Sunday, July 10, 2016

Behaving Like A Robot With Other People

            In writing about the effects of modern technology on human behavior, there has been a focus in this column on how modern technology directly affects the user.  How does the experience of the configuration of stimuli that emanates from a technological device or a whole technological environment affect how a user thinks, how a user feels and how a user acts.  The focus in the column has been on the sensory distortion generated by the technology and how this, in turn, creates behavioral distortion in the user (what has been called in this column conative acceleration and conative anesthesia) and distortion of the user’s sense of self (the person eventually slides into becoming like a robot).

            But there is another significant dimension to the effects of modern technology on human behavior, and that is how does modern technology influence the users of modern technology to relate to the people around them.  How do people who work with computers all day relate to their spouses and their children?  How do employers relate to their employees and vice versa and how do workers relate to their fellow workers?  How do students relate to their contemporaries and to their parents?  How do students and teachers relate to each other?

            In a previous article, there was a discussion about how crimes took the form of crimes of passion in more traditional pre-industrial societies and crimes of numbness in modern technological societies.  It has been my opinion that our increasingly frictionless modern living environments lead people to enter a frictionless level of numbness in their life experience, which, in turn, leads them to commit crimes to feel alive.  But a hurt against another person or persons doesn’t have to rise to the level of a crime to have a negative effect.

            Perhaps the best way of describing the effects of technology on a user, in order to understand the foundations for what happens in the interactions between users and the people around them, is to think of technology today as a form of addiction.  Particularly movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones and tablets.  If one is going to live in an environment where one is surrounded by the sensory distortion created by technology, at least let a person have some control over it by focusing his attentions on miniature versions of these sensorily distorted environments – namely, the technological devices already enumerated.  And in these miniature worlds, one can balance out the levels of stimulation one receives.  If a person is feeling numb, he can go into his screen reality and watch an action movie on Netflix or listen to some rap music on iTunes.  If a person is feeling overstimulated, he can search the Internet for a new pair of boots or immerse himself in numbing reams of meaningless data.  People today become very immersed in their technology as a means of stabilizing themselves.

            And this is what happens in other addictions.  People try to balance out the imbalance of stimuli inside their heads by using food, alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex.  They go back and forth between states of understimulation and overstimulation, between vacuum states and tension-pocket states.  In truth, a true balance or even an approximate balance is never truly achieved.  And this is why people remain addicted or stuck on these substances and activities.

            The same can be said of the people using technological devices.  Except in these cases, the imbalance is at least partly created by the global modern technological living environments in which the users are living.  The users use technological devices to stimulate their internal living environments – their minds – to balance out the imbalanced stimuli they receive from their external living environments in the external world.

            Ultimately, the only real way to protect against the sensory discomfort created by the sensory distortion of modern technological society is to change one’s sense of self so that one becomes more like the technological devices that one uses.  One becomes like a robot.  One develops a sense of self based on internal mental environments of infinite continuous vacuum stimuli and pockets of defined discrete figure stimuli.  It is like vaccinating oneself against the sensory distortion of modern technological society.  Robots, when they are turned off, keep still in their vacuum, and when they are turned on they move in an overly defined discrete jolty angular way.  And the ongoing interaction with consumer technological devices is a way for a person to continue to stimulate and exercise his robotic nature so that he can continue to feel protected against sensory distortion.

            The configurations of sensorily distorted stimuli lead to configurations of robotic thought patterns in a modern technological user’s mind, which lead to robotic presentations of self and more specifically robotic behavior.  This leads to the people around him experiencing alternately understimulation and overstimulation in his presence.  The user can ignore the people close to him, not spend much time with them, or simply be psychologically not-present when they are present.  He can do most of his communication with these people through the mediated path of their smartphones, computers and tablets.  Or the user can find a way to generate abrasive friction with the people around him.  A user can generate the kind of abrasive disputes that lead to separation from family members, people in the work place, or people in the community.  They can commit crimes of numbness, crimes that pull them out of their numbness in an abrasive jolting way, like robots being turned on.  Chronic modern technology users become increasingly incapable of the kind of organic bonding that is the foundation for stable grounded relationships.

            In particular, modern parents model for their children by being less and less present for their children, both physically and psychologically.  And when they are present, they try to leave their imprints on their children by being controlling and critical.  In many cases, they push their children constantly to achieve and achieve.  From the earliest years.  After all, if the child is busy achieving, he doesn’t have so much time or state of mind to make demands for intimacy and interaction with his parents.  So the child is pushed to do well in pre-school to get in the best elementary school to get into the best high school to get into the best college or university to get into the best graduate school to get the best job.

            The understimulation of not being present much and the overstimulation of being controlling, demanding and critical.  Vacuum and tension pocket.  But people who are pushed to  achieve, who are not at the same time given strong emotional bonding, become robotic.  Children slowly incrementally become configured to become robotic like their parents.  This, in addition to the robotic influences of the children’s own intense involvement with modern consumer technological devices.  So the influences of the robotic parents reinforce the influence of children’s direct involvement with modern machines.                                                          

            There is a strong moral aspect to consider when dealing with the way modern parents bring up their children.  To the extent that these parents impart their robotic attitudes to their children and to the extent that children are given the unlimited opportunity to use modern consumer technological devices, we can say that parents are influencing their children to move away from their organic human essence towards the development of a more robotic sense of self.  Which, in the long run, prevents these children from satisfying their deeper emotional needs.  And leads them to feel hardened and empty.

            To the extent that parents use modern consumer technological devices a lot and live surrounded by an extremely technological environment, to that extent the parents are going to develop behavior and attitudes that are immoral according to the standards just discussed.  This is because a person does have some choice in his degree of involvement with technology, and because parents are hurting their children at an age when the latter are most open and vulnerable to being transformed by the robotic behavior and attitudes of others.

            Now it is not just the influence of parents over children that provides the opportunity for immoral robotic interactions.  As dwellers in modern technological environments, we are all potentially influenced by the robotic technology users that surround us.  At the same time, our own robotic behavior influences others.  So it is not only the modern consumer technological devices that hurt people, but also other people in their roles as robotized modern technology users as well.  And these users have a choice to limit to some extent their addiction, their use of these devices, not only to avoid becoming totally robotized themselves, but to avoid spreading robotizing influences to others.  It’s something for all of us to think about as we engage in our consumer technology activities.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Mapping Out Moral Behavior

            The word map is frequently used when we want to create a visual image of the physical relationship between different phenomena.  When we use it for the environments in which we live, it can be used for everything from the whole world to a neighborhood in a city.  A map can be used to focus on different features like the topography of different geographical entities.  Maps are used in biology as well to diagram different aspects or different features of an animal or human body.  Nowadays, we map out the genes on chromosomes, and we map out the brain, determining which sections of the brain carry out which cerebral functions.  And maps are also used in dealing with our solar system or the universe.

            Within the context of the philosophical model that has been presented in this column, I would like to focus on using the notion of a map in a slightly different context.  It is my contention that morality is not just about moral events: doing moral things and not doing immoral things.  It is not simply about our freely-made moral decisions to do moral things and not do immoral things.  Rather it is also about the influence of our fields of experience, our configurations of stimuli to create different predispositions for different kinds of personally viable and socially viable behavior.  How can we maintain a basic human essence within and sometimes in spite of the surroundings in which we dwell?

            Our evolving modern technological living environments are creating fields of experience, configurations of stimuli that are very different from the fields of experience and configurations of stimuli of the traditional living environments in which traditional moral systems were created.  These fields of experience and configurations of stimuli elicit very different kinds of responses, very different behavior from the kinds of responses and behavior found in more traditional pre-industrial living environments.  So the spectrum of available human responses for treating other people as well as ourselves in a good way is also shifting.  In short, the traditional moral map no longer fits very well the experiential territory of modern humanity.

            Traditional morality is based on developing rules to rise above the grounding of more natural environments, a grounding that has an abundance of flowing blendable continual stimuli that tend to blur into a person and cause him to lose control of his behavior and to undifferentiate into his animal desires such as violence, lust, gluttony, greed, and sloth.  To control these desires, he develops firm defined discrete behavioral boundaries: moral rules that, depending on the person and the situation, proclaim moderation or even abstention.  But extreme animalistic behavior has to be reined in not only because it can hurt oneself and other people, but because it tends to swallow up a person and undifferentiate his sense of self.  And it is the uniqueness of a human sense of self, so much more developed than in other animals, that separates him from other animals and allows him to survive.

            Traditional religions have been developed on the basis of creating rules for stable affirmative behavior among the members of a society.  With the non-measurable non-controllable flowing blendable continual stimuli in traditional more natural environments, people are stimulated to misbehave in relation to the standards of traditional morality.  Using their unique cognitive faculties, people learn how to regulate their behavior and how to hold themselves together.  The map of hypothetical life situations in which people can slide away from their defined human sense of self is laid out in the holy books of traditional religions.  Connected to this map are behavioral answers so that a person doesn’t slide.

            As we move into the era of modern technology, we need different kinds of rules to survive with our human essence intact.  The problem today is no longer as much the danger of undifferentiating into an animal.  Modern technology creates what I have called vacuum and tension-pocket environments: environments of understimulating numbness with pockets of overstimulating jolts to our nervous system.  To live and function in such an environment, there is a tendency to organically unbond from one’s living environment and to function to a great extent as an overly defined figure – a robot.  So in order to restore a human balance, one has to find a way to restore sources of flowing blendable continual stimuli and to reground oneself.  Rather than have a morality that focuses exclusively on preventing animalistic excesses, one has to develop a morality that focuses more on preventing robotic numbness and jadedness.

            From another perspective, the organic surfaces of traditional more natural living environments are fine for making and receiving the organic imprints that allow us to feel alive.  But because of the strong tendency towards organic perishability in those environments, they are not as good for preserving the imprints that are made and, in this way, allowing people to create a surrogate immortality with the imprints they leave and thus prepare for death.  On the other hand, modern technological living environments, existing as they do above and apart from nature, are terrific for preserving imprints.  Notice how many museums are constantly sprouting up today.  But modern technological living environments lack a lot of the organic surfaces necessary for making organic imprints.

            Patterns of experiential surfaces may not be suitable for making precise measured defined visual maps.  But, if nothing else, we can make impressionistic descriptive maps.  Just as impressionistic descriptive maps can also be made of patterns of experiential phenomena and patterns of stimuli.  One might ask what does all this have to do with morality and with ethical decision-making.  The whole point being made here is that people don’t exist as phenomena that are isolated and separate from their surroundings.  People exist within different kinds of living environments that impinge on them in different ways, that influence their behavior in different ways, and that present different kinds of challenges and threats to their human essence.  So sometimes a person’s behavior towards himself and other people is a reflection of what he is experiencing in his living environments.  And sometimes a person’s best behavior towards himself and other people is a behavior that protects both himself and other people from the dangers in the living environment – in particular, the dangers that threaten to attack the integrity of the human sense of self.

            This is why what I am calling moral cartography is so important.  Humans can move among different ecosystems, among different living environments, far more easily than most other animals.  But the fact that they can move among them does not mean that they are immune to the influences of the environment in which they are living.  And profound differences in technology over time can mean that the configurations of behavioral influences from a modern technology-oriented environment can be very different from the influences of a more traditional nature-oriented environment.  And different configurations of behavioral influences can elicit different kinds of harmful behavior that would be considered immoral.

            So in making different descriptive maps of these configurations of behavior influences, we can gain a better understanding of what could be considered immoral in a particular environment, and we can try to develop behavioral responses that can be protective of the human essence both of ourselves and of the people that surround us related to that environment.

            One last point.  Not all of what is considered immoral is going to shift as people move into technologically more advanced living environments.  Fundamental crimes like murder, physical assault, rape and robbery remain the same as immoral actions no matter what the living environment.  Crimes like these symbolize fundamental attacks not only on real live humans but also on the human essence in any living environment.  However, they can be generated by different kinds of patterns, depending on whether they occur in more traditional natural environments (crimes of passion) or modern technological environments (crimes of numbness).  In the first case, a person is swallowed up by his emotions.  In the second case, a person is trying to generate enough emotions to feel alive.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Losing One’s Touch For Touching

            The human sense of touch seems to be under ongoing attack by modern technological innovation.  In some cases, the experience of touching stimuli is reduced as in swiping one’s fingers over or typing on smartphones to perform all kinds of tasks and searches that used to be handled in direct contact with the external world and with books and with magazines.  This use of the smartphone supposedly reduces the exertion of physical and mental effort.  In other cases, touch is eliminated entirely.  Lights turn on when we walk into rooms, particularly public bathrooms, and turn off when we leave them.  This has the purpose of reducing the amount of energy used by making sure that lights are only on when rooms are occupied by people.  Faucets in bathrooms turn on and off as hands approach and then retreat from them.  Here water is saved as a result of preventing people from accidentally leaving faucets turned on.  Finally, toilets flush by themselves.  Ostensively, this is to prevent toilets from continuing to hold waste products left from the people who use the toilets.  In the case of all the devices in the bathroom – lights, faucets and toilets – not having to touch things can be considered to be more sanitary.  And again there is the reduction in the exertion of physical effort.

            Nevertheless, this use of smartphones and sensor technology represents the breaking down of tactile connection with the external world.  More and more, people are being put into a tactile vacuum which becomes an integral part of the total experiential vacuum in which they are immersed while living in modern technological society.  And this of course contributes to the behavior distortion that has been talked about in this column.  There is the conative acceleration, the speeding up of the will, where people try to bust out of a sense of numbness through relentless work, hard fun (kicks) and violence.  This speeded up activity creates increased friction which helps a person to feel alive.  Then there is conative anesthesia where a person tries to withdraw into himself and create his own world of numbness that he can control and manipulate to reduce the harmful effects of a more global numbness from the external world.  Here you have everything from marijuana to meditation to Eastern religion – Western style.

            Both of these behavioral postures can be used (sometimes by the same person) in response to the increasing numbness we feel, as modern technology increasingly separates us from our tactile field of experience.  In an article Gizmag, “Microsoft Research anticipates the future with pre-sensing touchscreen prototype”, we learn that Microsoft has created a technology where the way you hover over a screen with your fingers determines the creation of menus on your screen as well as options for interaction in order to control and manipulate your screen content.  The same can be said for the way you grip a smartphone and with one or both hands. Once you bring up menus or options, you can touch your fingers to the screen as you would normally do to type on or swipe the screen.

            This new hovering aspect of smartphone usage is extremely concerning, because it represents one more level where one’s tactile connection to the external world is mediated by technology.  We have progressed from carving out messages on rock to writing first on papyrus and then on paper, to typing on paper, to typing on a computer, to typing on and swiping a smartphone, to organizing data on a smartphone without touching any physical object.

            And using the way we grip a device to bring up menus means that we are using gross motor actions rather than the fine motor actions of writing or typing or swiping with fingers to control written material.  Gripping can’t possibly provide the same fine-tuned control that these fine motor activities can.  But it obviously seems smooth and comfortable to Microsoft and reduces physical activity with the fingers.  Heaven only knows we mustn’t strain our fingers with too much physical activity.

            We come again to a major overarching purpose of modern technological innovation: get rid of friction.  Breaking down the reasons for this purpose, it can be said that friction creates frustration which threatens one’s sense of empowerment.  Except that, in reality, some friction helps a person feel alive, and a person can’t feel empowered in his life if he feels numb.  Furthermore, unless a person has some obstacles as demonstrated by the friction, he can’t put into practice his sense of empowerment and thus feel for himself, know for himself that he is empowered.

            Also friction creates a sense of general discomfort.  Particularly as a person becomes accustomed to the numbing effects of modern technology, it takes less and less friction to make a person feel uncomfortable.  Except that it is precisely this discomfort from relatively small sources of friction that should act as a danger sign that people are losing an important aspect of their humanity – the ability to engage the external world, and transform it; the ability to make and preserve imprints and feel fully alive in the process, and the ability to prepare for death through the surrogate immortality of these preserved imprints.

            Connected with this sense of general discomfort is a sense that somehow friction, in and of itself, creates a sense of disorder, both within one’s mind and in the external world.  It is true that in the process of trying to transform the world both in ways small and large, breakdowns and disorders occur in our field of experience.  But in changing the world, in recreating the world, there has to be a certain amount of messy creative destruction.  As they say, it goes with the territory.

            For many of us who increasingly can’t tolerate friction, we just sink deeper and deeper into conative anesthesia.  In our numbness, we become intolerant within ourselves of anything that does not represent the most mediated of life narratives – a life narrative mediated by technology.

            It may seem farfetched to impute such a significant influence on human behavior to the technological device that is the subject of this article: the pre-sensing touchscreen.  But the pre-sensing touchscreen is just one of many modern technological devices that are contributing or will contribute to increasing layers of mediation in our field of experience and to the increasing numbness that accompanies this mediation.  All these increasing layers of mediation are making it more and more difficult to get the organic stimulation that humans need to feel alive as fully actualized human beings so that they don’t sink into the living death of robots.  We are becoming what we use.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow