Sunday, April 2, 2017

Controlling Robots With Thoughts

            With the advances in modern technology, all kinds of new connections are being created between humans and robots.  The most ideal one, certainly by the standards of the transhumanists, is to become a cyborg, a human-robot.  But some recent work by researchers at M.I.T. and Boston University is creating a much more subtle bond between these two complex behavioral entities.  Using EEG’s, they are working on ways to have a human be able to correct the actions of a robot by simply thinking the correction that has to be done.  And we’re not even talking about fully conscious thinking, where a person would formally think out what has to be corrected through verbal commands.  We are talking about minimally aware pre-conscious thinking.  This allows for the creation of a seamless interaction between human and robot.  Or more precisely, the robot becomes an extension of the human.

            It would appear that eventually a person will be able to sit in his armchair and even if he is tired, he will be able to think about all the processes of housework and cooking and have those processes carried out by robots, without ever having to tire himself out by thinking about these matters very clearly.  The world of process can go on moving around him, while he just sits in his armchair in a daze.

            But there may be other results from this harnessing of human thought to technological activity.  What if people become impatient with the unpredictable flow of the human narrative.  In normal human narrative, there is frequently an interweaving among the different separate actions being carried out by physically adjacent people, and in this interaction with other people, each person is not only the creator of his own organic imprints, which he leaves on other people as well as on himself, but also the recipient of the organic imprints from the people with whom he is engaged and with whom he is interacting.  With brain-controlled robots, the flow of influence and control is one way.  The imprints a person leaves are clean, defined, discrete imprints, free from the admixture of the recipients imprints on the person while the person is leaving his imprints and thus free from the influence of a recipient’s imprints while the person is leaving his imprints.  Robot process becomes seen as a more effective activity than human narrative in achieving one’s immediate human goals and ultimately one’s long-term life purposes, because, as the agent, a person can control it in a cleaner manner.

            And yet one is not always going to have the opportunity to carry out his life activities free from the participation and even the interference of other human beings.  So some human beings may experience, in their impatience to exert a total control over their field of experience and ultimately their objective external world reality, a blurring in their minds between robots and other humans.  Techniques for brain control over robots may be extended to other humans, particularly with the insertion of little chips in the brains of these humans who can then be controlled like robots.  They can be manipulated to function sort of like servant cyborgs.

            Some people will say that these ideas represent fantastic speculation, but this column has often pointed out that flowing blendable continual mental stimulation cannot be easily contained and that powerful techniques developed in conjunction with modern technology can easily leach out of their original intended purposes into other areas where the techniques can produce great potential harm.  The tendency for modern technological techniques to morph, to mutate, to blur is always present.  As a result, it is very easy to imagine that techniques developed to be used in connection to robots can easily blur into use with the main complex behavioral entity competing with robots – namely human beings.  And the experience of such total control over these organic complex behavioral entities can give humans a feeling of being all powerful like God, and therefore immortal and not subject to the organic perishability to which all human beings, at least at present, must eventually succumb. 

            There is still another danger that we have to worry about as human beings in conjunction with the development of powers in the human brain to directly control robots.  As robots evolve and develop more and more complex internal workings to be able to handle more and more diverse and intricate processes, it might become possible for the robot equivalent of a brain to send back code to human brains to carry out processes or parts of processes in the service of the purposes for which the robot has been programmed.  In other words, the human brain could be leaving itself vulnerable to having roles reversed in relation to the robot or robots that supposedly is or are serving it.  It wouldn’t necessarily require a dominating robot sense of self for this role reversal to occur.  It would simply require that the robot be of sufficient complexity as a behavioral entity to be able to continue with whatever complex activities for which it has been programmed, and to enlist the support of the human to carry out its preprogrammed goals through the pathways that have been established to connect the robot and the human brain.

            Does this also sound fantastic?  There is the notion of the technological singularity that there will come a point soon where technology, evolving faster and faster, will provide the foundation for creating machines that are smarter than humans.  If and when the singularity occurs, it would not be too difficult to imagine opportunities for the master-servant relationship between human and robot to be reversed.  Particularly given the fact that pathways of control between human and robot already exist.  Being aware of this risk, as I assume all scientists today are, why are some of them playing with fire by setting up these pathways between humans and robots?  Are they purposely trying to create the conditions for the enslavement of the human race?

(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow

Cyborgs And Trumporgs

            Several different metaphors have been used to describe Trump in this column.  Here is another one.  There is something about the way that he plows into issues and comes up with incredibly impulsive defined discrete destructive policies that reminds me a little of the kind of rampaging cyborg played by Arnold Schwartzenegger in The Terminator.  And, of course, one of the traits manifested by the terminator was that he was practically indestructible.  Almost nothing really seemed to be able to stop him.

            Trump, on a certain level, also appears to be practically indestructible, certainly quite impervious to criticism.  He answers all policy criticisms and personal attacks with pugnacious tweets.  Almost nothing seems to slow him down.

            Trump is manifesting mental cyborg traits that should have great appeal to transhumanists – those people today who believe in maintaining a material technological life after their organic death.  Strong human consciousness, a sense of self in a machine that can conceivably go on living forever.  To the transhumanist, the organic body is a limiting factor for humans, because it is so very vulnerable to material organic perishability and because it interferes with the creation of a superior state of mind and a superior state of being.

            Some people want to merge with machines in some way and become cyborgs.  Trump supporters want to psychologically merge with Trump and become Trumporgs.  In this way, a new form of transhumanism is being created.  Instead of mechanical implants to make one more machine-like, true believers are opening themselves up to the implants of Trump’s absolutistic authoritarian policies and to his tweets that give the impression that he and his followers will somehow leave permanent absolutistic authoritarian imprints on the field of experience of the external world, permanent imprints that can never be undone and will never be removed.  Trump means to change things in a lasting way, and so do the Trumporgs.

            And there are a lot of robotic qualities about these Trumporgs.  A robot operates in a world where there are defined discrete categories of things that have to be fabricated and manipulated and defined discrete categories of things that have to be discarded and eliminated.  Trumporgs want to fabricate a “pure” American United States, free from the supposedly dangerous influences of all kinds of foreigners and other minorities.  If the foreigners and other minorities can’t be totally expelled, at least some can, and the rest can be contained and isolated by filling them with fear and making them afraid to assert themselves.  Sometimes, the fear is created through the company that Trump keeps.  Having people like Steve Bannon, the alt-right executive chairman of Breitbart News, on his team is in and of itself a kind of coded language that indirectly invites hostile actions like the phone threats to J.C.C.’s and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.  Don’t modern machines respond to the stimuli of coded signals?  On the other hand, very often hatred has been fanned directly in Trump’s speeches.  His exhortations with regard to Mexico and Muslims.  The Trumporgs are given targets of people that have to be discarded in order to cleanse the U.S. and make it “pure” again.  Make America “pure”, and America and Americans can go on forever.  The phenomena that these Trumporgs have to manipulate are pure defined discrete minority figures, figures that have to go into the bin of the rejects.  No room for ambiguity.  No patience for separating out the minority of minorities in the U.S. who may be terrorists, drug dealers, and other kinds of criminals and dealing with it through traditional legal means.  It’s so much easier, so much simpler to just lump all people in a minority category together.  The enemies have to be discarded, expelled or at least definitively contained with fear.  Officially, of course, it is just the lawbreakers who are targeted.  But there is this atmosphere created by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric of targeted defined discrete prejudice and hate against all members of certain minorities.  It is defined discrete emotion and it ultimately leads to defined discrete simplistic focused solutions.

            Machines are built to complete linear focused defined discrete tasks that are based on defined discrete purposes.  Increasingly, the Trumporgs are reconfiguring themselves to act and think like machines.  As, of course, is Trump.  It is not that this is consciously or purposely happening, but it is happening nevertheless.  It is ironic that Trump was replaced on his show The Apprentice by Arnold Schwartzenegger, who, as was previously pointed out, played the ultimate destructive cyborg in The Terminator.  Machine men are what are needed to bolster and maintain fascist societies.  Trump and the Trumporgs are a natural result of the gradual transformation of human beings stemming from the sensory distortion in modern technological societies.  We thought that the totalitarian traditions manifested by fascist and communist societies in the twentieth century had been laid to rest at least in Western societies.  But now we see that isn’t the case.  Totalitarian societies help to reconfigure people as machines, and this allows many people to function more effectively in modern technological society.

            And yet the cost of becoming a Trumporg or any kind of a dehumanized mechanical org is enormous.  If a person has become numb from living in modern technological society, a healthy response would be to try to find ways of living a more organic natural life with more positive flowing blendable continual stimuli.  An unhealthy response would be to deal with one’s numbness by focusing on coming to life through defined discrete anger and finding a way to deal with that anger by psychologically merging with a leader like Trump and then venting that anger against minorities who can be turned into victims.  Not only different ethnic and religious groups but also LGBTQ groups and women.  And also the press and different politically liberal groups.  And the judiciary.  And President Obama.  There are a lot of different potential targets today for the defined discrete anger of Trump and the Trumporgs.  Targets that act as sources of abrasive static stimuli to Trump and the Trumporgs. These stimuli are jarring to people, overstimulating to people, and ultimately make them more numb than before they were stimulated to vent anger on these targets.  Nevertheless, minorities and other groups and individuals are targets that are good for temporarily pulling the Trumporgs out of the numbness they feel in the experiential void of modern technological society.  Targets that when the Trumporgs blur their individual identities with those of Trump can act as a means of giving them a meaningful life narrative.  What a sad commentary on these people’s lives that they can only come to life through focused hatred.

(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow

Shifting People’s Sense Of Reality To Achieve Political Goals

            Up until relatively recently in history, most people could agree on what constituted a common sense objective reality.  Subjective reality was something else, and certainly each individual permitted to a degree the projection of the sensations and perceptions of his subjective reality to spill over into the mutually accepted objective reality of the people around him.  Subjective reality was filled with the flowing blendable continual stimuli of emotions, which, in turn, influenced the way the world was sensed and perceived.  Certainly objective reality also had plenty of flowing blendable continual stimuli in the form of the blurry melting sensations from nature (so beautifully captured by the French Impressionists), but there were also a lot more defined discrete stimuli that gave the world the firm outlines and boundaries needed to operate within its spaces, and, in particular, needed by individuals to operate in such a way as to maintain the maximum functionality while working with all the other different people living within the world’s confines. 

Since the advent of modern technology, several new kinds of reality have been created, and, as a result, the very way we look at the whole notion of reality in general has changed.  I am thinking here of screen reality, with its sub-categories of movies, television, video games, computers, tablets and smartphones, as well as augmented reality and virtual reality.  Screen reality refers to those versions of reality that have been developed by modern technology to be presented on flat two-dimensional surfaces.  In some manifestations of screen reality, three-dimensional external world reality is compressed onto two-dimensional surfaces.  This is the result of ethereal vacuum stimuli, which are used in screen reality to replace all the space-occupying substance and mass that are found in phenomena in external world objective reality.  This vacuumizing of phenomena gives them almost a ghost-like quality that makes our experience of them very different from the way we experience phenomena in the everyday objective world in which we live and operate.  For one thing, there is just not the same organic bonding with vacuumized phenomena in an electronic picture.  But, in particular, there is this other-worldly quality that comes from an electronic picture.  Like a person could never really cross paths with a screen reality phenomenon.  So screen reality creates a subtle reconfiguration of the way he experiences the world in his field of experience.  Screen reality blurs with external world reality and a generalized detachment of the user occurs as a result of the sensation of flattening and isolating of the world from all the vacuum stimuli that spill out of the screen reality into the external world reality.

            The sense of flattening gets lost in virtual reality but not the sense of isolation.  One is still using seeing as the primary sense of encounter within commercial applications of virtual reality today.  There is still no touching, grasping or holding within these applications of virtual reality, even though phenomena seem more real than they do in screen reality.  But even when researchers discover how to make touch a part of the virtual reality package, it won’t be the same as natural touch, because it will be based on defined discrete digital stimuli rather than flowing blendable continual organic stimuli. It won’t feel the same.  It won’t be bonding to something with substance and mass.  And because one is surrounded by a vacuumized field of experience in virtual reality, one doesn’t have an objective external world reality around the edges of its boundaries  to act as a comparison, as with screen reality, and to give a person a substantive organic anchor in that way. 

            Augmented reality is a reality that combines elements of external world reality and screen reality.  Screen reality sounds, graphics and data are superimposed on top of the direct experience of the external world.  The screen reality aspect is meant to increase one’s understanding and appreciation of the naked external world.  It is as if modern humans are incapable of imparting sufficient meaning themselves to the experience of the external world.

            So here we have all these new kinds of reality to add to objective external world reality and subjective reality.  And it is interesting to see how these different kinds of old and new reality can be mixed together in different ways.  And this is likely to happen because all of these realities except objective external world reality are not common sense realities.  They are not sensorily grounded realities.  So now we get ungrounded not only through our emotions and intimate sensations in subjective reality, but in our very perceptions of the external world in screen, augmented and virtual realities.  And I would submit that not only do ungrounded emotions and intimate sensations influence the way we experience our perceptions, but also perceptions that are ungrounded by modern technological realities can, in turn, unground our internal thought processes that are based on our connection to our objective external world reality.  The sensory distortion that these modern realities create because of the way that they vacuumize our fields of experience makes us not only ungrounded, but unbalanced, less rational, a little crazier.

            Along comes Donald Trump, who is a master of dealing with modern realities.  He had his own reality show – The Apprentice – which was really a blurring of Trump’s subjective reality, objective external world reality and screen reality.  In other words, it was a Trump reality that played with people’s minds.  And nowadays, there are Trump’s tweets which combine his subjective reality with the screen reality of a twitter account.  And somehow Trump feels (and many of his followers feel) that his internal subjective reality is given a greater gravity, a greater grounding as a result of its fusion with the externalized screen reality of Twitter.  To the point where the externalized screen reality of Twitter is imparted with the gravity, the grounding of an objective external world reality.  What Trump says is supposedly fact even when it is pure lies or fantasy.  In other words, the screen reality of Twitter acts as a bridge by which Trump’s subjective reality becomes an objective external world reality.

            And people today, with their extensive experience with different screen realities and with their developing experience with both augmented reality and particularly virtual reality are very open to blurring the boundaries between different realms of reality.  They are increasingly predisposed to becoming ungrounded from objective external world reality and bouncing around many different realms of technological reality.  And they are increasingly open to a man like Trump who imposes his subjective reality on other people’s objective external world reality through the bridge of different modes of technological reality.  Trump has become a model for how an authoritarian regime can be established in a democratic country.  Perhaps the novel 1984 was just a few decades off in what it depicted.  Unless the American people can find ways to resist the reality-bending visions that he creates.

© 2017 Laurence Mesirow 

Managing Multiple Identities On The Internet

            The Internet provides kinds of opportunities that people could never have imagined before it came into existence.  One kind of opportunity relates to the ability of people to assume many different identities within the different social media, other websites and e-mails in which they participate.  People today like to assume different presentations of self with the different groups of friends and acquaintances with which they interact in different Internet formats.  On the Internet, this is so easy to do.  Before the Internet, people needed to take extra time actually traveling to and from meeting places for their external world groups.  And because physical travel required additional effort, once a person arrived at a group, he was going to spend some significant time there in order to make the trip worthwhile.

            When the telephone came along, people no longer had to physically travel to communicate with other people in real time, but it proved cumbersome as a tool for communicating within groups of several people, and it certainly proved very cumbersome for trying to go back and forth between conversations with different individuals.

            But with the Internet, a whole different situation arises.  One can switch back and forth between different chat conversations on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.  What constitutes communication within an encounter in a group can be a few phrases here and there.  And traveling between group conversations is not carried out by actual physical travel, but by a click of a key on the computer or smartphone or tablet.  So this means that a person can maintain the time, energy and state of mind to be a member of a much larger number of groups than when he was only engaged with groups in the external world.  And he can communicate with a much larger number of people.  Granted that there can be some overlapping membership between some groups, but being on the Internet also means that one has a greater opportunity to be a member of some groups that the people in other groups will know nothing about.  It also means that because one doesn’t have to be physically present, except maybe through an avatar, one can be an anonymous member of a group or a member with a made-up name and identity.  One can wear a cyber-mask, and no one will know the difference.

            Because these groups exist in the cyber world, in the screen world, they are vacuumized groups that don’t create organic bonding between members and that don’t create organic grounding in a palpable organic external world filled with flowing blendable continual stimuli.  These groups create numbing ghost-like connections, and as people focus on making and keeping connections within all of their disparate Internet groups, they become numb and lose their capacity to make and preserve solid organic connections with the solid organic manifestations of other people.  These Internet groups do not involve a lot of time, energy or state of mind to maintain.  They do not involve the organic friction that allows a person to feel fully alive in his interactions with other people.  So there is this paradox regarding the Internet.  It allows people to make more connections with people than was ever possible in purely external world social interactions.  But the nature of these interactions is such that they don’t generate bonding with others, grounding in the template of the organic external world, or organic friction to help a person feel fully alive and to move him through meaningful narratives in the external world, where he can make, preserve, and receive organic imprints which allow him to prepare a surrogate immortality and thus prepare for death.

            Now this covers the people who have basically well-meaning intentions in their social manipulations on the Internet.  There are the people who use their social manipulations on the computer to get the kicks they crave from so many interactions that simultaneously pull them out of the base numbness that they feel while spending so much time in the experiential void of the Internet screen.  And yes, having to make so many unbonded, ungrounded presentations of self leads to their actual senses of self becoming fragmented, one might say even pixilated.  Which, of course, leaves a person vulnerable to becoming robotized or avatarized in order to defend himself against crumbling apart from entropy.

            And then there are the people who use their multiple connections on the Internet to do things that they consciously know will hurt the people with whom they cyber-connect.  I am talking about those users of the Internet who create false identities in order to scam other people.  I am talking about users who create cyber-masks that allow them to generate bogus business opportunities that draw strangers to invest money with them.  Once the pretend businesspeople get their money, they, of course, disappear, something that is very easy to do on the Internet.  Then there are the bogus courtships, where cyber-users, particularly from foreign countries, seduce lonely partners and convince them to send large sums of money to help their new cyber-lovers out of difficult financial circumstances.  Once the cyber-lovers receive their money, they disappear.

            It is easy to condemn these cyber-criminals for taking advantage of their anonymity on the Internet in order to extort money out of their unsuspecting victims.  But it is also useful to understand them, to realize that these cyber-criminals are extremely numb people as a result of  the technological experiential vacuum in which they live.  They are people who, over and above the financial advantages that they gain, use their criminal acts as incredible kicks to pull them out of the extreme base numbness that they feel.  The criminal action still requires taking a risk of getting caught and a risk of simply not being able to carry the scam through to its desire conclusion.  The cyber-criminal lives for these risks that stimulate him out of his profound numbness.

            Certainly, the relationships that the cyber-criminal forms don’t lead to deep bonding, deep grounding or the normal balanced kind of friction - organic friction - all of which help people to feel more vibrantly alive.  But like the first category of Internet users discussed in this article - the more ordinary law-abiding users - they immerse themselves within the field of experience that has been made so readily available to them and to which they have grown accustomed.  The template of a more natural more traditional organic environment is no longer as readily available for those who live in modern technological urban living environments.  And even for those who live in rural environments, the exposure to modern technology has made them less capable of absorbing the organic stimuli that surround them.  Hence, the opioid epidemic in rural America where abrasive kicks are substituted for organic stimuli.  So people today relate to others as best they can – in many relationship fragments that correspond to their fragmented pixilated personalities.  Lots of different presentations of self and very little core.  In terms of satisfaction, fewer quality truly bonded truly grounded relationships can’t be beat.  But one has to be receptive to such relationships in order to have them.

© 2017 Laurence Mesirow

Talking To Machines As If They Were People

            One of the cores ideas consistently discussed in this column has been mirroring.  A baby reaches out to his mother to satisfy his needs and his mother’s response to him is based on how she perceives him and what she feels for him.  The baby picks up on his mother’s attitudes as the mother mirror’s her child by the nature of her response to him.  Primarily positive mirroring leads to the baby’s development of a positive attitude towards himself.  Primarily negative mirroring leads to a negative attitude towards himself.  Such mirroring actually occurs, on some level, throughout a person’s youth and even later on, not only with parents but with other authority figures and even contemporaries, and has an enormous influence on how he evolves.

            In my own ruminations, I have concluded that a kind of mirroring occurs with the interaction between humans and another class of complex behavioral entity: namely modern complex machines.  Modern machines don’t have a coherent sense of self or a coherent consciousness, but they do have complex defined discrete responses to human attempts to control them and operate them.  To the extent that machines operate primarily with defined discrete processes, they operate best with instigation from defined discrete actions on the part of humans.  To the extent that humans get sloppy with their actions and start interacting with machines through more flowing, blendable continual behavior, through accidentally hitting the wrong keys on a computer or pressing the wrong buttons or hitting things too hard or for too long, they get poor responses from the machines.  This then reflects fully on the humans’ capacity to properly control and operate the machines and, by extension, on the humans’ effectiveness and potency  in the modern world.  Machines are not built to respond properly with the imprecision evinced in improperly targeted or managed flowing blendable continual actions on the part of humans.  To get optimum responses from a machine, humans receive the implicit mirroring that comes from poor performances as a result of sloppy operating of the machine and then start molding themselves after the machine in order to demonstrate the behavior that gets the machine to operate properly.

            It is this combination of mirroring and modeling involving modern machines that is leading to the gradual robotizing of humans in modern technological society.  But now comes voice control as the vehicle by which more and more modern machines will be controlled and operated.  Talking to modern machines could become as commonplace as talking to other humans and to domesticated animals.  Talking to machines to do things will replace using touch to manoeuver machines in order to complete our tasks.

            One more category of nuisance taken away from the human condition.  Right?  Voice control is one more step in the modern journey to remove friction from our lives.  Get rid of friction and you can get rid of stress.  Get rid of stress and you can be a happy person.  At least, one can say, that this is what is implied in our modern philosophy of life.

            But actually people need a certain amount of friction in the real world in order to feel fully alive.  Get rid of too much organic friction, and a person sinks into a sensory vacuum, an experiential void.  Because touch involves direct sensory rubbing or grating with tactile phenomena in the external world, there is a lot more immediate organic friction involved in doing things with one’s hands than with one’s voice.  Speech is a much more mediated interaction with phenomena in the external world than manual manipulation.  Speech was not created for direct manipulation of the external world, but rather for communication with other humans and with domesticated animals.  One might say that speech traditionally has acted sometimes as a complement to manual manipulation as when riders of animals like horses or of chariots, carriages or stagecoaches driven by animals have talked to their animals in conjunction with their actions to either spur them on or to make them stop.  Speech has also been used by slaveholders to order around their slaves, by generals to order around their soldiers, and by bosses to order around their workers.  But this is not the same as what is happening today where speech is replacing manual manipulation not only for control of other organisms, but for all sorts of direct control of different tasks in the external world.

            So what will a transition from manual manipulation to voice control do to how people experience not only the technology and other physical phenomena in their world but also themselves?

            The use of voice control means that the form of sensory engagement that was once used for communicating with humans and animals in order to fine-tune relationships or to coordinate group projects that involved some manual manipulation is now being used for the direct manipulation by individual people of the things around them.  But because of the sophistication of many of these things, namely complex machines like computers, smartphones and robots, some of the vocal engagements with these complex things involve interactions that approximate dialogues with humans.  Obviously, the technology is still evolving and efforts are being made to increase both voice recognition and vocabulary on the part of these machines.  To the extent that these dialogues between humans and machines start to increase, the line that separates other humans from machines in the mind of a communicating human begins to blur.  Machines are increasingly being endowed with many of the qualities of humans (and humans are being endowed with many of the qualities of machines).  We increasingly are acting with machines as if they had a coherent sense of self and a coherent consciousness.

            And to the extent that we implicitly endow machines with human attributes because of their response to human vocalizing or their capacity to vocalize themselves, we become susceptible to mirroring from the machine (the way the machine appears to respond to our strengths and limitations) as well as modeling on our part with respect to an implicitly idealized crisp well-defined discrete relatively smooth frictionless performance on the part of the machine.  When we vocalize to a machine, we are treating it like a human being.

            By the same token, we start to view people from the perspective of their functional instrumental machine-like qualities.  How good are they at performing the narrow functional tasks that are required of them?  Just pay people for their services at a given time and don’t worry about their needs as whole human beings.  In the modern U.S., companies try to get workers on a part-time basis, as independent contractors for particular jobs or projects in order to avoid having to pay for benefits like health care, time off for child birth and pensions.  During those times when a worker is not actually functioning for his company or companies, he is on his own.  For young men and increasingly young women, there is a growing tendency to focus on sexual performance in their partners and to be less interested in emotional bonds that can create grounded relationships.  As a matter of fact, increasingly all relationships become contingent on performance rather than providing the foundation for a more unconditional connection.

            These are some of the developing deleterious effects that are at least partly due to relating to modern complex machines through voice as if the machines were human.  I have talked about the blurring of the lines between humans and machines as manifested in androids and cyborgs.  But voice control represents a more subtle functional blurring of lines between humans and machines.  It is nevertheless a blurring that is every bit as pernicious and one that threatens the very essence of our human identity.

(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow

Being Swallowed Up By The World Of Cartoons

            Like most little boys growing up in America after World War II, I was absolutely fascinated by an American version of animated films, namely cartoons.  I recently started thinking a lot about cartoons after reading Masters of Animation by John Halas (Salem House, 1987).  Reading this book gave me a foundation for developing my own ideas related to how cartoons fit into people’s technological fields of experience. 

Cartoons, at first, usually preceded full-length feature movies, but later, as television came into its own as a medium, whole programs appeared that were filled with cartoons.  What made them so great for kids is that there was so much action, so much movement.  And the characters were simply drawn and two-dimensional, both literally and figuratively.  No complex nuanced character development to think about a lot and no complexities to focus on in the story line.  Just a lot of fast action, a lot of quick breath-taking movement in ways that could never have taken place in real life.  And, of course, a lot of sadistic violence.  Stuff happens to cartoon characters that would not be permitted to be shown with real people.  Terrible things happen that would traumatize real people for life or leave them permanently disabled.  But cartoon characters are able to bounce back both psychologically and physically from terrible treatment as if nothing had happened.

The short cartoon, with its fast action and violence, became a highly addictive kick for children.  As kids grew up in environments where technology did more and more for them, and where increased crowding in cities and suburbs left less and less real-life space in which to move around, cartoons provided a different kind of space and environment where characters could show all kinds of unusual powers and resilience.  Children could feel like they were having a magical life narrative making magical life imprints, even though, in reality they were merely living as spectators.

As cartoons evolved into full-length feature animation forms, the violence diminished, because there was a limit to the violence that people could tolerate.  With the development of a full-bodied plot, there was also a diminishing of ongoing action, because time had to be spent developing interesting characters.  Nevertheless, these being primarily children’s movies, children’s stories formed the base of these full-length feature cartoons, and the magical use of movement, space and things continued to be present.  Flying people in Peter Pan, a flying elephant in Dumbo, a puppet that came to life in Pinocchio, an underwater kingdom in The Little Mermaid, dancing implements in Beauty and the Beast, a magic carpet in Aladdin.  These long cartoons continued to expand possibilities of life narrative in the minds of people who had increasingly rejected new possibilities of life narrative in their daily lives.  And as both short and long cartoons increasingly became available, first on VHS and then on DVD, children could acquire the possibility of watching and living vicariously through their favorite imaginary life narratives over and over again, and, in this way, merging in their minds with their favorite characters.

One form of cartoon presentation has not been fully discussed yet.  Many half hour children shows on television are hybrids of short cartoons and full-length feature cartoons with some of the actions of short forms combined with some of the more significant character development of full-length features. Two good examples of this kind of show were the Flintstones and the Jetsons.  There have also been more adult cartoon shows like the Simpsons and South Park which are more sophisticated than children’s shows both in content and language, but which still maintain some of the magical aura of animation.  Finally we have to mention the more complex imagery of computer-generated animated films like Toy Story and Shrek, which, with their three-dimensional effects, really draw people into the narrative.

To the extent that people are now living in front of a screen for more interactive reasons, they have found a way to more directly jump into the screen reality which they are experiencing.  This, of course, is what the computer experience is built for.  And to the extent that it is necessary, some computer users use a simplified graphic image of themselves that they have developed to participate in some computer functions.  This image, called an avatar, has some things in common with cartoon characters.  Now cartoon characters are not usually based on real people and are not in any way susceptible to real-time manipulation by a spectator.  And, of course, manipulation within a screen reality is the whole reason for the existence of an avatar.  But both an avatar and a cartoon character are simplified figures that dwell in some kind of screen reality with all the possibilities and limitations that that entails.

And yet we have already indicated that many children live through their favorite cartoon characters, by ongoing viewing of cartoon programs and repeated viewing of DVD’s.  They do this to identify with the magical possibilities of movement and narrative that these characters have.  What happens when adults start identifying with their own screen reality presentations of self?  It is one thing to use an avatar as a vehicle for representing oneself within various processes in screen reality.  The avatar is a tool of the person using it.  But as has been indicated throughout this column, people tend to become merged in their minds with things that they use frequently.  So often, the avatar becomes such a salient defined discrete image in a person’s mind that it begins to take over the mind.  And sometimes, even without the presence of an actual avatar, a person becomes like an avatar after immersing himself for a long time in his screen reality. The person becomes increasingly shallow and two-dimensional and demonstrates a lack of both emotional and intellectual depth and texture.

Does this description remind you of someone who has been in the news a lot these days?  How about Donald Trump: the man who communicates most of what he has to say in short succinct surprising shallow tweets?  During the course of the American presidential campaign, Trump gradually became his own avatar: a man who spoke in shallow sound bites and constantly shocked the world with what he had to say.  A man who had an air of unreality about him and who seemed to lack a core self. 

            The difference between a cartoon character and an avatar is that a cartoon character does not usually represent and is not directly manipulated by a real human like an avatar is.  But Trump’s life narrative has the magical surreal absurd flavor of a cartoon character.  It could be turned into an animated cartoon series, even if he didn’t actually exist.

And it’s a cartoon series that so many Americans, those who supported Trump, could so easily enter.  To the extent that they merge into a collective identity with him, they too become cartoon characters, characters who belong on a screen rather than in the real world.

One of my earlier articles was titled “Life Has Become A Cartoon”.  Boy, is that true now more than ever before.  This is why it is so important that we find a way of protecting people against the sensory distortion that emanates from our screen realities and other manifestations of modern technological society.

(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow

How Conspiracy Theories Help Us To Feel Alive

            Our news these days seems to be literally overflowing with stories about conspiracies and accusations of conspiracies.  One very prominent conspiracy to come to the surface recently is that where Russia supposedly influenced the American presidential election through hacking into the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee as well as those of other organizations and individuals.  Trump, who is an admirer of Putin, of course, vociferously denies this possibility and says that because the C.I.A. made a mistake with regard to missiles in Iraq that, in effect, it can’t be trusted about anything.  However, supposedly the C.I.A. has made corrections to its methods since the Iraq days.  And a bipartisan group of members of Congress wants to further delve into this matter.  The truth is that it is a rather serious accusation that is being made, and, therefore, one that merits further investigation.

            But some accusations of conspiracies remain accusations without any foundation to them.  For instance, the accusation that the news media were conspiring against Trump in his bid for the American presidency.  This accusation has turned out to be totally baseless.  If anything, the ongoing free coverage in the media that Trump and his outrageous statements received were a major factor in his election.  But the accusation of conspiracy certainly riled up Trump’s supporters and helped to stimulate them to life out of their numbness.

            This is because, in general, the accusation of conspiracy generates a lot of abrasive friction both between people and within people.  The accusation of conspiracy creates a little focused tension-pocket of overstimulation.  And we can define the idea of a conspiracy as a focused tension-pocket narrative where one person or group of people supposed tries to secretly control and manipulate some aspect of the life or lives of another person or group of people.  Obviously the individual or group of people supposedly being controlled or manipulated resents this considerably and wants to shut down the supposed actions of the perpetrator or perpetrators and wants to see some kind of justice appear.  Perhaps even punishment if possible.

            In more traditional organic societies, a focus on a conspiracy was a way for a person to handle excessive flowing blendable continual emotions that threatened to swallow up his sense of self and cause him to lash out uncontrollably in an undifferentiated manner.  Such emotions tended to predispose a person to act like a savage, an animal.  With a focus on a conspiracy, a person could channel his strong emotions in such a way that he could more easily maintain the integrity of his sense of self and thus maintain his identity as a human.   The conspiracy theory allowed a person to expel his excessive flowing blendable continual emotions in a safe way.  There could be a focused target for his emotions that would necessitate his concentrating his emotions so that they could be directed outside of himself in a defined way.

            In modern technological society, a focus on a conspiracy serves a different purpose.  Now the emotional problems that a typical conspiracy theorist would experience are numbness and jadedness as a result of a lack of organic stimuli in living environments today.  So the conspiracy theory today is not used to help shape and guide an excess of organic stimuli but rather to shock a person to come alive with the abrasive friction generated by the presence of a supposed conspiracy.  As in other forms of abrasive friction today, the conspiracy theory is like an addiction that gives a person kicks and that never fully goes away.  Because once you believe in it, and it keeps you alive, it’s hard to give up.

            And, in truth, it almost doesn’t matter if the conspiracy is real or not.  In both cases, the belief in a conspiracy in today’s world helps to pull a person out of the numbness and jadedness that he is experiencing, helps to pull a person out of the sensory distortion – the understimulation and the overstimulation – that he experiences living in modern technological society.  Perhaps it could be said that it is almost better that the conspiracy is a product of the believer’s imagination.  A real conspiracy is subject to being exposed.  Then the perpetrators can, at least potentially, receive their appropriate punishment and the conspiracy terminated.  And the perpetrator loses the source of his focused abrasive friction, his kicks, his shock therapy.  Whereas, if the conspiracy is imaginary, no perpetrators can be effectively brought to justice.  Unless charges are effectively trumped up (no pun intended), there usually just isn’t enough evidence to charge a supposed perpetrator for his misdeeds in an imaginary conspiracy.  As a result, the believer can feel perpetually aggrieved. There simply do not exist the means to get to the bottom of the perceived conspiracy, to resolve it by effectively exposing the perpetrators and punishing them and preventing them from ever trying to repeat the conspiracy or create a new one.  Having the lost cause of perpetually fighting an imaginary conspiracy can pull a person out of his numbness and jadedness and keep him alive indefinitely.

            The case of Russia may be the one instance where Donald Trump is fighting against a conspiracy theory.  Most of the time, Donald Trump is constantly coming up with his own new conspiracy theories.  To the extent that his supporters psychologically merge with him to become a part of the collective sense of self that he generates, they too believe in all of his conspiracy theories.  The supporters, together with Trump, are all stimulated to life by the abrasive friction generated as a reaction to these theories.  And the fact that Trump is always coming up with new conspiracy theories, new surprises, new shocks to his supporters nervous systems, gives them ongoing new kinds of abrasive friction, new stimuli to give them new kinds of kicks.  Trump is an addiction and each of his conspiracy theories is an addiction.

            The notion of Trump being like an addiction to his followers is, of course, just a metaphor.  It gives us a handle on what he is doing to his followers, so we can understand how he was, as it were, thrust upon us.  Just as a metaphor I used in a previous article of Trump being like political Viagra also gives us understanding of the strange political situation he presents not only to Americans but also to people in the rest of the world who are going to feel the effects of his governance.  To the extent that Trump jolts people out of their numbness, he is like a political addiction.  And to the extent that Trump gives numb people a way of feeling a sense of potency in their lives again, he is like political Viagra.  So both of these metaphors can be used to explain Trump’s meteoric rise on the American political landscape.

© 2017 Laurence Mesirow