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

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