Monday, January 2, 2017

Robots That Deliver The Goods

            In the ever increasing search to find ways to eliminate unnecessary human connections in the modern world, an online food ordering and delivery service company from the U.K. called Just Eat is going to be using robots to deliver food that has been ordered online.  Seven of these special robots, which are really sort of like boxes on wheels, have been leased from Starship Technologies, the British company developing these sidewalk self-driving drone robots.  Each of these boxes can hold a large bag of delivery food.  No longer are customers, who receive their deliveries from these robots, going to have to worry about tipping a delivery boy or girl.  In addition, sometimes there just simply aren’t enough humans to deliver all the orders that are generated at peak times at traditional delivery restaurants.  With these robots, no one is going to have to wait an unusually long period of time for their food.

            In the U.S., there is a gourmet sandwich company called Jimmy John’s that prides itself on how fast its delivery people can deliver its food.  It has these ads where there are conversations between a driver and a manager, and both people are talking superfast as a sign that the company is aware of how important time is for its typical customers.  Sometimes people’s work in today’s world doesn’t allow them much time to eat, but very often it is simply a matter that when modern people are hungry, they want to eat right away.  It’s not just that they feel physically hungry.  It is also that they want immediate gratification to fill the experiential void they feel inside themselves.  By talking fast, the actors for these ads are trying to indicate that the people at Jimmy John’s can operate like high-speed machines to help customers fill the void.  A machine is thought of as being fast and efficient and it doesn’t waste time.

            But now with the Just Eat robots, we won’t have to worry about people who try to work like machines, and who, therefore, inevitably make mistakes.  We will have machines making the deliveries, entities that can just be themselves and do the work they were meant to do.

            Now pretty soon, even without these chests on wheels, machine delivery for all sorts of items will become fairly common, as all kinds of drones are used more and more.  But there is something particularly disturbing about the Just Eat robots delivering food.  Food is perhaps the most experientially grounded thing that humans produce.  It is nutritious for the body and nurturing for the mind and the spirit.  It provides an important grounded component to a person’s field of experience both internally and externally.

            And because it is such a special phenomenon for human beings, it was traditionally surrounded by other grounded components to make a more fully grounded field of experience in the lives of people.  In traditional societies, people would normally sit down together at meals with family and guests and break bread together.  Among many groups, people would give thanks to their spiritual entity through prayer for the bounty of their meal.  The grounded connection was made of food, family or community, land or sea, and spirit or spirits.  All was part of one organic entity.

            As societies evolved, and more vocational specialization occurred, there developed inns, tea houses and public houses – gathering places where people could eat, drink, and sometimes sleep away from home and family.  Nevertheless, there was still the idea of bonded human connections between the server and guest.  Frequently, along with food, the server would provide the guest with conversation to make him feel welcome.  These places could be so welcoming that community meetings were sometimes held in them.  As the food business grew, and more and more people ate out – sometimes because of work and sometimes because people simply had the discretionary income to eat out more and didn’t want to bother with cooking – restaurants evolved and servers became more focused on serving food rather than on making small talk.  Dining became less leisurely, and most restaurant owners and managers became more focused on volume of customers – getting customers in and out.

            The trend of perceiving food as defined discrete hopefully tasty nutrition and less as flowing blendable continual nurturance has continued to grow with the advances in technology.  The availability of the car meant that food could be acquired even more quickly at drive-ins.  Furthermore, the use of advanced cooking machinery meant that food could be acquired quickly with a minimum of bonded connection with a server.  Hence, all the fast food outlets that serve people quickly, even when the people don’t use the drive-through windows.

            There has also been the acquisition of food at automats and vending machines.  Automats seem to be extinct now, but vending machines continue to be as popular as ever, and many places like hospitals have rooms filled with them.  At both automats and vending machine rooms, there has been no bonded connection between the customer and the person who puts the food in the appropriate places in the machine.  Here the customer receives his food from within the complete experiential vacuum of the machine.

            And yet to use an automat or a vending machine, a person still has had to go out into the external world, where he is likely to encounter other people with whom he can socially interact.  With the Just Eat robot, a person can stay in his home and have food delivered to his home and, if he is not living with someone or some ones and if he is not having people over to visit, he never has to encounter other humans.  He can build a social vacuum in his home.

            For many food service places, the idea of a delivery robot is very appealing.  As robots replace humans in the food services industry, it will mean getting rid of the cost involved with wages and insurance for delivery boys and girls.  It will also mean that food service places won’t have to purchase vehicles for delivery people.  In addition, robots don’t take vacations and don’t need days off (unless, perhaps, there is a repair issue).  So robots could be potentially a cost effective substitute for human delivery people in the food services industry.

            But, as has been discussed many times previously in this column, there is a different kind of price to pay for the substitution of robots for humans.  Not only does it involve shutting humans out of one more form of work, but it involves disrupting one more area of human connectedness, one more part of the larger social grounding in human communities.  If robots take over everything in the area of human services, the experiential distortion will be enormous, and social isolation in an experiential vacuum will lead not only to growing mental health problems but also to growing robotization, as people become more and more like the complex behavioral entities (namely, the robots) that surround them.  And this will be because more and more robots and other complex machines will become their dominant sources for mirroring and modeling.  In short, we will increasingly become like the complex behavioral entities that we use.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Can Apps Improve Mental Health?

            People are increasingly turning to psychiatric apps these days for all kinds of mental health issues.  Among other things, these apps help to monitor psychological symptoms, give advice and counseling, teach relaxation exercises, give cognitive behavioral therapy, and alert friends and family members in support systems when a person is having a crisis.  There are many concerns about the effectiveness of these apps, leaving aside any concerns that some people may have for the whole concept of using a kind of intimate contact with complex machines in order to improve mental health.

            In the past, there has been an article in my column about potential negative consequences of using Skype as a vehicle for obtaining psychotherapy from a therapist.  But the number of apps that create different kinds of interaction within supposed therapy situations between computers and clients has proliferated enormously.  It would be beyond the scope of this column to do a systematic review of even a few of these apps.  Such a review has been conducted often in other places and continues to be conducted on an ongoing basis.  Instead, the focus of this article will be a continuation of an ongoing general discussion about the intense interaction of humans and computers with a focus on the use of these machines for mental health issues.

            For those of you who have read this column regularly, you will know that a recurring theme has been that the continual use of computers creates sensory distortion, which, in and of itself, can lead to mental health problems.  The computer screen is an experiential vacuum, something that numbs a user as a result of its smooth frictionless empty surfaces and its intrinsic capacity to separate a user from all the activity on which he is focusing behind the screen.  At the same time, many of the digital data and images that streak across the screen create tension pockets of overstimulation.  So the computer environment is a self-contained vacuum and tension-pocket environment, alternating understimulation and overstimulation, thus creating sensory distortion and making the user alternately numb and jaded.  Independent of specific content, the computer environment by itself can create mental health issues.

            And apart from the computer as an environment, the computer as a complex behavioral entity can create problems.  Particularly with children, but also with adults, computers can begin to replace humans as sources of both mirroring and modeling for users.  The user starts to see himself through the “eyes” of the computer and, furthermore, starts to unconsciously imitate the behavior, the activity of the computer.  In the process of unconsciously imitating the behavior of the computer, the user starts to become more like a robot or more like an avatar. He unconsciously imitates the processes occurring in the computer.

            So as a medium, the computer creates such sensory distortion and such inappropriate channels for mirroring and modeling, that it stimulates pathological states of mind and pathological behavior.  This is true even as the user attempts to heal his psychological disturbances with the psychiatric apps.  And even here, many independent mental health workers are themselves not convinced of any positive effects from these apps.  The one thing that can be affirmed is that the content of these apps is so filled with defined discrete stimuli - questions, directions, and descriptions – that it may be easy to absorb it cognitively, but not necessarily so easy to absorb it on a more primitive emotional level.  It is this emotional level where absorption has to take place in order to truly heal a person’s sense of self.

            It may sound old-fashioned, but to heal from deep emotional problems, a person needs another human, a professional psychotherapist.  And preferably a therapist with whom a client can be in the same space rather than a therapist that a person communicates with over the phone or through Skype.  The therapist has to be experienced as a total sensory entity in order to be able to provide the sensory grounding that a patient needs, while he goes through the personal transformation process that is needed in order to heal.  The physical process of the therapist’s behavior is like a full affirmation of a healing reality, something to which a person can anchor while he tries to deal with his distorted feelings and thoughts.

            But people today are obsessed with apps of all kinds, so why not be obsessed with psychiatric apps as well?  The obsession to interact with apps in general is basically founded on the craving to interact with and become more like the technology that is being used today.  For more and more people, becoming more and more like a robot or more and more like an avatar is the only the way that they feel they can defend themselves against the sensory distortion that surrounds them in their living environment.  On another level, it becomes a very meaningful way they can identify with and become more like a complex behavioral entity that seems to be impervious to organic perishability and that looks like it could just go on existing forever.  But this is a false immortality, because neither a robot nor an avatar has the coherent organic consciousness or the coherent sense of self that are the hallmarks of a human feeling vibrantly alive.  What good does it do to go on existing forever (which neither a robot nor an avatar actually do anyway), if a person can’t feel vibrantly alive in his eternal existence?  Apps in general are a false road to true human immortality.

            And as long as we haven’t yet found a provable way of achieving immortality in this life, let us at least try to make these years that we do have as filled with vibrant life as we can.  And let us use these vibrant life experiences as a foundation for making and receiving good life imprints and then preserving some of our imprints to form a meaningful surrogate immortality.

            And let us use the organic healing power of good psychotherapy with a real live human therapist to help a person arrive at a state of mind where he is capable of fully experiencing and participating in a rich vibrant life.  A rich healing primary experience that leads to rich primary experiences for everyday life.  Psychiatric apps are a false road to organic human healing.  Let us use people and not machines to make us psychologically well.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Trump As A Form Of Political Viagra

            One of the most significant threats that can occur to any democracy is that of the election to a position of leadership of someone who has the potential to be an autocrat.  Such a person can attempt to undermine the checks and balances with respect to other branches of government in order to use dictatorial powers.  Such a person can consolidate his control and decide that elections would only potentially upset his long-term plan for the country.  It would then become much simpler to declare himself president for life.  This course of events has unfortunately happened before in history.  Two of the most notable examples of this happening in the last century were Russia under Lenin and Germany under Hitler.  In many cases, autocratic leaders maintain the pretense of multiple candidate elections in order to satisfy the expectations of the world community.  The elections are fixed, as the autocrat keeps winning election after election.  A good example of this is Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

            One of the secrets of an autocrat’s success is his capacity to take advantage of the frustrations of the populace in order to get the populace to back him.  It is a matter of getting people to back him and his vision and his sense of destiny.  It is a matter of getting people to merge psychologically with him and to make the imprints that he wants to make and preserve on the world their imprints.  The reason that people are willing to give up so much of their individual identity and merge with the autocrat is that they perceive their own opportunity to make and preserve individual imprints to be significantly diminished.  A major reason in the modern world that the opportunities to make and preserve individual imprints are significantly diminished is the effects of modern technology on human fields of experience in the external world.

            This diminishment occurs on several distinct levels.  First, technology has replaced what once would have been called artisan work with mass production by complex machines in factories.  Second, robots are replacing the human workers who used to work with the mass production machines.  Third, more recently, there has been the introduction of 3-D printers which make products from scratch with only the most minimal involvement of human beings.

            Finally, there is the replacement of natural organic surfaces and the surfaces of artifacts and architecture of more traditional cultures with the hard cold unyielding surfaces of modern technology, modern technology-based artifacts and modern technology-based architecture.  The more natural and traditional surfaces created fields of experience that yielded to new ongoing organic imprints, so that a person could feel potent and fully alive, able to make and preserve his own organic imprints and create a surrogate immortality built both on actual products and on the memories that remained with other people after his death.  But now that technology is so good at preserving indefinitely all kinds of imprints, there seems to be less and less room in the fields of experience of people today for truly new imprints. That is, apart from the invention of new devices, that either get rid of work and the possibility of new imprints being made by other workers, or else create more and more layers of mediated experience that remove people more and more from the immediate sensory world and the opportunity to make and preserve new meaningful organic imprints.

            So this is a difficult time for people in a country like the United States, people who want to feel alive and create their own individual surrogate immortality.  Along comes someone like Donald Trump, who not only offers to bring back manufacturing jobs, but who, on a deeper level, offers to restore a sense of potency.  Believe in Trump and you can participate in his vision which will create a collective imprint on the U.S.  A collective imprint that will endure and turn into a collective surrogate immortality.  Believe in Trump and blur into him.

            Blurring into a political leader in order to leave a collective imprint is not what one would normally consider a typical strategy in a modern democracy.  One of the supposed advantages of a democracy is its focus on the individual.  In the United States, according to the Declaration of Independence, there is a fundamental belief that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The implication is that each individual has a right to pursue his own distinct path to personal satisfaction and will not feel predisposed to give up his own distinct path by blurring into someone else’s path.  Although political leaders can be charismatic, they are not supposed to use psychological tactics that seduce people into becoming a part of an enveloping collective identity.  Having a good chunk of the populace merge into an enveloping collective identity is the foundation for setting up a totalitarian government, which, of course, is antithetical to the maintenance of a democracy.

            And this is why Trump is such a dangerous man.  His sense of entitlement, his belief that he has the right to go around all kinds of established rules and conventions with regard to the American government, complements perfectly the desperate dreams of his supporters who want nothing more than to believe there is some magical way for them to bypass their sense of impotence with regard to their daily lives.  Trump allows them to live their dreams, if only vicariously, through him.  By letting them blur into him, Trump allows these people to participate in creating vicarious organic imprints on their field of experience.  The vicarious collective organic imprints of a Trump presidency.  In so doing, it allows these supporters to feel fully alive and to feel they haven’t lived their lives in vain.  So that when they are about to die, they will know they have participated in leaving a meaningful impress on the world.

            Trump is unique in the way he changes many of his positions so often both out of expediency and out of a desire to be able to control and manipulate Americans by throwing them off balance.  He also is constantly making new surprise attacks on individuals, corporations and movements with no warning.  And although it throws them off balance, Trump’s supporters love the abrasive friction of all of his changes and surprises.  But in other parts of the world, there are leaders and movements that are also penetrating the numbness and the jadedness of their constituents by coming up with revolutionary proposals to change things dramatically.  The change is not necessarily focused on actually fixing particular problems with particular solutions, but rather is oriented to leaving new dramatic splashy collective imprints that pull people out of their numbness and jadedness and allow them to feel more fully alive.  Many times the changes brought about by these new leaders and movements don’t really fix the problems of their supporters and may actually exacerbate existing problems situations.  But, on some levels, increased abrasive friction may be exactly what these supporters need.  And someone like Trump, who flip-flops on many issues and creates ongoing shows and surprises is actually perfect for creating the ongoing intermittent kicks that keep these people alive.  And his flip-flops and surprise attacks are perfect for making many new imprints in which his supporters can participate.  And many of these imprints can be preserved in people’s memories leading to a constantly expanding collective surrogate immortality.

            Now Brexit was a big collective imprint and a big shock and it is going to precipitate all kinds of other shocks as the leaders of Britain and the European Union try to navigate Britain’s separation from the European Union.  This was not a change that was very well thought out by most of its supporters, and it could very easily produce unforeseen consequences that will repeatedly impact in a negative way the very people who wanted to promote it.    

There will be more votes in the future that bring about unfocused dramatic change, as people try to promote the kind of change legislatively that they can use as a psychological substitute for the kind of change they would actually desire to bring about in their fields of experience within their daily lives.  It is highly unlikely that these changes will deal effectively with the underlying problem that people have today of a loss of organic grounding in their living environments.

In one of my earlier columns, I wrote about two different kinds of crime that corresponded to adaptations to two different kinds of living environments.  In more traditional more natural environments, a person could be overstimulated by organic stimuli, by the flowing blendable continual stimuli that are the foundation for strong emotions.  This, in turn, created the foundation for crimes of passion.  I use the term crimes of passion in a much broader sense than it has been traditionally used.  In my construct, it means not just revenge for unfaithfulness in love, but also any crime based on greed, lust, anger, envy and other strong emotions.

Then, as modern technology started moving into living environments and creating sensory distortion: understimulation and overstimulation, people started to use crime to pull themselves out of their numbness and jadedness in order to feel simply alive.  Thus began all the seemingly senseless crimes like the mass shootings by one or two gunmen that have become so prevalent in modern American society.

Somehow, I am beginning to think a similar pattern is appearing in the process of voting in modern democracies.  People used to vote based on passionate beliefs, passionate connections.  This was how it happened as people were transitioning to modern technological living environments.  During the transition, people still had some significant connection to more traditional styles of living environments.  In America, homesteaders kept pushing further and further west, keeping alive the idea of the American frontier.  Even those who remained in the big cities could fairly easily escape to rural areas.

But now even rural areas are dominated by the transformative experiential effects of modern consumer technology.  People are increasingly numb and jaded and feel increasingly impotent in terms of their capacity to make and preserve imprints in their fields of experience.  A man like Trump comes along and he pulls people out of their numbness and jadedness and out of their sense of impotence.  And the more he flip-flops, the more he makes people feel more alive and that they are part of a movement that is making things happen.  It doesn’t matter what is happening, just that something is happening in their lives.  This is what we are dealing with in the Trump phenomenon.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow