Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Keeping Up With The Robots

            I recently came across an American sociologist whose ideas parallel some of the ideas that have been discussed in this column.  William Fielding Ogburn propounded the theory of cultural lag.  Basically what he said is that in our time of rapid social change, some parts of our culture evolve faster than others, creating social adjustment problems.  In particular, he talks about the tension between the materials and products that humans use and the human adaptation to these products.  The assumption here seems to be that it would be better if humans could keep up with the changes, because then there would be less friction in the adjustment process.  Ogburn would ideally like to minimize the influence of the cultural lag between the material culture and the adaptive culture and create more cultural harmony.

            In my theory of sensory distortion which talks about the lag of human evolution in relation to technological change, I am much more skeptical of getting rid of the discomfort of humans in trying to adjust to modern technology.  Of course, I am writing in 2015, and the article I read of Ogburn appeared in a collection of articles on social thinking called The Making of Society that was published in 1937.  From the perspective of the super accelerated rate of technological change that occurs today, it can be more easily seen that humans are heading towards increasing robotization and losing many of their essential traits as human beings.  But because humans can’t change as fast as machines and because the change to humans is occurring to basic aspects of human nature, the process will not be comfortable.

            Nevertheless, it would be useful to apply some of the concepts that have appeared in this column to the notion of participating in a culture as distinct from living and interacting sensorily in a field of experience.  I want to focus on the cultural distortion that takes place when different parts of a culture evolve at different rates as opposed to the sensory distortion that occurs when our nervous system is not adequate for absorbing the new qualities of stimuli that occur in our modern technological field of experience.

            One tension that was very pronounced was the tension from the development of the automobile and its effect on family values in Western societies.  With an automobile, a young couple could take a relatively frictionless trip (compared to a horse and buggy) from point a (the house of the girl) to point b (some private place in a park or in the country) and feel totally separated from the implicit moral attitudes of the family.  A new private space in a separate realm was created by a vacuumized trip in the car, and in the private space, a couple could engage in sexual activity in the car itself or in the new private surroundings and nobody would know in the family, unless somehow they would later accidentally find out.  But there was the pull of traditional values even for the couple, and the tension continues to exist for some more conservative segments of society today.  The car and the birth control pill have contributed to separating the desire for sex from the desire for deep-bonded relationships.  People focus on making imprints with sex today without necessarily preserving those imprints with committed deep-bonded relationships.

            Another example relates to attitudes towards death.  Modern technology as well as modern pharmaceutical products can keep people alive, even when they are permanently unconscious in a coma.  To keep the body functioning when there is no consciousness is to turn the body into a kind of machine.  But traditional moral attitudes say that one should always fight to keep a person going as long as he is alive.  So modern technology has created gray areas where people are kept in a living death that comes not only from the understimulation of the ultimate numbness of long-term unconsciousness, but also from the overstimulation of unbearable pain.

            Still another example relates to attitudes towards work.  For most people in traditional societies, as long and as hard as they would sometimes work, there were usually defined hours for work.  One would work during those hours and the rest of the time would be used for family bonding, recreation, and sleep.  And most of the time one worked when the sun was out, and one stopped working when it went down.  But nowadays, with electricity, there are night shifts, when some people continue to work when most of the rest of the people are sleeping.  Furthermore, even when people have conventional jobs during the day, the smartphone and the computer break down the barrier that exists between work hours and non-work hours.  Workers are expected to answer text messages wherever they are and even take their work home with them to work on through the use of their computers.  The desire to be able to have time for bonding with family and friends is invaded by the obligation to be on call at all hours, to work at night, on weekends and during holidays.  But this goes totally against the cultural need to dedicate time to maintaining the integrity of family and community.

            We should not overlook the effect of technology on recreation.  When people sit down together to watch a television program, they are juxtaposed next to each other, but there is no interaction conducive to strong bonding.  Family television habits have weakened the values of family togetherness, as people live more and more in their direct encounters with technologically-created images.  Many times, each member of the family is in a separate room with a separate television watching a separate program.  And of course, nowadays, people can watch their programs on their computer and smartphone in an extremely accessible and private experience.  People can do this not only in their rooms but out in a coffee house, in a restaurant, in a park or even while waiting for a bus.  Television has taken people away from strong interactions with their family and friends, from strong bonding.

            In effect, what all these examples show is how rapid technological change fragments the organic unity of a culture, destroys its grounding, and breaks up the fields of experience of its members into different disconnected free-floating figures of unrelated events.  Organic traditional cultures, more strongly grounded in nature, are what have given unity and meaning to human life.  Just as when nature gets destroyed by technology, when traditional culture gets broken by technology, it creates experiential distortion.  People’s lives become filled with mechanical rhythms and mechanical patterns of life.

            There has definitely been a cultural lag between the evolution of technological change and the evolution of human family and community structures within different cultures.  Technology is changing so much faster than human society can evolve.  But maybe it is just as well.  If humans and their cultures evolved as fast as technological change, they would become robots living in mechanistic patterns of interaction.  I hesitate to use the term culture for robots, because as smart and sophisticated as robots are becoming, they still are not able to make and receive organic flowing blendable continual organic stimuli, still are not able to make and receive organic imprints, still are not capable of an independent organic sense of self, still are not capable of initiating and creating the kind of deep-bonded relationships on which families, communities and many other human social groups are built.

            I am increasingly beginning to feel that, under the circumstance in which people live in modern technological society, the sensory distortion that people experience, however uncomfortable or painful it may be, is at least a sign that the people are still human.  And cultural lag is at least a sign that people are still clinging to their cultural roots and don’t fully want to become robots.

(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow 

The Need To Have Things Right Away

            It has already been mentioned in previous articles how, as a result of the accelerating pace of change in modern technological society, there has been an accelerating pace of human activity as well.  This accelerating pace of human activity is based on psychological changes in people.  In particular, what I have called in the past conative acceleration: the acceleration of the human will.  Conative acceleration is a strategy that has resulted from humans trying to block out the uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous side effects of the sensory distortion that has developed in modern living environments.  It is a posture that allows a person to block out the harmful effects of sensory distortion by creating so much stimulation as a result of intense activity, that the person has, in effect, created his own private field of experience over which he has total control.  A good example of this is in the business world today, where certain super-motivated people work tirelessly to build large profitable businesses and even what could be called business empires.

            But today, conative acceleration is manifesting itself not only in human production patterns, but in human consumption patterns as well.  Kathleen Kusik wrote an article for Forbes Magazine (10/20/2014) called “Retail’s New Battleground: The I Want What I Want When I Want It Generation”.  The article discusses her interview with Dr. Kit Yarrow who wrote a book called Decoding the New Consumer Mind.  It seems that meeting desires for immediate gratification is a fundamental requirement for retailers in today’s market.  Particularly young consumers are very concerned with how they are going to take possession of an item they bought: pick-up or delivery.  Big Box department stores like Walmart of Target now have online presences to deal with consumers who want to order something right away.

            What is important here is how particularly younger consumers want what they want when they want it.  There are different ways to explain this need for immediate gratification.  From a psychoanalytic point of view, the need for immediate gratification in terms of products and services becomes a substitute for the need for parental love when the latter is absent.  This is a classic explanation of the so-called spoiled child.  The parent buys a lot for his child, because he refuses to or is unable to give the child time, energy, and state of mind.  Such a situation is typical of certain affluent parents who have very extensive social lives, but don’t spend as much time with their children as they should.  Or of some parents who are just too busy working.   And in many cases, even when they do spend time with their children, the parents are not psychologically present.  They perform their parental roles in a perfunctory manner.

            Certainly being emotionally grounded is very important in order to give a child internal psychological grounding and to prevent the development of a sense of emptiness, an emotional vacuum, which the child then tries to fill with products and services that, when he wants them, he wants them right away.

            Maybe the parent is passing onto his child the same lack of emotional grounding that he experienced from his own parents.  But what if one of the reasons that the parent can’t give emotional grounding is because of his lack of experiential grounding in his physical living environment?  And what if one of the child’s reasons for his obsessive need for ongoing immediate gratification is his own direct lack of experiential grounding in the modern vacuum and tension pocket environment in which he lives?

            So it is not just parental love and grounding that is missing.  On a larger scale, it is the lack of organic flowing blendable continual stimuli in the child’s field of experience, as modern technology starts influencing more and more different areas of his field of experience.  Grounded unconditional love is important, but so is the feeling of grounded unconditional connection to one’s total living environment.

            This lack of unconditional connection leads to anxiety as a result of the sense of detachment that comes from numbness, the loss of feeling that comes from a chronic experience of an experiential vacuum.  The constant frictionlessness created by modern machines like the smooth ride within a car, the sensors that turn lights on and off and activate faucets, toilets and garage doors.  The smooth lack of texture of sidewalks and streets, the lack of moldings, beams and ornament in modern architecture and the flavorless empty spaces created inside modern lobbies, offices, and apartments.  The feeling of sensory oversimplification with the relative lack of vegetation and sensorily interesting natural landmarks inside most modern urban environments.

            But this is not the whole picture.  There are also abrasive static stimuli: bundles of defined discrete stimuli floating in a vacuum.  Examples of this are noise pollution, air pollution, speeding cars passing on streets and highways, crowded urban neighborhoods, particularly those with high-rises, big shopping malls and construction sites.  All these sources of abrasive static stimuli, of tension pockets, make a person jaded or tough in order to withstand the overstimulation.  And jadedness like numbness leads to a loss of capacity for organic connection, a loss of capacity for grounded connection, even when the connection should be available in small amounts.

            I do not want to imply that a traditional more nature-oriented environment with organic grounding is always a positive thing.  Such an environment contains incipient figures, partly differentiated figures that struggle to define themselves.  Examples are wild animals and wild storms that lash out with strong winds and torrential rains.  Even the strongly grounded components of environments have dangerous aspects.  So, on the one hand, nature and more traditional living environments can provide the security of grounding.  On the other hand, nature and more traditional living environments can swallow up the individual as a result of the sources of organic perishability within its terrains.  The floods, the whirlpools, the quicksand, the avalanches, the sandstorms, the blizzards, the rot, the diseases.

            At any rate, this is not the problem for modern technological humans today.  The problem today is the sensory distortion created by vacuum and tension pocket living environments.  And as these environments increasingly displace traditional more organic living environments, they create a whole series of new problems.  And one major problem is this accelerating need for immediate gratification.  It leaves people very vulnerable psychologically.  What does it mean to not get something when one wants it?  Does the person have an anxiety attack?  Does the person withdraw from the world into depression?  Does the person self-destruct and maybe kill himself, because he can’t tolerate not having things just right?  Does he explode in anger and hurt others?   All these behavioral manifestations are occurring today among people who can’t get what they want in life when they want it, even when it doesn’t involve commercial products and services.  These behaviors are not indications of emotionally stable people.

            And yet according to the article by Kathleen Kusik, the commercial establishment simply accepts the needs and desires of the I want what I want when I want it generation as givens that are to be pandered to rather than treated as causes for concern.  This tendency towards immediate gratification among today’s youth is but one more manifestation of the pathological effects of sensory distortion in modern technological society.  And it indicates a dangerous emotional fragility that could have far-reaching effects not just for the youth of today, but for the future of modern humanity for years to come.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow