Monday, November 21, 2016

One Reason That Trump Won The Election

            Trump!  Trump!  Trump!  That’s practically the only story that is being discussed by the news analysts in the United States these days.  And it’s practically the only story that is being discussed by my friends in Chicago.  Everybody is in disbelief.  How did this happen?  This man who comes across as a narcissistic, vulgar, offensive, racist, sexist shapeshifter, a man who shocks his audiences by constantly putting on new faces for them and constantly modifying and contradicting things he had previously said.

            News analysts are explaining the Trump election surprise by suggesting that the fundamental problem was that the established Democratic and Republican power structures had simply not taken into sufficient consideration the anger of white working class men, who saw their jobs going overseas as a result of the multinational trade agreements or else being taken over by machines and robots and who felt that the principal beneficiaries of these economic changes were the very wealthy.  I share this analysis as far as it goes.  Trump has focused on the issue of economic policy, although he has not come up with any specific solutions.

            But I feel very strongly that the content of Trump’s message was not the only level on which he seduced people to take up his cause.  As people who have regularly read my column know, I am very interested in the way people experience life situations.  And the way his supporters experience Trump tells us a lot not only about Trump himself, but also about his supporters.

            To some of us, the fact that Trump was constantly switching his positions on many different issues and that he was constantly finding novel outrageous ways to attack his opponents and other people was a really indicative sign of his lack of emotional stability.  Was this the kind of person one would want to have as the person who could determine whether or not the U.S. would use a nuclear bomb?  But what us skeptics did not understand was that what we found to be concerning, a lot of other people found to be delightful.  This second group of people liked Trump’s vulgar, offensive, outrageous comments, his threats to put Hillary in jail and to carry out law suits against different imagined enemies.  This second group loved all the media coverage that Trump got for nothing.  They loved the fact that he was always throwing us skeptics off balance and making us angry with his comments.  They loved the fact that he was always adding so much tension, so much friction to normally orderly campaign events.  To his supporters, Trump gave vulgarity, offensiveness and outrageousness a good name.

            And, of course, the news media ate up Trump’s behavior.  Every time Trump changed his position on something or attacked somebody verbally, it became a newsworthy event.  Trump didn’t have to spend a whole lot of money on campaign advertising, because his outrageous behavior drew so much media coverage.  The media paid attention to him the way an audience  would have paid attention to a clown, a magician, or a mud wrestler.  He was simply mesmerizing.

            But it is one thing to pay a lot of attention to someone, and it is another thing to vote for him.  To vote for him is to say you want to see his continued presence in your life.  It is to say that you don’t want the stage act to end for a while.  The truth is that many people in the United States, including the people in the news media, got kicks out of his constantly shifting positions on most things as well as his outrageous attitudes and behavior.  Trump jolted them out of the experiential vacuum in which they live, all the mediated experience in which they were living.  These people spend a lot of time being numb spectators of consumer technological processes on their televisions, computers, and smartphones.  And all those workers who had been displaced by technology and the movement of factory work overseas had another layer of numbing vacuum in which to live: all the unemployment, all the partially employing jobs and all the underemploying jobs.  For numb people like this, what could be more exciting than a presidential candidate who was constantly in people’s faces, a person who acted assertively on his impulses.  To experience Trump is not the same as getting the organic stimulation from a more traditional natural living environment.  Such an environment would give a more sustained source of stimulation that would pull them more completely and more permanently out from their numbness.  But lacking this sustained organic stimulation, people in modern technological society look for quick fixes: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex and risk-taking in general.

            And Trump falls into this category.  He has become a high-risk addiction for many Americans.  And the more changeable he is, the more outrageous he is, the more intense is the kick that he gives.  The more he pulls Americans out of their numbness and their jadedness. The more abrasive and unpredictable he is, the more these people feel the shock, the kick.

            Since winning the election, Trump has been very conciliatory and has pulled back from many of the threats he has made.  He is no longer going to try and lock up Hillary.  He is going to save parts of Obamacare.  And suddenly, Obama is a man who advises him and is a man with whom he wants to continue to confer.

            But Trump is a shapeshifter.  He is constantly reinventing himself.  Right now he wants to pacify all the groups of people he has offended, although as the demonstrators show, he is obviously not succeeding.  Nevertheless, the people who voted for him, believe in him, and believe in him no matter what.  When asked about his offensive behavior or some of his controversial positions, many people defend him by saying that he will change.  He will change all right.  He will change and change again and change again, giving whatever presentation of himself is appropriate for a particular situation.  Such is the nature of a shapeshifter.  And this is what is so worrisome.  He can take some very dangerous positions for the purpose of expediency.  Like verbally attacking certain groups, so that his followers can have their scapegoats.  And he can turn the hatred on and off as is needed.  All for the purpose of solidifying his strongman position by being a supposed savior.

            And, on one level, he is a “savior”, even if it is just for short periods of time.  He is a “savior” by shocking people to life temporarily with his attacks and with his vulgarity, much the way heroin is a “savior” that shocks drug addicts temporarily to life.  So on a certain level, Trump is definitely like an addiction for the people who voted for him.  He pulls them out of their experiential vacuum, their numb lives, with his abrasive attitudes and behavior.  He gives them a stimulation that allows them to feel something strong in their lives.

            The problem with Trump’s election is not just related to Trump himself.  It relates to a good chunk of the American population that connect with him.  And they will continue to be here after Trump’s term or terms in office.  If they continue to exert the influence they did in this election, we could have another disruptive person as president after Trump is gone.  Wouldn’t that be something to look forward to?

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

The Changing Panorama Of Human Artifacts

            The evolution of using things in the external world to obtain food goes back a long way among animals.  Many non-human animals use pre-existing objects in their living environment.  These consist primarily of twigs and rocks.  Twigs can be slightly modified for tool purposes as when a chimpanzee uses a twig to fish out termites from a termite nest. This modification of a twig would constitute a very minimal imprint being made on an object by an animal.   There is not a significant imprint made on the object in its fabrication as a tool.  Furthermore, the products on which these primitive tools are used are forms of food, not another object like a craft product.  The latter would consist of a meaningful made imprint that is worthy of being preserved in and of itself. 

            With the appearance of humans on the planet, we get the first presence of things on which a complex animal both makes and preserves significant imprints.  Stones were struck against other stones to make tools with edges, and these tools included hammers, hand axes, spear parts and blades.  Capuchin monkeys in Brazil strike stones against other stones to produce stone flakes, but then they do nothing with them.  However, the broken stones made by early humans were used as tools for basic survival functions like hunting and preparing food.  They were not for the most part used at that point in human development to create craft products with meaningful made and preserved imprints.

            One major exception of a prehistoric creative product was the cave paintings.  These paintings were made with a combination of rocks, shells, twigs, feathers, brushes of animal hairs and hollow bones to achieve different effects on the walls.  Certainly, this represented an early attempt to make and preserve a product imprint from at least some implements that were made and preserved to be useful in the production of the painting.

            For the purposes of this article, the next span of history that we will talk about covers a period of time that starts when prehistoric humans started to make cave paintings and ends up at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  It’s a long time period, but it represents an ongoing pattern of dealing with human artifacts.  This was a time when people increasingly refined techniques to make and preserve imprints on tools so that these tools could be used to help make and preserve imprints on products.  Because there was no mass production by machines, each tool and each product of the tools had an element of refined craftsmanship.  The person who made the tools was making and preserving his own imprints on the world.  Many times, the person who made the tools was the person who made the products, but eventually, tools and products became separate specializations.  And because the development of the artisan mentality meant that most people had to acquire tools and products from other artisans, market economies were created to allow for the exchange of goods, to allow for people to receive each other’s tool and product imprints.

            With the start of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, a whole different pattern of humans dealing with their artifacts emerged.  Individual innovators designed the machines that were used in the factories.  These inventors were the only people actually involved in making new original imprints with regard to human artifacts.  The people who actually made tools and consumer products were the people who operated the machines, worked on assembly lines, assembling parts to create finished products.  Each new factory product created was a new affirmation of the inventor’s design, a new presentation of the imprint the inventor wanted to make with his machine.  With the creation of the factory system, all the focus turned to the presentation of the established imprints of the mechanical artifact makers.  The imprints of the relatively few innovators distinct from the work of the vast number of factory workers.  Something fundamental had been lost by the factory workers – the opportunity to make and preserve their own imprints through individually crafted artifacts.  The focus in the factories shifted to how much exchange value or money the factory workers could make in order to buy other different consumer artifacts, other already preserved imprints.  Making and preserving new individual imprints among the workers got lost in the factory process.  Only making and preserving already established imprints and receiving other different established imprints remained.

            The workers who participated in this system gave up something very important: an important aspect of their self-worth.  But perhaps even more is going to be lost as the use of 3-D printers starts to grow.  These machines have the capacity to make extremely complex artifacts with only the minimal intervention of a worker who sets the process going.  On the one hand, it is true that in some situations a person can design his own artifact, such as a child designing his own toy.  And that, of course, sounds very creative and very positive.  But the designer is totally separated from the process of constructing the artifact in the external world.  He is totally separated from the process of physically making the imprint in the external world.  There is no focus on his own craftsmanship.  And a lot of people are just going to make a partial imprint from their minds or none at all (if it is a standardized artifact design) and then focus on the imprint they will receive when the 3D printer is done with its operation.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a toy or a gun or a car or even a body organ.  Increasingly, we are going to be moving into an age of very passive consumerism, where our main connection to artifacts is going to be based on receiving them.  Just a minimal participation in the process of constructing them if at all.

            Whereas the process of constructing artifacts was an integral part of preindustrial human participation in the field of experience in the external world, a process that gave a person grounding in the external world, a process that allowed him to feel fully alive and to prepare for death through the imprints he made and preserved, today the average person is left in an experiential vacuum with regard to the artifacts he uses.  His primary connection to artifacts is to take already constructed ones and to use them.  For the most part, he no longer directly makes his tools with his hands, and he no longer directly makes his products with tools.  The exceptions are a relatively few usually professional artisans – people who seem eccentric and anachronistic in relation to the trends of modern life.  Increasingly disappearing is the struggle to put some order to one’s world through the use of basic tools and the creation of other more basic artifacts.  Increasingly disappearing is the possibility of finding the sense of purpose that comes with engaging in this struggle.  We have traveled a long way in our evolution from pre-industrial humans.  The question is if this long way has always been and will always continue to be a uniformly good way.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Waiting On A Mechanical Cloud

            As most people know, Nissan is a Japanese company that produces some of the best automobiles in their particular price range.  Not content to rest on its laurels as a manufacturer of cars, Nissan is venturing into other areas of human mobility with the idea of improving the life of the average person.  One truly astounding device is the Pro PILOT Chair, a self-driving chair that is designed to take all of the discomfort out of waiting in line.  The chair has wheels to move on as well as a camera and sensors that are used to keep the chair at a fixed distance from the chair in front of it.  The chairs wait in a chair line.  When a person’s chair has moved to the front of the line, and it is time for the person to take his turn, he gets out of the chair, and the chair, sensing the loss of the passenger, moves to the back of the line.  This system of chairs is going to be tested at restaurants in Japan in the near future.

            No more spending time waiting long periods while standing on one’s feet.  Think of all the energy that a person can conserve.  And no more having to contend with people pushing you as they try to move forward or people trying to cut into line ahead of you.  Waiting in line becomes a totally orderly frictionless experience.

            Is there anything wrong with feeling more comfortable?  Perhaps, there is.  Standing creates a different mental state from sitting.  It is precisely the low-key discomfort of standing that keeps a person in a state of alertness with an attitude of  “I want to engage a situation and take control of it.”  One has the role of a dormant agent, waiting to spring into action.  It is a role similar to that of a hunter in prehistoric times or in certain preliterate societies.  One follows an animal from a distance and waits for the right moment to attack it.  The ability to wait as a dormant agent becomes a very important component of being successful at obtaining one’s next meal when one is a hunter.

            But one might say, the waiting involved in going on a hunt is part of an exciting adventure filled with meaningful risk.  Man meeting the challenge of his survival.  There is no such adventure, no such challenge in waiting in line at a very busy restaurant.  One is simply waiting in line for the passive consumer experience of a restaurant meal.  If there is meat or poultry involved, the slaughter has already taken place.  But just as one has hopes that the restaurant meal will be a pleasant passive consumer experience, why shouldn’t one expect the waiting component that comes before a meal to be a pleasant passive consumer experience?

            First, although there is no adventure while waiting in line that is analogous to the challenge of the elements in a hunt, there is a potential adventure in talking to some of the other people that are close to one in the line.  People are sometimes more open to one another when they share discomfort.  It is similar to conversations that start up in London about the cold rainy weather that occurs there.  People in line can start to talk about how frustrating it is to wait so long, and then, before you know it, the conversation moves into other areas of life.  Sometimes new friends or acquaintances can be made this way.

            Second, in general, most waiting is a frustration that creates an organic friction inside the person waiting.  And, in general, without organic friction, a person cannot gain the traction to carry on the narrative of his life  Overly frictionless environments make a person numb, incapable of having rich vibrant experiences, of making, receiving and preserving organic imprints, of creating a surrogate immortality as a preparation for death.  Waiting in a smart chair that keeps a precise distance from the chairs in front of and behind it, is simply one more kind of experience that people in modern technological society can have to put them in an increasingly encompassing experiential vacuum.  It is one more kind of experience that can make a person more numb and therefore more passive and therefore more incapable of engaging the world.

            As we continue to make our living environment increasingly frictionless through the application of increasingly advanced forms of modern technology, we become increasingly intolerant of smaller and smaller amounts of friction.  We become more incapable of tolerating any kind of discomfort, and when we want something, we require immediate gratification.  Waiting in line might be one of the last types of life situations that we encounter on a regular basis that produces low but sustained levels of uncomfortable organic friction.

 There is another kind of waiting that people encounter regularly and that is the waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  This kind of waiting occurs in a technological tension-pocket, an abrasive overstimulating situation filled with abrasive static friction that is the result of the juxtaposition of many freely moving, noisy, fumes-emitting machines.  Other cars surround a driver.  One has to be very careful not to hit another car. The noise of other drivers honking can become intolerable. The fumes of so many cars moving slowly and/or stopping in such close quarters can give a person a headache or sinus problems. In general, it is a situation that creates a lot of stress and even physical discomfort in a driver who experiences it.

            But standing in line at a very busy restaurant is usually a much more civilized matter.  The potential restaurant patron is not naturally separated and isolated from other people, the way that a driver is in a car.  He becomes a part of a flowing continual physical corporal movement as he gradually moves up closer and closer to the goal of being seated for his meal.   He can strike up conversations if he wants to.  Usually, other people don’t push or cut into the line.  In addition, the patron has something concrete and enjoyable to which he can look forward.  The waiting can be used to elaborate images of himself enjoying his favorite dishes at the restaurant.  He endows these dishes with the flowing blendable continual stimuli of his fantasies.  And then when the time comes to actually partake of the meal, the elaborated fantasies increase the appreciation of the meal.  But it is the low-level discomfort factor that increases the appreciation derived from the standing in line.  Waiting in a motorized chair in a line of orderly motorized chairs is not going to stimulate that same sustained low-key friction discomfort that leads to the greater appreciation.

            As we continue to develop technology that helps us to deal with what for many people has increasingly become the intolerable experience of waiting, the art of civilized anticipation of the fulfillment of our desires is going to disappear.  People will lose their capacity for elaborated fantasies of the future.  Living for the moment or living in numbness results not only in an incapacity to tolerate any kind of frustration, but also, as a result of this lack of tolerance, in a weakened sense of self with flattened affect.  The kind of thing that leaves a person predisposed to becoming a selfless robot.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Replacement Of Heroes By Robots

            Heroes are a very important part of every society.  They act as a focal point for the members of a society to be inspired to do special good things with their lives.  Most of the time, heroes are thought of as individuals who save other people from danger.  Wartime generals and wartime civilians, as well as ordinary people who go out of their way and sometimes risk their lives in order to save others from danger.  Some real-life heroes are heroes, not because of feats of physical protection, but because of their work in some special peacetime activity: sports, the arts, the sciences, the intellectual world in general, government, law, community activism, social work, and business.  These are all areas where those who excel can act as an inspiration for other people, and thus become their heroes.  There are also mythological heroes: imaginary people who, in the stories of polytheistic religions, interact with gods and frequently perform amazing fantastic feats.  There are folk heroes who are real people that have performed important feats in their real lives, but who frequently have their life stories stretched and amplified into legendary proportions.  Then there are fantasy heroes that aren’t real people and aren’t attached to any community religious beliefs.  Fantasy heroes are entirely fabricated by one or more writers and frequently have unusual superhuman abilities.

            The one thing that all these heroes have in common is that they are, at core, human.  Of course, one may say, they are human.  What else would they be?  Actually, it is true that we sometimes ascribe the term hero to dogs who save their masters from different catastrophic situations.  Mostly though, the term hero has been reserved for humans.  Nevertheless, in our modern age, other complex behavioral entities are being developed to do some beneficial, even heroic tasks, for humans.  In the online magazine, New Atlas (Gizmag), there is an article about some very interesting robots that are being developed to improve human health.  In the article, “World’s first ciliary micro-robots could change the way we take medicine” (9/19/16) by Lynda Delacey, we learn that some South Korean scientists have developed some super fast-moving micro-robots that move directly through the blood stream to bring medicine to those organs for which the medicine has been designated.  No more concerns about an overdose.  No more concerns about systemic reactions to the medicine like nausea or like debilitating the immune systems.  These micro-robots eliminate the protective reactions of the body in dealing with foreign chemicals being introduced inside it.  These micro-robots, that are the size of paramecium and that have methods of transportation similar to paramecium, are carrying out the heroic task of configuring the delivery of medicine to a patient in such a way as to eliminate harmful side effects.

            The micro-robot discussed in this article is an improvement over previous micro-robots because of its speed, its range of movement, and its potential to carry payloads that weigh more to the organs targeted.  After the micro-robots have completed their mission, South Korean scientists plan for them to simply dissolve.  Self-immolation after they have carried out their noble cause.

            What these micro-robots are doing is taking a difficult journey in a human body in order to improve that human’s health.  Preventing a secondary reaction in the body, which reaction can sometimes be as bad as the original health issue.  Preventing the body from turning against itself.  But the journey of the micro-robot has an element of a soldier carrying out a mission behind enemy lines during a war or a relief convoy bringing supplies to civilians during a war.  Perhaps, soon we will have robots that can perform tasks like this.  Robots that carry out secret missions for armies where most or all of the soldiers are robots.  Robots that lead relief convoys of self-driving trucks to bring supplies to civilians that are trapped behind enemy lines.  Tasks that have traditional elicited great admiration in bystanders who have observed them.  Tasks that have frequently led the people who carry out these tasks to be called heroes.  Performing extraordinary tasks for the benefit of people.

            But robots tend to routinize tasks.  And in so doing, robots tend to trivialize tasks.  All the glory will leave a heroic task when robots do it, precisely because they are simply programmed to do it.  They have no choice.  They lack a coherent sense of self to help them to make and refine decisions that are unique to their particular life situation.  A heroic task is considered heroic precisely because a person chooses to do something that is unusually good, often at great risk to himself.

            A decision to perform a heroic task is not simply based on defined discrete signals in a brain telling a person that a certain task is the appropriate task to perform under certain circumstances.  This is because a person is not a machine, and there are flowing blendable continual intangible elements that have to be present in his nature to perform a heroic task, and, if they are present, they have to be primed for action.  This is why, in real life, there aren’t many heroes.  And because there aren’t many, this is why heroes are so valued and cherished.

            Heroes are always putting some aspects of their being at risk.  If not their lives, their reputations.  Cultural heroes put their reputation at risk.  Many artists, composers and writers were laughed at and berated until later on in their lives or after they died, and only then were they appreciated.  Many inventors were laughed at in the initial trials of their inventions, until the inventions became convincingly successful.

            A robot does not have the kind of coherent sense of self to maintain a consciousness that can make heroic decisions.  But as modern technology puts order in the world and makes life more frictionless, there seem to be fewer and fewer situations where heroic decisions are required.  More and more conflict situations either occur anonymously with suicide bombers or remotely with air strikes and drones.  And most people today are too numb and jaded as a result of the sensory distortion from modern technology to either make significant cultural innovations or to be impacted by them.

            But robots are not heroes.  Micro-robots may soon be able to get rid of a lot of human discomfort by regularly getting rid of the side effects that the medicines that they carry to their target organs normally bring.  But by bypassing the global defenses of the human body, they are, in effect, shutting down the integrity of a body’s response to protect itself against foreign invasion.  If an immune system is debilitated, it is because it is in the process of defending a body’s integrity.  And ultimately the integrity, the coherence of a person’s sense of self.  The immune system may become debilitated from the delivery of certain medicines, but the sense of self may become strengthened.  In effect, a person becomes his own hero.

            Probably, there are many readers who feel that temporarily losing control of one’s body and not becoming a hero is a small price to pay for getting rid of the discomfort produced by many modern medicines.  And in today’s world, anything that helps to relieve a person of the terrible side effects of these medicines is considered a real plus.  I am only trying to point out that a very important if subtle price will be paid by people who resort to micro-robots to relieve themselves of the discomfort that comes with certain medical treatments.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Friday, October 14, 2016

When Things Start To Happen In Life

              Causation is an area of thought about which there has been much discussion in philosophy.  It has been sliced up into different sets of categories for different philosophical approaches.  I am interested in causation, because the way we implicitly approach it today determines a lot about the way we view humans and the way we treat them.  So, for our purposes, a new set of categories will be presented here hopefully to shed some new light on human interaction in modern technological society.

            Something is a defined discrete cause when a causal agent neatly impacts the recipient of the effects.  When a bunch of kids are playing baseball in someone’s backyard, and one of the boys accidentally throws a ball through a neighbor’s window, that is an example of defined discrete causation.  The kid who threw the ball is the causal agent of the broken window.  The neighbor is the recipient of the effect.  He is the one who has to deal with the broken glass and with replacing the window.  The causal action is one way.  That is, there is no reciprocal causal action going from recipient to agent that overlaps with the initial causal action.  The neighbor may come outside and scold the kid for being careless, and the neighbor may even try to collect damages from the kid’s father.  But these would be two separate processes that occur after the kid threw the ball through the window.  We are dealing with distinct processes, each of which leaves its own distinct impact on someone.  And within this causal process itself, one person is definitely the agent, and one is definitely the recipient.  And, within this causal process, only the agent is a maker of imprints.  He makes an imprint on the recipient of the causal action, but he also makes an imprint on himself.  Such an imprint, even from an embarrassing action like breaking a neighbor’s window, helps the boy to feel alive.  It becomes a part of the narrative of his life.

            A defined discrete cause is what is usually thought of when experimental scientists are looking at the human field of experience.  The idea that most of what happens in the human field of experience is determined by defined discrete causes is appealing, because it means that human actions can be more easily controlled and manipulated.  And by extension, if the human field of experience can be reconfigured such that most of the human actions in society are defined discrete cause actions, then humans themselves become more susceptible to control and manipulation.

            A flowing blendable continual cause is much more difficult to control and manipulate.  In this causal situation, an agent triggers a response in a recipient or recipients, before he, the agent, is finished completing his causal action.  The response of the recipient impinges on the agent in such a way that it shifts the direction or quality of the agent’s action.  Which, in turn, can affect the direction and quality of the recipient’s response and so on until both the agent’s action and the recipient’s response are completed.  This action and response system accounts for most of the social encounters that people have in everyday life.  It also accounts for many automobile accidents, which is why it is often so difficult to ascribe the degree of blame of each of the parties involved.  In situations like this, the lawyer of each party will try to make the accident appear to be a defined discrete cause accident caused by the other party.

            In flowing blendable continual cause actions, both persons are in truth agents and both are recipients.  Each person is making an imprint or imprints and each person is receiving an imprint or imprints.  There is a blurriness, an imprecision to a flowing blendable continual cause action system, because both the agent and the recipient are initiating flowing, blendable, continual actions that tend to intermingle with and blur into each other.  At the same time, this kind of action is the foundation both of strong bonded relationships between individual humans as well as sustained conflict relationships.  Without these flowing blendable continual cause action systems, there would be no friendship, no romance, no family, no community, no society.  There would also be no disputes, no feuds, no rivals, no enemies. In short, there would be no meaningful life narratives.

            Finally there is an infinite continuous vacuum cause which is when a causal agent ceases to impact in anyway on a recipient with whom he was previously interacting, and this leaves the recipient in a social vacuum with regard to this causal agent.  Indirectly, the causal agent does make an imprint on the recipient by not making an imprint.  It is a generic imprint of numbness that ultimately affects the agent as well as the recipient.  As people increasingly start to unconsciously configure their life activities in terms of defined discrete causal actions, they lose the capacity for the bondedness with others that comes in the interactions stemming from more flowing blendable continual cause action systems.  In general, connecting with others for defined discrete purposes like taking a course at college, working at a job or having casual sex is simply not enough to allow a person to sustain bonded relationships with others, and people start to slide away into psychological vacuum states, withdrawing from others into numbness.  Defined discrete cause activities create relationships that are contingent and instrumental and these are ultimately very fragile relationships that, when they are a person’s almost exclusive connection to the social world, lead to a feeling of emptiness.  And when this is primarily the kind of connection people have to offer one another, people contribute to leaving each other in a psychological vacuum, even when they are not purposely sliding away from and ceasing their connection with each other.

            A world of increasing defined discrete cause behavior is certainly one that reinforces the ideas of many social scientists today.  But it is not so much that their ideas and beliefs are true for human nature in general.  And yet social scientists today frequently assume that the behavior of human beings living in modern technological society is somehow true for all human beings throughout human history and in all human societies including preliterate and more traditional ones.  Except for cultural anthropologists, they do frequently seem to operate on the assumption that the results they come up with in their experiments and observations are true for humans regardless of period or place.  And if defined discrete cause behavior is assumed to be the universal dominant behavior, then it gives these social scientists the right to break down behavior into its component parts: into the causal behavior of human agents and the distinct response behavior of human recipients.  And then, clearly understanding these defined discrete human interactions that they have helped to configure, social scientists can control and manipulate human behavior, in schools, in work and in large social institutions like community groups, clubs and churches.  And people in marketing and advertising can control and manipulate people in terms of the purchases they make.

            This belief that all human behavior can be found to be fundamentally defined discrete  behavior ultimately stems from the mirroring and modeling created by modern complex machines, computers, and, of course, robots.  And this is because the behavior of these modern advanced machines is primarily defined discrete cause behavior.  Yes, some modern machines are created for complex interactions with people. But however complex the interactive behavior, modern machines still operate on the basis of defined discrete shifts in responding to humans and to external world situations rather than more flowing blendable continual shifts.  However small it may be, there is always a period of time separating one shifted piece of behavior from another when dealing with machines.

            Seeing human behavior from the perspective of defined discrete cause actions is just one more way to understand how modern humans have been influenced by an increasingly complex and pervasive modern technology.  Yes, understanding defined discrete causation has helped us to solve many important problems that have faced humanity in the external world.  But not everything operates primarily on the basis of defined discrete causation.  Including the human mind and human relationships.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow                                               

Smart Devices, Dumber People

            The word “smart” has taken on a whole new meaning in the age of digital technology.  It used to refer to a quality of intelligence exercised primarily by humans, but also by higher-level animals in general.  Now it is being applied to certain higher-level machines.  The machine with which smart has been most commonly associated is a modern phone.  In this context, it means the ability of these phones to perform multiple narrowly defined discrete functions and, in so doing, eliminate the necessity to carry around multiple devices, each of which would be performing a separate function.  A smart device denotes competence, but it also implies convenience.

            Getting back to a premise that has remained pretty constant throughout the existence of this column, people gradually become what they use when it relates to complex behavioral entities.  And there is definitely a danger of people beginning to unconsciously model themselves after the smart devices that they increasingly can’t live without.

            An important thing to emphasize about smartphones is that the many different functions that it can perform are distinct from one another and are only grouped together for purposes of convenience.  This idea of creating a grouping of different functions is now to be found in a smart bottle.  In SmartBrief, an online business newsletter, there is a discussion of the Hydra Smartbottle (“Hydra Smartbottle supplies water, music and light” [8/15/2016]), which, as the title partly indicates, not only provides water, but is also “a music device, charger, bottle opener, storage unit and light source”  What makes the device smart is not that it does any single task that indicates complexity or profundity, but that it does several different tasks that one does not normally think of as being able to be performed by one single machine.  Nevertheless, these different tasks can be used in the same life situation.  One can imagine a situation where one is sitting outdoors at night.  One is drinking water, listening to music and lighting up one’s surroundings.  In doing this, one is using a device that is temporarily transformational to one’s field of experience.  A smart device like a Smartbottle is experientially transformational rather than simply task transformational.  It not only changes the way we achieve goals through  defined discrete activities, but it also changes the very way we experience our grounded connections to our external living environment.  The device tears apart our grounded field of experience, which we normally experience as a unified whole, and turns it into a bundle of defined discrete processes, each of which can be acted upon separately and manipulated for our individual purposes.  Our sense of personal agency over different life processes becomes more unified even as our experience of our field of experience becomes more broken up.

            From another perspective, having many tasks tied up in one device means that there are no experiential spaces between the carrying out of these different life processes.  It’s not like one has to put down one device appropriate for one life task and pick up another.  It is having momentary spaces between the use of different devices that allows a person to unconsciously recognize that his own personal agency from his own coherent sense of self is what holds together these life tasks.  No matter how advanced and sophisticated some of these tasks are, when they are carried out by separate devices with separate functions, a user still becomes aware that his consciousness and his will are what generate the fulfillment of these tasks for his purposes.  His consciousness and his will are the unifying forces behind the activation and the completion of the tasks that correspond to these different devices.

            So what will happen if we start making other collections or bundles of solutions for life need and desires and put them in other smart devices.  This is different from the internet of things where truly complementary tasks are made to coordinate together through the exchange of data.  The tasks in a smartphone or SmartBottle, although bundled together, do not necessarily complement each other in the same way.  The tasks from smart devices are juxtaposed together, but do not necessarily coordinate with one another.  They are bundled together, but they do not form a coherent task grouping.  There is no exchange of data to help them to perform together.

            One can say that rather than participating in a task pattern in the way that devices do in the internet of things, the processes in a smart device participate in a life rhythm pattern.  These functions, although not intrinsically connected, are functions that can smooth out the friction during the course of a day and add comfort and pleasure.  With all of these functions in one device, a person can be tempted to say, “Let the smart device take over many of my needs and desires.  I don’t have to spend much time thinking about strategies for satisfying myself, because much of it is here in one device.”

            One no longer even has to deal with the traditional life friction that used to exist of finding, setting up, and using different devices for different needs.  A traditional moral perspective would say that these devices make us lazy.  I would rather focus on how these smart devices encourage us to give up our sense of control, our sense of personal agency in our daily lives.  Smart devices are one more step in our giving up the opportunity to make decisions that lead to our feeling fully and vibrantly alive, to our making, preserving and receiving imprints, and to our preparing for death through a surrogate immortality of our making.

            Perhaps, one might say, that we have had something similar to smart devices in the Swiss Army knives and their imitators that have been on the market for a long time.  But a Swiss Army knife is used in situations where one is doing things, producing things, making imprints. Even though it bundles tools, this is offset by the fact that it facilitates active participation in the external world.  It facilitates stimulating our senses of self to create strategies using the tools in the Swiss Army knife to solve practical problems in the external world.  With a Swiss Army knife, we are acting on our living environment.  A smart device, on the other hand, deals primarily with consumption, makes us more passive, creates its own mediated living environment.  A Swiss Army knife helps us to be in the external world, while a smart device helps us to withdraw from it by creating new mediated fields of experience (smartphone apps) or by taking friction out of normal consumption life activities through the bundling of activities and thus weakening our connection to the external world.

            Making life too frictionless definitely has its downside.  Is it possible that eventually, everything will be done for humans either through the complementary tasking of the internet of things or through the bundling of all sorts of life tasks through smart devices?  On one level, that might sound like a life in paradise.  People could sit around all day watching their technology take care of all their needs.  But people need to make and preserve imprints to truly feel alive and to prepare for death.  Lacking the opportunity to do this because technology does so much, and feeling too numb to change things, eventually the expanding out of the influence of this consumer technology could lead to people experiencing modern life as a life in hell, a living death from which there is no easy escape.
© 2016 Laurence Mesirow 

Becoming A Ghost Of Oneself Through Technology

            One of the newest technological rages today is Pokemon-Go.  Young people use the GPS on their smartphones to go out into the external world to find virtual creatures called Pokemon that they capture, train and then send to battle the Pokemon of other trainers.  It would appear that it is the modern world’s answer to an exciting adventure in a living environment that is making life increasingly routinized for the vast majority of people.   Routine from pre-kindergarten to college and graduate school is primarily what gets people good jobs.  Yes, it is nice for a student to have an unusual hobby or a year abroad in college, as long as the hobby and the time abroad don’t represent too significant a chunk of the student’s time, energy, or state of mind.

            A Pokemon represents adventure without risk.  The trainer himself is not in battle nor is an animal he cherishes.  Rather, it is a virtual entity that exists but doesn’t really exist.  There is no possible organic perishability if something happens that the Pokemon loses in battle.  There is no organic perishability, and, by the same token, there are no organic imprints made and preserved on the surfaces of the person’s field of experience in the external world.  The whole narrative of the Pokemon adventure is a ghostly vacuumized adventure that numbs the person as he participates, because he is immersed in virtual reality.  This is different from a true adventure in external world reality, which causes a person to feel vibrantly alive and leads to meaningful organic imprints which can be preserved in the memories of the people that surround the adventurer or even sometimes in artifacts like documents and books.

            To the extent that a person gets pulled into a vacuumized adventure with Pokemon, to that extent the person gradually and subtly becomes vacuumized himself.  There is already another technology-generated situation where a person becomes a vacuumized entity.  This is when a person translates himself into an avatar for purposes of getting involved with computer games or Internet forums.  The avatar is the computer user’s virtual representation for purposes of his participation in different cyber-processes.  But as the computer user uses his avatar, he subtly becomes influence by it as he would by any complex behavioral entity.  The avatar mirrors him and becomes a model for him, and slowly but surely the person becomes avatarized.   He becomes vacuumized, which means he becomes very susceptible to the influence of entropic disintegration, which, in turn, is a natural force that exists in a vacuum.

            Even though the user is operating openly without an avatar when he plays Pokemon-Go, an avatar-like presence becomes more and more implicit in his persona, as he starts getting more and more involved with the capturing and training of Pokemon and with the battles that come afterwards.

            So here is another symbolic model of technological transformation that is somewhat distinct from that of robotic transformation.  Experientially, a robot is an overly defined figure made of hard unyielding metal or synthetic materials that definitely has a strong critical mass in external world reality.  As a machine, a robot is incapable of bonding with other robots or with humans, for that matter.  It behaves by following a series of defined discrete processes, but these processes are not directed by a coherent sense of self or a coherent consciousness.  A robot does not make, receive, or preserve organic imprints that are recorded as meaningful impresses on the external world in such a way that they become a part of other people’s memories.  It does however leave discrete marks on the world, marks that are not recorded in memories as purposeful preserved imprints, because they are not the products of coherent senses of self or coherent consciousnesses.  The only possible exception here is the meaningful impress of a robot or a machine winning a sophisticated game like chess against a human.  And here, the robot does not receive an imprint of winning the game as something to be happy about.  It is more like the victory of the robot or machine winning is something that disrupts the flow of meaningful imprints among humans.

            Now an avatar is also a defined discrete figure, but one that not only lacks grounding, but also substance and mass as well.  An avatar is a vacuumized figure that exists in screen reality and virtual reality but has no existence in the external world reality in which humans normally inhabit.  To the extent that a human becomes avatarized, he psychologically begins to lose his connection to external world reality.  It is as if he starts to die to external world reality.

            Becoming avatarized does not require actually using an avatar in screen reality on the computer or in virtual reality.  One can become psychologically a vacuumized figure, by simply dwelling in screen reality or virtual reality for too much of one’s waking time.

            So how does avatarization manifest itself in human behavior.  In general, it means being pulled more and more into a vacuum state psychologically and being subject to the entropic forces that are an essential part of any vacuum.  In the physical world, entropy means the random distribution of atoms in a vacuum.  In the mental world, entropy means the disintegration of one’s sense of self.  It means crumbling apart into nothingness.  There are many different ways that this entropy-influenced behavior displays itself.  It is not uncommon today for a worker in a wage-based job to suddenly not come into his job and to disappear.  Actually, people disappear from many different situations today.  Two people have been dating for a while, and suddenly one of them disappears from the relationship.  Or one day, a husband or wife, father or mother leaves the house and doesn’t come home.  In spite of family responsibilities, the person simply vanishes.  Some entropy-influenced behavior can result in the people around the agent of the behavior being affected more directly by the entropy as well.  The victims of the modern mass murderers. These murderers commit their crimes out of their numbness and usually die at the hands of police or soldiers, assuming that they don’t die from suicide bombs.

            People try to control their numbness, their disappearing into nothingness, by smoking pot and doing yoga and meditation.  All these are activities that cause a temporary but controlled diminishing of one’s sense of self.  By doing this, people are basically using a means to control the rate of crumbling from entropy, when one feels oneself blurring into the images of screen reality and increasingly now virtual reality and becoming what would now be described as an avatar.

            In general, to develop the lightness of being that comes with becoming an avatar leads to floating away from connection to situations through commitments.  It is as if a person literally loses touch with the world, as he becomes vacuumized and numb.  The person loses his sense of substance, of mass, of gravity.  This isn’t something that happens all at once.  But the situations I described are indicators of the changes that are taking place as a result of gradual human identification with a mass-less, substance-less entity.  This is why interacting so much with Pokemon is such a stealthily dangerous enterprise.  We gradually become avatar-like in order to truly enter the world of Pokemon and to take them seriously.  And this is so relatively easy, because the boundaries between virtual reality and external world reality are so totally blurred in dealing with Pokemon.  In developing an avatar mentality, we practically slide into virtual reality from our external world reality.  And then we become like the entities that we use and manipulate.  And, in the process, we lose some of our humanity.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Why It’s Not So Great To Become A Robot

            Implicit in this column is not only the idea that people are gradually becoming robots, but also, that it is not a good thing that they become robots.  There has been some discussion about the problems related to this transformation, but I thought it might be good to dedicate a column to the negatives involved.

            What are some of the things that are missing in a robot’s existence?  For one thing, a robot is activated by a series of discrete data, signals, stimuli, that are not held together by a coherent sense of self.  As has been previously discussed, it is the flowing blendable continual stimuli that provide the glue that keep the sentient being that we call a human together.  Without these flowing blendable continual stimuli, a person cannot feel together enough, not only to have a coherent sense of self, but also to have the coherent perception and awareness of himself and of the external world that we call consciousness.  A person needs a coherent sense of himself to feel himself as a together entity.  Ideally a person also has self-definition, so that he can experience himself as having boundaries that separate him from other human beings as well as from the whole external world.  But to feel himself as indivisible from within, a person needs a coherent sense of self and, by extension, a coherent consciousness.

            This consciousness cannot be reduced to a series of stimuli and responses for the purpose of a scientific experiment.  That would also reduce the person’s sense of self to the manner in which it would be defined and circumscribed for the purpose of the experiment.  Consciousness is based on a flow of stimuli leading to a flow of perceptions leading to a flow of participation, none of which can be properly accessed within the limitations of a scientific experiment.  Even now, I am limiting consciousness with this description.  Consciousness also includes so many different mental processes that mediate not only between stimuli and responses, but also  between stimuli and perceptions.  It is the way we interpret what we perceive.

            This grounded mental activity is limited to animals, reaching its apogee with humans.  No matter how scientists and engineers try to approximate consciousness in the machines and robots they create, they have to break down the so-called mental activity they create into component parts, and, at the smallest level, defined discrete digital parts. Scientists and engineers cannot recreate the flows of blendable continual mental activity on which consciousness is based.

            Both a coherent sense of self and a coherent consciousness are essential to feeling vibrantly alive.  By feeling vibrantly alive I am not talking necessarily about experiencing things that make a person feel happy.  Rather, I am talking about the capacity to fully experience whatever one feels.  If one becomes numb and jaded from the sensory distortion of modern technological society, one’s sense of self and one’s consciousness are broken up, fragmented.  This, in turn, affects one’s capacity to feel fully present in one’s life.

            Without being fully present, it is not only difficult to make and receive the organic imprints that are necessary to feel alive.  It also means that life becomes a series of more distinct mediated experiences that lack the full flavor to make life feel more meaningful.  It is as if one were almost going along sliding off the surface of life, not feeling fully connected to anything, not feeling fully grounded in one’s living environment.

            Surrounded by lots of technological devices and immersed in a highly technologized living environment, there is no question that the intensity, the passion, the flavor have all diminished considerably for the average person moving through the events and the experiences of his daily life.  One often hears the expressions “I’m not really living.” Or “I haven’t really lived.”  It is quite possible that people who feel they haven’t really lived or they aren’t really living may very well be some of the people who are most obsessed with the idea of death.  If you feel you aren’t really living or you haven’t really lived, perhaps it makes you want to keep hanging onto life in the hopes of finding a way of pulling yourself out of numbness, so that you can start to really live before you die and, hopefully prepare for death in a proper way.

            I am sure there are some people who doubt not only that humans are gradually becoming robotized, but that the quality of life as it is lived and felt today is diminishing.  Such people want measurement and statistics and concrete evidence.  But a major point of this column is that many significant criteria for assessing quality of life are intangible and aren’t accessible to measurement and statistics.  And yet the decline in marriage and family and the growth of drug dependency and mental illness certainly seem to indicate that we have some big problems facing us.

            Perhaps the most important one is that robotization leads to weaker bonds between people and this threatens the whole flow of the human race from generation to generation.  Yes, climate change and environmental degradation are very important elements in the crisis humans face today.  My point is that healthy natural environments are important not only for keeping people physically alive.  They are also essential for keeping people psychologically alive, experientially alive.  Alive as organisms.  Alive as life.

            Talking about what allows people to feel fully alive means talking in terms of the way people experience flowing blendable continual stimuli, which are not susceptible to measurement or discrete definition and for which one has to use imprecise blurry language.  This is why I have always taken a philosophical approach to the subjects of sensory distortion and robotization, rather than an approach related to sociology, for example, which is focused on the defined discrete stimuli of statistics.

            Blurry intangible stimuli are not something that can easily be processed by a robot.  A robot would be forced to attempt to convert such stimuli into defined discrete measurable stimuli.  And yet a full experience of life is not something that can be done on the basis of defined discrete measurable stimuli alone.  Such stimuli do not provide the basis for strong organic bonds with other people or for strong organic grounding in one’s living environment.  In other words, a robot is not capable of experiencing the kind of stimuli that are necessary for feeling fully conscious and fully activated as an organism.  A robot is a machine that lacks free flowing consciousness, a sense of feeling alive from within, and a capacity to blur together to different degrees with other people and with its living environment for purposes of bonding and grounding.  A person has to give up a lot to become a robot.  So why is it that so many people are voluntarily moving in the direction of taking on the attributes of a robot?

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

The Sanitized World Of Virtual Art

The extent of applications of technology in our modern world seems to have no bounds.  One particularly interesting group of applications deals with the ability to create within a virtual world of experience.  Sound Stage is a program which allows a person to set up a virtual music studio for creating music without the expense or, for that matter, the clutter of real solid equipment and instruments.  In terms of the technology, only one piece of hardware is required.  Tilt Brush is a 3D painting program that allows a person to paint in virtual reality.  And what Tilt Brush is for painting, Medium is for sculpting.  It allows a person to manipulate a virtual object and to shape it as if it were made of real matter.  Whereas Sound Stage avoids clutter, Tilt Brush and Medium avoid material waste products and the messes made from them.  Clutter, waste products, messes – sounds like things that we all would like to avoid in our lives.  Most people have an inherent dislike of the disorder and chaos that clutter, waste products and messes generate.  There are people today whose job it is to go around to other people’s homes to help them sort out the messes and clutter that have developed from the agglomeration of their possessions.  Get rid of the possessions that aren’t really needed or desired and put some order in the possessions that remain.  Clutter and mess are dirty words (no play on words intended) to people who think like this.

            However, for many creative people, a certain amount of mess or clutter in their lives may not only be normal for them, but may even be more comfortable for them.  Mess and clutter provide a kind of environmental grounding for them.  The different things and materials that eventually form a perceptual blur in their residences and studios, create a kind of reassuring organic connection for them.  Seeing the mingling of different materials and things acts as an unconscious stimulus for different creative connections in their minds leading to the further development of components and aspects of works of art.

            Far fewer of these implicit organic connections appear in habitations and workplaces where everything is very neat and orderly.  Things and materials in such environments can be experienced as clumping together in fully defined discrete free-floating figures that float in the sterile empty vacuum spaces in which they exist.  Implicit creative connections are not as easily made in such formalized environments that contain relatively few overlapping phenomena.  Placed in a different perspective, messy cluttered habitations are conducive to acting as templates for creative connections in the minds of creative people.

            And messy cluttered environments may not just be good for artists.  There are many articles that show that messy desks are associated with innovative people in whatever field is considered.  For such people, messy desks can be both a source of comforting grounding and of organic stimulation.  In contrast, a neat orderly desk and living environment may be conducive to thinking in neat orderly practical ways.  Finding the shortest, most efficient, defined discrete pathway to solving a problem.  In other words, conventional solutions to conventionally defined problems.  The difficulty with this approach is that many problems in work and in life look simple on the surface but, in reality, have many complex aspects with which to deal.  Complex problems are usually uniquely complex, having a special combination of problematic factors.  Such problems cannot be solved by an approach of finding the shortest distance between two points.  They often require creative innovative intuitive solutions that have more indirect, even convoluted, pathways.  They often require creative thinkers who work well in more messy cluttered environments.

            Which brings us back to possible problems with the process of creating within virtual environments.  All the virtual applications that we talked about at the beginning of this article don’t have mess or clutter in using them.  Sound Stage is free of the clutter that comes from equipment and instruments lying around.  In Tilt Brush, it would be a freedom from the mess that comes with paint that is used on palettes but also that can get on everything: on clothing, furniture, and floors.  Also no more clutter from paints, brushes, and canvasses lying around.  In Medium, it would be the freedom that comes from a lack of all the dust that gets on everything and the discarded pieces of sculpture material that come from creating any sculpture in the real world.  Also no need for the clutter of different sculpture tools.

            I would submit that the clutter and messes just elaborated on actually help a creative person, even while he is in the process of creating his artistic works.  As the work is created, the mess and clutter are created, and they become a kind of encompassing organic grounding, a template that helps to stimulate the ongoing interaction between the artist’s creative tools and the work of art that is being created.

            In other words, it is the contention of this article that a certain amount of mess and clutter actually stimulate creativity.  And when people consider the lack of mess and clutter in Sound Stage and Tilt Brush and Medium as benefits, because then, one supposes, one can create in a totally sanitized vacuumized focused environment with only neat defined discrete phenomena with which to deal, these people have a flawed understanding of creation.  In nature, childbirth is messy.  Planting trees is messy.  Cultivating crops is messy.  Raising animals is messy.  You can’t get away from messes when dealing with creative processes in nature.

            But we must remember that people today are trying to transcend above their organic natures in order to break away from the cycle that includes organic perishability.  As much of an oxymoron as it is, people today are trying to explore paths that lead to the development of robotic creativity.  A creativity that transcends above the arbitrary uncontrollable mingling of different kinds of matter and things that in and of itself represents a kind of primary unfocused creativity.  On the other hand, robotic creativity supposedly allows a person to preserve an imprint in a vacuum, before it has been made with the supportive stimulation of surrounding messes and clutter.  Such creativity produces imprints (audio as well as visual) that are sparse in the kind of flowing continual blendable stimuli that are an essential part of the experiencing of traditional more organic works of art.  Without these stimuli, meaningful connections cannot be formed between the viewers or the audience, on the one hand, and the works of art on the other.

            In today’s world, messes and clutter get a bad rap.  At least in the area of the creative arts, this bad rap is not deserved, and, on the contrary, messes and clutter are an essential element of the whole creative process.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow