Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Life Has Become A Perpetual Roller Coaster


            A few weeks ago, I went to a street fair in one of the suburbs north of Chicago.  The Chicago area has many wonderful street fairs during the summer, and they are something that is eagerly awaited by its inhabitants during the long cold snowy winters.  But as with many of the fairs, there was one aspect of the entertainment that I found annoying.  There was a rock band that was playing the music so loud, it was hurting my ears.  The musicians seemed to be quite comfortable with it.  It didn’t seem to matter that most of them would be deaf by the time they were in their thirties.   It is true that most of the audience seemed to tolerate the music volume.  Many of the members of the audience had wisely come prepared with ear plugs. For those who didn’t, they would be subject to the same damaging effects as the musicians.   In particular, it was the electric bass and the electric guitar that were coming out with extremely strong penetrating sounds.

            The electric guitar and electric bass have been two of the hallmarks of international popular music since rock and roll.  Some genres of this popular music like heavy metal seem to particularly exploit the highly penetrating vibrations of these instruments.  And it is as if the vibrations are auditory strings and the listeners are puppets who are almost impelled to make jerky muscular movements in response.  To me, this response has a different flavor from the natural response of people to rhythmic sounds in music based primarily on acoustic instruments.

            In many rock clubs there is also an explosive visual stimulation to complement the penetrating vibratory sounds of modern pop music.  The strobe lights are as sensorily disruptive as the electric instruments.  Strobe lights can provoke seizures in people who have photosensitive epilepsy.  But for most modern young people, they are simply an added element in increasing the total intensity of the experience.  The combination of the auditory disruption of the music and the visual disruption of the lights creates a machine-based ecstatic disequilibrium for them.

            Technology has been used to create a purposeful disequilibrium in human entertainment for many years now.  Perhaps the most salient examples are the roller coasters, ferris wheels and other rides found in amusement parks.  The disequilibrium of these rides was a special treat when they first appeared.  They offered something unusual for people who, for the most part, lived very conventional routine lives.  And this is the key.  People who went to amusement parks did not usually go that often.  My friends and I went a few times during the summer at most.

            On the other hand, people can listen to recordings of heavy metal music all the time.  And they can go to music clubs every week.  So sensorily disruptive technology is much more integrated into people’s entertainment today than in the early days of the amusement park.

            Other forms of entertaining sensorily disruptive technology today are in the area of transportation.  Certain forms of high speed transport create tremendous disequilibrium through a rapidly moving sense of dislocation.  Vehicles like race cars and motorcycles.  Apart from the dislocation of the rapid speeding movement, there is the additional component of the abrasive static noise.  Race cars are the domain of a more select group of people, but a lot of young people love to speed with their conventional cars, sometimes specially re-outfitted for more speed and more noise, and many people have motorcycles and motor scooters.  For many people, motorcycles and motor scooters are their fundamental form of transport.  Within the sensory distortion these vehicles create, people are also very vulnerable to serious accidents.

            What unites all these sensorily disruptive technological devices is that they are attempts by humans to create controlled sensory distortion to block out the pervasive sensory distortion in their external living environments, a pervasive sensory distortion over which they have no control.  The crowding, the bundles of highrises, the speeding noisy vehicles on the street, the air pollution, the dust, noise, and general disruption from construction sites.  This controlled sensory distortion is also a means to block out the deeper experiential vacuum that underlies all human experience in modern technological societies as a result of the loss of organic grounding.  In a living environment with very little organic grounding, people try to calibrate the amount of stimulation they receive by going back and forth between overstimulation and understimulation.  The entertaining sensorily disruptive technological devices that have been discussed in this article are simply a part of the overstimulation segment of the total configuration of stimuli that many people create for themselves today.

            But although people are vulnerable to cravings for sources of overstimulation today in their sensorily distorted living environments, these cravings are not simply generated by their own needs.  In previous articles, it has been discussed how modern businesspeople assess where the “pain” is in people’s lives, a “pain” that is a source of friction. Then they try to develop and market labor-saving devices and apps to eliminate this friction.  The source of friction is usually a source of organic friction, a natural part of human routine that helps to keep a person, alive, connected to himself and to the external world.  In order to convince a potential customer to buy this labor-saving device or app, a businessperson has to convince him that the friction he is experiencing is actually an abrasive negative tension-pocket source of stimulation that should be eliminated.  And, of course, the continual elimination of positive sources of organic stimuli pushes a person deeper and deeper into an experiential vacuum in his mind.

            This is where entertaining sensorily disruptive technological devices come into the picture.  While some businesspeople market the possibility of eliminating all supposedly painful friction, so that people can live a supposedly beautiful relaxed life of leisure, other businesspeople market sources of sensorily disruptive stimuli such as those we have been discussing in this article, in order to pull people out of their numbness, to help them feel fully alive, to give them “kicks”.

            The end result is a situation where consumers are titillated to purchase products and services that allow them to try to calibrate the amount and kind of stimuli that they absorb, within a field of experience with very little in the way of organic flowing blendable continual stimuli from grounded sources.  So consumers bounce back and forth between the overstimulation of large bundles of defined discrete stimuli and the understimulation of infinite continuous emptiness stimuli, between tension-pocket and vacuum.  This bouncing back and forth occurs both in a consumer’s direct contact with the products and services and also within the consumer’s mind through advertising suggestion.

            Habituations and addictions develop in people when certain fundamental emotional needs can’t be met through normal channels, through available sources of emotional stimuli.  So people develop emotional attachments to disparate phenomena (drugs, alcohol, food, gambling).  They develop receptors for receiving stimuli from these phenomena in the hope of deriving stimulation for and thus satisfaction of the original need.  Of course, the original need is not satisfied by the stimuli from these alternate phenomena, but the mental and physical pathways have been developed that create desires for these alternate phenomena.  So the person continues to go after these alternate phenomena while always failing to satisfy the original need.

            In today’s world, businesspeople market vacuum-creating labor saving devices and apps and tension-pocket creating entertainment filled with kicks as a substitute for the fundamental needs for organic grounding that people have in modern technological society.  People crave these modern products and services, because solid organic grounding is not easily available.  They crave these products and services in a way that has similarities to the cravings for the products and services involved in traditional habituations and addictions.  The world today is filled with these modern products and services and the money paid for these modern products and services, but the stimuli of organic grounding that can give people cohesion and a feeling of being centered is in short supply.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow


Going To A School For Robots

            A friend of mine was recently telling me about the spread of the use of online degree programs to high school.  This was news to me.  I had heard about the growth of programs through institutions like the University of Phoenix that led to online college degrees.  I knew that you can learn to do a lot of specific practical tasks through YouTube and other online sources. And I knew that high schools used computer programs for specific focused educational purposes. But I had never heard about the kind of far-reaching educational programs for high school that my friend was talking about.

            During precisely those years when a human being is trying to develop the social competencies that help him transition from being a child to being an adult, it is important that an adolescent has ongoing interpersonal communication practice.  And I mean social practice with three-dimensional human beings in the external world of primary experience.  Lacking opportunities for such experience, and simply immersing oneself in educational cyberspace will lead to certain unforeseen consequences.

            To understand the situation of high school online education a little better, we must review the world of experience that is available on a computer screen.  The computer screen itself is an empty vacuum of continuous imageless stimuli that would stretch into infinity if the screen wasn’t contained by a frame.  There is no grounding in this screen.  What the screen does have floating on it are three levels of discrete stimuli.  There are the discrete stimuli of digital points of light and color.  Together these digital points form configurations that make visual images and that make words and numbers.  The words and numbers are a means of generating discrete digital data.

            On a basic visual level, there are the visual equivalent of digital ones and zeroes on the screen.  Points and non-points.  The points can cluster together, but they can’t deep-bond or merge together with one another.  They can appear to merge together in a movie or a television program on the screen, but the images are all clusters of digital points.  There are no flowing, blendable continual stimuli to bind things together.  This is the basic visual experiential pattern that online high school students have to deal with during the course of their school day. 

            In terms of subject matter, there is another pattern that corresponds to the basic visual pattern.  Online education lends itself to excerpts of books, short discrete defined pieces of narrative or expository writing that don’t go into anything in a deep grounded way.  They are chunks of cognitive data floating free of any meaningful grounded larger contexts.  Students absorb facts, ideas and literary images without spending time relating them to contexts that connect deeply to their lives either in psychological or practical ways.

            Yes, students do interact with programs that get them to actively participate in their education.  Students have to respond to questions and to prompts.  But these are defined discrete responses to defined discrete problems and situations.  This is not the way life always is.  Life is filled with ambiguity and contingencies.  Many times solutions to problems are not simple and are tenuous at best.  Human teachers can bring this dimension to class studies through class discussions and through one-on-one conferences.  Primary experience life situations are filled with flowing blendable continual stimuli that have ambiguous blurry definition.  This can’t be reproduced in the world of the computer screen.  The computer screen deals with defined discrete digital certainties. 

            Now from what I understand, teachers do supervise these programs for their students.  Teachers are present in the classroom.  But the bulk of the daily work that the students do is on the computer screen.

            To the extent that the computer screen does not contain stimuli – either visual or cognitive – that reflect the ambiguities of life, students will not be properly prepared for adult living.  They will become intolerant of the uncertainty and complexity of adult living in the primary experience world, and feel safer with the certainty and greater clarity of the cyber world.  Their minds will become molded to mirror the workings of the computer.  And as this happens, they will become less and less capable of functioning as organic human beings.  Less and less capable of the bonded connections that lead to good solid love relationships, good solid work relationships, good solid friendships and good solid community participation.

            Even those modern students who are not in online classes, but who use consumer technology a lot, are having difficulties forming solid human connections in the external world.   Such students end up in an intolerable growing isolation in an experiential vacuum.  Although some of their isolation is due simply to withdrawal from the overstimulation of abrasive static stimuli as in the crowding from overpopulation, noise pollution, air pollution, and, in general, the accelerated pace of modern life, much of it is due to feeling overwhelmed by simple bonded connections to other people.  And as the students withdraw further into numbness to escape what are for them the increasingly overstimulating human situations in the external world, they try to fight that numbness at the same time by doing self-destructive things like drugs, binge drinking, cutting their wrists or carrying out attempted suicides.  In the case of the suicides, many of the young people hope that by warning other people directly or indirectly, someone will save them before it’s too late.  But the sad truth is that an attempted suicide – one that fails - actually temporarily brings many students to life, pulls them out of the living death of their numbness.

            Other students just become more successfully robotic from their immersion in consumer technology.  Somehow they find a way to survive the technological isolation in which they have immersed by taking on the traits of their technology.

            Students need the massage of human contact.  And human teachers are going to be more successful in putting facts and ideas in larger contexts, so that knowledge can be taught as a more coherent flow.  This parallels the flow of organic life based in primary experience.  This is the way life should be lived by mammalian human beings.  Having ongoing interactions with teachers and with other students teaches students to engage the external world, to become active members of other social groupings like families, clubs, and communities.  Ongoing interactions in the primary experiences of the classroom help students to develop coherent identities within human structures outside of themselves.

            On still another level, our minds become indications of what we have become as people.  If what our students absorb is digital points; defined discrete images, facts and ideas; excerpts of books; random chunks of entities and events floating in an experiential vacuum, then all this will act as a mirror and an implicit model for how our students will develop, how their minds will configure.  Lack of coherence in their daily fields of experience, in their worlds of experience in cyberspace, will lead to lack of coherence in their unfolding senses of self.  And a fragmented sense of self is not conducive to long-term viability of an organic individual human.  In the long term, fragmented senses of self pose a real danger to the human race.  This is what we have to consider when something as seemingly innocent as online high school degree programs are introduced into the lives of many of the people we love dearly, people who look to us for guidance and protection.


© 2014 Laurence Mesirow