Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Robots As Love Objects

                                                                Psychology in today’s world assumes that the only significant animate agents of impact on human behavior are human.  Biological psychology assumes that each person’s own brain chemistry and brain structure is the major cause of his behavior and his problems.  Cognitive psychology assumes that each of us learns habits of conduct, and that a person with harmful habits can be retrained.  Psychodynamic psychology assumes that family members have a profound influence on an individual’s behavioral traits.  All of them focus on the human causality of human behavior.

            My assumption is that the artifacts of human culture have evolved to the point where they have a complexity of behavior that exists somewhat independently of humans.  This complexity means that these artifacts can no longer be micromanaged like a hammer, a knife or a spoon in a way that they can be used almost as if they were appendages of our hands.  Modern technological artifacts have arrived at the point where they are somewhat independent agents.  They are somewhat independent in their behavior.  They have not yet evolved to the point where they can be perceived as having an emotional existence independent of humans.  But their independence in behavior is sufficient such that we can say that  people don’t really fully control these new technological artifacts; rather people interact with them.  To the extent that modern technological artifacts have somewhat independent behavioral existences, and that people don’t fully control them, it can be said that these artifacts leave patterns of marks on people’s minds as a result of modeling for and mirroring in people’s minds.

            I use the term marks in order to indicate that all artifacts leave a different kind of experiential impression on a person’s mind than what an animal leaves.  Very simply, an artifact does not have any kind of a coherent mental presence behind the experiential impressions it leaves.  An artifact, even a robot, has definition, but it still is the sum of its parts and its defined purposes.  An animal is greater than the sum of its parts and defined purposes as a result of its organic cohesion, and certainly humans have a variety of behavior such that they can leave unique impressions on our minds in our encounters with them.  And one of these impressions, filled as it is with organic blendable continual stimuli, is more truly unique than a machine impression, because, as I pointed out in one of my early articles, there are different kinds of infinity, and there is a larger infinity of organic blendable continual stimuli in the world than there is of measured defined discrete stimuli.  This is analogous to the fact there is a larger infinity of points on a line than the quantity of discrete numbers.  And this is why I try to distinguish between the impression left by an artifact, and, in particular, a modern machine, computer or robot, on the one hand, and the impression left by an organism.  This is why I call the impression left by an artifact, a mark, implying something more standardized, more remote, less intimate.  And why I call the impression left by an animal an imprint, implying something more unique and intimate.

            These are by no means meant to be scientific terms relating to the kinds of stimuli an organism might receive in a laboratory.  Rather I am dealing with different groupings of stimuli that impact humans in daily life in different ways.  A machine is more of a defined figure dominated by defined discrete stimuli, while a human is more of a figure with blurry boundaries and a large proportion of more organic blendable continual stimuli.  And with these different groupings of stimuli, it explains why machines, on the one hand, and humans, on the other, leave different kinds of impressions on the human mind.

            In spite of this distinction, modern technological artifacts – machines, computers and robots – do have a profound influence on the way people grow and develop.  But because they leave what I call mechanical marks rather than organic imprints, they are not usually considered as major influences in human development and psychopathology.

            Because machines leave mechanical marks on the mind rather than organic emotional imprints, people usually don’t focus on ongoing flows of technological experience as sources of negative influence on the development of the human self.  Computers and robots aren’t ascribed agency in their influences on people, because they don’t have a sense of self the way people do.  Nevertheless, computers and robots do have a profound influence on humans through the mechanical marks they leave.

            The difference between mechanical marks and organic imprints is that the impression of a mechanical mark is defined, discrete and even percussive, while an organic imprint is blendable, continual and bonding.  The mechanical impressions from a machine don’t lead to the same kind of emotional connection as the organic impressions from another human.  Nevertheless, the impressions made by modern technology devices, particularly modern consumer technology devices, can be just as shaping of a young developing human as adult humans.  Mirroring and modeling do not require a two-way emotional bonding between human and machine for them to function as mental processes in the human.  All that is required is for the human to emotionally bond to the machine.

            And this is the main point I want to make in this article.  Mirroring and modeling can occur in a young developing human mind, even if there is not a two-way emotional bonding between the entity that is absorbing and the entity that is emitting.  The behavior of a young human can be shaped by a complex entity, even if this complex entity doesn’t love him or otherwise emotionally connect to him.  And if the young human spends a lot of time with that complex entity, the consumer technology device, the person’s capacity for mature human love is not stimulated as much as it should be.  A person bonds with a consumer technology device, but that bonding is not a full-fledged human love object.

            Time spent bonding with consumer technology devices is time taken away from bonding with parents, parental figures and other nurturing relationships.  A window of opportunity is lost for developing the capacity for deep two-way bonding human relationships.  So not only does a young person get psychologically molded by the mirroring and modeling involved in the one-way bonding technology relationships, but he loses the opportunity to get properly shaped as a human by intense involvements with other humans.  No wonder that so many young adults are frightened by the intensity of emotional intimacy.  They never had the opportunity to develop the emotional channels for such intimacy.  They are no longer very capable of absorbing the organic blendable continual stimuli that come from emotionally intimate bonding.  In other words, bonding with consumer technology devices leads indirectly to the breakdown of marriage and family.  This is certainly a situation that should worry all of us.

            By the way, it is true that robots are getting more complex and sophisticated and eventually may appear to be very similar to humans.  But they will still be primarily controlled by defined discrete stimuli, and they will still be incapable of the organic bonding that humans are capable of.  And humans that become part robot, that become cyborgs, will have a diminished capacity to absorb organic blendable continual stimuli and a diminished capacity for organic bonding.  To the extent a person becomes a machine, to that extent he can’t bond.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Ongoing Expansion of Virtual Life

            When I was growing up, I had the good fortune to attend a progressive school in Chicago from 4th grade to 12th grade.  There were a lot of hands-on projects.  Each student in an advanced biology course was required to take care of his own rabbit, guinea pig or hamster in the school laboratory to become accustomed to typical laboratory animals.  Students also had to raise fruit flies to determine genetic patterns.  There was a lot of emphasis on creativity.  Every year students had to take art and music classes.  And every day, there was some sort of program in the school auditorium – a program that was produced by some class group in school or that involved an outside speaker or performer.  There was a great emphasis on original thinking.  Each class assigned a lot of independent study projects for which a student was responsible.  Grades were based to a great extent on essays, reports and other special projects rather than simply exams.  In short, it was a school that emphasized primary experience.  Progressive education was developed at the end of the 19th century by the American philosopher John Dewey.  At a time when America’s  living environment was becoming increasingly affected by industrialization and the corresponding sensory distortion, John Dewey tried to use the school as an enclosed  environment to bring back an organic grounding in which students could root themselves as well as more organic blendable continual stimuli to stimulate students more fully to life.  Students learned through focusing on processes rather than dry facts, through doing and creating rather than simply absorbing and through original thinking.
            In order to draw a student into the primary experience of the external world, there was a great emphasis on the social interaction involved in group process.  Students would become involved in putting on plays and putting on county fairs.  This approach, by the way, was quite different from another creative approach to education – the Montessori system – which emphasized much more the primary experience involved in individual creativity and reasoning.
            These educational approaches were very distinct from a more traditional education which was based on rote learning and tests of the results of that learning.  One filled one’s mind with defined discrete facts to psychologically transcend above the organic perishability of nature and the more organic traditional living environments.  Traditional learning was a psychological defense against mortality, a way to protect the mind from focus on death by filling the mind with timeless seemingly eternal facts: free-floating cognitive knowledge not immediately tied down to the primary experience of earthly grounded situations.  If there was critical thinking, it did not tend to be thinking outside of the box that explored alternate ways of viewing things and discarded established procedures.  It was more likely to be close textual analysis that explained the established thinking on a subject and that didn’t deviate too much from it.  In order to immerse himself in established thought, there was a great emphasis for the student to immerse himself in the classical languages – Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
            Nowadays, both traditional and progressive education are being strongly displaced by a third way in education.  This is the way of computer education.  Learning online.  Some educational institutions are using it as an increasingly strong adjunct to classroom education.  Other institutions, particularly universities, are using it as a complete program for education.
            Computers represent a new form of mediated education.  Traditional education was an attempt to impart the mediated cognitive content of defined discrete facts and ideas through the primary experience of classroom education and the partly mediated experience of books.  I say partly mediated, because there is the mediation of the symbols of language, namely letters and words, but the symbols are presented in the primary experience world of tactile material books.  Compared to computer education, there was with traditional education some more immediate sensory experiences involved in getting a person to the transcendent level of experience of holding durable facts and ideas in his mind.
            With computer education, almost the whole experience involves the mediated virtual world.  This mediated virtual world has the appearance of eternity, because it lacks materiality and therefore organic perishability.  Without matter, nothing is subject to rotting or crumbling.
            So progressive and Montessori education were strong assertive attempts to bring back rich vibrant experiences and organic grounding to the lives of students in modern technological living environments.  They were attempts that affected the lives of a relatively small portion of the students in modern technological society.  These attempts were not strong enough to fight back the growing influence of consumer technology in most people’s lives.  So now a larger and larger percentage of educational time in most schools is spent on computer-related activities.  Robotization appears to be an impelling unstoppable force.
            I have come to realize that the three phases that we have been discussing here – traditional education with its transcendence above nature, progressive and Montessori education to reconnect to organic grounding, and succumbing to the ultimate transcendence apart from nature with computer education – have parallels in other areas of human life.
            We have just discussed in my previous article, three roughly analogous phases in painting.  The transcendent figures of Realist painting that rise above organic perishability.  The embedded figures in an enveloping ground in Impressionist painting along with the blurring of figure boundaries in other modern art movements.  And then there is succumbing to a transcendent virtual world of art created by video cameras and computers.  After transcendence rising above organic perishability, there is a temporary rebellion to reconnect to organic grounding which is then displaced by a transcendent virtual world.  Consumer technology based education.  Consumer technology generated art. 
            Here is another three phase pattern.  Traditional sex in marriage, free love, virtual sex.  For a long time in the Judeo-Christian world, the preferred approved expression of sex was within marriage.  This was a way of focusing on the figure aspects of sex – those related to the creation of the figures of children through a committed family to contribute to the surrogate immortalities of each of the parents as well as to the larger family and the community.
            Then along comes the creation of the birth control pill at a time when the transformation of the world by modern technology was occurring.  The birth control pill allowed people to engage in free love – sex that was free from the commitments of marriage and childbirth.  It was sex focused on obtaining organic grounding and organic blendable continual stimuli in the one form that was still readily available amidst the sensory distortion of modern technological living environments.  The only organic surfaces readily available in these living environments were other human bodies.
            And then along comes virtual sex through modern consumer technology: phone sex, video sex and even machine-generated virtual sex.  This represents the total subsuming of the most organic grounded process available to humans into a mediated technological process.  It represents a defeat of the struggle to find grounding and organic stimulation in spite of the sensory distortion generated by modern technological living environments and modern consumer technology in particular.
            The development of modern technology is such an impelling force, that it has been able to put out technological responses to counter the benefits that come from the attempt to reconnect to organic grounding in different facets of human life.  It is up to us, those people who are concerned about the increasing robotization of humanity, to focus on activities and situations that affirm organic grounding, and, just as important, to find activities and situations that create balance in our lives between organic grounding and the creation of transcendent figures, a balance between making and preserving our human imprints.
© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Modern Art And The Struggle To Feel Alive

            A work of art is a perfect vehicle for demonstrating the issues involved in the ideas I have been developing about the human living environment.  For centuries, a painting was a vehicle in the West for creating a fixed eternal image, a realistic subject, a totally defined discrete figure or series of discrete figures, with firmly depicted boundaries and features that separated the figure or figures from the ground surroundings.  In truth, the background could be as fully defined as the subject.  This, of course, is different from the way humans naturally view things, in which focusing on the subject leads to a blurring of the background.

            The effect of creating such a hyperfigurized painting was to create a defined transcendent entity that truly stood apart from and rose above the organic perishability in the traditional living environments of the time.  In these living environments, it was a constant struggle for a person, as the figure subject of his own life painting, to stand apart from all the ground elements.  The threat of undifferentiation, of being swallowed up by the ground through natural calamity, accident or disease, or psychologically, through degenerating into a more primitive mammal, was constantly present.  A highly figurized painting was a situation that one could enter through his imagination and live within it as a reality that seemed eternal.  Such a painting was a psychological defense against undifferentiation.  It is no accident that so many of the scenes depicted in these Realist paintings were related to the transcendent reality involved in religious and mythological scenes, scenes involving an eternal non-material world.  Many of the images were portraits that could give the subjects a sense of surrogate immortality in the imprints that their images left on canvas.  The subjects were usually wealthy and powerful people who were very conscious of trying to deal with their vulnerabilities as mortal humans through a surrogate immortality of a portrait.  Another subject of these realistic paintings was historical events that people wanted to memorialize such as battles.  Still lifes were a perfect way of shrinking the perishable world down into a subject matter that could be captured and immortalized.  And landscapes were a vehicle for trying to capture the transitory ephemeral images of natural scenery and making them permanent on canvas.

            These highly figurized realistic images were the basic stuff of painting for hundreds of years in Western art.  That is, until the Impressionists came along.  The Impressionists created what appeared to be a purposeful sensory distortion of their images, such that figures blended into their ground and into each other.  One justification for this was that with the play of light and shadow in the natural living environments, this perception of reality was actually how it was.  Figures actually never stood out from their surroundings the way Realist painters would have had us believe.  But Impressionism was new and was initially soundly rejected by the established interests in French art circles.  Time, however was on the side of the Impressionists.  As well as the Neo-impressionists, the Cubists, the Surrealists, the Abstract Expressionists, the Magic Realists and all the other different movements of art that broke with realism.  These movements captured the imagination of collectors and museums.

            An important question to consider is why did the Impressionists come along when they did?  As well as all the other diverse groups that followed them?  Why did they appear at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth?  Perhaps it was that people needed paintings for different purposes than they did during the time of the Realists.  The Realists needed their paintings as vehicles for fixed real images, transcendent figures that rose above the organic perishability of the traditional living environments in which they lived.  Aesthetic anchors to which they could cling in an environment of organic impermanence.

            Then technological development came along in the West and started to thoroughly transform living environments.  With machines and machine-made environments, people created living environments of understimulation and overstimulation, vacuum and tension-pocket environments where people could no longer feel totally comfortable with their mammalian human natures.

            In the new environment that began to evolve, the kind of indeterminate stimuli that came from traditional more natural environments and that blended and merged with other stimuli, gradually started to disappear and what remained were the determinate defined discrete stimuli of machines and technological products, stimuli that stood apart unto themselves.  It was the indeterminate organic blendable continual stimuli from grounding that people needed to feel fully alive and to have the means to make the imprints that not only led to rich vibrant experiences but also to preparing for death.  These indeterminate organic blendable continual stimuli with blurry boundaries are not measurable by math or science, but they are what our minds experience.  We do not experience the world as pinpoints of visual stimuli, but rather as a seamless free-flowing panorama.  When science turns the whole world into pinpoints of data, it is distorting, it is affecting the flow of experience.  There are phenomena and stimuli that have only blurry boundaries, and they do not easily lend themselves to measurement or manipulation by science.

            It is these phenomena and stimuli that the French Impressionists unconsciously wanted to salvage from the onslaught of technological change in Europe.  They did not need transcendent figures to cling to in order to protect themselves from organic perishability.  They needed to recapture grounding and organic blendable continual stimuli in order to feel alive as humans again.  And they did this by creating paintings of only partially differentiated figures still somewhat embedded in the grounding that surrounded them and still somewhat infused with the organic blendable continual stimuli of light and shadow that allowed them to bond well with other people and with the places where they lived.  In general, these paintings mirrored for the Impressionists the more organic mammalian human side of themselves.  The painters painted more organic images which, in turn, stimulated them to be more human in a mammalian sense.

            What is it that these different modern art movements had in common?  They all broke or blurred experiential boundaries, thus opening the opportunity for more organic blendable continual stimuli in the encounter between the artist and the viewer, on the one hand, and the painting on the other.  Cubism broke the boundaries that existed between different perspectives of a given subject.  This highlighted the way people actually view subjects over time.  Surrealism blurred the boundaries between the world of dreams and the world of reality.  Abstract Expressionism blurred the boundaries between shapes with symbolic meaning and shapes that had no meaning.  Magic Realism blurred the boundaries between magic and mythology, on the one hand, and reality on the other.  By blurring boundaries between phenomena, painters created the spaces for blendable continual stimuli that allowed them, the painters, to feel more organically alive.  In today’s world, a painting does not serve the purpose of creating transcendent figures that rise above the organic perishability in the world.  If anything, many of the modern art movements after the Impressionists have primarily served to find a way to restore the organic grounding that was seen as potentially so treacherous, at least on one level, by the old European salon artists.  We don’t need art to preserve imprints anymore; we have science and technology to perform that task.

            But as science and technology move into more and more areas of life, there are fewer and fewer places in the field of human experience where painting, and the arts in general, can find vulnerable spaces that are available for blurring new boundaries.  Science and technology are creating a tight seamless whole structure of knowledge, architecture and artifact.  There is less and less left to play with experientially.  To pull people out of the rigidity of this structure, some of the extremely contemporary Western art is now created for shock value.  Give a person a shock of overstimulation through abrasive images or abrasive designs to pull him out of his growing numbness and robotization.  Put in the context of the desperate purpose of this contemporary art, the Impressionists can be seen, in their attempt to capture the immediacy of primary experience in nature and in ordinary everyday life to have fought a laudable but difficult battle.  If only we could recapture some of the immediacy captured in their paintings and reimplant it in our own increasingly isolated robotic lives.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow