in a movie in a movie theater, we have now passed into an arena where human primary experience can be reproduced.  There are no limits to the actions that actors can perform, apart from those imparted from censorship.  Far more intricate and convincing indoor sets can be created, and real outdoor backdrops can be used as part of the human surroundings in the narrative.  A story that is far more intense and adventurous than what a normal human can live is portrayed in a movie, and it seduces a person into making a movie or many movies a substitute for his real life.  The cinematic space of a movie, rather than inspiring and guiding a person to live a richer more vibrant life as a play can do, can seduce a person into giving up the attempt.  The only thing that for a time prevented a person from totally escaping through movies was that he had to go to theaters to see them.  In a movie theater, he had to sit with a large group of people, which reminded him that what he was watching was still apart from his own primary experience life and that what he was watching was an escape.  The movie theater created a vacuum environment that separated the free-floating figure of the movie on the movie screen from the flow of primary experience in a person’s life.

            This all changed with television.  With television, a person could watch TV programs and movies within the confines of his home, a major backdrop for much of his primary experience.  There was no longer a separate vacuum space in the external world that separated the virtual narrative of the movies from the real narrative of a person’s primary experience life.  The only obvious separation was the box that held the TV screen.  Now that box is going.  Experientially, now the screen is frequently mounted on the wall with no physical figure boundaries to separate the narrative it contains from the narratives going on in the living room or bedroom in the real world around it, except the screen itself.  So the only other thing now that separates what occurs on the TV screen from what happens in the room in the home is that each space has a separate continuity or flow of action.  Each represents a separate contiguous narrative.

            Nevertheless, because the screen is a transparent wall creating a minimal vacuum space separating the two narratives, in the mind of the viewer, there is a tendency to enter the virtual world of television with its dramatic, exciting, spicy and adventurous narratives and to start mentally participating in the narratives, as if they were part of his life.  And as the person does this, he sees his own life in the real world as bland and boring in comparison.  And rather than focusing on making, receiving and preserving his own imprints in the real world, he starts substituting in his mind the imprints made in the narratives in the virtual world, and starts imagining they are his.  The whole fundamental purpose of life is completely subverted.  Because the imprints involved in the narratives the person is watching are not his.  Through television, it is as if a person slides off the surface of the field of experience in his own world.

            And then along came computers.  With a computer, the screen no long acts as a wall separating the person from the virtual narrative.  The person is able to enter the virtual narrative and participate in it.  The person gives up his own primary experience narrative to participate in a virtual narrative in a world free from organic perishability.  He is seduced into living in a seemingly eternal world where he can live all kinds of virtual stories seemingly free from the consequences that would occur if there were mistakes or failures in primary experience life. Of course there are viruses and malware, but these usually impact the computer, not the person himself.  It is like the way a corporation provides an individual certain legal protection under the law. Now it is true that hackers try to steal money from bank accounts, identities, and company information.  Sometimes they succeed.  These attacks can create serious difficulties in the primary experience world, but they don’t happen often enough to make most people anxious and vigilant.  For most people, life on the internet is a kind of a dream.

            The only problem is that when one lives in virtual stories, virtual dramas, virtual adventures, one is unable to make, receive, and preserve organic imprints in such a way as to have rich vibrant organic life experiences and to prepare for death.  In effect, a computer is the culmination of the evolution of human technology such that primary experiences – the stuff of the stories we used to hear from parents, teachers, family, family friends and adolescents – are being pushed out of human lives.

            Computers started out as fixtures in homes like televisions.  One entered the world of the desktop computer at a fixed place in his living space.  Sort of like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.  But then the laptop was created, and one could go into the virtual world anywhere that one was, as long as there was wifi available.

            And then we went one major step further.  With smartphones, one can carry in a light portable form the source of the virtual narrative in which he lives throughout the primary experience world in which he still physically dwells, with no need to worry about finding a wifi connection.  One never has to let go of the virtual narrative in which he psychologically lives.  One can have an ongoing virtual narrative that almost never has to cease.

            In such a situation, what do traditional stories have to teach us about the virtual lives we are living.  Not much.  Traditional stories inspire people to engage life in the primary experience world.  But people today are more oriented to living in the virtual world.  Traditional stories deal with people grappling to make, receive and preserve difficult primary experience imprints.  In today’s world, most people who live in modern technological environments don’t have the interest or even the opportunity to make many primary experience imprints.  Traditional stories are becoming quaint relics, and real life is becoming an increasingly numbing experience, devoid of the kind of narrative that reminds a person that he is really alive.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Life Is Becoming A Magnifying Glass

            The purpose of having a world totally under control by modern technology is, on one level, creating a certain ideal state of mind in people.  When a person lives in a field of experience that is significantly free of organic perishability, free of things that rot and spoil and crumble, he is hoping to live in a state of mind of tranquility associated with eternity.  One does not see decay; so, on one level, one believes that everything he is experiencing will go on, will last forever.  For sure, on an intellectual level, one knows that everything that is alive is supposed to die.  But then he looks around and sees so much that is made of strong steel, concrete, asphalt, stone, and, most important of all, plastic.  These materials all seem so indestructible.  And they were created by humans or, at least, shaped by humans.  And the machines made from some of these materials make life so frictionless.  Many of these machines even move in a frictionless way.  They have the potential more and more to take over human life tasks and leave humans the opportunity to live more and more a life of ease.

            Secure foundations, on the one hand, and frictionlessness, on the other hand.  The result should be tranquil contentment.  Right?  We identify with the imprints, strongly protected and preserved by modern technology, that are around us, and we feel as if we could calmly go on forever in the way these imprints seem to be doing.  And this is how we define our idealized bliss in modern technological society.

            Except is this what people are actually experiencing today in their lives?  I would suggest that something different is actually happening.  There is a pattern of behavior, consequence and reaction to the consequence in the form of new behavior that is taking people in modern technological society into a vicious spiral.  The more we make certain aspects of our experience frictionless, the more we perceive the smaller and smaller levels of remaining friction as intolerably unbearable.  And the more we try to protect ourselves with sturdier and sturdier structures in our living environment, the more we experience any less sturdy structures as intolerably unstable.  Here, I am not just talking about architecture, but about all the material structures in our lives.  All the different artifacts that we use.  And this also applies to the metaphorical structures of our lives.  Our work situation.  Our family situation.  Our community situation.  Our love life.  We want solid stability in everything.  In terms of my model, we want to create a world of perfect figures surrounded by a perfect vacuum.  This will give tangible security and numbing contentment combining to make a mental state of an illusion of immortality here on earth.

            Except that the security and the contentment never really happen.  We can never get rid of all structural insecurity and all life friction.  But as we experience greater and greater levels of structural security and of frictionlessness in life, we change.  We become more and more used to living in an experiential bubble.  Everything must stand firmly or flow smoothly, and those phenomena that don’t fit into this implicit rule make us feel extremely vulnerable.  I talked about a GPS in a previous article.  People now expect a machine to be always able to guide them from point a to point b.  The idea of improvising and of figuring out a path from a regular map or else asking a person on the street for directions seems like an overwhelming task that would draw people out of their mental expectation of security, frictionlessness and, yes, predictability.

            Perhaps soon, we will have a GPS that guides us to work out disagreements with other people.  Because people are developing an intolerance for friction with the people around them.  Rather than continue to experience such friction, people pull out of  relationships.  They quit jobs or fire employees, leave marriages, stop talking to friends and family, and leave communities, rather than really try to work out their problems with the people with whom they are having conflict.  So relationships become more and more transient, as the perception of friction in the relationships grows stronger and stronger.  And many people withdraw into greater and greater isolation in order to avoid friction with their fellow humans.

            If we were to develop a GPS for human relations, it would mean that people, in their quest for greater and greater frictionlessness, security and predictability, had succumbed to becoming robots, operating only from discrete prompts in their environment.  Fortunately, that has not occurred just yet.

            The vicious spiral of magnifying irritation which I have discussed is particularly relevant in modern industrial society, where technology has been somewhat successful in creating a sturdy transcendent security in the living environment and in creating smooth frictionless processes as the basis of the fundamental activity that infuses human life.  In more traditional Third World countries, there is presently a struggle going on between modern technology and strongly entrenched traditional cultural forces for taking over the control of both structure and function in those societies.  People in Third World countries are more resistant to losing the organic friction that is the foundation of more traditional economic activity, more traditional social activity, and a very elaborate cultural activity.

            Many people from the modern technological societies go to these Third World countries and see only chaos and experience only overstimulation.  These visitors desperately want to rationalize the experiences that they have.  They want to streamline these Third World cultures, get rid of all the inefficient activity that seems incomprehensible to them.

            And yet, perhaps these countries, rather than making an attempt to follow in the
exact footsteps of modern technological society, should truly appreciate the value of the more traditional aspects of their cultures that they are being pressured by the global economy to give up.  Maybe there are ways that they can be and should be life models for the modern technological societies that they are supposed to emulate.  Maybe these Third World countries can offer some antidotes that can be applied to help people who are sinking into the vicious experiential spiral that has been discussed.

            That which is considered an ideal state of mind for people – total calm from living with secure structures and the frictionlessness of modern technology – is in truth not so ideal.  It leads to a vicious spiral in which one sinks into deeper and deeper layers of numbness and greater and greater levels of magnified irritation from smaller and smaller levels of friction.  People need significant levels of the organic friction that modern technological society has tried to eliminate.  That friction is an essential part of the life narrative that leads to making, preserving and receiving organic imprints.  That friction is essential to having rich vibrant work and play life experiences and to being able to prepare for death.

            In most Third World countries, modern technology has only partly succeeded in creating living environments that are built with secure structures and that are relatively frictionless.  In Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands, there are still plenty of places where life has not been made predictable and orderly.  Plenty of places where nature and natural processes still maintain their dominance both directly and indirectly.  All of these places have been partly disrupted by modern technology.  And in some places, this has provoked reactions among the inhabitants.  Some people become terrorists.  Some become members of drug cartels or other gangs.  Some people become involved with both kinds of groups.  But in spite of these negative reactions, there are people in these places who still have rich primary experiences, grappling with the organic phenomena in their lives, and being stimulated to life by the organic friction in their surroundings.

            And it is not that we people in modern technological society are going to ever be able to go back so completely to a traditional way of life.  But these more traditional people can act as a kind of guidepost of how to live life filled with more healthy primary experience.  Modern society people have to start working their way away from numbness back to a more healthy friction-filled life style.  They have to do it gradually, so as not to be overwhelmed by stimulation to which they are no longer accustomed.  But they have to start doing it, before they lose their human essence.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow