The other day, I was in a discussion with about 10 other people – all seniors – about aging. The moderator asked all of us what was the first thing that we thought of when we thought about ageing. Most people said deterioration, falling apart, or words to that effect. Getting ready for the end. It was all about going downhill. This is very different from the way ageing is perceived in traditional societies. There, older people are venerated for their wisdom and treated with great respect. In traditional societies, older people are seen as being refined over a long period of time like an aged cheese or an aged wine.
But in modern technological society, ageing is something that is not to be looked forward to. A growing loss of respect leads to a sense of isolation. Not only does ageing lead to a loss of physical grounding in one’s body, but it can lead to a loss of social grounding in one’s community. An older person is seen as a repository of infirmities rather than a repository of memories and insights. Older children frequently don’t live close to their parents, and so the parents lack a vital support system. They end up in an experiential vacuum, living lives of boredom and numbness.
The biggest problem we have in modern technological society, leading to incomplete distorted attitudes towards older people, is that we continually implicitly compare people to computers and other forms of machines. We talk about people being “wired” for this and “wired” for that. The last I looked there were no wires in the human body. But we also look at the human body as a machine in another way. We think that humans, like machines, have a planned obsolescence built into them. That they simply deteriorate as they get older and that nothing, at least nothing that matters, improves. This is why there is so much ageism in the modern workplace. An older worker may not have the energy or volume of productivity of a younger worker. But frequently, what we call wisdom can lead to an improvement of the quality of the work output. Age does have its advantages.
A machine is an entity made up of detachable interchangeable parts. Parts can be continually replaced until it is concluded that it is no longer worth the money to keep the machine going. A human is an entity made up of parts that are not easily detachable. Yes, sometimes artificial parts are used to replace defective body parts as with hip and knee replacements. And sometimes, organic parts are used to replace defective organs as with hearts and kidneys. But the replacement of parts in humans is much more complicated than the replacement of parts in a machine in that there is a much greater likelihood of damaging the human’s total health in the process of the replacement. Parts in humans are just not easily replaceable. Which is why surgeons make so much more money than mechanics. You can’t just screw off or screw on parts with humans. A human forms an organic whole in a way that a computer or a machine does not form a mechanical whole. A human is valued as a whole entity or should be much more than a computer or a machine.
And this is why the comparison - both direct and implicit – between humans, on the one hand, and computers or machines is so dangerous. It diminishes the value of humans. And to see humans as they age completely in terms of planned obsolescence gives a person, as he gets older, really nothing to look forward to. Because the things that are holding him together – including even a coherent sense of self – just aren’t as significant as the things that are pulling him apart.
And if a person, as he gets older, is unable to find people around him who value him for his qualities as an older person, that person has to find ways of maintaining his self-esteem by valuing himself. And to find ways of valuing himself, he must first diminish his interfacing with consumer technology, and in particular, the technology of screen reality. This unconscious interfacing will cause him to allow these modern machines to mirror him and to model for him and to plant a more robotic identity inside of him. As a person gets older, he must find a way to increase the primary experience from the external world in his life so that he can continue to make, receive and preserve organic imprints so that he can feel more vibrantly alive and prepare for death when it does come with a meaningful surrogate immortality. There should be no reason why a person can’t continue to develop some kind of a strong life narrative well into old age and thus, have something of value to live for. So that he doesn’t have to see himself simply as a series of rusting body parts.© 2020 Laurence Mesirow
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