Sunday, January 11, 2015

What We Are Losing By Becoming Robots

            One of the central points that has been made in this column is that humans cannot biologically evolve as fast as technology can change.  In particular, the human nervous system cannot evolve fast enough to keep up with the changes in the configurations of stimuli created in the human field of experience by technology.  Modern technological environments tend to eliminate the organic stimuli found in nature – the flowing blendable continual stimuli that come from natural phenomena, the kind of stimuli that are relatively easier for humans to absorb.  Instead, a typical modern human alternates between experiencing, on the one hand, the overstimulation of abrasive bundles of defined discrete stimuli – tension pockets created directly and indirectly by many modern machines and their waste products –and, on the other hand, the understimulation that comes from experiencing the vacuum spaces filled with infinite continuous emptiness stimuli, the spaces that humans use to rise above the organic perishability found in natural environments.

            This being said, it does not mean that humans aren’t evolving at all, as a result of their interface with modern technology.  However, many of the changes are behavioral rather than physical.  It has been discussed many times in this column how complex modern machines have acted both as mirrors and models, particularly for young people.  And people are becoming gradually more robotic as a result.  What hasn’t been discussed is what humans are losing as a result of becoming more robotic.

            A very useful concept for discussing what has been lost is the notion of vestigial structures and functions.  I became very interested in this notion after reading J. Howard Moore’s book Savage Survivals.  Some of his ideas I find very intriguing; others I don’t agree with.  It seems that during evolution, some parts of the bodies of organisms evolve, while others go into disuse and then either degenerate or remain underdeveloped.  Examples of parts of humans in disuse are the appendix, the ear muscles, the tail and tail muscles, wisdom teeth, and the hairy covering of human bodies.  All of these were body parts that had a very important function at some stage of human development.  Now they don’t, but they continue to exist in a diminished form anyway.

            Humans also have behaviors that are vestigial.  An example of involuntary vestigial behavior is when people get goose bumps when they are cold or afraid.  This form of behavior goes back to when human ancestors were covered with fur.  Ruffling out the fur could keep one of our ancestors warm.  It was also the way a mammal could make himself look bigger than he actually was in order to frighten away an enemy.  Porcupines ruffle out their spines to scare away potential predators. 

            Then there are forms of more voluntary vestigial behavior. Hunting has become a vestigial behavior in modern technological society.  It is done only by a certain group of enthusiasts.  However, I don’t think that one of the behaviors Moore talked about as vestigial is in fact quite as vestigial as he said it was in his book published in 1934.  Fighting is a very common form of behavior today, whether among school kids, martial arts enthusiasts, isolated criminals, urban gangs, soldiers, revolutionaries, or terrorists.  I think that in modern technological society, fighting is, underneath the more surface reasons, a defense against sensory distortion.  It represents an expression of conative acceleration, of the speeding up of the human will, so that a person can create his own world of abrasive tension-pocket stimulation to block out the abrasive tension-pocket stimulation and the vacuum stimulation that surround him.  When he creates his own field of experience through fighting, he gains control over his field of experience.  He is no longer buffeted around by sensory distortion over which he has no control.

            This is distinct from fighting in more traditional natural living environments, where fighting has been used particularly for men as a form of self-differentiation, as a way of developing strong figure boundaries to protect oneself from being swallowed up by the strong enveloping grounding of the organic habitat.  Men fighting men, figures knocking against figures, becomes a way of separating from organic natural fields of experience.  Fighting in more traditional natural environments is an instinctive way not only of defending oneself but of defining oneself.

            Anyway, for many people, certain televised sports such as soccer, American football and hockey do take on the role of vicarious vestigial forms of fighting.  This is a way that modern technology has contributed to making physical fighting a vestigial component of the personal lives of many of us.  Many people from modern technological society with their modern values of cooperation and peace would look on this spectator violence favorably.  Yes, these sports lead to concussions and a lot of other injuries, but that does not directly affect the people watching these sports.  So television viewers can watch violence without getting involved themselves.

            The main counterargument to making physical conflict vicarious and vestigial is that unless this transformation occurs with everybody, the peace loving people leave themselves vulnerable to other people whether bullies, criminals or people in gangs, warlike countries, or terrorist groups.  The peace loving people lose their capacity and their desire to stand up to those people who threaten them.

            There are many people in civilized industrial societies who do not have a visceral feel for how dangerous the threats are from many of the groups in the Middle East.  Unfortunately, trying to reason with members of these groups, trying to negotiate with them, just doesn’t seem to work.  They want victory and not compromise, not peace treaties.

            The vacuumized conflict of sporting matches on television, or even movies and television programs about war, crime and adventure, blurs into real life, so that, on one level, we don’t experience the full sensory impact of real life threats.  Real life threats become vacuumized, become unreal.  While stories on the screen show us the effects of violence, they make us numb to it at the same time.  That is unless or until something might happen to us.

            I have recently been considering that modern technology not only makes human behavior vestigial, but it even makes human emotions vestigial.  Machines are made of defined discrete parts that are frequently screwed into place or fitted into place.  The parts are relatively easily disconnected from one another, easily interchangeable, easily replaced.  We can say that most of the parts are shallow-bonded to one another, and this is what allows mechanics and computer specialists to repair machines.

            To the extent that humans allow modern technology to mirror them and model for them, they pick up the modalities of connectedness that they use with each other from these machines.  Our relationships with each other become more shallow-bonded, more contingent, more transient.  For many of us, deep-bonded connectedness, real intimacy, exists in an undeveloped vestigial state.  This is one explanation for why people live together today rather than get married.  They want a more contingent relationship that allows for an easier escape.  The high divorce rate in most modern technological societies is also one indication that for a lot of people, intimacy exists in a much diminished vestigial form.

            To the extent that we still have some control over the future evolution of our behavior and our emotions, we may ask ourselves if we really want to move in the directions that have been established regarding our behavior and our emotions.  Becoming robotic means not only evolving towards a new way of being, it means diminishing the importance of certain traits that are important as foundations for our traditional concept of what it means to be human.  It means diminishing the mental attitudes that allow us to truly defend ourselves against the people who would hurt us, on the one hand, and to truly bond with the people that we love and care about, on the other.  We, as humans, may have to try and find a way of activating again many of the behaviors and emotions that are becoming vestigial as a result of modern technology.  Becoming robotic means becoming numb in both our positive and negative connections to other people.  It means becoming numb to ourselves.  We maintain these connections to others and to ourselves on a vestigial basis.  For now.  In the future, as is the case with many vestigial organs, even the vestiges may disappear.

(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow

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