Monday, December 24, 2018

Creating Friction-filled Problems To Feel Alive

            We have all learned at one time or another that sometimes it is important to postpone gratification if we want to achieve the greatest rewards in life.  But sometimes it goes further than that.  Sometimes not postponing gratification can lead to negative unintended consequences.  If a child eats his desert before his main meal, he loses his appetite for the truly nutritious part of the meal.  If Congress cuts taxes without cutting expenditures, the national debt can rise dramatically.  If a couple decides to make love before they can have access to protection, an unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of disease can result.

            What we are talking about here is thinking in the short term vs. thinking in the long term.  In many areas of life today, people are focused on short term desires rather than long term desires.  One can simply write this off as hedonism, but hedonism is a descriptive moral term rather than an explanatory term.  If we are concerned about the effects of these attitudes, then we have to try and understand the causes behind them.

            I think that there are two approaches that we can take to this situation.  First of all, there is the idea that as life becomes more and more frictionless, as a result of more and more labor-saving devices in the external world and as a result of living more and more in screen reality, both of which create a vacuum-filled alternate field of experience, that we simply become used to a life that gets easier and more frictionless.  And this totally distorts the way we sense things in our lives.  So short-term cravings fill our minds, fill the numbness in which we increasingly live, in order to reconnect to the external world, even if only for brief moments.  People in the American Congress can pass a tax bill that doles out a lot of benefits in the form of tax relief particularly to wealthy people. This is thinking in the short term.  In the long term, the deficit explodes.  But obviously the people who passed this bill weren’t thinking in the long term.  In order to get some temporary financial grounding in the present, the people in the American Congress have created a big tension-pocket for their children’s generation.  Some incredibly abrasive friction in the form of an enormous addition to the national debt.  On the surface, on the one hand, that will certainly pull the children’s generation out of experiential numbness.  But the experience of dealing with paying off even a part of the debt could be so painful, as in the government having to cut many benefits particularly for the middle class and the poor, that the debt could drive the average citizen into the internal numbness of a deep depression.

            Another angle is to start more from the flavor of the experience within the person rather than on the interactions between the person and modern technology.  As a person today sinks into numbness, he becomes increasingly a free-floating figure in a vacuum.  In order to pull himself out of his numbness, he intermittently takes jabs at solutions within the situation where he finds himself, in order to generate enough friction during isolated moments and in order to relieve himself from his numbness and in order to feel more fully alive during these moments.

            When one is numb, one is in great psychological discomfort.  The discomfort is in itself a defense, although not a healthy one, to help one feel more alive within the numbness. A terrible tension pocket of abrasive overstimulation to help a person fight the numbing understimulation of a vacuum.  The only defense against the discomfort is to push the causes of the pain into the external world.

            So we can say that thinking in terms of the short term is a way to simultaneously ground oneself intermittently by landing on short term solutions to different abrasive irritations, both real and imagined, as well as a way to create stimulation through the process of generating organic friction in order to get rid of perceived abrasive friction.  The only problem is that short-term solutions to abrasive friction, are, in the long run, just temporary solutions to secondary problems.  The real problem is the experiential numbness that underlies a lot of human life in the modern world.  Yes, tension-pockets of overstimulation – the waste products and unintended consequences of the technology we use to make life easier and more frictionless – are not forms of abrasive friction we purposely search out.  But other forms of abrasive friction are forms of stimulation that we do search out to pull us out of the fundamental numbness that is the experiential foundation of modern technological society.  Most obviously motorcycles, hot rods, motorboats, and modern electric guitars among other sources.  But also there are those situations that we call self-destructive where we do things to defeat our ostensive goals and then have to live with the ongoing abrasive emotional stimulation of disappointment as well as the uncomfortable external world situations that result.  Big chronic problems can result, which, on one level we welcome to fight the numbness from a perfectly frictionless life.  On another level, these chronic problems not only offer a defense against numbness, but they offer opportunities to find short-term solutions through generating organic friction to temporarily eliminate the effects of abrasive friction.

            It is sad that people need to find ways to self-destruct in order to dedicate themselves to find solutions to the problems they have created for themselves and then, using the combination of self-created problems and self-created solutions to pull themselves out of their numbness and feel alive.  Maybe what this tells us is that a certain amount of healthy organic friction from grounded more traditional more natural environments is necessary in order to live psychologically more healthy lives.  The search for a perfectly frictionless life is one that can only lead to continuing major problems for people.

(c) 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Spouting News From A Fake News Anchor

            In a previous article, I discussed the use of virtual reality to recreate people, both dead and living, for different screen performances.  It was pointed out that in the process of creating the representations of these people, not only did the distinction between these vacuumized representations and the real people that corresponded to them tend to blur, but, more particularly, the vacuumized representations tended to impart a sense of ghostliness and evanescence to the real people.  And this, in the long run, is going to affect how ordinary people end up treating one another.  If people in daily life start to appear ghostly and evanescent to us, then it really doesn’t matter to us, doesn’t concern us, if we then use them to pull out of our own sense of ghostliness and evanescence, our own numbness, through making them targets for angry aggressive behavior, even violent behavior.

            Now come the Chinese who have created an artificial news anchor on television.  It has been created through a combination of virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence.  The Chinese supposedly created it, because it is more efficient than a human and more economical as well.  Whatever their ostensive reasons for creating this entity, there will certainly be some unintended consequences as well.

            One of them is the manner in which the Chinese will absorb the presence of the artificial news anchor.  Unlike the virtual representations of Michael Jackson and other famous people, the artificial news anchor is not meant to represent any known human being.  So the artificial news anchor does not entirely partake of any specific mass, matter and substance of a human being who lived at any one time.  There may have been a human model for the news anchor, but the connection between the model and the anchor would be much more tenuous than that of a famous human with his virtual representation.  So the artificial news anchor has a much greater lightness of being than a virtual representation of a famous person.  It is much more like an avatar, except without an actual known human being referent point.  It is a highly vacuumized complex behavioral entity. The complexity makes it believable as a human-like screen reality creature.  So the Chinese will be drawn to it and will commune with it, to the extent that one can actually commune with a machine.  And in communing with it, the distinction will blur between the real human and the artificial human in the fields of experience of these Chinese.  And the highly vacuumized artificial news anchor will contribute to vacuumizing the viewers watching it.  And the viewers will be watching it much more than they would be watching virtual representations of famous people.  Such an experience will touch the Chinese viewers with ghostliness and evanescence on a regular basis.

            There is a sense in which the news anchor is a kind of trusted authority figure.  First and foremost, he is supposed to be someone who is dispensing the truth about the people and events that are appearing in the news.  And in a world as vast, complex and overpopulated as ours, it gives us a sense of control over things if we have true knowledge about what is going on.  But the fact is that the presenter of the news in Chinas is soon going to be something (not someone) that is not what it appears to be.  It is not an actual human being but rather a vacuumized representation of a human being.  A representation that can be manipulated to say, without any problems of conscience, whatever the Chinese government wants it to say.  Unlike a human being, a vacuumized representation is incapable of forming its own opinions about a political situation.  It is incapable of betraying any subtle unconscious disagreement with the opinion that it is given to express on air.

            So, in the end, the fact that the entity is pretending to be something that it isn’t, leaches into the perception of veracity of the content of what it is saying.  An untrustworthy presentation of what it actually is leads to a loss of trust in the content of its message.  In other words, the Chinese will develop a skepticism with regard to believing him.  And this will be contrary to what an authoritarian government like the Chinese government is trying to achieve.  A vacuumized entity like an artificial news anchor just does not have the gravity to make and prepare meaningful imprints on its viewers.  And, therefore, the news it conveys does not make and preserve meaningful imprints on its viewers.

            Not only will the vacuumized quality of the news anchor rub off on the viewers, but also the vacuumized quality of the communications themselves will rub off as well.  The numbness will spread to the communication between the Chinese.  As people become more and more numb in their skepticism as to what they are hearing from the artificial news anchors, it will make meaningful communication among those Chinese who view it more difficult.  It will make them feel more disconnected from the external world.

            And then, of course, as a reaction to enveloping numbness, many Chinese will become more and more aggressive both towards themselves and towards one another: one person explosive tension-pockets.  It is not good to try to subtly fool masses of people by creating a vacuumized entity for screen reality that pretends to be a human.  The ripple effects will be far reaching, and the upshot is that viewers won’t be able to trust reality anymore.  This will lead to severe psychopathology.  And it’s all being done to cut costs and create a frictionless efficiency.  The problem with frictionless efficiency is that what seems frictionless and efficient today, can seem very abrasive and very inefficient in comparison to what later inventions can do, as humans become increasingly intolerant of any form of friction.  Who knows what some day might replace artificial news anchors, but something will.  And this invention will push the Chinese and perhaps others into deeper layers of a vacuum, disconnecting people more and more from one another.  And such a trend threatens the very survival of the human race.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Feeling Connected While Taking A Shower

            As a result of the Internet of Things (IoT), human beings are becoming increasingly connected to the different devices that surround them in modern technological society.  In the process of creating more connections between these devices, humans themselves are becoming more connected to all of them.  And through all these connections being created, these devices can more easily complement one another and more effortlessly and more frictionlessly serve the humans for whom they are working. Humans and their devices become one harmonious system.

            One of the main ways that humans have become connected to these devices is through Alexa, Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence entity.  Tell Alexa what you need to get done and she takes care of it for you through the connectivity of the Internet of Things.  The connectivity seems to have been perfectly ongoing for Alexa’s users with the exception of one small area of human experience: taking a shower.  Like with most electronic devices, up until now, if you were to splash on the traditional Alexa speaker, it would create problems.  So a person would have to go through temporary withdrawal symptoms while cleaning up his body, exiling his Alexa speaker to some place outside of the bathroom.  But not anymore.  Now there is a new splash immune device called the Aqua Dew that can be used while taking a shower or, for that matter, while taking a swim in a swimming pool.  You don’t put the device in the water, but you can leave the device near the water.  If the device gets splashed on, there is no problem.  Alexa will continue to be the reliable companion that it is supposed to be.

            This is actually quite significant, because it means that a person never has to disconnect himself from the system that comprises the Internet of Things.  No longer does a person have the need or, for that matter, the opportunity to be an organic human being with strong connections to the natural world.  And this means that the person gets sucked into a system that diminishes his capacity to make, preserve and receive organic imprints, have rich vibrant life experiences, create meaningful life narratives, and develop a personal surrogate immortality through the unique imprints that he preserves that allow him to prepare for death. Maintaining a sustained interconnection with the Internet of Things, how is a person supposed to have a meaningful effect on the world, feel fully alive, maintain a sense of purpose and prepare for death in such a way that he leaves something of himself on the planet where he is going to die?  In other words, telling Alexa what to do and having Alexa manipulate everything for him puts a person into an experiential vacuum, a bubble where he loses his immediate connection to the external world.  With Alexa, a person’s connection to the external world is perpetually mediated.

            There has been a lot of discussion in this column about the effects of all the mediating experience that has been created by the screen reality of movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones and tablets.  Recently the up and coming field of virtual reality has been added to the modern mix of human experience.  But Artificial Intelligence entities like Alexa don’t influence human beings simply by creating separate new compartments of experience that stand apart from external world reality.  Instead, by taking over the daily human tasks that are a part of the human participation in external world reality, they transform what should be a direct connection with external world reality into a mediated experience. They take away the opportunity for the direct primary experience that is the foundation for strong life narrative, for strong organic imprints and for secure surrogate immortalities.

            And the ultimate experience that is left to us by the utilization of an increasing amount of Artificial Intelligence in our lives is the living death of numbness.  And this in turn leads to an attempt to fight off numbness by activating ourselves to a different kind of life.  We become more receptive to mechanical and digital stimulation and model ourselves after the complex behavioral entities in these arenas by becoming more like robots and avatars respectively.  And this means the shrinking of our organic coherent sense of self.  Losing more of our humanity.

            Perhaps this seems to be a lot to attribute to a splash-proof Alexa speaker.  And although this article is about Aqua Dew, the critique here is, on one level, directed against the Internet of Things as a whole.  Do we really want to pay the price of a diminishing primary connection to the external world in order to have easier more frictionless lives?

            Yet, on another level, a small change like that provided by Aqua Dew can be seen to have an enormous effect just by itself.  Taking a shower has been one of the few areas of life up until now where we have been able to temporarily separate ourselves from the Internet of Things and its mechanizing effects.  Now that big hole in our fields of experience is closed.  And so many  people will embrace the closing of the loophole. They love the notion of detaching themselves from their perishable organic senses of self in order to more easily connect up with the seemingly more eternal mechanistic system represented by the Internet of Things.  Now, the only time from which we will be separated from the Internet of Things is when we are asleep.  Although maybe the next advance in interacting with Alexa will be to find a way to have Alexa speak to us while we are dreaming, as it lovingly sits by our bed.  One can never anticipate what is going to happen in today’s world of perpetual innovation.

(c) 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Becoming Entranced By A Hovering Saucer

            The other day, I attended a social event that combined music, food and mostly intelligent conversation.  And then there was my friend Tom, who was manipulating a controller in order to fly what looked like a flying saucer, to the amusement of some of the guests during the intermission for the music.  This object glided and hovered and climbed up and swooped down.  And, of course, the object wasn’t attached to the controller the way that model planes used to be attached to a controller when I was growing up.  But in those days, all one could do with the flying object was to take it around in circles.  Today the electronic flying objects have so much more freedom in their movements.  Even though they are still manipulated through a controller, they appear autonomous.  And they entrance their viewers, as if they were unpredictable autonomous entities.

            These toys are called nano drones, and they are smaller versions of the bigger drones that are used for military and commercial purposes.  And in today’s modern technological world, they are sources of fascination for young and old alike (my friend Tom is in his sixties).  And unlike the model planes of old, where the cord connecting the plane to the person flying it was visible, the nano drones appear to be autonomous.  They are sophisticated seemingly autonomous complex behavioral entities that seduce people into sustained observation.  They are a toy that has moved beyond the interactive toys like video games in certain ways.  Perhaps the closest toy to them, on one level, is the wind-up toy, but wind-up toys have a very robotic angular movement and they stop moving after a relatively short time.  So they don’t have nearly the hypnotic power of a nano drone.

            And that hypnotic quality is not simply influential for the periods of time a person is watching all the wonderful fancy manoeuvers of the nano drone.  It becomes a contributory factor in the whole range of frictionless mediated activities in which a person participates that make him passive and numb.  For the operation of the nano drone, the manoeuvers are minimal, and therefore, the imprints that the operator makes on his field of experience are minimal as well, as are the imprints that he preserves.  Perhaps the people who saw Tom that night will remember him as the first person to show them how a nano drone works, and he will engrave an imprint on their memories.  But as more and more people start using the nano drone toys, all the different operators will start blurring together in the minds of the members of Tom’s original audience.  The variability in the styles of different operators just isn’t that significant and that important.  Operating a nano drone just doesn’t lend itself to becoming an individualized art or sport the way, let’s say, driving a dogsled with huskies does.

            And yet activities like operating a nano drone are going to be a larger and larger portion of people’s time as  seemingly autonomous complex behavioral entities proliferate and take over a greater and greater share of the marketplace for toys.  At this point, it might prove illustrative to discuss the nano drones in relation to another kind of seemingly autonomous toy: model trains.  Unlike the flying airplanes, model trains are similar to nano drones in that they move around without being connected to a cord to the people who are operating them and causing them to move around.  But unlike nano drones, they move on a fixed route over and over again, a route that is defined by the railroad tracks.  Model trains are dependent on another creation of humans – railroad tracks – to define their routes and to give them the means to move forward.  By contrast, every time that a nano drone flies, the operator is defining unique constantly novel routes for it.  This is at least partly the reason that a nano drone is so hypnotic.  For many people, a model train can get boring, because it has one or possibly a few fixed routes (depending on the complexity of the display) that it can follow.  But an operator of a nano drone has an infinite number of routes that it can follow with its seemingly autonomous flying patterns.  It is this novelty that impels people to keep looking at a nano drone when it is in operation.  And it is this novelty that distracts people and takes time away from the activities involved in a person making, receiving and preserving organic imprints, from the wealth of primary experience activities that are available to humans.

            Finally, a comparison is in order between a nano drone and screen reality phenomena like television, video games and computers.  In the minds of most people, there would be a certain psychological separation between screen reality activities and activities in the external world.  On some level, people know that screen reality activities aren’t real to the extent that they lack mass, matter and substance in the external world, even though they provide a highly mediated seemingly autonomous experience.  This blurs the lines between mediated experience and primary experience and ultimately between screen reality, with its more passive human involvement, and external world reality, which requires a more active human involvement.  A nano drone toy draws people from a more active external world posture to the kind of hypnotic passive posture associated with screen reality experience.

            A nano drone toy is one more phenomenon that ultimately numbs people and makes it more difficult for them to live a rich vibrant primary experience life.  Its entrancing hypnotic quality is precisely what makes it an up and coming contributory factor in numbing our senses of self and our consciousness.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow                       

The Technological Field That Surrounds Us

            This column has focused a great deal on the problems created by new technological devices.  And although some modern technological devices create excessive abrasive friction, like the noisy machines in factories and on construction sites, speeding cars, electric guitars, industrial smog, clusters of highly populated high rises – what I have called tension pockets, the focus here has increasingly been on the less obvious distortions that come from too little friction, too little stimulation.  The main thrust of modern technological development has been to have technology take over the workings of our living environment and, in the process, make our lives easier, more frictionless, more mediated.  Making our lives easier seems sensible, because then we don’t have to struggle so much in order to survive.  We can seemingly live more comfortably for a longer period of time.

            Of course, in my articles, I have focused a lot on the individual negative effects created by different technological devices. In some cases, these negative effects can seem less important compared to the positive results that are being produced, even if these products are already on the market and unforeseen negative effects have appeared.  But even when negative effects seem minimal, the cumulative negative effect of all the labor-saving technology that we put in our field of experience can be considerable.

            As life becomes easier, we become more and more understimulated, which leads to us feeling more and more numb, as we try to experience the world.  But we end up experiencing less and less, and this impedes us from making, receiving and preserving organic imprints as we try to live rich vibrant lives, develop meaningful life narratives and prepare for death by creating surrogate immortalities from all the preserved imprints that we leave on other people.

            As life becomes easier, we lose our internal gravity to hold us down and hold us together.  It is almost like we become avatars of ourselves, losing our internal sense of mass, matter, and substance.  All sorts of pathological behavior develops to pull us out of our numbness.

            For many men, in particular, they resort to hurtful actions and crimes of numbness to pull them out of the numbness.  The most obvious example is many of the mass killings that have occurred in many different places in modern technological society.

            Not all the hurtful actions are carried out towards others.  Many are acts of self destruction.  And I am not just talking about suicide here, which is a last desperate attempt frequently to have moments of abrasive feeling, before descending into the ultimate numbness.  There is the abrasive friction that comes from the kicks from using opioids, cocaine and meth.  And the abrasive friction that comes from other compulsive addictions like overeating, alcoholism, compulsive sex and compulsive gambling.

            All these behaviors can be connected to the growing numbness that is a part of modern life.  Getting rid of friction in dealing with life tasks ultimately means for many people creating pathological friction in other areas of their lives.  It just isn’t that simple, the notion that life will be better for people if only their lives can be made easier. 

            Feeling numb in terms of one’s engagement and interaction with the external world is one aspect of this numbness.  Another aspect is the internal numbness that one feels, a numbness that gives one a lightness of being that, in turn, makes one feel like his own avatar.  Becoming like an avatar means losing one’s humanity.

            I have previously focused on people becoming robotic, as they increasingly imitate the machines with which they interact.  A robot does not have organicity.  A robot functions as an ungrounded figure in a vacuum environment that it helps to create.  But, at least, it has internal gravity; it has mass, matter, and substance.  And if a robot can’t create the organic friction which is missing in the lives of so many people, at least it has acted as a model for creating abrasive friction which temporarily pulls people out of their numbness.

            It is when we get to the digital world and digital screens, that we get to people modeling themselves after the complex behavioral entities that exist behind the screens.  Being surrounded by numbness in our modern technological external world, as well as in screen reality and increasingly virtual reality, becoming more and more separated from most kinds of friction, people are moving away from the robot model and towards the avatar model.  First humans have gone through a process where they have lost their grounded organic connection to the external world and have become more robot-like.  Later they have lost their physical connection as figures in the world and become avatar-like.  They are becoming ghosts of themselves.

            All of this serves as an explanation for why I am so concerned about the growth of the use of technological devices and processes in order to make life easier: more frictionless and more mediated.  It is true that by itself, each of these devices and processes seems wonderful for humans.  The problem comes when they are experienced as an aggregate, as the foundation for a technological field of experience.  This is not so positive.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Manipulating A Chunk Of Human Experience

            Most of the experiences I have focused on in this column dealing with sensory distortion in modern technological society have been visual experiences.  Yes, I have dealt with noise pollution from construction sites and from traffic jams and from other situations of modern life, but mostly just in passing.

            Today, I want to focus on a technological solution to noise pollution and why it just creates new problems.  We now have a way to not only pass music directly to our ears through headphones, but we have a way to eliminate all background noise through noise cancelling headphones.  Not only do these new headphones get rid of ambient noise, but, as a result, they improve the quality of the music experience that we want to have.  And of course they get rid of all the abrasive noises that irritate us anyway: honking cars, machine noises at construction sites, loud pedestrians, subway noises.  So what could be the problem with using these headphones?

            Imagine if a person didn’t like the visuals of where he was walking.  Imagine that the person found a way to insert a computer screen in front of his eyes so that he didn’t have to visually experience the area through which he was walking.  We will also imagine that, even though he wouldn’t be able to see obstacles in his path, that he was somehow able to navigate around them, maybe through something like sonar.  So he would no longer need his sight to avoid getting hurt.  But looking where one walks has another purpose.  It grounds one in one’s visual living environment.  It puts a person in a unitary field of experience where he is, in a sense, an integral part of that with which he is surrounded.  The person internalizes this.  In addition, the unitary field of experience mirrors the person, and models for him a sense of coherence that the person internalizes for his sense of self.  In other words, it is not only individual entities that can mirror and model for people, but whole fields of experience as well.

            A person can’t ground himself in a screen reality, where grounding is always prevented by a plastic screen.  A screen breaks up a sense of a unitary field of visual experience.  And this weakens the possibility of coherence in a person’s sense of self.  By the same token, noise cancelling headphones, in separating a person from the auditory field of experience that surrounds him, also weakens the person’s sense of self from a different sensory perspective.  Granted that hearing is not as important as seeing for humans in order to navigate successfully in the external world.  But auditory cues tell a person when someone is approaching that he knows.  Perhaps a friend will shout out a person’s name in order to get his attention.  With noise cancelling headphones, a person hears nothing.

            In effect, noise cancelling headphones fragment what would otherwise be a unitary field of experience.  What we have is a headphone reality existing alongside a visual external world reality.  The two are not connected.  And this disjunction leads to a weakened sense of grounding in both the auditory and visual realms.  Which means that both realms together create in the experiential spaces between them an experiential vacuum which in turn leads to numbness.

            Listening to music through noise cancelling headphones is not the same as listening to music on electronic devices without headphones.  In the latter case, the music blends with the noises and voices in the external world and becomes part of the whole auditory realm of experience and, by extension, with a person’s whole unitary field of experience.  But in today’s world, it becomes more and more difficult to find people who are interested in building their lives within more unitary fields of experience.  To gain control over their sensory experiences, people feel a need to compartmentalize their sensory fields.  The screens of television, computers, video games, smartphones and tables represent compartmentalized self-contained patches of visual experience that are totally separate from what is going on in the visual world around them.  To the extent that there are noises, voices, and music without headphones, they can blend more easily with the noises, voices and music occurring already in the external world reality.

            A broken-up field of experience indirectly creates a larger mirroring and modeling situation where a person, in an unconscious imitation of that which surrounds him, develops a broken-up sense of self.  So, in attempting to gain a greater control over one’s external living environment through compartmentalizing it and manipulating one chunk of it at a time, one becomes susceptible to losing control over one’s internal living environment.  Here I am not talking about inventing new tools that are useful for work, or creating new products. As long as they are created within external world reality, they remain a part of a unitary field of experience.  And recorded music that is not bottled up by headphones can blend in, to some extent, with the noises and voices of a larger unitary field of experience.  Unlike visual screen reality, which becomes an isolated patch of a larger field of experience, recorded music without headphones can be a little closer to listening to a live performance.  Not exactly, because there’s no visual group of people playing instruments and singing.  But recorded music without noise-cancelling headphones can enhance the external world experiences and events in which one is participating within the external world.

            And by contrast, so it is that when the recorded music is experientially isolated from the larger external world reality that larger problems emerge.  This may sound like an extreme interpretation of something as seeming innocent as a type of headphones.  But so much inventing of new products is going on in today’s world and there is so much psychological pathology present among today’s humans.  And it’s my belief that many of these seemingly innocent new products are not so innocent in their negative psychological effects on the people who are using them.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Atoning When You Don’t Really Feel It

            On Yom Kippur, Jews all over the world go through a process of atoning for their hurtful actions and sins.  Just before Yom Kippur, I went to a talk on the holiday by Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh, a well-known Jewish educator in the northern suburbs of Chicago.  Rabbi Karsh was of the opinion that God purposely made humans prone to the errors of hurtful actions and sins rather than being perfectly moral.  And this is because it’s only through atoning for our hurtful actions and sins – in effect, transcending above them – that God’s creation is truly made perfect.

            I would like to explore this notion from a different angle in order to give an explanation as to why this may be so.  If Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned in the Garden of Eden and had remained there forever along with their descendants, there would have been no meaningful narrative for humans, no meaningful life history.  Paradise has a stultifying effect on human initiative.  Everything is basically taken care of.  A person is protected against feeling fragile and vulnerable in his life.  And with this protection, a person doesn’t feel a strong need to make and preserve organic imprints on other people as a foundation for a personal surrogate immortality, and thus, a preparation for death.  But now that people have been permanently expelled from this paradise, they do feel impelled to do things that will have a lasting meaningful effect on other people.

            One category of such actions is moral deeds.  Doing good things for other people that, if the actions are significant enough, will be remembered by these other people.  And one category of moral deeds is atoning for actions that, purposefully or even accidentally, have hurt another person.  True atonement for hurtful actions and sins can be a very meaningful way of making and preserving imprints on another person. At the same time, in true atonement, one is baring oneself to receiving the imprint of forgiveness from the person who has been hurt or sinned against. This, in turn, can lay the foundation for a deeper bonding between the two people.

            And it is not only humans that are concerned about lasting imprints.  When humans ask for God’s forgiveness, they are leaving a much more lasting imprint on God than if they had a perfectly innocent moral life.  And when God pardons human transgression, He is experiencing the products of his creation in the strongest way possible.

            It is thus a two-way exchange of imprints made and preserved that makes the process of atonement on Yom Kippur so important both to Jews and to God.  Human atonement and God’s forgiveness create a transcendental bond that would not exist between God and a people living in paradise.  And these two actions create an elevated moral state for the Jewish people that lays the foundation for God’s special pride in his chosen people.

            With all of this being said, there is a problem with the process of atonement for all people that occurs as a result of being immersed in modern technological society.  To the extent that one becomes numb from being surrounded by modern technology, one is going to become less conscious of all the hurtful actions and sins one commits either against God or against other humans.  Or maybe even if one is conscious of the hurtful actions and sins, one will ascribe less importance to them, give them less weight.  For a modern Jew on Yom Kippur, he then may go through the motions of a generic perfunctory atonement without being very focused on or very concerned about his hurtful actions or sins and therefore without being very focused on or very concerned about asking forgiveness for what he has done or making positive changes in his behavior.  This is the problem of committing hurtful actions or sins in a state of numbness.  One is too numb to truly understand what one has done.

            It sounds strange to say this, but the hurtful actions and sins that are susceptible to being mitigated by the sinner through atonement have to be first fully experience by the sinner both in terms of their commission and in terms of retrospective awareness.  The anguish of real remorse comes as a result of a passionate awareness of having committed a hurtful action or sin. This passionate remorse and awareness are what makes Greek tragedies and Elizabethan tragedies so painful to watch.  We identify with the heroes and vicariously cleanse our own souls for our more minor hurtful actions and sins.  And we derive comfort from the knowledge that unlike many of these heroes, our atonement for our more minor hurtful actions and sins will allow us to be successfully reintegrated into our communities.

            In truth, the religious service of Yom Kippur does not deal directly with individual hurtful actions or sins of individual people.  And no one can be aware of all the bad things he has done and this is even acknowledged in the service.  But as we slide through life today in our frictionless mediated life narratives, we become too numb to feel most of the time when we hurt or sin against other people.  As we gradually start to model ourselves after robots, we become so numb that we don’t feel a need to really atone for actions that we feel incapable of actually doing in the first place.  Even though we have done them.  This is unfortunate, because the aggrieved party does not have the comfort that comes from receiving the organic imprint of an apology.  And the person who committed the hurtful action or sin does not receive the benefit that comes from making and possibly preserving the organic imprint of atonement.  Atonement is a very important imprint in the bundle of imprints that a person can make as a way of preparing for death with a personal surrogate immortality.  But modern technology is gradually taking this away from us.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow 

Keeping The Lid On In Our Lives

            Our efforts in modern technological society to make life more and more frictionless seem to know no limits.  The latest invention to fill this need is the Lyd bottle.  This is a bottle that opens up when you put your lips to it and closes up when you withdraw your lips.  It is battery-powered and operates through a touch sensor in the lid.  When one uses this bottle, one no longer has to worry about liquid running down the side of one’s face.  As if that constitutes one of the major problems in life.

            Okay, I am being facetious.  But this need to make an activity that is fairly frictionless even more frictionless is part of a deeper issue in modern technological society.  As life becomes more and more frictionless, and we sink more and more into the numbness of an experiential vacuum, we feel a need to find activities that will generate friction and help us to feel alive.  Many of these activities fall under the rubric of kicks, adventure, gambling, kinky sex, illegal drugs.  Within the category of work, there is that group of people we call entrepreneurs, and some of them get involved in the paradoxical activity of generating friction-filled research in order to achieve the goal of making one more area of life easier to deal with and, therefore, even more frictionless.  In other words, one engages in short-term friction-filled efforts in order to feel more vibrantly alive and make and preserve organic imprints.  But, in the long run, one has ended up making an area of life that is already fairly frictionless even more frictionless.

 And this is because a potential inventor in his desperate desire to pull out of his numbness, reconfigures a frictionless activity in his mind into an activity that in his numbness suddenly seems to be shockingly friction-filled.  The most frictionless activities can suddenly be made to seem shockingly friction-filled when one is sunk into numbness.  Oh, the effort required to life a bottle to one’s lips and drink from it without spilling it down the side of one’s face.  And oh, the terrible consequence that ensue if one does accidentally let the liquid onto one’s face and even onto one’s shirt, blouse, sweater or jacket.

The truth of the matter is that just maybe there aren’t that many significant problems to solve anymore with regard to the average person’s routine of daily life.  And this petty silly imprint of a spill-less bottle is all that some people can come up with in order to give their lives some relevance and meaning, and, at least for the short term, some real friction as a result of grappling with the problem that has to be solved.

Our consumer society is constantly trying to make daily life easier, when, in truth, our lives would be more satisfying if there were more areas that generated real difficulty.  Maybe someone should invent a bottle where liquids spill out more easily than usual, so that people would have to exert more effort to make sure that more of their liquid goes down their mouths and their throats, rather than down their cheeks and onto their clothing.

Or maybe people should start focusing on larger issues that are the result of the tension pocket waste products of all of our efforts to make life so frictionless.  Waste product situations like air pollution, noise pollution, chemical pollution of our land, crowded housing projects, crowded highways, all these problems and many more are situations that are caused by modern technological efforts to make life more frictionless.  At the same time, these waste product situations, these tension pockets, push people to search for relief from such situations by escaping into frictionless experiential vacuums.  So we can go back and forth between abrasive friction and frictionlessness, between overstimulation and understimulation.  But when we sink into the numbness of frictionlessness, even a task like drinking water from a regular bottle can seem evidently like overstimulation.

So why do we need a Lyd bottle or other friction-eliminating inventions?  First, to temporarily relieve ourselves from what we perceive as some of the experiential pollution that comes from some of the abrasive friction and the waste products in our lives.  But second to also relieve ourselves from the stress coming from our irrational perceptions of what are to be thought of as waste products and abrasive friction that, in turn, comes from our increasing lack of tolerance of any stimulation within our increasing experiential numbness.

The ongoing trajectory of much of our technological advancement will continue to be to find ways of making more and more of our daily activities that are already quite frictionless from many of our post technological advances, even more frictionless than before.  More and more frictionless and removing more and more of the risks in the activity.  For instance, with Lyd bottles, we are taking away the risk of spilling on ourselves.  If you buy now, you can get a 13 oz. Lyd bottle for $39.00 and a 17 oz. Lyd bottles for $44.00.  These are reduced prices and are only occurring now because there is a kickstarter campaign going on.  Eventually, the bottles will retail for $69.00 and $79.00 respectively.  If you want a risk-free drinking experience and are willing to pay $69.00 or $79.00, all I can say is that this is the opportunity of a life time.  Perhaps you think that you will melt from spilled liquid like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.  This is the kind of attitude that can develop when you feel so very, very numb.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow

The Conspiracies That Only Seem To Exist

            One of the more unusual phenomena to appear recently within the ranks of the Republican Party is the Qanon conspiracy theory.  According to this theory, the chaos that has been appearing in the White House is somehow a mask for Trump’s main presidential strategy.  In reality, rather than opposing special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump is working to bring down a global pedophile ring that includes a lot of famous people such as Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton and the billionaire George Soros.  In other words, it is Democrats that are involved in this evil conspiracy.  Supposedly this theory was postulated on social media by an important member of the American government.  Some people believe it is Trump who is doing the posting.

            Anyway, not only are the conspirators involved in a pedophile organization, but they are also planning a coup.  Among other beliefs within this theory, there is the notion that certain Hollywood personalities are pedophiles.  In addition, John Kennedy Jr. never really died in his plane crash, and he is now working with Trump to bring down the pedophile cabal that wants to take over the government.  The theory is constantly evolving, making one new preposterous claim after another.  And this is just the latest conspiracy theory to appear on the right wing fringes of the Republican Party.  During the 2016 presidential election, the email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager was hacked, and the emails were revealed by Wikileaks.  The New York Times wrote about one of the emails which connected Podesta with James Alefantis, the owner of the Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in the nation’s capital.  Speculation began to grow that the pizzeria was the center of a child trafficking ring headed up by Clinton and Podesta.  The notion of this supposed conspiracy was totally absurd, but that didn’t stop it from gaining traction for a while on far-right websites.

            So what is generating these conspiracy theories today?  In previous articles, there was discussion of what I considered to one of the main causes of all the mass murders that are occurring now.  Modern technology is creating living environments where the fields of experience are increasingly frictionless and increasingly mediated.  Particularly, as our fields of experience are increasingly filled with the screen reality of movies, television, video games computers, smartphones and tablets and also virtual reality. There are fewer and fewer organic experiential surfaces readily available that allow us to make, receive and preserve organic imprints.  As a result, people are not able to have many rich vibrant life experiences, develop meaningful life narratives or prepare for death with a personal surrogate immortality  People living in our modern technological societies experience both understimulation and overstimulation in the vacuum and tension pocket fields of experience.  The vacuum of modern boxy architecture, frictionless car rides, smooth asphalt and concrete surfaces on the ground as well as screen reality and virtual reality.  The tension pocket of overpopulated cities, noise pollution, air pollution, fast-paced highways, loud dirty construction sites.  The tension pockets lead to burn-out and jadedness. The vacuum environments lead to numbness.  And as screen reality and virtual reality occupy larger and larger spaces in our fields of experience, the vacuum environments begin to dominate in our minds.  And we become more and more numb.

            This serves as a backdrop for the growth of conspiracy theories in a modern technological society like the United States.  Whereas mass murders are a way to fight numbness and feel alive by externalizing a lot of abrasive friction into the external world, creating what is usually a one-man tension pocket, and committing a crime based on this numbness, a conspiracy theory is a way of fighting numbness and feeling alive by internalizing a lot of abrasive friction, sucking in a tension pocket rather than expelling it, and becoming a victim rather than a victimizer.  Rather than become the creator of a crime of numbness where one commits random acts of aggression to feel alive, one becomes the receiver of the aggression from an imagined focused crime of passion.  And actually, whereas a random mass murder, as opposed to a terrorist massacre, is usually committed by a lone gunman, a believer in a conspiracy theory usually becomes a part of a group of people that is able to coalesce through social media.  The imagined conspiracy which builds on an internalized tension pocket in the believer’s head does have the additional benefit of pulling a person out of his numbness through a secondary experiential pattern – the grounded camaraderie that comes with socially enjoying connecting with like-minded individuals.

            Although Trump does not officially give his blessings to some of these extreme conspiracy theory groups, he does make enough provocative though vague statements that can be interpreted as giving his support.  Certainly, Trump has been very paranoid in his reactions to the events and situations that occur around him.  Trump is a perfect example of the fact that mass murders and conspiracy theories are two sides of the same coin.  Not that Trump is a mass murderer.  But he mentioned once that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and the support of his voters wouldn’t diminish.  He felt free enough to toy with the idea of gratuitous murder.  Just as he has felt free enough to verbally attack both individuals and groups constantly.  And then there are all the conspiracy statements he makes.  Muller and his team are supposedly carrying out a witch hunt in their investigation of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 elections.  The Latin immigrants to the United States are supposedly members of the Salvadoran gang MS-13.  There was supposedly a conspiracy to deprive Trump of an election by the majority of Americans who voted for president.  And on it goes.  Trump is a one-man antidote for all the numb Americans who live empty directionless lives.  He is not a formal part of the conspiracy landscapes the way that Qanon is.  But his barrage of informal statements has acted as a trigger to the formation of more formal right-wing extremists.  And his statements act to provoke fear in those of us who worry about what happens, if someday, some of these conspiracy theorists act to defend themselves more forcefully against these unnatural fears.

(c) 2018 Laurence Mesirow

Our New Almost-Human Best Friends

            Alexa is a virtual assistant created by Amazon for which new uses are constantly developed.  One of the recent uses is described by Christina Ianzito in an article for the July/August 2018 AARP Bulletin.  The article, titled “My Surprising New Friend”, describes the uses of Alexa in four housing complexes for senior citizens in Baltimore and Washington D.C.  The idea is to use Alexa as a kind of companion for these residents based on voice-activated technology.  It is an experiment by AARP Foundation’s Social Connectedness Voice-Activated Technology program to see if Alexa can help senior citizens to overcome a sense of isolation.  Not only do residents communicate with Alexa, but Alexa becomes something that residents in a complex have in common, and a basis for discussion among them.  A sense of isolation can be an important contributing factor not only to poor physical health, but to dementia as well.

            So far, the residents seem to enjoy their interactions with Alexa.  Alexa is sufficiently sophisticated that it can engage in a lot of entertaining banter.  But when all is said and done, Alexa is nothing more than a very complex machine-based program.  It is missing one very important thing that humans have: a defined coherent sense of self.  Only a complex behavioral entity with an organic sense of self is capable of making, receiving and preserving organic imprints.  Organic imprints are very important for a person’s self-validation to help the person to know that his interactions with a complex behavioral entity are being stored in the latter’s memory.  It is only in this way that a person can feel that he is leaving a meaningful mark on the world in his attempts to create a surrogate immortality.  There is no long-term meaning by itself in conversations with a machine program.  In a machine program, the conversations will become at best merely impersonal stored data.  In effect, it is not only the conversations themselves that are important for a person, but it is the emotional import that a person gives to the memories created by these conversations.  It is the emotional import that creates meaning for the stored data of conversations.  And this is something Alexa can’t provide, because it is not a living creature.

            The question is that at a time when a person is in his golden years, should he be spending so much time in vocal interaction with a complex behavioral entity that could care less about whether the person is alive or dead.  If the person were to die tomorrow, would Alexa grieve for its loss?  Would it actually mourn for the deceased person.  If conversational interaction represented a kind of emotional nutrition, one could say that conversations with Alexa represent empty calories.  Perhaps in the short term, Alexa can be a pleasant distraction for senior citizens.  But just as it has been discovered that people who spend a lot of time on their smartphones have a greater chance of sinking into depression, so it wouldn’t be surprising if depression would start to increasingly afflict senior citizens who spend a lot of time with Alexa.

            So if we can assume that such constant interaction with artificial intelligence programs may lead to a sense of emptiness in the long run, wouldn’t it be appropriate for some public agencies to sound the alarm about this possible danger to our senior citizens.  Maybe it’s because this use of Alexa is still relatively new and so researchers don’t have a sufficient time span yet to determine the long-term effects scientifically.  The problem is that by the time such a time span has passed, the seniors under study may already have sunk into depression.  This is one of the problems with using the scientific method to always determine what is true in human social situations.  We turn people into scientific experiments and wait for the outcome of certain situations however negative they may be.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use soft non-experimental observation as well as our intuition to figure certain things out ahead of time?

            Actually, there is another aspect to this situation apart from seniors sinking into a state of depression. When we start conversing with machine programs as if they were humans, the psychological boundaries that separate humans from machines become blurred, and we become more depersonalized like machines.  To the extent that Alexa is not human, but instead, subtly more distant and detached, it mirrors our behavior and subtly guides us to behave in a more distant and detached manner.  Alexa becomes an unconscious model for these seniors to become gradually more robotic.  So that at a time in their lives when people feel most vulnerable and rely on people around them to not only help them with their daily life activities, but provide them with emotional support, the seniors will become more and more incapable of absorbing such emotional support even if or when it is offered by family and friends.  In their depressive state, the seniors will spend their last days in a living death.

            Of course, one could say that it may be good for seniors to become hard and impermeable like a robot.  Maybe the numbness that they feel in their increasingly robotic state helps to protect them against the emotional despair that they could feel at being somewhat abandoned by family and friends who are too busy with their own lives to provide ongoing emotional sustenance, to provide a sustained emotional presence either by frequent visiting or else even by having the seniors live in their homes with them.  One of the most salient signs of the ongoing robotization of humans in modern technological society is the lack of deep bonding among family members and close friends.  As people become increasingly numb, they become increasingly self-absorbed in order to protect their fragile senses of self.  This means less emotional energy available for others.

            So maybe it is just as well that seniors will have artificial intelligence companions in the future.  Empty emotional calories are better than no emotional calories.  And pretty soon, such AI companions will be the family that one can confide in and the family from whom one can receive good advice for all kinds of daily life situations.  Of course, there are all the robot workers who are replacing humans in the service sector.  In the near future, it may be common for many of us to go through the day participating in all of our daily life activities and not have to deal directly with another human.

© 2018 Laurence Mesirow