Sunday, May 17, 2015

Our Modern Canaries In The Coal Mine

            There are four basic reasons for concern about the future of humanity as a result of both the rapid pace of technological change that we have been experiencing as well as the direction in which it has been going.  First, there is the sensory distortion that is the result of the alternation of understimulation and overstimulation that people have been experiencing in their modern technological fields of experience.  In a world in which the areas of organic natural environments have been diminishing in quantity and in quality, and in which instead we have an ongoing increase of vacuum and tension-pocket environments, it has become more and more difficult for the human mammalian nervous system to adjust to the extremes – both high and low - in the levels of stimuli to which it is exposed.  The result is the growing manifestations of pathological behavior that are both self-destructive and/or destructive to the people with whom a person comes into contact.  This is where two basic categories of mental postures that I have discussed previously, come into play.

First there is conative acceleration, the speeding up of the will, in which a person tries to generate a lot of his own stimuli and thus control his own stimuli environment.  He does this by accelerating his trajectory of daily activity and thus blocking out the stimuli from around him, from the vacuum and tension-pocket environment to which he is constantly being exposed and over which he has no control.  The rapid intense activity of modern work – of corporate executives, office workers and factory workers – and the rapid intense activities of many modern recreational pursuits – intense exercise routines and extreme sports activities like bungee jumping – are examples of this behavior.  In general, manic behavior demonstrates conative acceleration.

Then there is conative anesthesia, the numbing of the will, where the person deals with sensory distortion in his living environment by withdrawing into himself, into a self-made experiential vacuum over which he again has some control.  Examples of this behavior include reclusive living, yoga, Zen meditation and certain drugs.  In general, depression demonstrates conative anesthesia.

In both of these behavioral postures, there is a sense that the mammalian human nature of many people does not permit them to fully adjust to the modern technological fields of experience.  However, there are those people who seem to be adjusting better in their modern technological fields of experience.  They are adjusting better, because, as a result of engaging with modern technology, they are becoming more like modern technology.  Modern machines like computers and robots are complex behavioral entities that mirror the actions of humans and subtly guide the humans to see modern machines as models for behavior.  And these humans gradually become more robotized.  Somehow, they become less dependent on organic flowing blendable continual stimuli and more stimulated to life by the defined discrete stimuli they find on the television, video game, computer and smartphone screens with which they directly engage as well as the peripheral defined discrete stimuli that surround them in their modern technological living environments.  It is not that these people are becoming robots yet, but rather that they are moving more in that direction.  Psychologically, they are more and more receptive to defined discrete cognitive stimuli and less and less open to the flowing blendable continual stimuli found in the sensory, emotional and creative areas of the mind.  Many of these people work intimately with computers, robots and other modern machines – what we commonly call geeks.

            Some of these people want to take the next step and become part machine themselves, what we commonly call cyborgs.  Sort of like the bionic man. This represents the means to one of the ultimate goals of human beings in their development of modern technology.  Instead of being content to create a surrogate immortality in preparation for death, an immortality based on preserved imprints that survive long after a person perishes himself, people who want to become cyborgs see it as a means to become directly immortal themselves.  As a cyborg, they would be more free from the dangers of organic perishability.  If a part of their organic body wears out, they can replace it with a mechanical part made of metal or plastic.  And if the mechanical part wears out, it can be replaced with still another mechanical part.  So technically, as a cyborg, a person can just go on living forever.

            Now it is one thing for a person to get a tooth implant, an artificial hip or a pacemaker.  Such implants don’t affect too much a person’s sense of organic unity.  But when more and more parts start being replaced, so that a person becomes what we think of as a cyborg, a person’s sense of organic unity and his sense of a coherent self are going to be significantly diminished.  And a diminished fractured sense of self will lead to a diminished level of consciousness.  The more a person begins to feel like and operate like a machine, the less alive and the less aware he is going to feel as an organic presence.  So a cyborg may be able to live for a long time, but the quality of his consciousness, of his aliveness is going to be significantly diminished.  And a person may ask what the point is of living forever, if he becomes incapable of fully experiencing himself and his forever life.  He may live forever, but it will be living forever in a kind of living death.

And this brings us to our fourth concern: that robots will end up totally replacing humans as the dominant force on Earth.  Whether this means that humans will become the servants of robots or will completely disappear at that point, it would be hard to say.  If it’s the first, with a loss of power will come a loss of intensity of aliveness, a loss of intensity of consciousness.  Humans will no longer be the complex behavioral entities driving the major narratives on the planet.

Of course, I guess it’s possible that humans could simply be put on the sidelines of major activity and not be eliminated.  They could become ever more immersed in a spectator posture than they are now.  At that point, life would truly be a living death.

So with all the pressures today to become robotized, perhaps the healthiest people are paradoxically those who experience discomfort, pain and suffering from sensory distortion.  These symptoms of pathology indicate that the people who experience them are still sufficiently mammalian to react strongly when placed in living environments that aren’t conducive to more mammalian living.  The people who suffer a lot from sensory distortion are the canaries in the coal mine, acting as a warning to the rest of us of the dangers of embracing too strongly a modern technological life style.  And the real danger to the human race from modern technology is not the destructive effects of the behavioral aberrations created by sensory distortion in the people who are the canaries.  Rather it is the destructive effects occurring in those people who don’t develop such obvious behavioral symptoms to sensory distortion, the people who seem to be adjusting better to modern technology.  Unless we find a way to significantly modify the trajectory of technological development, this second group of people may be signaling the transformation of the human race into something we would no longer recognize.


© 2015 Laurence Mesirow





The Many Different Faces Of Reality

            Reality has experienced a considerable number of variations over the last one hundred years.  As people became increasingly uncomfortable amidst the sensory distortion in modern technological society, certain artists began to explore reconnecting themselves to the flowing blendable continual stimuli of nature in the only place where they knew such stimuli were still easily accessible: the world of dreams and the unconscious.  European surrealists like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte and Mexican surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo created visual worlds where viewers could reconnect to their own dreams and to their own organic coherent senses of self.  In Latin America, the magic realism movement was based on reconnecting to the natural world through traditional magical motifs.  In magic realism, people and animals slid into and out of magical spiritual worlds from which the conventional real world was never neatly separated anyway.  Rather than more private dreams as in surrealism, magic realism concerned itself with the collective magical dream motifs of traditional societies that were still deeply tied to their natural roots and to their mystical traditions.  Writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa and artists like Francisco Toledo brought this magic realist world to life.

            The key for both these movements was to allow people to become regrounded in created worlds filled with organic flowing blendable continual stimuli.  These movements represented attempts to temporarily suppress not only the sensory distortion of modern technological living environments, but the subtle mirroring and modeling from all the complex machines that surrounded modern people – mirroring and modeling that made them feel like robots themselves.

            Since the coming of the digital age, people have developed other solutions for dealing with the problems of living in modern technological society.  They have developed ways to create new kinds of configurations of stimuli for their fields of experience.  New kinds of reality.

            Two of the new kinds of reality are related.  Virtual reality is a temporary replacement of conventional reality.  Virtual reality is created by projecting pure defined discrete digital stimuli into an experiential vacuum.  It is an alternate reality that temporarily fills our field of experience.  Some examples of this are medical simulation to practice a surgery, flight simulation, war simulation, and simulation of new homes for prospective buyers.  Of course, there are always video games, particularly multi-player video games.  All of these realities are ones in which a person temporarily immerses himself in an alternate world, a vacuum world devoid of the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that give phenomena substance and that create richer more nuanced backdrops.  But because of the lack of this kind of stimuli, a person experiences himself in a world that is free from the organic perishability that goes together with a sense of mortality.

            Augmented reality is a variation on virtual reality in which a technologically-created alternate reality coexists side by side with conventional reality in order to enhance it.  Google Glass gives information about phenomena as one looks at them.  At the same time, Google Glass takes pictures, finds directions with GPS and gives a person access to his e-mails.  With augmented reality, a person is never totally separated from the conventional world of primary experience.  But the alternate reality aspect of one’s field of experience when using augmented reality helps to neutralize the unpredictable and therefore potentially more dangerous aspects of conventional reality.  In this way, one doesn’t experience the perishability aspect of conventional reality while dwelling in it.  One minimizes, but doesn’t eliminate the number of flowing blendable continual stimuli that one experiences while in augmented reality.  Still in minimizing the organic perishability of primary experience in one’s conventional reality, one is also separating oneself from the sense of substance in one’s field of experience, and one is diminishing the possibility of rich vibrant nuanced experiences in his life.

            From a different perspective, reality television is an attempt to bring some kind of surrogate organic grounding to our lives through modern digital technology.  Instead of watching scripted shows, where people feel mediated from the reality of the dramatic situation by the script, in reality television, life – real life, primary experience life – seems to unfold before the viewers’ eyes.  Of course, situations are frequently developed as the premises for the human encounters we see, and these situations magnify the possibility of messy human conflict, of heightened organic friction.  Whether it is young adults living together in a strange city or people living together in a primitive environment, we get to see what appears to be authentic unscripted human life.

            The essential point in this discussion has been that in the last one hundred years, people have been playing around with some different new kinds of reality, because they have basically found their conventional reality to be lacking in some way.  As technology has increasingly taken over human living environments, there has been a loss of the organic grounding that is necessary as a template for making and receiving organic imprints, and, in particular, for a person properly bonding with other people.  There has been a loss of the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that are necessary for rich vibrant experiences, for feeling fully alive as animals.  The fields of experience of human beings have increasingly become vacuum and tension-pocket living environments, environments that alternately understimulate and overstimulate, environments that create sensory distortion.  In order to find organic environments that fill our fields of experience, we have had to recur to the one large space that hasn’t been directly filled with technology: our minds.

            With surrealism and magic realism, painters built worlds with porous boundaries between modern technological conventional reality and more traditional organic reality, such that people could go back and forth between the two realities and try to replant the organic grounding and the organic flowing blendable continual stimuli back in the modern world.  With the surrealists, the more traditional organic reality was the private world of dreams.  With the magic realists, it was the collective world of Latin American magical motifs.

            Surrealism and magic realism were developed at a point in history before the total takeover of our attention spans by screens – television and computer screens.  There was still a sense of greater connection to the organic grounding that remained in human living environments, a greater awareness of the need for organic grounding to function properly as mammalian human beings.  In today’s world, many people try to survive amidst sensory distortion by trying to balance configurations of defined discrete figure stimuli and endless infinite continuous vacuum stimuli; that is, creating a balance among the very sources of stimuli that create sensory distortion.  These are the people who embrace virtual reality and augmented reality.

            There is also the attempt to obtain grounding by identifying with characters in reality television shows.  Reality television is an attempt to create heightened surrogate primary experience through the mediation of a television screen.  It is much more mediated than the immediate sensory experience of a surrealist or magic realist painting.  Surrealism and magic realism are explorations of grounded mental states: dreams and magic.  Reality television is an attempt to infuse grounding in the lives of ordinary people who, like their viewers, suffer from the sensory distortion of modern technological society.  But organic friction is artificially  generated through heightened social conflict between the people on the screen, and through heightened conflict with the living environment, which is generated by putting the people on the screen among those extreme primitive natural environments that remain.  Heightened organic friction between people and within primitive natural environments is an attempt to help viewers overcome their own numbness by watching other people attempt to really come alive on reality television.  But television itself is numbing, so the life situations presented on reality television have to project exaggerated tension-filled conflict and stress in order to help viewers feel alive.  This means that the life situations on reality television end up presenting negative tension-pocket static-filled friction rather than the more organic friction that the viewers really crave.

            People today are very concerned about reality, because reality in their daily lives is so off balance as a result of the sensory distortion in modern technological living environments.  Without a lot of readily available organic grounding, the solutions to the discomfort created by the sensory distortion found in living environments can create a reality as off balance as the reality that is readily available.  If we want to return to a more natural reality, we have to find a way of actually regenerating organic grounding in our living environments.  It is organic grounding that humans really are looking for today.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow


Going From Magic To Machines


            In previous articles, there has been considerable discussion of the notion of surrogate immortality.  This is a means by which people deal with their mortality by leaving preserved imprints that will go on existing long after they are dead.  Examples that have been given of such imprints are having a baby, planting a tree, making a work of art, writing a book, creating a business, achieving a record in sports as well as the smaller but not less important intangible imprints of the memories that have been left among the people that have come into contact with the deceased.  All these imprints deal with the sensory and/or cognitive aspects of our fields of experience.  A baby, a tree, and a work of art are all sensory phenomena.  Actually, a baby starts out as a sensory phenomenon, but quickly, as its mind develops, becomes a cognitive phenomenon as it interacts with the people around him.  A sports record is a cognitive phenomenon as a statistic, although it relates to a sensory event.  A book is a sensory object filled with cognitive content, although illustrations and prints provide sensory content in those books where they exist.  A business is based on a cognitive business plan and cognitive strategies, but it frequently involves sensory products or services as well as sensory interactions with people.  Memories of relationships are cognitive thoughts based on sensory experiences.

            There has also been discussion of how the creation of the modern technological world has been a larger means of creating an environment in which preserved human imprints can remain better protected against the perishability that occurs in nature.  From this point of view, the best way to fully preserve both directly and indirectly organic imprints is to put them into technologically-created experiential vacuums where they can exist outside of nature.

            People who have lived in preliterate societies are fully aware of the problems of perishability that they encounter living in more natural environments.  So they have developed other experiential systems for dealing with problems of perishability.  In his book The African Genius, Basil Davidson talks about how people in Africa develop a greater sense of empowerment in their perishable living environments by means of magic and frequently magic as exercised in sorcery and witchcraft.  Sorcery is a force that is external to the person using it, a force that he has to learn how to use.  Witchcraft is a force that resides within a person, a force that the witch can use automatically, even unconsciously.  This is why witches don’t always know who they are and have to be pressured to confess that they are witches.  But there is magic that can be used to defend oneself against the evil powers of sorcery and witchcraft.

            With beliefs like this, nothing that occurs in human existence is explained by chance.  Any occurrence of misfortune is explained by applied magic, and attempts are made to find the person who used magic to create the misfortune.  Translated, this represents the flows of mysterious flowing blendable continual stimuli to transform experiences and events in human life.  They are nonmeasurable mental stimuli, but to the preliterate tribespeople who believe in them, they give these tribespeople what appear to be as strong a sense of psychological control and mastery over the phenomena in their fields of experience as the people in modern technological society obtain with their machines.  It is the means by which people who live in perishable traditional organic environments, who are still immersed in the flowing blendable continual sensory stimuli of these environments, obtain a psychological sense of power and control over their living environments.  It does not matter that these tribespeople are not able to manoeuver much, shift much, change much in objective physical terms when destructive experiences and events occur in their fields of experience.  What matters is that they have developed mental systems that interpose them, the tribespeople, as active agents generating explanations and solutions for situation, where the intersubjective causal agency that they ascribe for what is happening is not obviously apparent in the sensory world.

            The preliterate tribesperson with his magic, experiences himself or other human beings as being in control over the happenings in his external environment much like the modern technological person does in his environment.  And the preliterate tribesperson experiences this without having destroyed so much of his natural living environment.

            Nevertheless, there are some differences between the organic imprints left by preliterate tribespeople and the organic imprints left by people in modern technological society, and perhaps these differences can help to explain why some groups of people evolved over time from more traditional preliterate societies to modern technological societies.

            The imprints of magic occur primarily in the form of mental experiences that do not lend themselves to verification in the external world.  When a sorcerer puts a curse on a person, and the person dies, does the person die because he has directly experienced the effects of the curse or because he and the sorcerer participate in a collective belief system wherein curses from sorcerers are supposed to have strong magical powers that can cause people to die.  There is a blurriness here, a lot of flowing blendable continual mental stimuli that make it hard to separate internalized mental experiences from externalized physical events.  As a result, there is a blurriness to the imprints that appear to be preserved.  There is a coherence to the flow of the magical action, but there is not so much crisp definition.  The magical action can be seen as an intersubjective event that participants agree has occurred, but not as an objective event that has actually occurred in the external world, where the definitions of the action can be easily ascertained.

            Furthermore, without verifications of an intersubjective event in making an imprint, and without strong definition of the imprint, it becomes much more difficult to preserve the imprint with certainty.  When the imprint is primarily in minds, it becomes much easier to wipe out or modify the imprint with the countervailing imprint of another person’s magic that can wipe out or modify the original magic spell.  The flowing blendable continual stimuli of the defensive magic wipes out or modifies the flowing blendable continual stimuli of the original spell.

            There is a blurriness to these magical imprints which leads some people to find other fields of experience in which to be able to leave more crisp and, therefore, more defined organic imprints.  Technology is a way of bringing the focus of imprint making from the more blurry continual world of intersubjective mental experiences to the more crisp discrete world of objective events. Technology deals with hard sensory phenomena that can be touched and therefore verified in terms of their existence.  Furthermore, technological imprints can be conceptually built upon one another.  Whereas magic is conservative and does not tend to lead to the development of new more effective modalities of magic, technology is progressive in that one invention leads to the possibility for another inventor to come up with the idea of either a significant modification or else a completely new invention altogether.  The flow of technological thinking allows for the possibility for many more people to leave crisp new imprints through technological development.

            Furthermore, the opportunity to leave crisp discrete imprints through technological development acts to stimulate a greater defined consciousness.  In other words, experiencing crisp discrete imprints acts to stimulate our capacity to absorb other discrete phenomena, wakes us up out of the more blurry continual consciousness associated with the more blurry phenomena connected with nature as well as with magic, sorcery and witchcraft.  What we create, what we surround ourselves with, both physically and mentally, subtly helps to create who we become and who we are.  And so those preliterate tribespeople who, at some point in our faraway past, started the slow trek through various stages of civilization until arriving at our modern technological society, not only created increasingly crisp discrete imprints as the technology evolved, but also an increasingly crisp discrete consciousness of the world.

            However, this is still just one side of the story.  Gradually as technology has, as it were, covered over nature and natural surfaces, there are fewer and fewer organic surfaces on which to make new imprints.  The technology has enabled us to effectively preserve imprints from the past, but it is now gradually impeding our capacity to leave significant new non-technological imprints.  And as there are fewer and fewer organic surfaces left and fewer and fewer organic phenomena and fewer and fewer blurry flowing blendable continual stimuli left in living environments, our new imprints may continue to be defined, but they suffer from so much definition and so little coherence, they begin to fragment.  And our consciousness, of course, fragments as well from the lack of blurry flowing blendable continual stimuli that are needed to stimulate more coherence in it.  So our journey in technological development has now taken us to the opposite experiential problem from that experienced by those preliterate tribespeople who started the long slow trek to technological development.  But the one thing we can say is that we are at a point where further technological development will not lead to improvements in organic human imprints and improvements in human consciousness.  Quite the contrary!


© 2015 Laurence Mesirow

Service with A Robot Smile

            A lot of the use of robots in our modern labor market has centered up until now on performing work related to products: manufacturing and warehousing.  But it was inevitable that robots were going to creep more and more into the service industries.  A new hotel in Nagasaki, Japan intends to make androids a significant part of the staff.  Adrian Bridge in his article for The Telegraph, “Robots to serve guests in Japanese hotel” (Feb. 3, 2015) discusses the Henn-na Hotel (which appropriately means “strange hotel” in Japanese).  Among the categories of workers that will be robots are reception desk workers, porters, housekeeping staff and a cloakroom attendant.  The article says that many of the robots resemble a young Japanese woman.  If this means that it will be the same Japanese woman robot over and over again, that would be pretty spooky.  These Japanese woman robots will be able to speak Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English.  They will also be able to gesture with their hands, move their eyes in a human way and smile.  They belong to a group of highly developed androids called “actroid” androids.

            The hotel where these androids will work is situated in the middle of a theme park that looks like a Dutch town.  In addition, the hotel is surrounded by nature.  There will be along with the androids, 10 human staff members.  The theme park is hopeful that if the hotel is successful, another hotel will open in 2016, and after that, others could be opened in Japan and around the world.

            A hotel is required to deal with small intimate details in order to satisfy a customer.  The commercial entities that it sells are not discrete pre-made product categories that can easily be reduced to a series of pre-programmed potential interactions for the androids.  The commercial entities that it sells are spontaneous interactions.  The commercial entities that it sells are nuanced flowing blendable continual interactions with customers, who often have special needs based on anxieties about travel, desires to maintain unique lifestyle routines even away from home, and a need to use service staff as surrogate family, friends and even therapists.  Sometimes a member of a hotel staff has to deal with an unusual crisis. What if a guest suddenly becomes sick and requires first aid and/or a doctor or even an ambulance.  Well, we might say, this is where the human staff members come in.  But with only 10 human staff, what if they are involved in other important tasks?  What if they are in meetings?  What if by the time they would get to the guest, the guest had already become very sick as with a stroke or a heart attack?  And what if a guest needs CPR or the Heimlich manoeuver?

            There are so many different unique flowing blendable continual situations which require nuanced decision making.  These unique situations can’t possibly be effectively programmed as formal categories of life situations that would require certain discrete formulaic operational responses.  All a robot can do is to try and take whatever problem situation with which a human may present him and fit that situation into one of the discrete problem situation categories with which it has been programmed for an operational response.  It would appear to me that what could arise would be similar to having a computer translate a text into another language.  The computer has been programmed to translate the formal denotation of a word, but is going to have trouble picking up when certain connotations come into play.  The result is translations that can be bewildering or even ludicrous.

            There is an additional major problem involved in using android service employees.  Because of all the nuances involved in the services that can be requested by a hotel guest, there is something much more intimate involved here than using robots for blue collar work.  It may be a shallow bond, but a kind of bonding does take place in the interaction between a guest and a hotel employee.  The hotel employee is there to take care of you, to take care of your wants and needs.  The employees at the front desk try to match your special requests for an ideal preferred room with the rooms that are available.  The employees in room service have to deal with requests for meals that aren’t on the menu and that can involve very special details.  Handling properly these special requests from guests is not a programmable science.  Rather, it is an art.  So what does it mean to interface with complex behavioral entities (namely, androids) who are there to respond to your human wants and needs, but who can do so only in a very imperfect way?

            There are similarities between this kind of interfacing and some of the interfacing that has been discussed in previous articles with other kinds of robots.  I am talking here about how robots are being developed as companions for humans – in particular, the very young and the very old.  With children, robots are being programmed to be educators and caretakers.  With the elderly, robots are being programmed to do housekeeping tasks and to help take care of health tasks like distributing medicine at the appropriate times.  I have discussed how this kind of interfacing with respect to more intimate human tasks sets up subtle relationships where the robot mirrors back to the human the human’s defects in imitating the smooth crisp discrete defined angular efficient actions of the robot.  At the same time, the robot acts as a model for how the human should behave in the future.

            Now obviously the intensity of the bonding and therefore the degree of individual influence is not going to be great between a human hotel guest and an android hotel service provider.  But what is diminished in terms of intensity is more than made up for by the pervasiveness of the robots in different sections and activities of the hotel.  The modalities of robot activity are spread out through a relatively large swath of the human hotel guest’s field of experience.  With robot companions, there is frontal mirroring and modeling – the human is influenced as a result of his direct face-to-face interaction with the robots.  But in a situation like the Henn-na Hotel, the robot activity can literally surround the hotel guest and influence him more easily preconsciously on the periphery of his field of experience.  The mirroring and modeling influences can enter a hotel guest’s mind when he is not directly paying attention.

            And this kind of enveloping experiential influence by android service providers may not be limited to hotels in the not-so-distant future.  Robot staffing in shops, department stores, restaurants, amusement parks, zoos and nightclubs.  Why not?  It would certainly be more economical for the owners and management.  No need for salaries, wages, health benefits, pension plans.  But apart from the fact that an awful lot of people would be put out of work, the effect of having a pervasive presence of robot service providers would be enormous.

            There would be an enormous growth not only in frontal encounters with androids but also in peripheral awareness of them and their behavior and their activities.  With the peripheral experiences of androids, there would be ongoing mirroring and modeling from them, even for those humans whose direct frontal encounters with them would only occupy a small portion of their day.  In other words, the boundaries between what constitutes a human and what constitutes an android would become more and more blurred.  People would become influenced by the presence of so many androids in their fields of experience, much the way that non-smokers can experience health problems from secondary smoke.

            This is why I view the opening of the Henn-na Hotel with such concern.  If it is the harbinger of a lot of things to come, the way its developers want it to be, it could have an enormous influence on the evolution of the human sense of self.

 (c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow