Sunday, April 5, 2015

Disposable Furniture and Disposable Lovers

            Ikea is a Swedish company that has had incredible success worldwide.  In an article in the online newsletter, the Robin Report (Jan. 14, 2015), Warren Shoulberg discusses the secret of this success.  By creating affordable furniture that is assembled by the customer, Ikea has made it permissible for people to easily dispose of furniture should they have to move geographically, should they move up economically or should their tastes change.  The furniture is not meant to last forever.  A person no longer has to be married to furniture that he can’t replace.  The same principle applies to the houses which Ikea produces.  Again, the customer assembles the house himself.

            Ikea has acted as an inspiration for many stores in other kinds of merchandise like clothing.  Stores like H & M and Zara create clothes that aren’t meant to be durable and that are relatively inexpensive.  It allows customers to change their clothing look more often, and thus, supposedly, to be more physically attractive.

            For many people, there is a preference to not even acquire books as things anymore.  It is much lighter to acquire a book as an e-book and read it on your nook or kindle.  Then you don’t have to worry about storing a lot of books in your residence.  For many people, the old appreciation of books as valuable, well-made and even decorative objects, sometimes with beautiful illustrations, has long since disappeared.

            This does not mean that there are no longer many people who search for quality in certain categories of products.  In previous articles, I have pointed out that many people accumulate products in order to cling to some kind of tangible material things and, thus, to defend themselves against the emptiness, the entropy found in the experiential vacuums of modern technological living environments.  But this new twist in the accumulation of disposable products represents a new kind of motivation for today’s consumers, and it is something that is definitely worth exploring.

            A disposable product is one that lasts much less time than the traditional product made for that particular product category.  It falls apart or wears out more easily.  As a phenomenon, it goes from being a highly defined figure to one that is eaten away by the disintegrating influences of entropy.  It is a phenomenon that moves in the direction of emptiness, of a vacuum.

            So if people have been accumulating figure products, to bundle them together as an island to which they can cling while floating in the experiential vacuum of modern technological living environments, why would they want to obtain figure products that fall apart into a vacuum state, and that can’t provide a long-term surrogate grounding for them?

            This leads to a discussion of what aspects of the accumulated figure products provide people today with a sense of surrogate grounding.  If it is not the solid durability of products that protects against the emptiness and entropy of the experiential vacuum, what does protect?  First of all, as has been previously noted, the accumulation of figure products is a very imperfect protection, because even many figure products don’t create the sense of pull or gravity that being anchored in a more traditional organic environment does.  So people desperately keep trying to accumulate more and more figure products in the vain hope of creating the kind of grounded connection found in a more natural living environment.  And each time the addition of a new product fails to provide the difference that allows a person to feel a long term grounding in his collection of figure products, the person becomes numb to and disconnected from his new possession.  Furthermore, there comes a point where a person’s residence runs out of room for new products.  The person gets swallowed up by his large collection of figures rather than grounded in them.

            But the person doesn’t give up on trying to ground himself in his products, because it is the only apparent option that remains for him.  So the person continues to obtain products that he can dispose of, because in truth his sensation of temporary grounding lies in the acquisition of a new product rather than holding onto it for a long period of time.  It is the equivalent of a kick or a temporary high that provides him with the sensation of the grounding for which he is searching, before it disappears.  And by having products that are disposable and therefore cheaper, he can more easily get rid of them to provide space for other new articles.  It is like a drug addiction where there is no true sustainable level of satisfaction.

            In truth, it is the active acquisition of figure products that seems to provide a temporary sensation of grounding in our modern experiential vacuum, rather than simply holding onto them, clinging to them.  It doesn’t matter whether the products are only going to last for a short time, because the sensation of grounding obtained from them is also only of short duration.  It is the novel aspect of the new possessions that leaves a new imprint on the person and temporarily jolts him out of his sense of emptiness.

            At the same time, because there is a relatively rapid turnover within categories of products, there are more and more transitions between products that provide brief periods of experiential vacuums.  When the old sofa falls apart, it usually has to be taken out of the house or apartment, before a new one is installed in its place.  That is a physical vacuum moment.  Sometimes the vacuum moment comes from simply switching emotional attachment from the broken-down product to the new one.  Buying a new sweater to replace an old worn-out sweater.  The accumulation of these numbness moments results in a growing need to fight them off with more and more experiences of surrogate grounding through the accumulation of more and more new products.  Hence, there develops an increasingly frantic and frenetic pattern of consumption.

            In the long run, this pattern of disposable products bleeds into our relationships. When there are too many isolated phenomena floating around in our field of experience, we blur them together to create an artificial mental grounding.  Different phenomena can blur back and forth into each other.  In this case, disposable products like Ikea act as an implicit model for how we deal with the people in our lives.  More and more people fall into having Ikea connections with people.  In the area of romance, this means Ikea boyfriends and girlfriends.  And because there is little grounding from organic environments that can act as a template for solid durable relationships, the Ikea relationships don’t offer a sense of secure grounding within them.  People become disconnected, bored and numb within the relationships and try to stimulate them to life with the jolts of conflict.  Either the numbness or else the static from the conflicts or both leads to the disposing of the relationships.  And as people develop an accumulated sense of numbness from the vacuum spaces between the periods of the relationships, people can end up going through more and more relationships more quickly to fight the numbness.  So a supposedly solid commitment ends up becoming one more disposable product.

            The application of Ikea purchases as a model for modern relationships fits well with a previous explanation that was developed in this column for growing sexual freedom today.  I have discussed how people today have many lovers at least partly as a substitute for the sensory variety of natural living environments that is of course missing in modern technological living environments.  One human body disconnected from the template of a natural living environment may contribute to new physical sensation, but it doesn’t offer a sense of secure grounding.  So with each new lover, a person gets more sensory variety in his life, but, at the same time, a greater sense of the lack of meaningful grounding available in the emotional commitment to one person.

            We need more durable furniture, more durable clothing and more durable relationships, if we are going to maintain a durable organic human society.  The rapid ongoing turnover of products and people in our lives, even if it is an attempt to stimulate us to life, can ultimately lead to the disintegration of human society.  Ultimately, the durability of products and people relationships in our external world helps to maintain the organic cohesion of our senses of self in our inner world.  When everything in our external world becomes transient, we become transient within ourselves.  We reinvent ourselves over and over to adjust to the new circumstances resulting from the shifting Ikea phenomena in our surroundings.  We end up losing our core sense of self.

            On the other hand, the gradual change created by evolving organic flowing blendable continual stimuli is an important part of life that is necessary to stimulate us to life and to provide new configurations of stimuli and new experiential surfaces on which to leave new and different organic imprints.  Imprints that can give us novel rich vibrant experiences and that can form the basis of our individual surrogate immortalities and our collective group surrogate immortalities in preparation for death.  But this gradual organic change has to be balanced out with a sense of continuity, a sense of firm principles and material order that gives us fundamental conceptual figures that we can focus on, fundamental conceptual figures planted firmly in psychological grounding.  Basil Davidson in his book The African Genius (1969) talks about the importance of the equilibrium between continuity and change among African tribes.  We in modern technological society have lost this equilibrium.  Technological change is occurring so rapidly.  We are being pummeled by the defined discrete stimuli from data and from disposable products.  The danger is that the loss of continuity among the phenomena in our living environment will contribute to a loss of psychological continuity in ourselves and a loss of social continuity in our human groups and ultimately to our personal and collective disintegration as organisms.  And, of course, with some of this disintegration already happening, it is no wonder that some people are already embracing the organizing principles of cyborgs and robots.  We have to find some way to bring back some of the aspects of natural living environments into our lives, if we want to survive as humans.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow


Personal Data And The Pixilated Human

            There has been much discussion lately of the accumulation of personal data by Internet companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google. But certainly the invasion of people’s private lives started long before these companies existed.  In the social sciences, people have been doing surveys for a long time, asking people to fill out questionnaires, or interviewing people on the telephone or face-to-face.  And behavioral psychologists have done experiments trying to acquire hard evidence with regard to how people would respond to very specific defined focused circumstances.  What these psychologists have been looking for is scientific evidence in the manner of the hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology.  Hard rules that could give them an understanding that would allow people to be controlled and manipulated in different situations.  These behavioral psychologists have total contempt for psychodynamic psychologists who built models on more speculative intuitive theories that couldn’t be tested in a more formal scientific way.  For these behavioral psychologists, there were no meaningful truths to be obtained from a more passive observation of people as they freely discuss their feelings and thoughts and live their lives.  Such truths were too fuzzy for them, and these truths were not useful for social engineering.

            Even before the Internet companies, private marketing companies have been doing all kinds of different surveys to discover people’s preferences for different products and services.  There is one company in the United States, Nielsen that attaches a machine to televisions in private homes in order to determine what stations are being watched and at what times.  On the Internet, product preferences based on Internet purchases lead to targeted advertisements being sent to people.

            In the collection of data, we must not leave out the use of government techniques for snooping on telephone calls, e-mails, texts and tweets for purposes of national security.  Sometimes, there is a blending of private and public sources of data, as governments pressure private companies to give up their data in the name of national security.

            Increasingly, there are more and more techniques being used for gathering data without intruding into people’s lives, without making them a part of experiments, and without formally asking them questions in surveys.  So much information can be gleaned from computer and smartphone usage.  But something happens to a person when he gradually is reduced to a bundle or to bundles of data.  Something happens not only in terms of the way he is perceived by the people collecting the data, but also in terms of the way the person perceives himself.

            Collecting data assumes that a person can be reduced to a series of clear cut facts.  The whole point of these defined discrete facts is to eliminate the ambiguity with regard to a person’s life, to perceive a person in a defined job, in defined relationships with defined beliefs, thoughts, hopes, expectations and feelings.  Collecting data converts aspects that are unformed or partly formed, aspects that have fuzzy flowing blendable continual borders, into aspects that are fully formed with defined discrete borders.  A person becomes a series of firm categories: he likes this, he believes that, he wants to be this, he wants to buy that.  He is fully alert, fully conscious, fully congruous with a series of characteristics that are designated about him.

            To the extent that collectors of data act on the definitions that they create of the people under investigation, they act on the knowledge that they gather in order to control their subjects in different ways.  Some collectors, in finding shopping preferences, send advertisements for products that fall into the categories of their subjects’ preferences in order to stimulate purchases.  They want to increase sales by making shopping as frictionless as possible.  Not only is the search for products and services minimized by having them available for purchase on a computer or smartphone screen, but by stimulating only partially formed desires through the promotion of products and services similar to those pursued, the consumer doesn’t even have to go through many mental machinations to formulate his desires for what he might want in the future.  The Internet companies do that for him.  The consumer becomes a bottomless pit that is stuffed with products and services to purchase, much like a goose is stuffed with feed in close quarters in order to make foie gras.  There is certainly a loss in the narrative of the active pursuit of the right product or the right service for the right purpose.

            But the accumulation of data allows an Internet company to think it knows a consumer’s taste.  And by being reduced to these data, it becomes that much more difficult for a consumer to develop new kinds of desires, new tastes based on personal transformation.  It is as if a person can be boxed in by his likes and dislikes. 

In a way it could be said that governments also use their accumulation of data on people in order to box them in.  Governments use their collection of data to find people who might go against the policies that they, the governments, espouse.  Some of these opponents are actually dangerous people that could do real harm to their societies.  Others are peaceful citizens who simply are considering alternative solutions to the problems that the governments are trying to deal with.  Governments that are not democratic frequently perceive the people in the second category to be as threatening to their power as the people in the first category.  Data are used to keep all opponents in line, even people who are simply expressing doubt as to the efficacy of government policies without any really strong adversarial solutions.  Collections of data create strong definition in various aspects of individuals, when often such definition doesn’t really exist in real life.

It is not only that people are boxed in by the uses of data by public and private entities and prevented from easily growing, evolving and transforming in different ways.  By becoming overly defined, by becoming a list of traits and characteristics, a list of desires and beliefs and thoughts and expectations, etc., people become fragmented or, using today’s language, pixilated.  They lose a sense of the coherence of an organic sense of self, a core of who they are at the center of everything.  They become defined discrete data, defined discrete stimuli, bundles of little mental fragments, and lose their connection to the flowing blendable, continual feelings, emotions, ideas and intuitions that bind them together as whole people.

            Today, with our strongly scientific orientation towards knowledge, which correlates with our strong focus on technological innovation, we increasingly see our knowledge of people and things as based only on hard evidence, only on discrete pinpoints of knowledge, only on facts, only on data.  Fuzzy intuitions based on more passive observation, on soft empiricism, just are not taken seriously.  Social sciences like behavioral psychology, sociology and economics try to imitate the hard sciences by developing experiments and statistical studies and try to generate data based on hard numbers.  All this data supposedly helps us to understand and manipulate people in the aggregate, so they can be properly slotted, kept relatively happy and kept relatively trouble-free, so that life in society as a whole can be kept relatively frictionless, free of significant social turmoil and disruption.

            But ultimately, it means treating people as if they were simply social machines, simply robots.  As people see themselves mirrored in the endless streams of data generated by university research groups, by private companies and by government agencies, they experience themselves as bundles of data, as bundles of free-floating figures in a vacuum.  And with fractured pixilated senses of self, they are subject to the kind of manipulation that occurs with machines and robots.  Is this really the kind of life that we humans want to live?


© 2015 Laurence Mesirow




Friday, April 3, 2015

The Lost Art Of Postponing Gratification


            Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss my article “The Need To Have Things Right Away” with my good friend Dr. Jorge Cappon, professor emeritus of psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and well known psychoanalyst.  Dr. Cappon had his own ideas regarding the influence of technological innovation on the need for immediate gratification, and I thought it would be informative to discuss his psychoanalytically-based ideas here and then to elaborate on them further with some of my ideas.  Dr. Cappon is interested in the relationship between technological change and human emotional development.

            One of the most important things that a child learns as he grows up is self-control.  A baby wants what he wants right away and, to a certain extent, during his early days of life, his basic needs are usually satisfied in a timely manner.  A baby needs to get fed frequently and needs to be held frequently.  On the other hand, even a baby experiences a certain time lag between expressing his needs through crying and actually satisfying them.  A caregiver may be in another room or involved in a task that requires his immediate attention before he goes to the infant.  So even a baby experiences a little frustration.

            Dr. Cappon suggests the following hypothetical situation.  Suppose a baby could be fed on demand with a machine connected to him in such a way that he wouldn’t experience any frustration at all.  Such a baby would never develop his mental faculties properly.  When a baby doesn’t get milk right away, he develops his creative thinking by fantasizing about the milk.  Without any frustration, and while continually attached to our hypothetical machine, the baby would become an idiot.

            In the real world, as the baby grows up, he is increasingly expected to postpone gratification for what he wants.  Different cultures have different timelines for this self-control, some expecting more self-control earlier than others.  But all of them look at self-control and being able to postpone gratification as being an essential part of growing up and eventually becoming an adult.

            Growing up is a painful process.  It is so much more comfortable to remain immature.  It is uncomfortable to have to postpone gratification by having to study in order to obtain diplomas and degrees and thus to have the qualifications for a good job.  It is uncomfortable to have to work in order to obtain the money that allows one to buy the products and the services one desires.

            Now how does all this relate to the influences of modern technological living environments.  In pre-industrial societies, most of the products and services that people desired would require work to obtain them and these products and services took time to create.  In the world of traditional primary experience, things did not simply appear in one’s field of experience by pressing a button or a computer key.  But when radio, phonographs and television appeared, whole mini-worlds could be created or at least recreated by the consumer, with a few effortless frictionless processes relating to turning on the machines.  Now there are video games and computers.  Video games are magical game worlds, where one can play quickly and win (or lose) quickly.  Whether one wins or loses, one has the control to keep playing quickly and relatively frictionlessly until one does win.  With a computer or iPad or smartphone, one has the opportunity to find, create, and control many different kinds of phenomena.  As technological innovation advances on, many processes that occur on a computer occur quicker and quicker.  Furthermore, many life processes are now made more frictionless through the Internet of Things.    As all this happens, the capacity for patience and self-control gradually breaks down in young people, as they increasingly develop expectations for what they want to appear quicker and quicker.

            We are accustomed to looking at frustration as a negative phenomenon, but there is a difference between frustration that puts a drag on moving towards a goal, and frustration that puts a total block on moving towards a goal.  In the first case, the frustration creates an ongoing  moving connection to one’s grounding while traveling over it.  This kind of frustration is basically a constructive emotional friction that actually keeps one connected to the external world while moving towards a goal.  This kind of positive frustration can lead to dreaming about the goal (as Dr. Cappon noted), while experiencing the drag created by external impediments.  Nevertheless, the dream just reinforces and guides the movement towards the goal in the external world.  It is a dream that is grounded in certain important aspects of the real external world.

            This is very different from the frustration generated by an impassable obstacle on one’s journey towards a goal.  This latter situation leads to dreams that replace reality rather than guide and reinforce reality.  The kind of dream that replaces reality leads to mentally dwelling in frictionless experiential vacuums that compensate for the unbearable static stimuli created by the impassable obstacles in the real external world.

            However without some frustration, one experiences his external world as a kind of frictionless experiential vacuum.  One floats towards his goal in a numbing mental state.  More precisely, there is no traction, no friction-filled connection to the external world.  One arrives at his goal, at his product or service, in a state of numbness, so one is incapable of savoring, fully enjoying, fully appreciating the product or service.  Neither the journey to the product or service, nor the product or service itself, contribute in any way to helping the person to truly feel alive.  There is no meaningful organic imprint as can be found in a grappling assertive acquisition of the product or service.

            Postponing gratification through a frustrating experience that acts as a drag rather than a  block can ultimately increase satisfaction and enjoyment when the product or service is finally acquired.  One can stay grounded in the product or service for a while without immediately having to move on to another product or service.

            So frustration is not always something that is a negative.  By providing friction, it provides a meaningful conscious focused journey to the desired product or service, a meaningful life narrative, a rich vibrant experience.  By overcoming the drag from the friction, a person feels empowered, as he actually grapples with elements in his field of experience and makes meaningful organic imprints.  By providing traction in his field of experience, the frustration allows a person to stay grounded in his living environment, so that he can fully experience the product or service.  By staying grounded in his living environment, the person doesn’t float off into a numbing experiential vacuum, where he would constantly need to fill up his inner emptiness with more and more products and services to overcome his numbness.

            A baby is not fully aware, not fully focused, and because he can’t satisfy his basic needs by himself, not fully grounded in his field of experience.  There is always a little lag time between when a baby cries for milk and the satisfaction of that need, even when he has a doting mother.  As he grows up, he gradually is expected to postpone his gratifications for longer and longer periods of time, and as has been indicated, this is considered a basic part of psychological maturation.  But the process of psychological maturation is being gradually more and more suppressed as modern technology increasingly diminishes the time of postponing gratification in many different life situations.  With smartphones, with wearable computers, with the Internet of Things, everything is happening right away.  As a result, young people aren’t growing up in the way they are supposed to, and they are becoming addicted to immediate gratification.  How are people like this going to be able to survive unforeseen crises and catastrophes?  What is going to happen to the human race, when people develop such fragile psyches?  This is why we should look very carefully at technology that supposedly does us the favor of making life easier and easier for us.  Easier now may mean life becoming much more difficult in the future.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow