Friday, August 21, 2020

How Technology Is Becoming More Interesting Than Ideas


            My Saturday morning entrepreneur group has been an ongoing theme in this column.  And this is very simply because so many of the situations that unfold at its meetings are extremely relevant to my main topic: the effects of modern technology on living environments and human behavior.  Last Saturday, there was a long sustained conversation about the different technologies associated with Zoom and other similar apps for conversation.  This kind of discussion is going to become more and more common in the group in the coming weeks.  It used to be that on those days when the group didn’t have a speaker, there would be a discussion of ideas related to business.  For some of these meetings, one could have ventured to say the discussion got quite philosophical. 

            And one might say on a philosophical level, that the group is gradually shifting from conversations of substance to conversations of process.  By conversations of substance, I am referring to discussions of ideas.  A discussion of ideas is an important element to giving a person psychological grounding, so that he can develop rooted attitudes and perspectives, mental ballast that can give him a solid orientation towards his activities.  The discussions of ideas in the entrepreneurial group were meaningful substantive discussions that I think were very helpful in terms of monitoring the general flow of the business activities of the members.

            Nowadays, in the vacuum and tension-pocket world in which we live, a world where there is very little grounding either psychological or physical, the stabilizing agent for people comes in a predictable trajectory of movement, the conversion of raw movement into process.  If one is going to have to live in a vacuum, one at least wants to be able to propel oneself in different directions, so that one doesn’t disintegrate from entropy and so that one doesn’t collide with other free-floating and actively moving figures.

            In general, we can say that the stabilizing agent of grounding from more traditional natural situations and environments leads to stillness, while the stabilizing agent of controlled movement in modern technological situations and environments leads to a predictable trajectory of movement.  In each case the stabilizing agent leads to a certain amount of calm and confidence in humans.

            The Saturday morning entrepreneur group in a certain way was a throwback to a more traditional grouping of people.  Old-fashion businesspeople.  But the combination of Covid 19 along with the introduction of new younger members has led to a shift of focus from substance to process – more typical in general of many people in modern technological society.  Many people in the group feel very comfortable and secure talking about technological strategies because it converts their daily life movements into predictable processes.  Modern technology is not only a vehicle through Zoom and other similar apps for reestablishing superficially a sense of community that has been lost through Covid 19.  More important, it becomes a kind of stabilizing agent in and of itself.

            But just how good of a stabilizing agent is modern technology?  Modern technological devices are built around data which are constantly shifting (unlike beliefs and ideas).  So there is nothing to grab a hold of there.  The only stability comes in continuing to move on a planned pathway.  The key here is that one has to keep moving.  There is no rest for the weary.  And without stillness, there is little opportunity to link up with other people and to bond with them.  I know someone is going to show me the example of a spaceship linking up with the space station, both of which are moving.  But look how many calculations, how much planning goes into that link-up.   If one had to do that on an individual level, it would make bonding practically impossible.

            Modern technology doesn’t create links between people.  It mediates links.  In mediating links between people, it increases the direct linkages that are created between people and  technology.  People become linked to the process of the relating rather than the substance of the relationship.  One just has to look at how an increasing number of resources of the entrepreneurial group are going to be devoted to technology as a process for communication rather than simply as a product of a business.  The connection becomes more with the technology that is connecting rather than with the person or people at the other end of the connection.

            But can a machine without emotions act as a stabilizing agent for a person’s emotions?  I frankly don’t see how.  Machines and devices create a frictionless flow of process that prevents dangerous collisions with other figures.  The result is numbness.  Numbness is not the ideal mental state in which to form bonds with other people.  Contrast this with the stillness generated by grounding in a more traditional natural living environment or life situation.  Stillness does not mean a lack of organic stimulation and numbness.  Stillness means a lack of movement and activity in a more traditional natural situation which provides people with the opportunity to bond with another person or people.  And as was pointed out in the past, without bonding, there is no meaningful connection through family, community, friendship and romance.  And without these connections, human society cannot continue to exist.  Thus, process without substance leads to fragile mediated connections between people.  This is what is happening these days among the members of my Saturday morning entrepreneur group.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Robots here! Robots there! Robots everywhere!

As modern technology invades more and more areas of our daily lives, we are increasingly surrounded by more and more layers of mediated experience.  All the layers of screen reality: movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, tablets.  The Internet of Things. 3-D printing.  Artificial Intelligence.  Virtual Reality.  So many layers of mediation occupying so many layers of space and time.  And the more that we experience this increasing number of layers of mediated experience, the less we are capable of experiencing and absorbing the primary experience world of nature, more traditional living environments and organic stimulation.  And the less that we can absorb these more natural environments, the less we want to participate in them and the more we are impelled to create more devices that, in effect, replace our participation in more and more areas of primary experience work.  Because as we become more and more numb as a result of all this technological mediation, we become more and more overwhelmed by the few areas of primary experience that are left.

            Anyway, as I have discussed before, I am in an entrepreneur group that lately has been discussing more and more interventions by robotics in modern life.  In particular, two manifestations of robotics have been presented recently.  Both manifestations would eliminate a lot of human jobs at a time when millions of people have lost their jobs due to Covid 19.

            One of them is a robotic system for a fast food type restaurant that creates a completely automated kitchen and service counter.  The system cooks and prepares food as well as presenting it to the public.  There is no participation of humans in any part of the process except in perhaps turning the system on.  The man who presented his invention to the entrepreneur group declared that there has been a “breakdown” in food preparation and service in recent years and that his invention would fix the “problem”.  In the name of a supposed falloff in efficiency, the gentleman was willing to set in motion something that would eliminate a whole bunch of human jobs.  Even before the situation with Covid 19, this would have created a significant problem.  For many people, fast food restaurant jobs are the only jobs that are available given their skill sets, and in some cases, given the status of some of them as immigrants.  For other people, fast food jobs are entry level jobs that teach them about the world of work, so that they can then move on to more skilled higher paying jobs.

            A group of students brought a project to the entrepreneur group that involved a robot driving in uber-style vehicles.  This robot-driven car would be used instead of self-driving cars.  The point of it was that passengers would feel more comfortable in a car driven by a robot rather than a car driven by no one.  A robot could speak and engage passengers in some kind of small talk.  And after all, a robot was some kind of human-like entity to which a passenger could ascribe agency in controlling the vehicle.  For myself, I must confess that neither a robot driver or a self-driving car makes me feel particularly comfortable.  But again, there is the matter of all the lost jobs: Uber drivers, Lyft drivers, taxi drivers.

            For the robotics creators, humans as a whole are being implicitly looked at in terms of planned obsolescence.  Keep humans around in work only when necessary for them to do certain tasks or certain parts of tasks.  Then, as soon as the robots and machines have been tested and perfected enough for them to take over a certain job, phase out the humans.  Pretty soon, this could include practically all of us.  Which is why robotics creators have little sympathy for all the millions of people who have lost their jobs as a result of Covid 19.  The fact that if people aren’t working, they can’t afford to go to fast food restaurants or take Uber rides, just doesn’t seem to occur to the robotics people.

            Somehow, robots are more real for robotics creators than are humans.  Because if humans were considered to be really real, the robotics people would not be so interested in replacing the general population.  The robotics people should realize that not only are they taking away sources of income from human workers, their livelihoods, but also a significant purpose of living as well.  Work is not only important for economic survival, but for psychological survival as well.  Work is one of the main ways that people have to make organic imprints in order to feel alive as well as to preserve imprints in order to prepare for death with a personal surrogate immortality.  When people are unemployed, they fall into the numbing living death of an experiential vacuum.  There are few people who are able to replace work with meaningful hobbies and avocations when they retire.  Which is why so many people literally die of boredom when they retire.

            Eventually, some robotics people will create robots and machines that are smart enough to create their own diverse highly specialized robots and robotic systems, and, at that point, the robotics people themselves will be phased out.  So, at some point, the robotics people are going to have to decide which side they are on: the robots or the people.  Meantime, one might think that it is absolutely inappropriate to create robot fast-food servers and robot drivers at a time when so many people are out of work due to Covid 19.  Inappropriate?  Hell, it is absolutely obscene!

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow 



Perfection For Eternity And In The Moment


            Perfection is that to which we aspire in many of the phenomena in our lives, whether they be objects, activities, processes, interactions, relationships or atmospheres.  It is that which makes something flawless and complete.  It is that which makes something seem totally right for the situation.  For eternity in some situations and for precisely the moment in others.  But there are all kinds of obstacles to perfection, which is why we aspire to and maybe sometimes come close to, but seldom totally capture it.  Even in engineering, where machine parts and machine processes have to be created within the parameters of very precise measurements, it is sometimes hard to get these measurements exactly right.  In most cases, the deviations in measurements in engineering and science aren’t that important, particularly if they are very small.  But, in other cases, when they are important, deviations can lead to the wrong results in experiments or to problems in functioning in machines.

            It is much easier to even approach perfection, when dealing with situations that require objective measurements.  But in those situations that deal with how we experience something subjectively, perfection can be something that is much more difficult to pin down.  What makes for a perfect job or a perfect spouse.  What if a spouse has traits that make her or him perfect or almost perfect in one kind of life situation, but not so perfect in another.  A person who is great in verbal conversation and thus as a companion, but not so great as a lover.  What about a job that fits one’s interests and is challenging, but that is so demanding that it is very stressful and ultimately harmful to one’s health.  It gets down to that old saying “Be careful what you ask for.”

            In general, it is my belief that technology has transformed the way that we look at perfection.  In preindustrial times, when we lived closer to nature, perfection used to refer to a complete seamless phenomenon that was defined enough to prevent it from losing its sense of integrity by being enveloped, swallowed up by organic stimulation in a traditional highly grounded more natural environment.  On one level, perfection was transcendence in spiritual entities that were not susceptible to organic decay.  Religion played a very important role in terms of creating notions of perfection in traditional society.  Perfection was conceived of in terms of perfection in subject matter (a transcendently beautiful woman) or in technique.  Among the Navajo Indians, creating perfect rugs was thought of as challenging the gods, so they always purposely put in one mistake.  Perfection also entered into the area of romance, which was, in spite of what I wrote earlier in this article, an attempt to find the perfect person who complemented one in every way.  This romantic ideal was not something that the average tribesman or peasant or tradesman could afford to think about.  Rather it was an ideal that was found in the middle and upper classes of European society – people who had the leisure time to think about such perfection.  Needless to say, it probably often led to disappointment, which was why many romantics got lovers to satisfy them emotionally in ways that their spouses were not able to.  All these transcendent approaches to perfection were ways to fight off the undifferentiating effects of the intense organic stimulation found in more natural and traditional living environments.  That intense organic stimulation with all the intense manifestations of nature: vegetation, wild animals, pronounced geographical features, geological presentations and weather patterns as well as intense manifestations in traditional villages, towns and marketplaces, tended to blur the outlines of a person’s sense of self and, as it were, melt it down to a more and more primitive animal state of mind.  Even those forms of architecture that represented early attempts to create transcendence to fight undifferentiation like pyramids, churches, castles and estates and traditional cities with their more organic architecture only proved how intense the pull of the intense organic stimulation was in more traditional society.                                                

            In modern technological society, where people start to model themselves after highly defined machines, definition is not the aspect of humans that is threatened by their total living environments.  Today, the concern is with coherence, with mustering together sufficient flowing blendable continual stimuli, organic stimuli to hold oneself and one’s surroundings together.  And today, perfection can be thought of as an entity that is coherent enough to prevent it from losing its sense of integrity by randomly falling apart, crumbling apart from entropy in an experiential vacuum.  In a world where a focus on transcendent eternities means focusing on the seamless forms of modern architecture and long stretches of concrete and asphalt that wander endlessly rather than on spiritual entities and worlds, the perfection which makes us feel complete is tactile, textural and temporary.  It is good experience rather than lifeless possessions.   Perfection today is not so seamless but rather invites one to enter the experience of the phenomenon rather than to simply view it from outside.  It is a rich immanent perishable moment: a good encounter, a good adventure, a beautiful meal, terrific sex.  In a vacuumized world, the focus is on making perfect imprints rather than preserving them.  Granted that at the end of life, one has to confront the total nothingness of death without a strong surrogate immortality of preserved imprints.  But perhaps the intense memory of a rich vibrant life without many preserved imprints is in and of itself a kind of perfection that a person can carry with them to the grave.  Perhaps, there is a perfection in a life that is vulnerably perishable.  If not, the end of life for people that follow this approach has to be very difficult.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow



What Is Really Being Cancelled Out With Cancel Culture

             The notion of cancel culture refers to the boycotting or shunning of someone whose behavior or speech is deemed in some way objectionable or controversial.  The boycotting or shunning can damage a person’s reputation and cause a person to lose his job.  A lot of cancel culture today is related to actions or speech that are considered racist or sexist.  And although, in its present incarnation, it started primarily as an American phenomenon, it has spread well beyond the United States.

            It is like a magnified well-organized version of giving someone the silent treatment.  When someone is given the silent treatment, it is like he is placed in a social experiential vacuum.  He is immersed in psychological numbness, because one or some of his actions or utterances is so apart from a seamless numbing normal for the people around him that it shocks them out of their own psychological numbness.  In another time and place, perhaps what the person did would not be considered such a big thing or, at worst, could be written off as an element of human imperfection that could be overcome and forgiven.  We have all done things in our past that we regret.  But in today’s world, every mistaken action or utterance is considered by others as an intolerable source of abrasive friction, an intolerable tension-pocket.

            Now I am not trying to suggest that all disapproved actions and utterances are equally forgivable.  Hate speech and acts of violence are worth taking very seriously.  On the other hand, we live in a democracy where people have the right to turn away from past mistakes and turn their lives around.  The real problem with cancel culture is that people aren’t being permitted the freedom to rise above their mistakes.

            On the other hand, we sometimes are being cancelled not because of actions or utterances demonstrating moral imperfection, but because of honest disagreements.  If a person takes unpopular views that don’t fall within the promotion of political correctness, that in and of itself can be grounds for being socially shut out of polite society.  Which means that cancel culture can act as a total damper on free speech.  Again, I am not including those examples of hate speech,    (in person or on the Internet), that directly insight people to violence.  Nevertheless, so many people are being cancelled today for honest disagreement that a real danger is being posed to our democracy.

            A democracy is based on a lively exchange of views.  And on the assumption that we all have something to learn from those with whom we disagree.  But if one is so numb that he experiences any disagreement as an overstimulating visceral threat, then the whole experience of democracy is going to be shattered.

            This kind of thinking has been present in different forms in the U.S. in the past.  It was present in the Salem witch trials.  It was present in 1954 in the McCarthy hearings.  But what makes cancel culture so different from these examples is that it is being used as a mechanism by so many different groups and individuals during the same period of time.  It is so present that many attempts at original perspectives are being threatened with being totally shut down.

            The threat of being vacuumized by cancel culture is going to have the effect of making many people feel that they have to take the politically correct line of thinking, that they have to become brittle figures in their thinking and join up with other brittle human figures in a tight bundle or else be expelled as a free-floating figure, doomed to float endlessly in the larger experiential vacuum without hope of social grounding.  It is like a form of imposed exile.

            On a deeper level, perhaps many of us feel secretly like we are deserving of cancel culture ourselves.  Cancelling ourselves becomes in a way like canceling others: an internalized source of abrasive friction, an internalized tension-pocket that acts as a vehicle for stimulating ourselves out of the numbness created by the experiential vacuum that surrounds us.  Cancel culture acts like a modern machine, an electric hammer or drill that pounds some life into us.  In other words, the concern about immoral activities or about divergent political opinions is an overlay for a deeper concern about sinking into a living death.  People can become very earnest and very self-righteous on the surface in their attempts to fight this experiential numbness.   They themselves will believe that the surface issue on which they are focusing is the real source of their public moral behavior.  Which is why, if by some chance they were able to resolve the public moral issue, they would have to find another one quickly in order to stay out of a dangerous state of numbness.

            Many people today need the abrasive friction – the tension pocket – of canceling others and themselves in order to feel alive, to pull out of their numbness.  Particularly with the additional numbness created by self-isolation as a result of the Corona virus, cancel culture has become a useful tool for dealing with our present situation.  However, it is simply one more in the list of psychological postures that have been discussed in this column, postures that are being utilized to help people deal with the experiential effects of the evolving modern technological living environments which we are all inhabiting.  And because the real cause of this posture is something distinct from the issues which it was ostensibly created to deal with, something deeper and more enduring, it is probably going to be around for a long time.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Recreation, Work, Meditation, And Feeling Human

             Recreation refers to those activities that we do for enjoyment and that don’t relate to making a living.  Ideally, recreation helps us to relax or helps us to express strong passionate enthusiastic feelings.  Either way, recreation should be pleasurable, something that brings us contentment and/or joy.

            But in modern technological society the shape of recreating has evolved and changed.  As people increasingly sink into an experiential vacuum and the numbness it brings with it, there is an increasingly desperate need that appears to accelerate the will to do things in order to feel alive.  In the past, I have called this conative acceleration, and it basically means that recreation, in order to help people overcome numbness in today’s world, has to become more focused and goal-oriented like work.  Like traditional recreation, it involves activities that a person enjoys doing that a person is interested in.  But to the extent that these activities become intertwined with the notion of survival, there develops almost a desperate quality to them.

            So recreation gradually loses its flowing blendable continual elements and starts to develop the defined discrete focused qualities of work.  The more that it loses its flowing organic qualities, the more that it seems like activities that are done apart from the person.  They become activities that do not flow as an extension of a person’s core sense of self.  Granted there are people who really enjoy their work activity, but even they must adhere to certain formal defined discrete criteria, in order to do it right.  And these criteria create the kind of stress, the kind of tension that are more typical of work activities.

            And as recreation blurs into work activities, the threat of sinking into conative anesthesia (the numbing of the will) causes people to react by pushing work – in particular, human work - into robotic-flavored work activities.  This way, people can generate abrasive friction in order to pull out of their technology-based numbness and thus feel more alive.  With robot-like work, everything has to be neat and crisp and done just so.  Everything has to be done to the perfection of work from a robotic machine.  Meanwhile controllable angular movements and thought are the substance of these more robotic work activities.  Stress and tension permeate the robot-flavored work that modern technological humans do and help to keep people out of numbness.

            The expectation for robotic perfection is something that is not only felt within the worker, but by employers, partners, clients and customers as well.  One mistake can lead to a worker being treated like a machine.  Like a machine that is going through planned obsolescence and has to be fired or demoted. In a vacuum, a person is on his own.  A machine, a robot does not receive meaningful community support.  If a robot makes a big mistake, and if it can’t be fixed, the robot can get discarded.  If a human worker makes a big mistake and can’t correct himself, he gets tossed as well.

            There is one other kind of activity response to the experiential vacuum in which modern technological society is embedded. And that is purposely numbing the will in such a way that one doesn’t feel such a strong need to break out of the enveloping numbness in the external world.  This response of numbness to numbness is manifest in meditation and yoga, both of which in different ways get a person into a selfless unconscious state.  A strong sense of self is that which wants to break out of numbness, so if a person can use numbing activities to calm the self down, the pressure to break out of the enveloping numbness is alleviated.  Meditation and yoga require effort, but if a person wants to take a short cut to controlled numbness, he can always resort to pot.  Marijuana smooths off the edges of everything including oneself. Then again, a person can use hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or peyote or psilocybin or ayahuasca, all of which create alternative vacuumized organic worlds in a person’s mind.  As in a dream, one’s alternative activities are lived out in the mind.  They are definitely not solid work activities, and one can say they are a cross between recreational activities and spiritual activities.  Recreation and spirituality blur together here.  And in the process, it is as if one is becoming a massless avatar of oneself.

            So basically in response to the enveloping numbness of the experiential vacuum in modern technological society, people move in two directions.  One direction has them taking the posture of conative acceleration and blurring into becoming like a robot.  The other direction has them taking on the posture of conative anesthesia and blurring into becoming like an avatar.  In both cases, they move away from an organic coherent sense of self that is crucial to maintaining their humanity.  And they move away from their capacity to make, receive and preserve meaningful organic imprints.  And from their capacity to live vibrant joyous lives.  And from their capacity to have a meaningful life narrative.  And from their capacity to prepare for death with a personal surrogate immortality.

            We started this article with a discussion about recreation and then moved on to a discussion of other kinds of life activities.  The distortions created by modern technology are such that if we can’t recreate properly, we can’t work properly and we can’t simply be properly.  In the long run, all of our life activities are interrelated as they should be.  They are all a part of the flowing blendable continual stream of human life.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow 

The Different Purposes of Our Daily Purposes

             A purpose is the place where we are going when we try to finish our little daily tasks, our larger life schemes, and our still larger personal evolution.  It is the end point that occurs at different levels of planning, both conscious and unconscious.  Without purpose, our actions and our development would just wander and meander aimlessly.  It gives our lives focus and form and it gives our senses of self both focus and form.  Without an overriding purpose, even if it is to just have as much fun as possible, our senses of self would just fall apart.

            And yet it is definitely harder to achieve a purpose in modern technological society.  Inhabiting a living environment that is an overly frictionless, overly mediated experiential vacuum, one is without the grounding that one needs in order to generate the traction, the organic friction that he needs to move towards his goals.  Traction gives life vibrancy and helps to prevent people from sinking into numbness.  When a person is too immersed in numbness, it simply becomes extremely difficult if not practically impossible to carry out his purposes.

            But what happens to a person when he is unable to carry out his purposes.  For one thing, he loses his connection to linear time.  Particularly when a person is floating in an experiential vacuum, the person not only is lost in a spatial vacuum, but in a temporal vacuum as well.  In other words, the person is unable to create at a very basic level, a meaningful life narrative, which is the vehicle by which a person can go from point a to point b to point c and thus achieve many different life purposes.

            These points on the line of a narrative, these end points for purposes, are also basically the end points for the organic imprints in a person’s life.  Some of the imprints are made by the person himself.  Some of these imprints are made by the people around him and relate to these other people’s purposes.  These imprints are basically impresses made by someone on the experiential surface of the world.  And depending on how and why they are made, these imprints can either be evanescent and disappear, or they can be preserved and become permanent.  To the extent that some imprints can become permanent, they reflect deep lasting imprints, and they can become elements of an ultimate long-term purpose, that of preparing for death through the creation of a personal surrogate immortality.

            Imprints that are evanescent and that disappear are, in their own way, every bit as important as preserved imprints.  Because they are short-lived, a person can pack a lot more of them into his life than preserved imprints.  And it is the variety of these short-lived imprints that can contribute to the vibrancy of a person’s life, to the intensity of what a person can feel at any given moment.  To the extent that these little imprints make life vibrant, they become one flowing blendable continual experience that acts as the foundation for a very different kind of purpose.  In other words, not all purposes have to be defined discrete focused entities.

            There are people who live to find vibrant joy in the moment.  But the notion of the moment is not a precise temporal measure.  It is like one of all the undefinable infinite points on a spatial line.  And just like all the spatial points blur together to form a flowing blendable continual line, so all the moments in a period of time flow together for a person who lives for the moment to form an ongoing flowing immediate experience.  A vibrant immediate experience.  This is a purpose with multiple temporal end points and, therefore, no real temporal end point.  It is very different from that which we traditionally think of as a purpose.  It is a purpose without goals as we normally would think of them.

            All this brings a whole new way of looking at the notion of purpose.  It means that a purpose is not automatically something that a person has to consciously plan for in order to achieve it.  In order to have maximum joy, a person has to be able to turn off his capacity for cognitive reflection and planning.  Cognitive reflection and planning tend to keep a person apart from some aspects of the flow of his life narrative.  Vibrant joy is something that one tends to live within a preconscious flow of experience.  One is so close to that which one is experiencing that one is incapable of properly manipulating it.  For a person whose main purpose in life is having immediate joy, we can say that at certain points in his life, such a person may be thinking that he only wants to live for pleasure and joy, and then he goes back to his preconscious mode of thinking.

            In living for joy and pleasure, a person is interested in making and receiving a bundle of imprints on himself and less interested in preserving any of them.  The only preparation for death is the intensity of sensory immediacy the person has experienced.  Somehow, living vibrantly is a kind of ongoing imprint that a person feels he is living on the surface of his field of experience.  This, of course, is very different from leaving a series of discrete imprints as a formal preparation for death.  The latter deals with a formal purpose in the way that most of us are accustomed to deal with it.  But there are people who don’t focus on bracing themselves for what happens to them after they leave their earthly confines. 

            There is a risk in this.  Perhaps, at the end, when such a person realizes that he has little or no surrogate immortality, death can suddenly appear very frightening.

            However, I am coming to realize that purpose is a multi-dimensional notion and that there are different shapes and shades to it.  Not all purposes are formal.  Not all purposes are fully defined.  Not all purposes are based on focused planning.  There are truly a variety of purposes in purposes.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow


How Symbols Interpret The World For Humans

             A symbol is something that represents something else.  A symbol can be a mark, a sign, a number, an icon, an actual material thing, a plant, an animal or a human being.  Various animals can be used as totemic symbols by preliterate tribes.  Small objects like stars of David or crosses are used as religious symbols by major world religions.  Queen Elizabeth is considered a royal symbol by the United Kingdom.

            But why is it that human beings use symbols to represent different phenomena.  It is my contention that public symbols have been used primarily for two distinct purposes: one for pre-industrial societies and one for modern technological societies.  And the way that these symbols have been used in these two different situations is reflective of how these two kinds of societies have been structured.  For now, I am putting aside more personal uses of symbols in dreams and the arts.

            A symbol in pre-industrial society was meant to organically connect people to the material external world and to the unbounded infinite spiritual world.  It was meant to ground people to help to prevent them from floating in an experiential vacuum of meaninglessness. If an animal is my totem, then I am especially connected to that animal in nature.  I can absorb that animal’s positive traits, and by connecting with it, I become connected to the whole ecosystem of flora and fauna that is my natural living environment.

            Stars of David and crosses are religious symbols that not only connect people to their respective conceptions of God, but also to their respective communities of believers.  By wearing these symbols, a person becomes one with the spirit world, rather than floating randomly within it.  One’s spiritual existence is able to expand out.

            To the extent Queen Elizabeth is a symbol of Britain, she ties each and every Brit to a large community of people.  She helps to expand the number of traits, of historical events, of common experiences to what each British individual can feel connected.  Being British becomes so much more than an individual’s pared-down basic defined discrete sense of self.  Queen Elizabeth as a symbol becomes the foundation for a larger grounded identity.  Traditional symbols, in general, give a person a form of psychological grounding.  That is what they are created for.  A grounding in nature – the physical terrain of where they live and its ecosystem of flora and fauna – and a grounding in the community and nation that they are a part of.

            Finally, let’s not forget flags.  Flags are a very important symbol that connect people to their country, to their state or province, to their municipality, to their organization or club or fraternity or sorority, and to their sporting team.  When one flies ones flag, or salutes a flag, one is symbolically expressing one’s connection to a larger community and creating psychological grounding.

            Symbols primarily serve a very different purpose for many people in modern technological society.  Rather than provide a fuzzy grounding where evocative flowing blendable continual stimuli emanate from them, symbols today contract meaning into defined discrete essences.  They are not meant to be suggestive of something larger than themselves, but rather something narrower.  In symbolic logic, symbols are used to pare down statements about truth, so that they can be more precise about truth than any normal verbal statement that could be made using ordinary language.  Symbols in this case are used to create and facilitate a language for science and math.  It’s not that there weren’t symbols before in math.  But math in traditional society wasn’t used to capture reality in the way it has been used in modern technological society, where mathematical symbols have become very important in science and engineering.

            In photographic terms, symbols are used in traditional societies to facilitate a wide angle view of the world, whereas, in modern societies, symbols are increasingly used to facilitate a telephoto view of the world.  On a psychological level, traditional symbols tend to deal with human connections with other people and with the external world.  They build on flowing blendable continual stimulation to help satisfy that most fundamental of human needs: grounding in one’s living environment.  Modern symbols help to pare down entities to their bare essence, independent and apart from all the other entities that surround it.  By working to create mostly defined discrete figures, modern symbols model for humans today, who are looking for strong self-definition as a strong defense against sensory distortion: the abrasive overstimulation from overcrowding in urban areas, noise pollution, air pollution, light pollution, clusters of high rises, speeding cars, traffic jams and construction sites, as well as the numbing understimulation from minimalist modern architecture, smooth featureless asphalt and concrete-covered walking and driving surfaces, cookie-cutter housing projects, frictionless machine processes from blenders to electric toothbrushes, and smooth-riding car interiors for passengers.  Finally, there is the numbness-creating screen technology and the Internet of Things.  All this sensory distortion pushes people to withdraw into themselves in order to defend themselves against living environments with patterns of stimulation for which as mammals, they weren’t built.  The belief is that people can control their internal living environments in ways that they can’t control their external living environments.  And modern symbols in symbolic logic and with the hard sciences and engineering mirror this desire to gain control over one’s internal living environment: a well-defined sense of self as a defense against sensory distortion.

            In general, we can say that symbols are important in creating solutions to concrescences of the most important existential needs that people may have in particular cultural and historical periods.  To the extent that so many people today do not directly benefit from symbols of logic and math and science and engineering, because they, when they are students, aren’t taught very much about them and, therefore, don’t understand them, such people are bereft of the benefits of the main new meaningful symbols that are available and accessible today.  This is particularly true among people who have given up on the connecting symbols of religion and royalty and larger strong group identities in general.  Such people are experiencing all the dangerous downsides of the resulting numbness and experiential vacuums.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow 

Trying To Maintain Some Natural Life In Modern Technological Society


            Frequently in this column, I have talked about a dichotomy between traditional societies and modern societies.  Traditional societies is a grab-bag term, an all-encompassing term which I use to describe everything from preliterate tribes to more complex pre-industrial towns, cities, states and civilizations.  All of these groupings, compared to what happened after the industrial revolution, live in environments that involve some direct contact with nature or significant stylistic imitation of nature in the creation of most habitations, most artifacts and most clothing (obviously not the case with pyramids and some other monumental structures).  The history of processes in these places has been mostly organic evolutionary accretions, periods of flowing blendable continual stimuli, punctuated by the periodic disruptive defined discrete stimuli of revolutionary activities and wars.  Sort of like the disruptive climactic events that occur in nature.  The incipient just-forming figures that try to break away from the undifferentiating grounding that surrounds people in nature.

            In modern technological society, the norm is ongoing frictionless mediated revolution, because of what modern machines, computers and robots can do.  Because the sharp angular changes of reality from modern revolutionary actions are so common, it is almost as if they are no longer revolutions anymore.  They are so common, that they are predictably patterned, even though they can still be disruptive.  Frictionless or relatively frictionless in execution, although disruptive and even stressful in effect.

            This all serves strangely enough as a backdrop for a situation I presently am involved in.  I am in a group of entrepreneurs that had met once a week for many, many years in an office and that has been meeting once a week on zoom for a few months since Covid 19 came around.  Like most of the groups that I know or have heard of, my group now meets exclusively on Zoom due to the Corona virus.  It is a group of business entrepreneurs that started out meeting as a stream of casual encounters between a very successful car dealership owner and his friends.  Gradually, over time, the grouping involved into an informal group that had meetings once a week.  Now the dealership owner is dead but the group continues to exist.  The centerpiece of the meetings is either a startup business owner asking for advice on business problems or else a free-wheeling discussion about general business ideas.  Before Covid 19, there was time to network both before and after the talk or the discussion.  Now that has been replaced by chat in the Zoom room.  Not the same as live networking, but it is something that is occurring now as a necessity.

            A change like that doesn’t bother me so much, because I know that it’s the only way of creating connections in such a group for now.  What bothers me is that there are formal sub-committees to make formal changes to the format of the group, changes that will invite larger numbers of people to come to specific meetings, up from the 30 to 40 people we get now on average for different sessions.  One can be sure that many of these special invitees to Zoom meetings will want to join the group, thus making it bigger and more impersonal.

            There are other changes to the intimate social traditions that have held this informal organic throwback group together and made it relatively unique in modern technological society.  It used to be people were called out by the moderator of the meetings for making private conversations and thus disturbing the principal speaker or the main conversation.  Now people are making Zoom chat conversations left and right and thus, if not directly disturbing the people who are speaking, at least distracting listeners who would otherwise focus better on the speakers.

            A proposed change within the group is to have certain Saturdays in the month (for example, the first and the third) for one kind of program and other Saturdays for another.  The problem with this is that it will convert the group into certain specialized segments of audience, thus leading to the fragmentation of the group.  The whole point of the group is to bring different occupations, different interests, and different viewpoints together to have lively exchanges in discussions.  And to learn about different subjects and strategies that are not a part of one’s normal everyday life.  If subject slotting starts to occur, the larger group will break up into smaller groups of like-minded attendees.  Slotted programs could lead to the breakup of the informal organic group as we know it.

            Another proposed change is to have speakers come from outside the group, not with problems that they want the group to solve, but with neat packaged subject matter that they want to present to the group.  But there are plenty of other groups that do this kind of thing.  The unique aspect of this group is the process of the interaction of the members.  It is not meant to be a passive group of simply avid learners.  It’s meant to be a group of active helpers of both one another and of entrepreneurs from outside who have problems they want advice on.

            The group is a throwback to more traditional flowing blendable continual organic groups and is not meant to be an efficient neatly organized defined discrete specialized machine-like group like so many other modern groups are.  This group is not meant to be built on ongoing frictionless mediated mini-revolutions.  It is meant to evolve, yes, but constantly keeping its organic grounding.  The group is a throwback to more traditional times before television and radio, when an evening of entertainment consisted of informal gatherings in a bar or on a person’s back porch.  Yes I know this group has a little more structure than that, but not much.  Yet the desire to mechanize is ever present in modern society as a whole and in my group in particular.  A more spontaneous organic flowing blendable continual group like this one is totally vulnerable to the cravings of people who just can’t tolerate the presence of a group like this that has so much natural life in it.

(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Is Polarization The Only Way We Have To Feel Alive Today?

                             In many ways, American society seems more contentious and more divided than it has been in a long time.  In politics, the long-simmering conflict between Democrats and Republicans that started under President Reagan is coming to an explosive head.  For decades, Republicans have moved further and further to the right, and as a reaction, some Democrats, particularly those under Bernie Sanders, have been moving more and more to the left.  On another level, since Trump came into office, racist white nationalists and militia men have become more salient and more powerful, while recently, particularly as a result of George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter has surged in strength and influence.  Actually, George Floyd’s death has brought to the fore the most immediate oppositional group for Black Lives Matter: predatory police.  Other head-butting groups include those who want to wear masks for Covid 19, and those who refuse to do so; those who believe in vaccination and the anti-vaxxers, those who believe in income redistribution through a universal base salary paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy and those who want to lower taxes.  And then there is a traditional polarization that has been around forever: pro-choice vs. pro-life. There are no points of convergence in all these pairs of opposing philosophies.

            Furthermore, it is not as if all these movements and groups have well-thought-out strategies with regard to how to implement their ideas and how to demonstrate endgames that would include their vision.  But then again, on one level, it doesn’t really matter.  It may not be a full completion of the goals that is really desired.  In modern technological society where people live frictionless mediated lives, real success in one’s ideological goals would take away the intense revitalizing friction that comes from an intense struggle.  And what could provide a greater struggle than butting heads with one’s ideological opposite.

            What would define success for white nationalists: continued white dominance, or maybe even expulsion of racial minorities and Jews?  What would define success for Black Lives Matter?  For sure, defunding police departments and perhaps abolishing them.  But after that, then what?  Tearing down statues of everyone with a perceived slave or colonial connection?  That’s already happening.  What about greater investment in black communities?  What about reparations?

            When it comes to reparations, the only way to do such a blanket give-away would be to raise taxes on the wealthy, which, of course, goes entirely against the philosophy of people who see taxes as a wrongful intervention into people’s lives.

            What is both of interest and concern is not so much that these and other positions may be oppositional, but that there seems to be no will on anyone’s part to try to redefine problems so that there can be some convergence.  And anyway, in many cases, the objectives of these different groups are vague.  In part, this is because the different groups are broken up into sub-groups who don’t agree among themselves.

            In the American Congress, with the exception of a bill for significant tax cuts, the Republicans have spent the last few years by being opposed to what the Democrats propose.  But this state of ongoing opposition particularly acts as a spur to pulling the Republicans out of their numbness and keeping them alive.  At the same time, it makes it practically impossible for the two parties to come together, compromise, and pass meaningful legislation.  Yes, the two parties have come together to pass emergency financial relief bills connected to Covid 19, but that’s about it.  In the meantime, the ongoing conflict between the two parties has paralyzed the Congress and prevented it from developing legislative strategies for dealing with long-time situations.

            And the non-governmental movements are generating conflicts in different spaces.  White nationalists versus Black Lives Matter versus the police.  Our country is becoming increasingly polarized in so many ways.  More and more people are taking uncompromising postures with little room to come together with the opposition.

            And yet undergirding the external philosophical difference that are creating these polarizations, there is the numbness generated by the frictionless mediated technological society.  And these uncompromising philosophical differences are a very good way to come out of the experiential vacuum and stay alive, particularly if there’s no hope of resolving the philosophical differences with compromise.  Coming to an agreement and compromising would mean having to return to the experiential vacuum and becoming numb.  Particularly most modern white Americans, who have been unthinkingly, numbingly indifferent to the problems experienced by black Americans, are suddenly “shocked” by what they see and are experiencing themselves feeling wonderfully alive in feeling “shocked”.  Suddenly, they have a mission, a mission that may be very noble indeed, but because it is so vague and expansive and because it stimulates an opposition that will help them to feel very much alive, has the potential for lasting a long, long time without resolving itself with a meaningful endgame.

            And all these movements have strong internal divisions which will also help to stimulate people to life.  I want to emphasize that I am not trying to reduce all the motivation behind moral positions today to pulling out of numbness and feeling alive.  On one hand, people can participate in the moral positions that they espouse and be totally sincere about their beliefs.  On the other hand, the uncompromising polarization created by the way these beliefs are expressed show that certain strong psychological needs are also being expressed, will continue to be expressed for the foreseeable future, and will continue to shape the way these beliefs are actualized in the external world.  With no regard for whether or not they tear the United States apart.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Abolishing Police Departments, Abolishing Communities

             If ever there was a blatant case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, it’s in the movement in the U.S. to defund or even abolish police departments.  There is no question that  blacks in U.S. have suffered enormously at the hands of many American policemen.  Many blacks have been hassled or harassed by policemen.  Many blacks have been physically roughed up by policemen.  Many blacks have been put in jail for crimes they didn’t commit or else put in jail for longer sentences than whites in similar situations would get.  Many blacks have, as has been discussed a lot lately, been killed by policemen.  Police departments are experienced by African-Americans as one enormous excruciating tension-pocket.  One enormous dangerous bundle of overstimulation.  The George Floyd murder is just an extreme instance of a very painful kind of overstimulation, not only for George Floyd, but for all the people in his life, all the people in Minneapolis and the U.S. who have lived up to now in a state of numbing indifference with regard to the plight of black Americans (and most Americans fall into this numbing indifference category).  This awful sadistic murder has been like a sudden trigger to awareness and a springboard to action.  All of a sudden, a large number of white Americans want to protect African-Americans from police violence.  They want to punish all the policemen involved in the George Floyd murder and make sure a similar situation doesn’t happen again in the future.

            Which is why people have come up with the brilliant (lol) idea of defunding or even abolishing police departments.  Suddenly everybody has become fully aware of what is going on with African Americans.  And they want to solve the problem quickly and simply.  And the quickest simplest way of getting rid of the problem is to get rid of the source of the problem.

            Now, I know it will be said there have been many attempts to fix police departments and the problems involved.  But from my understanding, there is one aspect of the police department that hasn’t changed much and that’s the warrior model for what a policeman should be.  A warrior is not going to be thinking of how he can integrate his adversary back into society.  He is not going to be thinking of how to reform a young black lawbreaker.  The lawbreaker is simply perceived as a dangerous free-floating out-of-control figure that has to be neutralized and, in some cases, eliminated.

            Now rather than eliminate the police department entirely, there are some city governments in the U.S. that are considering another model for police identity.  This is the guardian model: the policeman as protector, even friend, who restores grounding in the community.  In Camden, NJ, the police department was literally recreated.  It was temporarily dissolved, but it wasn’t replaced with social service agencies like some seem to want in Minneapolis.  Instead, it was replaced with a police department built on the guardian model.  Crime dropped 42%.  So obviously, there was something to be said for a policeman that restored some grounding to people with troubled lives, people who were struggling in poverty.

            And yet the people in Camden still had a police department.  Social service agencies can handle some kinds of problems that police departments handle, but not hardened gangs, not terrorists.  I know Minneapolis has had major problems reforming its police department.  It should develop a solution similar to that of Camden.  If Minneapolis gets rid of its police department, it will create a void, an experiential vacuum.  People who already have a minimal conscience will suddenly feel less constrained and will get more involved in illegal activity.  Community organizations aren’t capable of effectively shutting down such activity.

            So many protesters today, overwhelmed, overstimulated by the tension-pockets of police corruption and police oppression, want to carry our cities to the opposite kind of problem: an understimulating experiential vacuum of no police.  This kind of bouncing back and forth between overstimulation and understimulation, between tension-pocket and vacuum is something I discussed a lot in my earlier articles, before I decided to focus more time on the effects of experiential vacuums.  But here, this bouncing back and forth is extremely important.  It is what happens when one lives in modern technological living environments with very little organic stimulation and one is looking for quick solutions to problems that manifest themselves as experiential distortion of too much or too little stimulation.

            The relative lack of organic stimulation is key.  It is the foundation for extreme  decisions, not only with regard to keeping or not keeping the police, but also with regard to many other life situations as well.  When we lack organic stimulation, we lack grounding.   So metaphorically speaking, we float off into a vacuum, into a feeling of numbness, until we find a cluster of figures that we can knock against, in order to feel alive.  Which creates ongoing instability both in our own individual lives, but also in the larger social situations in which we are living.  Police departments, such as the one in Minneapolis, may be so in need of reform that they have to be literally reconstituted from the ground up.  Which will take a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of fresh thinking.  But that doesn’t mean that we should eliminate police departments entirely.  The results could lead to anarchy in the communities where they had existed.  And anarchy which could result in a lot of random conflicts would be the social equivalent of entropic disintegration in a vacuum.  Just as matter can crumble apart, so can a community.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow 

Another Cause Of The Aftermath Of The George Floyd Murder


The Corona virus has been temporarily replaced as the outstanding narrative in the United States by the sadistic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  As a symbol of the horrors of centuries of white oppression, it has triggered a range of responses from peaceful demonstrations to violence to looting and property damage.  Governors and mayors all over the country have painstakingly tried to separate out the legal peaceful activities from the illegal violent and destructive ones – encouraging the first group of activities and taking a firm stand against the second group.

The looting and property damage can be broken down into two categories: looting in central business districts and white suburban malls, on the one hand, and looting in the poorer black neighborhoods on the other.  And it is here where an important question can be raised?  Some of the small businesses in the black neighborhoods are owned by Asian immigrants, and some are owned by blacks.  However, they all serve the essential needs of the black residents.  Why are these businesses being looted, damaged, even burnt to the ground, when there will be nothing to replace them for a long time?  And chain stores – grocery stores, drug stores and discount department stores – that should have been treasured for what they provided.  Also looted, damaged, and sometimes burnt to the ground.

Granted that some of the looters may have been opportunistic organized gangs that came from outside the communities.  But certainly not all.  So how can sane people be swept into such activities that lead to short-term gain, short-term kicks, but such long-term despair and suffering?  What are people going to do for food in areas of their cities that in the best of times were already considered to be food deserts?  How can the looters justify what they did?

The most common explanation is that they were lashing out against white oppression.  But, if so, why get involved in something that is going to hurt black people so much?  I think the answer lies in how we define the nature of the harm that has been done to black people by racism.  Much of the time when we talk about this situation, we use the term oppression to mean the way that white policemen treat black people.  This implies two things: white physical aggression, but more fundamentally, white direct acknowledgment of the existence of black people.  It implies maintaining a relationship, even if it means a negative relationship.  It implies that white people care, even if it is in a perverse negative way, about blacks.

In many ways, all this is valid, but in other ways, another kind of relationship has developed.  And that is a relationship of indifference.  The scars of racism after all these centuries still exist, but many white people, who wouldn’t openly espouse a racist philosophy to themselves, don’t want to deal with black people.  Because of modern technology, the model for the proper functioning of society today is that of a smooth-running, relatively frictionless machine.  These white people live in the numbness of androids.  Although this relatively frictionless machine has created psychological pathology for them, this is what they are used to.  For white people to have to really deal with the scars of racism, it would require them experiencing a level of stimulation that they would find at this point to be simply painfully overstimulating.  It would require dealing with the very human needs of people who have problems that go beyond the surface solution of trying to superficially integrate them into a smooth-running machine.  To ask many white people to really feel the problems of many African-Americans today is to ask them to feel analogous things that in many cases they can’t feel in their own lives.  If you talk about disinvestment in black schools, the white establishment can say that school budgets are based on local property taxes, the same rule that applies to everyone else.  If you talk about lack of access to loans from banks, bank officers can say that their loans are based on the reliability of their debtors to pay off their debts.  For businesses and homes, these loans can be based on the quality of the neighborhoods.

Because blacks are being shunned by this so-called system, in many ways, they also experience themselves as living in numbness, in an experiential vacuum.  This aspect of their relationship to American society can be, to a certain extent, as difficult as or even more difficult than dealing with the physical aggression of policemen.  At least, in the latter case, African-Americans have a defined discrete enemy to focus on.  How do they pin the blame when they are dealing with a whole nebulous system where people with power can say that they are just following the rules.

This is what black people were living with when the cruel murder of George Floyd gave them a focused symbol to act as a vehicle to help them explode out of their numbness and start their protests and rioting and violence and looting and burning.  Which leads to the answer to the question posed at the beginning.  African-Americans are burning down businesses in their own neighborhoods as an extreme method to pull themselves out of their numbness and, for a few moments, feel very alive.  It is like the depressed people that practice self-harm: everything from cutting one’s wrists to committing suicide.  Suicide can give a person a final rush of sensation to feel alive.

Combine this layer of numbness with the numbness of sheltering in place for the Corona virus, and the numbing loss of economic power as a result of the growing unemployment from the Corona virus, and you have the perfect formula for a perfect storm.  And this is what African-Americans have been experiencing these past few days.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow