Monday, April 21, 2014

Living In A Two-Dimensional Space

The other day, I was in a used book store, and I found a copy of a book I had read a long time ago, a book that indirectly has a lot to say with regard to what I write about.  Flatland is a story written in the second half of the nineteenth century by Edwin A. Abbott, a famous teacher and headmaster from England.  It has very simply become a classic.  It is the story about A. Square who lives in a world of two dimensions.  He describes his own world as well as his encounters with the king of Lineland who lives in a world of one dimension.  A. Square tries to convince the king of the reality of the world of two dimensions.  In turn, there is the Sphere from the world of Spaceland who tries to convince A. Square of the reality of a world of three dimensions.  The book is very good for explaining some important ideas in math.  And although it was written over one hundred years ago, it may have some bearing on the way people experience the world today. 

Yes, we all still live our day-to-day lives in the world of three dimensions of Spaceland.  But the more we sit in front of all kinds of screens – movie screens, televisions, video games, computers, smartphones and tablets – our eyes and our minds start to live in a world of two dimensions.  Yes, we see three-dimensional images, three-dimensional processes and three-dimensional events on those screens.  And yet our minds know that we are seeing two-dimensional representations of three dimensions.  Particularly with the advent of digital technology, where images are built of pixels, there is a level on which all these screen representations can be reduced to clusters of flat colored dots.

The question is what overall effect does constant encounters with two-dimensional representations have to do with our daily lives.  I would submit that it has a subtle but very important effect that grows incrementally from childhood.  The most important thing to start with is that although our bodies still live in the three dimensionality of the Spaceland of the Sphere, our eyes increasingly live in the two dimensionality of Flatland just like A. Square.  Now in the book Flatland, the inhabitants of Flatland and of Lineland were able to live relatively normal lives within the constrictions of the dimensions to which they were allotted.  However, the mental Flatland of humans today limits the kinds of things that they can do in a very fundamental way.  The mental Flatland of people today is not the same as the Flatland in Abbott’s story.  A. Square was living on the same plane as the two-dimensional world he experienced.  People today are living outside of the plane and looking at it frontally.  But by constantly looking at a flat plane, people become subtly transformed.

With their two eyes, humans have developed stereoscopic vision, which allows them to naturally see the world in three dimensions.  With this stereoscopic vision, it is almost as if people could grab onto the world with their eyes.  It is as if they had prehensile eyes to go with their prehensile hands.  This is important, because one has to be able to somehow physically or mentally hold onto an entity that has a surface in order to make an imprint on it.  One has to allow oneself to be visually held in order to receive an imprint.  One has to experience being able to visually ground oneself in order to have a template for making and receiving imprints with respect to other entities.  And stereoscopic vision is an important component of this active engagement by a person in his field of experience in order to be able to make and receive imprints.

If one is simply looking at screens all day, one is no longer exercising the stereoscopic vision that gives him his sense of three-dimensionality, that allows him to participate fully in primary experience.  And there is a merger of one’s experience in front of the screens with his experience away from the screens such that the three dimensional world of his primary experience begins to subtly flatten.  This profoundly affects a person’s capacity to ground himself, to hold onto entities mentally and to be held by other people mentally for the making and preserving of imprints.

In such a situation, a person tends to become a passive observer of life rather than an active interactor with life.  The primary modality for dealing with life becomes observation rather than interaction.  This relates to tasks and projects as well as to relationships.  When the world is primarily perceived as flat and in front of a person, there is little place for manoeuver within the world.  Plus, when the experiences and events that one encounters are flat and in front of him, only a part of him is stimulated to life, even though there is a simulation on the screen of a primary experience.

This screen experience is not to be confused in its effects and consequences with reading books.  Reading a book has both primary experience aspects and mediated experience aspects.  Although reading books does involve looking at the flat surfaces of pages, those pages are bound within a three-dimensional book that we are holding, and we are actively turning the pages within the book and pushing back on the binding and moving the book in different positions. So we are still, to some extent, visual grabbing the discrete stimuli of words from an entity that we are holding onto and manipulating in different ways in space within primary experience. This primary experience aspect of a book doesn’t exist in a computer.  And although we can move a smartphone and kindle around, we cannot spatially manipulate it the way we can a book. We are never allowed with a book to think that we are entering a world that can replace the primary experience world of elemental sensation that holds both defined discrete stimuli as well as organic blendable continual stimuli.  We have to use our stereoscopic vision as we turn pages, and so there is a prehensile visual aspect to our experience of books. There are imprints from the three-dimensional book that are better received and preserved than what we get from our experience in cyberspace.

In general, in life, if we want to be able to make, preserve and receive organic imprints, if we want to have rich vibrant experiences in life and to prepare for death, then we must exercise the prehensile qualities of our stereoscopic vision by living more in a world of primary sensory experience and diminish our involvement with cyberspace.

This is not simply some abstract academic notion.  As our field of experience flattens out and we become more passive towards the world, our capacity to maintain the deep-bonded relationships of family and marriage diminishes.  We become more solipsistic, more withdrawn into ourselves.  Three-dimensional face time with other people becomes special rather than the norm, and because it occurs more rarely, we lose our capacity to handle it naturally.  It becomes exhausting.  And family relationships and marriage become weaker and fall apart, as well as friendships and community.  The relationship foundations that keep the human race going start to crumble.  The human race from three-dimensional Spaceland puts itself in jeopardy, when it starts trying to live its life in its own version of Flatland.

© 2014 Laurence Mesirow                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Human Relationships In The Era Of Facebook

            As a result of technology, the very flavor of human relationships has been changing.  As people are forced to live in environments with more and more sensory distortion from modern technology, they become more and more numb and hardened.  People have to fight off the numbness resulting from the entropy in the frictionless vacuum environments that humanity has strived to create, in order to lift themselves out of and above the organic perishability that comes from being simply animals in a natural environment.  People also have to fight off the overstimulation that comes from abrasive static stimuli resulting from all the waste products like crowding in urban areas, speeding vehicles, noise pollution, air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, all the discarded free-floating figures that are created as byproducts of building a protective transcendent technological living environment. 
            Developing a numb and hardened sense of self may be an appropriate defense to protect against technological sensory distortion.  But such a sense of self also becomes another free-floating figure in a vacuum, a free-floating figure that finds it difficult to form deep-bonded grounded relationships with other people.  I have perhaps not focused very much in previous articles on the nature of the human relationships in general that are formed in a vacuum and static living environment. I have primarily focused on the isolation that individuals experience psychologically in technological sensory distortion.  But, in fact, people today are not total islands, and society continues to function at some level as a result of people interacting with one another.

            Nevertheless, certain things are missing in a lot of relationships today.  As individuals become more isolated free-floating figures with little grounding and little capacity to offer or receive grounded connections with respect to other people, relationships become more shallow and contingent.  The relationship continues only as long as certain defined benefits are received.  When those benefits are gone, the relationship is over.  There is little real lasting coming-together of people.  There are few real personal transformative imprints transferred between people in such a way that each of the persons is truly different from what he was before the other person came into his life.  And this is because people no longer have the organic grounded aspects that allow them to make, preserve and receive imprints with respect to other people.

            Contingent relationships are like clip-on relationships.  Two people clip on each other for a certain period of time, during which certain defined benefits are exchanged.  Then they unclip, and become a little more isolated again in a vacuum.

            In modern urban society, where a person is juxtaposed next to a lot of different people, an individual can have a lot of clip-on relationships over time.  And in order to keep them all alive, communication has to be made very efficient.  A phone call takes less time than face-to-face contact.  An e-mail takes less time than a phone call, a text message takes less time than an e-mail and a tweet is extremely efficient.

            One accumulates a bundle of separate highly figured relationships for the same reason that one buys a lot of figure products and services.  A bundle of clip-on relationships acts as a source of pseudo-grounding to compensate for the lack of real grounding in a more traditional organic living environment.  Truly deep-bonded, grounded relationships are much more likely to appear when there is the template of a really grounded living environment.

            But as our modern living environment becomes more and more transformed by technology, our relationships with other people become more and more contingent and tenuous.  Many of our relationships today are formed and molded on the Internet.  Facebook is not only a place where one can store, inventory and stay in contact with people with whom we have connected in primary experience in the sensory world.  It is a place to strike up new totally Internet-based relationships with people that we will never meet, never encounter in primary experience.  A large bundle of Facebook connections is like a cyberspace version of grounding, actually a pseudo-grounding to compensate for the lack of real grounding in the experiential vacuum of the modern external world.  Some people have thousands of Facebook “friends”.  Many of them are people who are encountered in order to make the connection and then they are never related to again.

            LinkedIn does the same thing for business connections that Facebook does for social connections.  However, by connecting to a connection of someone to whom one is connected, a person can find someone who can actually benefit his business in the real world.  On the surface, that seems like something that’s very positive.  But one has to spend time going through different connections that wouldn’t work out or that would work out minimally.  And spending so much time focusing on contingent shallow bonded cyberspace relationships for specific purposes takes time away from focus on the kind of more deep-bonded grounded relationships in the real world that are so necessary for a sense of security in the world, a sense of mental stability.  Connecting with people at a networking event is a far more grounded experience than connecting with people on LinkedIn.  Cyberspace connecting leads a person to become simply a free-floating figure clipping on to someone and then unclipping.  One becomes primed for contingent, shallow-bonded, pure figure-to-figure relationships.  These are not the kind of personal transformative deep-bonded relationships that provide grounding and organic rejuvenation.  Modern technological environments don’t stimulate deep-bonded relationships where there is true communion between people.

            So free-floating figure humans don’t simply float in a vacuum.  They clip on and unclip from other free-floating figure humans.  In a large corporation, individual people become like parts of a machine that are bolted together, and then stay together until there is a malfunction.  Then the damaged part (meaning person) is unbolted and discarded.

            As people become more like machines, their relationships become more machine-like.  A person today can come into contact in urban settings with way more people than a person who lived in a more insular traditional society.   But because these shallow-bonded relationships don’t satisfy deeper needs, a person can feel as lonely as if he were totally isolated from other people, totally an isolated free-floating figure floating in a vacuum.

            In a shallow-bonded relationship, a person is juxtaposed next to another person for a specific focused purpose.  They metaphorically clip onto each other but remain relatively unaffected internally by each other.  The two people never blend together temporarily through organic continual mental stimuli, through deeper emotions, to become transformed in some way by each other.  This blending, this transforming is precisely what happens in a deep-bonded relationship.  It means leaving lasting organic imprints on each other.  Deep-bonded relationships are important for feeling fully alive and for preparing for death.  They help a person to have a more coherent sense of self instead of feeling numb and fragmented.

            Traditional more organic living environments provide a template for such deep-bonded relationships.  Most of us don’t have such environments today and have no hope of reconfiguring the modern technological environments in which we are living.  But with this understanding, we must try to make an effort to generate meaningful primary experience encounters and relationships anyway.  We must find a way to prevent technology from always mediating between us and other people.  This is our only hope to prevent us from becoming reduced to the level of the machines, computers and robots that surround us.