Saturday, July 27, 2013

How To Act Moral Around Robots

            Early on in writing my articles, I discussed how modern technology had so changed the nature of human lives, that it was necessary to create some fundamental new ideas and attitudes in human morality.  After having written this column for a while, I feel it’s time to revisit this notion.  Traditionally, morality referred to rules of conduct that prevented our human sense of self from sliding into more savage animalistic tendencies.  However, modern technology has so changed the situations of our lives that the very nature of morality has to shift as well.  So when I discuss morality, I am referring to rules of conduct that not only prevent our human sense of self from sliding into more savage animalistic tendencies, but also that prevent our sense of self from sliding into more android robotic tendencies.  And given the accelerating takeover by modern technology of our modern living environment, it is the android robotic tendencies with which I am most concerned for today’s human beings.   
            Ultimately, none of us at present can erase the modern technological living environment and the sensory distortion which it brings.  But there are areas of our life in which we can control our interaction with it.  We can voluntarily choose either to have more primary experience or to have more experiences mediated by technological devices during our free time.  As it is, more and more of our time in work and study consists of situations where sophisticated machines, computers or robots control the principal activity in the situation.  There is less and less opportunity for face time with other people or surface time with tools, raw materials and books made out of paper.  Machines are very important in manufacturing, in transportation, in farming, in mining, and in making buildings and roads.  Computers are essential today in offices, education, and research.  But your recreational time is you own.  You can be master or mistress of this time.  And this means you are not obligated to spend your free time in front of a television, a video game, a computer or a smartphone.   
            You can directly engage a forest preserve, a sea shore, a jungle or a mountain.  You can directly connect to a friend, a lover, your family or a group of people.  You can directly immerse yourself in a work of traditional architecture, a painting or a sculpture.  Books have elements of both primary and mediated experiences but are certainly important components of a well-lived life.

            Sometimes, primary experiences relate more to the style of one’s participation in a situation rather than to the content.  Yes, communing with people, with nature, with traditional architecture and with art are very important ways of receiving the organic blendable continual stimuli that are so important for giving a person organic cohesion in our modern technological living environments.  But we can also generate these organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves by the way we do things in our everyday lives.  I am talking about the importance of breaking away from routine as much as possible, particularly in our free time.  Machines shape their actions in predictable patterns.  To the extent that we fill our lives with routine and ritual actions, we are, in today’s world, approximating ourselves to machines.  As has been previously stated, we have little control over the penetrations of machines and machine patterns of behavior in our work and in our education.   This is how these aspects of our lives are increasingly organized.

            But we do have control over our free time, over our recreational time.  And during this time, we can exercise our capacities for creativity, for spontaneity, for receptivity to randomness, and for immediacy.  When we constantly find different ways of doing things, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves as a result of engaging the variations in the flow of experience.  When we respond suddenly to new opportunities for engaging in novel interactions, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves from the novelties in the experiences.  When we are open to unforeseen situations impacting us, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves as a result of the surprise elements in the experiences.  And when we allow ourselves to get close to the phenomena with which we are interacting in our daily life situations, we are stimulating organic blendable continual stimuli in ourselves as a result of the bonding aspects of such close encounters.

            So the way we use our time away from work and study takes on a new moral dimension.  In the pre-industrial times, people cherished work routine as well as religious routine in the form of ritual as a vehicle for focus and for defining themselves, so that they could rise above the constantly transforming creation and the spontaneity and the randomness and the enveloping immediacy of more organic environments.  People rose above being merely animals through the cerebral detachment gained through the patterned actions in their lives.  Routine and ritual brought a formal order to people’s lives and definition to their senses of self.  In this way, they were able to balance off the large amount of organic blendable continual stimuli in their organic living environments with some bracing defining discrete stimuli.

            But the needs of more traditional people are very different from the needs of modern technological people.  People today have too much exposure to defined discrete stimuli in the structured processes of high-level machines and the mediated experiences with computers.  And this is why people have to behave differently from the past in order to maintain their humanity.  Strong rigid moral rules will only reinforce the tendencies toward robotization created as a result of interactions with all the new modern technology.  Rather than focusing on rigid prescribed determinate moral actions, people today should create blendable continual guides to experience within which to have creative, spontaneous, random and immediate experiences.  Rather than focusing on the one right moral answer to a situation, people today need to acknowledge the varied different possibilities to respond to a situation, depending on the grounded moral contexts created by the technological living environments they are living in.  In other words, creativity, spontaneity, randomness and immediacy become important moral components of human actions in the need today to fight against sensory distortion and robotization.

            This new orientation can be adequate for dealing with creating an appropriate style of living for everyday life today.  But it still does not deal with confronting a particular problem situation in human life.  In a situation like this, should one not try to recur to the application of standard moral principles – strong free-floating moral figures that exist in the eternity of  human vacuum mental space?  The problem is that the contexts of meaning in human relationships today are so different from those of the pre-industrial past as a result of the sensory distortion created by modern technological living environments and the tendency to become robotized from the ongoing interaction of humans with consumer technology devices.  And, in addition, the world of experience is changing so fast as a result of ongoing change in technology from the proliferation of new apps and new devices.

            Traditional moral principles taken by themselves tend to make a person even more robotic today than he is from his interaction with modern technology.  To make moral decisions today, we have to focus on uncovering the psychological grounding of a particular problem situation.  This means emphasizing that situations can be complex and that sometimes there are special circumstances for overruling or directly modifying a moral principle considered appropriate for application in a particular situation.  If there is not grounding in the physical aspects of a particular human situation, we have to focus on uncovering the grounding in the mental aspects of a particular human situation.  This makes for a much more flexible moral approach. But, at a time when people feel alienated from traditional religion and traditional morality, because they make a person feel psychologically boxed in and ultimately robotized, a more flexible situational approach will help to restore the humanity to a particular moral situation.

            This doesn’t mean that traditional moral principles have to be thrown out.  It just means that one can take the traditional moral principles as figure starting points that can be embedded and submerged and modified by the complex grounded context of a particular human situation in our modern technological living environment.

            And the truth is that modern technology has set the occasion for the development of many human situations that have little to do with life situations from the pre-industrial past.  Many of them have to do with breaking traditional moral principles as a means to combat sensory distortion.  Free love, drugs, drinking and many different potentially dangerous risk-taking activities have to do with desperate attempts to restore sensory balance and balance to one’s sense of self.  Traditional so-called immoral activities have to be viewed and judged within the contexts of these modern sensory backgrounds.

            In dealing with moral questions regarding a human’s interactions with another human, one always has to take in consideration the template of the living environment that allows two or more humans to interact.  For a long time, people have made the assumption that abstract virtues like love, trust, courage, accountability and respect can be implemented in a patterned way independent of the living environment in which they are expressed.  This assumption was easier to hold during the thousands of years before the industrial revolution when living environments evolved relatively slowly and when moral systems were created that were implicitly connected to these traditional living environments.  But now living environments are evolving fast and this change is directly affecting the way humans connect to each other.  Both the nature of this evolving and the rate of this evolving have to be taken into consideration, if we are to develop moral attitudes that allow us to maintain our human balance during these extraordinary times.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Beyond The Craving For Things

            What is it that spurs the growth of our consumer society more than anything else?  What is it that pushes people in modern technological society to constantly search for new goods to accumulate and new services to experience?  The logical answer would be that as societies develop their industrial base, a certain level of prosperity is generated among significant numbers of people, such that they have the purchasing power to buy a lot of what they need and want.  In other words,  prosperity gives people the opportunity to make themselves economically comfortable.  In addition, advertising stimulates appetites among people so that they will buy many goods and services they might not have thought of purchasing on their own.

            Although this sounds like a reasonable explanation, perhaps there is another less obvious force working here.  It gets back to a less obvious theme that I have explored throughout my column.  As modern industrial societies develop, they fill our fields of experience with overstimulation and with understimulation. The vacuum of understimulation is actually what people seek to attain.  People want to become transcendent figures that use technologically-created environments to rise above the organic perishability of nature and to live a seemingly eternal life in an experiential vacuum.  The tension pockets of overstimulation are created as a result of all the different waste products – noise, crowding, air pollution, soil pollution - that are produced in trying to create a safe vacuum environment.  Also, some tension-pocket stimulation is used to create the kicks that jolt a person out of the numbness that is experienced in a supposedly safe vacuum environment.  Experiences like modern pop music, drugs, motorcycles, free love.

            In our living environment of sensory distortion, people become numb from exposure to vacuums and jaded or emotionally hardened from exposure to tension-pockets.  Neither one of these can be considered a comfortable state of mind.  And yet, unfortunately, they are an intrinsic part of life in a modern technological living environment.  This is where our consumerism comes in.  We purchase goods and services to give us sensory balance in a sensorily distorted world.  If we are experiencing too much numbness from the vacuum, we can purchase kicks services or experiences of overstimulation to jolt us out of our numbness. We can purchase peace services or experiences of understimulation to help us to retreat from the tension pockets of modern technological society waste products.  Services like yoga classes, experiences like vacation retreats.  Or we can purchase pleasurable consumer items of whatever kind in order to use the accumulation of figures as a sort of surrogate grounding.  Things can’t be a real grounding the way a more traditional living environment or natural environment can be.  Our modern manufactured products are just free-floating figures in our modern technological living environment.  But the accumulation of enough of these figures, a collection of these figures, can give a person the illusion of grounding.  Of course, the illusion is stimulated again by each new purchase, but because it is an illusion and not reality, it doesn’t last.  And so another purchase has to be made to keep the illusion alive.  And another.  And another.

            During the course of industrialization, people worked so hard to create a transcendent reality of an eternal vaccum that would help them rise above organic grounding and the dangers of organic perishability. And then, now that they have created such a living environment in modern technological society, they have started to experience the dangerous effects of living too long in a vacuum environment.  The numbness that people experience is a symptom of something much deeper.  In a vacuum, all matter is subject to entropy – the random distribution of atoms throughout the space of the vacuum.  However, entropy operates on a psychological level as well.  People psychologically tend to pull apart, to fall apart mentally, if they stay too long in a vacuum.  And that is why people today are looking for phenomena in which they can find some of the benefits of organic grounding.  Phenomena that are readily available in their fields of experience. An ongoing accumulation of discrete figures can equal a continual flow of organic grounding in the minds of these people.

            But things can only create a temporary illusion of connection and grounding.  Things are inanimate entities that can’t commune with people or provide them with organic grounding.  And all the services that money can buy cannot properly calibrate the mental state of contentment, stimulation and security that a person can get from a connection to organic grounding.  A person can purchase kicks experiences to jolt him out of numbness, or he can buy certain more temporary organic experiences like a good meal, a good massage or a good trip to a seaside beach resort to have a temporary experience of grounding.  But it doesn’t last, and then the person starts to experience the effects of entropy again in the vacuum that he had always thought was the ideal desirable living environment.  There is no doubt that the current epidemic of obesity is caused by a need to find the stimulation and rootedness of grounding in whatever phenomena are available.  Food does not provide a variety of touch stimulation the way a variety of bodies does in free love.  But perhaps we can say that the mouth and the stomach become internal surfaces that people use today for touching elements of the organic world.

            Because a lot of the food that people enjoy eating today is rich in sugar, carbohydrates and fat, people get obese.  So inappropriate eating is not a good solution for people looking for grounding in our sensorily distorted modern technological living environment.  Nor is the general obsession today for purchasing more and more new goods and services.  Consumerism is not the answer to the deep need of people today to find organic grounding for security and stimulation.  The question is what is there left today that can give a person real grounding.

            The answer is that there are still pieces left of traditional living environments and natural environments that are available for our everyday lives.  There are still neighborhoods with older homes as well as forest preserves, national  parks, and other isolated pieces of nature relatively close to home.  These are good places for people to spend time communing with organic grounding.  Filling one’s home with pieces of more traditional traditional furniture in which there is more intricate carving or intricate traditional designs can be a help.  As can plenty of art and wall-hangings.  Grounding can be found in bonding with people in deeper relationships: lovers, family, friends, members of a group or community.  It isn’t as easy to form and maintain such relationships without the template of a traditional living environment, but people have to work at it.  And as I have discussed in previous articles, there is the experiencing of the humanities: the art, music, literature and philosophy of our collective past and present.  Particularly works created in previous eras when people were still more connected to organic grounding.  Such works allow us to mentally enter a different time when people were not floating in an experiential vacuum.  There are also the artistic creations and the oral traditions of those more traditional tribal cultures that still exist.  These cultural expressions show the organic grounding provided within tribal societies.

            All of these can help to act as an antidote to the unsatisfying addiction created by modern consumerism.  I am not trying to imply that nice things and enjoyable services should never be considered an important component of a good life.  However, one has to keep in mind that most of these things and services today are produced by technological processes that are part of the modern technological living environment that creates the loss of organic grounding that pushes people into consumer addictions.  One most always keep sight of what is being lost as a result of the consequences of modern technological production processes and make an effort to connect with whatever sources of organic grounding that remain.  One does not need to become an ascetic in order to fight off consumerism and its effects.  But one does have to try and make sure that the products and services that he obtains and uses truly add to and enrich his life and don’t simply feed an endless unsatisfiable need to fill a void and to minimize sensory distortion.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow