Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Uses Of Addictive Behavior To Feel Alive

            Recently I have seen many articles in the newspapers about the growing use of more serious drugs (like heroin and methamphetamine) in the United States.  And not just among poor people who one could simply write off as people who live in so much despair that drugs become a way of redirecting their consciousness.  Heroin and methamphetamine are being used by all sectors of the population. And what makes these two drugs such a cause for concern is that they are so physically addictive.  They both can get a person addicted the first time he uses them.  And in both cases, the addiction can be lethal.

            So why are people risking their lives to achieve the altered mental states created by these drugs.  Ordinary middle class people are doing them.  It seems to me that these drugs are part of a larger problem that has been previously discussed in this column.  People today are suffering the effects of the technological transformation of their environment.  Technology has created living environments that have patches or aspects that are overstimulating and vast areas that are understimulating.  In the past, I have used the name “vacuum and tension-pocket environments”.  Human beings have searched to find ways to use technology to create safe frictionless living environments that exist above and apart from the organic perishability of nature.  In the process, they create waste products like crowded noisy polluted urban spaces.  As a result of these sensorily distorted living spaces, people feel alternately numb from understimulation and jaded from overstimulation.  They experience themselves as floating in an experiential vacuum filled with pockets of abrasive static stimuli.  People have lost their grounding in nature and in more traditional organic living environments like villages, and, as a result, they have lost their grounding in themselves.  They have little or nothing to hold onto in themselves to help them form and maintain coherent organic senses of self.  Loss of grounding leads to a loss of feeling, leading to the search for experiences that heighten and focus their sensations with what is commonly called kicks.  Heroin and methamphetamine may ultimately kill people, but while they are being used, they pull people out of what they experience as the living death of sensory distortion.

            Concerned people today focus major attention on heroin and methamphetamine, because they are so obviously physically and psychologically destructive.  But there are many different kinds of addiction that have evolved to help people survive their loss of grounding in their vacuum and tension-pocket living environments.  Often the word habituation is used today in discussing many psychological dependencies.  Yet in other situations, people do talk about addiction to gambling and to sex.  So for the purposes of this article, which is to show some common causes for many disparate forms of behavior, I am going to use the word addiction even for psychological dependencies.

To deal with many of these addictions, one approach has been to develop programs  which are modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous.  Apart from alcoholics and drug addicts, there are programs for gamblers, sexaholics and overeaters among others.  Gambling like alcohol can be done in moderation without causing any harm to the people who engage in it.  But for people who are addicted, both gambling and alcohol can be eliminated from their lives without any harmful side effects.  Gambling is such a destructive addiction, because people can end up financially depleted and families can be destroyed.  Alcohol, in sustained excess, causes serious health problems.

            Sexaholism is at least partly caused by the general approval of sexual freedom in modern technological society.  Having many partners is encouraged among young people by modern culture.  It is supposedly part of exploring one’s sexuality and learning about oneself.  It is also, as has been discussed previously in this column, a way of getting organic sensory variety to compensate for the lack of organic sensory variety in modern technological living environments.  In effect, free love becomes a substitute for nature and traditional architecture.  Sex becomes an addiction when one needs a constant kick from it to pull oneself out of the loss of feeling that is generated by the sensory distortion that is a part of modern technological living environments.  This need, of course, impedes the development of a sustained intimate relationship with a partner that can give meaningful emotional grounding and that can provide the foundation for creating a family.  Or if a sexaholic does get married, the condition can eventually lead to the damaging or destruction of the marriage.  A sexaholic can also have problems focusing when he is at work.  Finally, sexaholics are predisposed to getting venereal diseases and sexaholic women are predisposed to having unwanted pregnancies.  However, apart from venereal disease and pregnancy, which don’t affect everybody with this addiction, most of the problems that sexaholics experience are more subtle than those of a drug addict, an alcoholic or a gambler.  Nevertheless, they are problems that can leave him feeling frighteningly alone, living in an emotional experiential vacuum.

            Overeating is an excess of something that is needed in order to physically survive.  It is based on internalizing the experiential vacuum and tension-pocket living environment in order to gain control over it and get rid of it.  One gets rid of the internal vacuum and tension-pocket environment by filling up the stomach with food and drink and thus trying to give oneself internal grounding.  The problem is that the emptiness of the stomach is not the real problem.  It is rather the sensory distortion of the external living environment which has been internalized.  The person is empty of the experiential grounding that is needed, in the same way food and drink are needed by the human body.  And because the external living environment is so vast, one can never eat enough food to effectively fill up the internalized version of it.  Which is why the person suffering from overeating keeps eating and eating and gets fat.  The mass of fat is a defense against the sensory distortion the person is experiencing.

            But then a person who develops a defense against the sensory distortion can develop defenses against the defense.  One defense against overeating is to develop bulimia and to start forcing oneself to throw up his food.  Another defense is to start eating very, very little and become anorexic.

            And then there are other emotional states that are not normally considered addictions to the extent of the conditions that we have just been talking about.  Does the accumulation of things constitute an addiction?  It doesn’t affect a person’s health the way drugs, excess alcohol and overeating do.  It doesn’t usually lead to total impoverishment or the destruction of families the way that gambling does.  It doesn’t directly lead to deficient relationships the way that being a sexaholic does.  And yet we can say that certain kinds of relentless accumulation of things can indicate emotional problems.  A symptom of such a problem is if a person can only obtain a brief sense of pleasure from an acquisition and then returns to feeling empty from being in an experiential vacuum.  The person jumps from acquisition to acquisition looking for a new island of grounding in his vacuum and tension-pocket field of experience and always being disappointed.  And each failed attempt at grounding with a new possession leaves a person feeling emptier than before the acquisition, because he lets down his defense of numbness to embrace the new acquisition.

            Sometimes the accumulation is a generalized accumulation of lots of different things.  Sometimes it focuses on one kind of item.  Clothes, jewelry, art objects, books, or cars.  The accumulation of one kind of thing leads to the formation of a collection.  Not all collections can be called the foundation for an addiction.  If a person can obtain a sustained pleasure from his whole collection, and if individual items within the collection can continue to provide pleasure over time, then we can say that the collection does provide a kind of surrogate grounding, a miniaturized grounding that acts as an attempt to substitute for a real grounding in a more natural living environment, and is not a true addiction.  It is only when a person jumps from one acquisition to another, building up his collection, and yet not sustaining his interest and pleasure in individual items enough to have a sustained interest in his group of objects as a collection, that we can say that the person has a kind of addiction.  And, in truth, because there is not enough sustained interest in his collection as a whole, we can say that the person does not fully experience his collection as a collection.  Because the person cannot sustain interest in individual objects or his collection over time, the person has a desperate need to fill his internal vacuum and tension-pocket living environment by buying more and more new objects.  Sometimes, the person runs out of room for his objects in his residence.

            Another perspective on this relates to the kind of value a person places on what he acquires.  If a person acquires something and truly values that object for its intrinsic merits, then that object can be a part of a surrogate grounding for the person.  If the person acquires an object primarily because of an immediate rush of stimulation that it gives, a rush that can quickly dissipate, then that object can be part of an acquisition addiction.  The latter kind of object is acquired for its instrumental value, for its immediate effect on the acquirer, rather than for its intrinsic value, for a sustained appreciation of the object.

            Instrumental value acquisitions are, among other things, the basis of conspicuous consumption in modern technological society.  One buys clothes, for example, not merely because of a true sustained appreciation of them, but because of the status that is acquired as a result of wearing the clothing of certain styles and certain labels.  But because what constitutes fashion is so ephemeral, and clothing acquisitions can go out of style quickly, a person can become addicted to constantly buying new clothing to stay in fashion.  There is little sustained intrinsic value in most fashion items.

            The conspicuous consumer has the delusion that by buying the right objects, he will gain status and acceptance and grounding with the group of people of which he wants to be a part.  But it can never be a stable grounding, because one always has to buy new fashionable objects, in particular, clothes, in order to demonstrate that he still deserves to be considered a part of the group.  The so-called grounding is so shallow that missteps, particularly with the clothing, can lead to being frozen out of the group.

            And then there is the addiction that all capitalist societies seem to encourage to some extent and that is an addiction to money.  Without a certain amount of money, one can’t be a conspicuous consumer.  However, money is by no means necessarily intrinsically a basis for addiction.  It is the medium by which people in modern societies conduct their economic transactions.  But it becomes an addiction for many people in modern society who see it as a means for defending themselves against the sensory distortion of the vacuum and tension-pocket living environment in which they reside.  For such people, they can never have enough money, even when they are already wealthy.  For them, it is not only using that money to buy more and more new products and services.  It is having that money as something to which they can cling, something tangible that they can try to use as grounding to defend themselves against the sensory distortion they experience.

            In truth, we can say that the loss of organic grounding created by modern technological society predisposes the development of all kinds of addictions and not just the obvious ones of drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and overeating.  Granted that the well-known addictions are the most obviously destructive, but conspicuous consumption and an addiction to money are harmful to the extent that they leave a person stressed, anxious and depressed, because he isn’t addressing the real need of which he needs to take care – the need for organic grounding.

(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow

We’re Losing The Opportunities To Engage The World

            A very interesting model that has been created to describe the history of technological development is one that perceives this history as being punctuated by different technological revolutions.  According to this model, up until now, there have been four of these revolutions.  The first one was based on the development of steam power and mechanical production.  The second was marked by the use of electricity and the development of assembly lines in factories.  The third revolution was impelled forward by the creation of computers and digital technology.  The fourth and most recent one is founded on the development of smart computer-based systems for both the factory and the home.  In the factory, these systems automate many factory processes by having different machines work together in networks to produce products that can be both easily customized and also made with fewer defects.  People will no longer be needed for the supposedly boring repetitive manufacturing tasks, and instead can focus on skilled management and even on creative input.  In the home, the Internet of things connects different devices to supposedly make daily life for humans as comfortable and efficient as possible.

            The major criticism that has been directed against the fourth revolution focuses on employment.  There are those who feel that automation could conceivably lead to a loss of jobs for humans.  That didn’t happen at a factory that creates controllers (the boxes that contain the machine brains for factories) in Amberg, Germany.  However, according to an article in Newsweek by Rose Jacobs, “Rise of Robot Factories Leading ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ ” (3/5/15), the increase in efficiency probably prevented other factories from being built to make the same products.

            I am definitely concerned about how automation can create a loss of employment opportunities.  If machines displace people, then those people have no easy means for economic survival or for building a strong economic future.  But the main focus of my column is on how people are affected experientially by technological change.  Although technological change has done so much to secure the place of the human species in the world and has created impressive consumer products and services, by the same token, each new industrial revolution has created technology that has acted as a further wedge between humans and their natural environment, a field of experience where people can directly sensorily interact with their living environment, have rich vibrant life experiences, make, receive and preserve organic imprints, and prepare for death with a surrogate immortality of their preserved organic imprints. 

 The First Industrial Revolution created machines that changed the way that people worked. Machines operated on the basis of defined discrete angular rhythms, the rhythms of behavioral entities that were relatively free from the flowing blendable continual organic rhythms that humans and animals had operated on from within themselves.  People working in factories had to adapt to the rhythms of these machines, and this proved very stressful. In addition, employers worked the workers hard like machines and kept them in miserable conditions.  The workers and the machines of the First Industrial Revolution increased the output of goods, but more organic craft skills were diminished in importance as a result.  These early machines were powered by steam, and by freeing human beings from direct interaction with primary materials, they were experienced by humans as free-floating figures operating in a vacuum and tension-pocket environment.  Areas of understimulation from the monotonous repetition of the machine processes filled with pockets of overstimulation from the friction of the moving parts.  Getting a lot of work done without constant physical participation by humans in all aspects of the work process.  Because humans didn’t participate so directly in all aspects of the work process, they experienced themselves as having been put to a certain extent in an experiential vacuum.  Which is what humans wanted, because it meant that they were separating themselves from the organic perishability of the natural living environment.  They were no longer directly grappling so much with basic tools, other artifacts and products.

            In the Second Industrial Revolution, electricity became the major source of energy and mass production techniques were developed.  Whereas steam power had become a more focused defined discrete source of energy than the organic nutrients used to power humans and animals, electricity became an even more focused defined discrete source of energy than steam.  Assembly line work became a more efficient form of human energy output.  By reducing their work processes to a few relatively simple steps within a larger process, humans were able to increase the efficiency involved in their work involvement.  But by focusing on just a few basic steps, there is a sense in which humans became machine-like themselves.  In assembly line work, humans were no longer involved in leaving their own organic imprints.

            In the Third Industrial Revolution, computers and digital technology were developed.  More and more human work became involved with entering a total field of experience of free-floating data, defined discrete images and defined discrete audio and video experiences all within the experiential vacuum represented by a computer screen.  It represented a further separation from the primary experience world of direct human interaction with other humans, with non-machine human artifacts and with more natural environments.

            And now we have the Fourth Industrial Revolution where the Internet of Things allows machines to work with each other and form free-floating figures systems that exist in what is basically a frictionless experiential vacuum living environment for humans.  There are so many layers of machine involvement, whether in the factory, the office, or the home, that the organic imprint of humans in the processes that surround them is very attenuated.  There is less and less opportunity for humans to experience the organic friction needed to feely fully alive, and this is because there is less and less direct grappling with the living environment.

            On the other hand, the Hopi Indians of Northeast Arizona in the U.S. have developed a culture that accentuates some kinds of organic friction, organic imprints and direct grappling with the living environment.  In my last article, I discussed how the Kachinas, the spirit entities of the Hopis, interacted with humans through the Kachina actors that dressed up as Kachinas.  The Kachinas, through the conduct of the Kachina actors, stimulated the flow of life over generations, not only of humans but of other animals and of plants as well.  The Kachinas did this through the intense primary experience interactions they generated in their encounters with humans. 

            Other preliterate tribes have had other mechanisms by which they have stimulated the flow of life in humans.  One noteworthy example is the kula trade of the people of eastern New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands.  The kula trade is not trade in the ordinary sense.  It is rather a system of ritualized exchanges where traders from one tribe exchange items with members of another tribe on whose island they have landed.  It is more like ritualized mutual gift-giving.  Furthermore, each side of the transaction gives the other side objects they already possess.  The gifts get passed along a ring of islands in southeast Melanesia (the group of islands where New Guinea and the Trobriand Islands are located).  Red shell necklaces are passed along in exchange going clockwise in the ring of islands and white shell bracelets are passed along the ring of islands counterclockwise.  Someone is successful in the kula trade if he can execute a lot of exchanges.  Necklaces for bracelets, bracelets for necklaces.  This is definitely not trade in the ordinary sense.  These exchanges do not lead to profit in the ordinary sense.  They lead instead to intangible gains for the trader.  Social prestige that comes from the quality and size of his trade network.  And the canoe trips between islands are dangerous, and require preparation.  So successful canoe trips where the travelers come back safe have to also be part of the package that leads to consideration for prestige by others.

            This ritualized gift giving serves several related purposes.  Giving a gift is a way of making an imprint on someone.  Giving several gifts over time to someone who gives back gifts in return and thus forming an ongoing relationship as a result creates the means for mutually making, receiving and preserving organic imprints.  Having these relationships over a large geographic area creates an extensive experiential grounding for people.  Making these trips and having adventures in the process leads to the development of an interesting varied life narrative.

            In other words, the kula trade satisfies a whole bunch of fundamental human needs that each succeeding industrial revolution has inadvertently worked to repress.  The kula trade creates a whole rich flow of primary experience.  The four industrial revolutions have sought to repress this flow of primary experience in order to protect humans from organic perishability.  But humans are becoming so increasingly protected, that they are living less and less in any traditional sense.  All the traditional hall marks: organic imprints, flow of primary experience, rich vibrant individual life experiences and rich life narratives are disappearing.  So those who look with excitement at the appearance of each new industrial revolution should be a little more cautious in their excitement.  Particularly the fourth industrial revolution is threatening to shut people out not only of opportunities for working and making a living, but also from having a well-lived meaningful life.

(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow