Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Ethics Of Life And Sex In A Technological Environment

            One of the most common things one hears from older people is how they are concerned about the decline of moral principles in society.  Perhaps this is something one hears in every generation as society evolves and customary behavior changes.  Today, however, this is not simply a casual concern of older people in their conversations, but of many other groups of people as well.  Groups of more conservative-oriented people stake out strong moral principles as a defense against what they perceive as the onslaught of dangerous moral change.  A moral decay that they perceive in the behavior of so many of the people they see around them.  These supposedly fallen people include everyone from teenagers to politicians to Wall Street businesspeople to ordinary everyday people.  There is the sense that something is different this time when people proclaim the decline of morals in society.  This is because customary behavior appears to be so disconnected in so many areas of life from what traditional moral principles teach us. 
            I know that I have discussed moral behavior in modern technological society in several of my previous articles, but it is something which I feel the need to continue to explore.  It has been much easier for me to diagnose the problems of modern life than to find easy solutions to these problems.

            I was at a philosophy conference a few weeks ago at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  The focus of the conference was teaching morals in modern education.  In other words, there was a focus on how to teach moral virtues in modern schools in order to combat the perceived decline in moral behavior among students.  The presenters and the audience at this conference were not particularly oriented towards morality in a religious way.  As a matter of fact, they focused on the moral principles of the Greek philosopher Aristotle.  After all, this conference was sponsored, at least in part, by the philosophy department of Northwestern.  For many people at the conference, the perceived moral problems of young people today would diminish considerably, if only they could absorb the virtues taught by Aristotle.  Socrates and Plato were brought into the mix as well.

            All three of these philosophers are wonderful thinkers and among the foundational thinkers of our Western Civilization.  But times have changed significantly since these three were alive.  When Aristotle and Plato wrote, there was a great emphasis on principle-based morality (as there was with the prophets and moral teachers of Western religion).  Moral philosophy was based on the need to develop strongly defined figure principles as a way of psychologically transcending above the organic perishability that surrounded people in traditional living environments.  These principles were an attempt to prevent people from giving in to their lusts and degenerating into animals.

            But in a living environment that is enveloped by a modern technology that is evolving at an accelerated pace, people are becoming increasingly detached from any natural living environments that would threaten organic perishability.  Today the degeneration of the human nature in a person could be in a different direction,  Today, the influences in the living environment lead to a person becoming robotized.  As a result, a very different approach to morality is needed.

            Rather than concentrating on strongly defined transcendent figure moral principles, the focus today should be on establishing a strong contextual grounding for dealing with the larger circumstances in which human actions are carried out in modern technological living environments.  Context-based morality is the use of strong contextual understanding to keep people moral within the sensory distortion from the vacuum and the free-floating figures in the vacuum that are being experienced today.  Technologically-based sensory distortion influences people to behave in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise behave.

            If technological figures are constantly evolving, new reactions from people are constantly being elicited.  Sometimes, these reactions constitute behavior suitable to being judged from a moral dimension.  The context of the reaction becomes as important, if not more important, than the abstract principle by itself.  There is a need to judge the reaction within the new specific situation.

            Yes we still need principles.  But in the old days, the application of principles could shape how we mentally configured our perception of the contexts of life situations.  Now we first really have to see and experience life situations as much as possible free from the judgments of standard moral principles.  And then we have to let the actual problems created by our life situations shape not only the applications of moral principles but even new basic moral principles.  This latter concept is going to appear radical.  Religions as well as the judges in our legal system have always tried to fit applications of standard fixed principles to new situations.  But modern technology has ripple effects throughout human life and human society today, and it is generating so many situations for which there are simply no good precedents.  Not only is it creating new situations, but with the rapid evolution of technology today, it is creating constantly new unprecedented situations.  This is why rigid discrete figure principles are not adequate anymore for arriving at many moral decisions.  Blind application of abstract figure principles in today’s world leads to a person degenerating into a robot.  And the one constant today to all of our specific potential moral choices should be that they keep us bonded to our animal natures and receptive to organic blendable continual stimuli.  Both of these are important for maintain a strong coherent sense of self in a human being and preventing him from becoming a robot.

            Sex may be a perfect area of life to use in order to understand the importance of contextual understanding to making moral decisions.  I have shifted a little bit in my comparative interpretation of sex outside of marriage in traditional societies vs. sex outside of marriage in modern technological societies.  I used to focus on unmarried sex in preliterate societies as a way of reinforcing community bonding and creating a collective imprint from a particular generation. This was in distinction to unmarried sex in modern technological society, which is a way of getting a variety of organic blendable continual stimuli from different bodies as a way of compensating for the lack of variety of organic stimuli in modern living environments.  In most so-called civilized societies, sex was primarily supposed to be reserved for marriage, where one could leave a strong personal imprint with one partner and where one could leave a strong personal imprint with the children one had.  Sex outside of marriage was considered immoral, because it blurred one’s capacity to make and preserve personal imprints, and more important, because a person became less fully human in a transcendent sense, by giving in to animal lusts.
            Sex in modern technological society serves a different purpose.  People today aren’t so concerned with being able to preserve imprints in the face of organic perishability.  Today people are concerned with being able to even have the opportunity to make organic imprints in the face of a field of experience that is lacking in organic surfaces.  And people today experience sex not so much as a giving into animal lusts, but rather as a desperate attempt to fight numbness and to use the organic stimuli from sex to fight degenerating into becoming robots.

            This context of sex today is totally different from when Western religious principles were first formulated.  Young people feel a need for sex, at least partly because of sensory distortion, way before they are in a position to be economically independent adults.  And having sex with different bodies gives them the variety of organic stimulation they no longer get in traditional living environments.  Unfortunately, with more casual sex, young people diminish the opportunity to create deeper bonds, to preserve organic imprints with their partners.  But the deeper enemy today is robotization, and the priority is actions to maintain a human balance within today’s living situation.  What should be discussed at some point is if there is a way to put some formal boundaries to casual sex, so that young people can get the opportunity to create some deeper bonds within sexual diversity.  Before the sexual revolution came into full force, adolescents used to go steady.  Perhaps such steady relationships with mature sex can be institutionalized – sort of like early trial marriages.  The one thing for sure is that the traditional purposes of sex are clashing with newly developed modern purposes for sex, and some way has to be developed to reconcile these different needs.

            In today’s world, sensory distortion from modern technology has been undermining the very foundations of our patterns of life, our rhythms of life.  It has created new human life situations and new configurations of human life situations which require radically new responses from people in order that they may survive psychologically.  And with regard to morality, a moral solution to a human life situation cannot be developed today without first taking into account how modern technology has directly or indirectly affected the situation.  Modern technology is so incredibly pervasive in its effects on all aspects of human life.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

When Machines Displace Humans In Factories and Offices

            I have begun to reevaluate my concept of human organic imprints.  Initially I was focusing too much on pure organic imprints, on those life situations where a person created something or did something unique.  But particularly when one thinks in terms of value added to any work task, the unique style that a person adds to even routine basic tasks should be focused on as an organic imprint component.  This style is intrinsically tied up with a particular work task that the person completes in order to give him work value for his effort.  The basic work task that a person completes leads to the completion of an organic imprint.  The work task of the person is not the same as the total work process which also includes the contribution of tools and machines. 

            To the extent that a human being contributes individual value to a work process, it can be attributed to the amount of the work process that is his unique organic imprint component.  This is in addition to the general human effort the person puts in so he can complete a task according to certain prescribed rules.  Both of these together make up the organic imprint.  Part of what determines the specific parameters of a task has to do with the nature of the tools and machines that help a person to complete a task.  In preliterate and other traditional societies, when people would use basic tools to complete tasks, the amount of value in a given task that could be attributed to human style and effort was considerable.  If a person made his own tools, then his organic imprints accounted for his whole work process.  If, as in many advanced traditional societies, tools were purchased, the amount of a human task that could be attributed to a worker’s organic imprints was still considerable.  A knife, a hoe, a rake, a hammer, an anvil, a saw, and a needle all require the strategy and skill of a human to be effective in the tasks for which they were created.  The tool’s markings are in the service of the human’s organic imprints.

            With the dawn of the industrial revolution, machines were created that increased the quantity and sometimes the quality in the production of a product, that performed tasks that required a strength and endurance that humans were incapable of, and that performed tasks that increased human mobility over longer and longer distances and over shorter and shorter periods of time.  Although the contribution of these machines, that ran more on fossil fuels rather than direct human force, was a lot greater within the total work process than more basic tools that were like appendages to humans, humans were still required to fill in steps that the machines couldn’t do as well as guide the machines in their work operation.  Guiding the machines could take a lot of skill, and man and advanced machine could produce a larger and more complex work output than man and more basic tools.  So factory workers, once unions were created to protect worker value in capitalist societies, could earn good wages that would give them and their families a good life.  The workers were still indispensable, even if the percentage of the work process that was their organic imprint was smaller.

            And then along came more advance machines, computers, robots, and automation.  Work processes required fewer and fewer people to perform smaller and smaller tasks.  Machines started pretty much to work by themselves.  Yes, there was still a need for people to make the machines and to program the machines, although far fewer of the former than in traditional factories where the human component was still so important.  Granted there are still a lot of traditional factories, but automation is the direction of the future.  Automation saves stock holders and management in terms of wages, pension plans and health insurance.  The fact that many workers lose their jobs is irrelevant to the owners and the people in charge.  For the time being, there are still jobs in the service sector like flipping hamburgers at MacDonald’s.  But because such jobs require no special expertise – no strategizing, no craft skills, no risk-taking – that would allow a person to leave some kind of meaningful organic imprint, the salaries are low.

            For many business owners, eliminating jobs to save money is a number one priority.  But apart from eliminating the sources of income for millions of workers, there is also the elimination of an organic grounded community of workers to which a worker can go and find support.  Many workers can’t even find low-paying jobs and end up a part of the permanently unemployed.  So there develops a vacuum of income and a vacuum of communal life experience.

            And then there are robots, some of which have already been created to replicate themselves.  As these robots become more and more sophisticated, not only factory jobs, but many office jobs, could be eliminated.  Humans will appear to management as less efficient and as an obstacle to profits.  And this is true, even though I believe that robots, being non-organic, will never have a fully coherent, grounded sense of self capable of making complex contextual grounded decisions.  Robots, running on discrete stimuli and oriented toward linear figure goals, will never be able to replace humans, although they will be able to displace humans.  This is true of androids, which give the appearance of displaying and dealing with feelings and emotions.  And cyborgs will never have the fully coherent, grounded sense of self of beings that are fully human. 

            Nevertheless, as computers and robots get more and more complex and more capable of doing more and more complex tasks, owners of companies will be able to attempt to replace people higher and higher up the ladder of employment in the company.  Conceivably, we could have a society where the vast majority of people live outside of the main flow of economic activity within their communities.  Where the vast majority of people lack the opportunity to leave their organic imprints directly for economic purposes and where they lack the opportunity to even leave imprints guiding the usage of machines that make the mechanical markings to create products and services for a society.  In a situation like this, an important question arises.  How will the economic benefits created by these advanced computers and robots be distributed to the people who have been left outside the main flow of economic activity?  The fact is that if much of the economic activity in most modern technological societies continues to be in private hands, will these owners of private companies be at all motivated to distribute some of their wealth to people who are structurally prevented from making a living?

            And the fundamental concern is that when people are unable to find outlets for leaving organic imprints in some form through their work, how is a value base to be created for determining what a person is worth and therefore to what kind of economic remuneration the person is to be entitled?  Granted taxes could be raised significantly on big corporations and wealthy individuals, and the government could take over the redistribution of wealth.  But this is socialism, and corporations and wealthy individuals would fight this in every way they could.  And anyway, this still leaves open the question of how to determine the economic worth of an unemployable person.  It is possible that without a framework for work for a large proportion of people, it could simply throw a society into chaos.  Without a structure for remuneration, people will be floating in an economic vacuum where there will be no method to ascribe economic worth to them.  The unemployment of an economic vacuum combined with the sensory distortion of an experiential vacuum would be a dangerous mix.  As people start to grow more and more numb from their multiple disconnections, the situation could lead to a growth in what I have called in the past process-oriented violence.  This is the use of violence as a form of overstimulation to jolt the perpetrator out of a deep sense of numbness.  As can be found in the growing number of mass murderers in the United States.

            Throughout the history of modern humans, there has been a great deal of positive value placed on technological innovation to increase economic prosperity as well as existential protection from organic perishability.  But now technological development has reached a point where it threatens to create economic impoverishment as well as a new kind of existential insecurity created by sensory distortion. 

            If this is where modern technological societies are headed, then we have to start reconsidering fast the fundamental relationship between humans and machines.  People who are creating this displacement technology or buying up this displacement technology are thinking ultimately only of the bottom line – the economic health of a business as an abstract entity – an economic process floating in a vacuum and pretty much divorced from the grounding of human purpose and need.  Machines ideally are created to promote economic prosperity for communities of people and not just small select groups of owners and managers.  When computers, robots and machines begin to displace almost everybody, how will human society configure itself?  This is a nightmare we have to start thinking about now, before it is too late.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow