In a recent article, I explored at length how immersing oneself in the world of modern technology puts a person into a world that is totally free of organic perishability and thus numbs that person to the possibility of death. I also discussed how constantly living in a world of experience that separates a person from the possibility of death, makes death a particularly scary experience for which the person is totally unprepared. Death becomes a foreign experience that is magnified as a result of the relative lack of direct contact with it and particularly in a natural environment. Hence, the rise in modern existential despair and the modern dread of death.
However, my good friend Dr. Jorge Cappon, professor emeritus at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and well known psychoanalyst, has pointed out to me that there are two forms of symbolic death that occur in the modern technological world that do have an impact on people: the planned obsolescence of machines and the deletion of e-mails. This observation is the starting point for my renewed exploration of the relationship between technology and death. In this article, I will discuss some of the effects of symbolic technological death on people.
The first form of symbolic technological death to be considered here is the planned obsolescence of machines. Modern machines may be potentially immortal, because of the potential use of replaceable parts to keep them going indefinitely. But they are designed to stop working well after a certain amount of use, so that companies can make money selling new models to customers. One could say that these machines die metaphorically. And because most of these machines are not biodegradable, death for them means the cessation of function rather that the cessation of form. Yes, parts of the machine could corrode or rust, and the machines may even break apart or become misshapen. But, for the most part, the material substance is maintained and some if not all aspects of the material form are maintained. The machines are highly defined figures that are not built to completely undifferentiate and merge again with the organic grounding from which they came. Many times they are taken to junk yards. Sometimes different parts of these defunct machines are salvaged and recycled for use in other machines. But, for the most part, these machines are condemned to exist in the purgatory of continued material existence in some form with no continued use as coherent entities. In the junk yard, they become a part of a tension-pocket of discarded disjunctive defined discrete material entities that have no organic or mechanical connection to one another and that float in what for humans is an experiential vacuum.
This represents a model for humans of a death that is not really death, because the machine cannot truly undifferentiate and degrade back into the organic grounding. Planned obsolescence leads to the immortal but lifeless existence of permanent hulks cluttering the face of the earth without ever reuniting with the soil of the earth.
Another model for death takes a very different path of ceasing to exist. Rather than existing without living forever, this other model is one where an entity instantaneously totally ceases to exist. I’m talking about the deletion of e-mails. The average person has no feel for what happens when he deletes an e-mail. The e-mail simply disappears into a vacuum, into nothingness. There is definitely no process of organic decay. There is no becoming one with the earth again in such a way that the substance of the entity can be used to create new organisms, new living figures. The e-mail does not participate in the ongoing flow of life in such a way that it can make and preserve organic imprints in other life forms. The e-mail simply ceases to exist, having left no permanent imprint in the person’s field of experience. If planned obsolescence is a metaphor for a person’s body being forever lifeless and forever intact, a free-floating figure that ends up a part of a tension-pocket of disjunctive junk in a junk heap, a deleted e-mail is a metaphor for a person’s body disappearing into a non-material universe, an experiential vacuum where everything is totally annihilated. How does a person wrap his mind around total non-existence?
There is actually one other kind of entity that serves as the basis of two metaphors for death from within modern technological society. This entity is the television program. A television program metaphorically dies in two ways. It dies when a person turns off the television, either during or after the program. When a person turns off a television program, at that moment, the program totally ceases to exist within the viewer’s field of experience. It disappears within an experiential vacuum. Another form of program death is when a program series dies when the last episode shows. Granted the program can go into reruns, but the viewer is no longer living with the characters in the same way in an unfolding imitation of life time; living within the characters’ lives, as if he was actually part of the program, as if he had an alternate life narrative that was perhaps more exciting, more stimulating than his own. One can watch a television series on Netflix or DVD’s, but it is not the same as an alternate life narrative, because a person can see the last episode first if he wants to. And often a person has been told or has read or has even seen how the series ends by the time he has access to it on Netflix or DVD’s.
At any rate, television programs are vacuumized life, not real primary experience life, and that explains how one can turn off a program so instantly with no signs of a foreshadowed decaying or cessation of existence. There is something in television programs that trivializes the flow of life, by vacuumizing it and being able to simply turn it on and off on a machine. And yet many people find their own lives so vacuumized, so empty as a result of living in modern technological society, that they feel more alive living vicariously in their favorite vacuumized television series. Which is why when the spell is broken and the series ends and the characters totally cease to exist in real life time with no physical remains, no organic decay, it is a cessation of existence that can leave the viewer as empty or emptier than before he started watching the show.
So there is definitely a paradox here with regard to the phenomena a person encounters in his field of experience in modern technological society. On one hand, the structures created in our modern world, whether material or electronic, do provide a sense of permanence and a sense of transcendence over the natural world of organic perishability. So that being surrounded by these phenomena, we can trick ourselves psychologically into thinking that we have escaped the influences of organic perishability and even our own organic mortality.
But although we do escape reminders of our full organic mortality, as a result of living apart from nature, we don’t escape confrontations with the cessation of existence. When a machine breaks down and ceases to operate, it is as if its machine life has up and left it, leaving behind a material hulk that never decays back into the earth where it can be reincarnated into a different material phenomenon. The machine breaking down is a scary metaphor for death. It is a metaphor for the brain dead people who are in a coma and kept alive indefinitely by modern medical technology. A brain dead person is a lifeless hulk of a person who has lost his capacity for consciousness. Such a state of existence represents a kind of a living death. And what about an old machine that can function a little, move a little, but is useless for the kind of serious work for which it is created. Compare this with a person who is partly conscious but can’t speak, can’t move and thus basically can’t communicate or function by himself.
It would be harder to find any kind of human metaphors for the deletion of an e-mail. Or anything else on a computer. What does it mean for a phenomenon in cyberspace to cease to exist? For one thing, no readily accessible remains can be found by the average computer user. Yes, there are people who can recover deleted e-mails, but most people experience the deletion of an e-mail as the total cessation of existence of the e-mail. There is no corpse left, no hulk or piece of junk left. Just nothingness. Total nothingness is pretty scary for a person in modern technological society trying to deal with his own future non-existence. In truth, it is much scarier than an organic death, and gradual disintegration into the soil.
There is a good metaphor for the human images we see on a screen. Yes, those are images of real humans on the screen (except the virtual ones), but the total experiential effect of images on a screen is that of vacuumized humans, humans without substance, humans without breadth, humans without tactile qualities. As vacuumized humans, they come off to us as ghost-like phenomena. Spirits from another world. Television is a vacuumized space that lacks substance much like the spirit world. So there is a sense in which we are not participating in our own primary experience real world, when we immerse ourselves in the world of television. And when a popular television series is over, and the images of our favorite characters vanish from our fields of experience like ghosts, we realize that we have emotionally committed ourselves to an ungrounded world, where we have pulled ourselves out of the flow of real primary experience life and the flow of blendable continual stimuli that stimulate us to life as the animals that we are. The flow of blendable continual stimuli that act as the foundation for the organic imprints we make, receive and preserve, the rich vibrant life experiences we are capable of having and the surrogate immortality we create as the comforting preparation for death. Spending too much time living with ghosts interferes with our capacity to live the kind of life that can diminish our fear, our despair over death.
Dr. Cappon was right in pointing out that there are symbolic deaths created by technology in modern technological society. So our fear of death comes from both our distancing ourselves from death through the solid technological structures among which we live as well as through the distorted forms of cessation of existence and of partial existence created through the functioning of modern technology. Some people will try to escape death by becoming cyborgs, and that has been discussed in previous articles. But for most people, the sensory distortion among which they live will have a serious effect on their ability to confront the possibility of their own mortalities. It will lead to the existential despair and the dread of death that is the hallmark of people living within an increasingly present technological mantel that covers their lives.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow