The latest idea that my entrepreneurial group dealt with was an app for the phone that reinforced good driving habits among young drivers so that they get into less severe and less frequent accidents. A term from behavioral psychology is used to describe how the app works: reinforcing good behavior. On one hand, it sounds great, doesn’t it? Downloading a technological solution to wrong behavior among young people. For instance, keeping young people from using their phones while driving. So that they don’t get hurt or get killed.
All over the place, technological solutions have been developed to diminish the danger we all experience in our daily lives. When I start driving, my car beeps noisily until I put on my seat belt. Of course, soon there will be no choices involved with driving if some inventors and some companies have their way. We will all give up our human agency as we start riding in self-driving cars. We will give up our human agency in order to protect ourselves from risk.
This notion of getting rid of risk and protecting ourselves by diminishing or getting rid altogether of human agency is increasingly prevalent in a lot of areas of life. Sometimes technology is used not to protect ourselves against danger by rather against bad consumer choices. Companies collect data that is used to recommend all kinds of products and even romantic partners. The point is to make life as frictionless as possible. And the key to this whole strategy of protection from excessive friction is mediation. In mediation, technology diminishes or eliminates dangers and discomfort. The risk involved in bad choices is diminished or eliminated.
But is giving up so much risk in life such a good thing. To get rid of risk, one has to basically give up agency. Of course, if one looks at each individual situation where one has to give up agency separately, most of the time it seems like a good idea. What would be wrong with preventing young people from getting into serious accidents? We all want our children to be safe. The problem arises when we use technology to protect us from risk in so many life situations that we develop conative anesthesia or a numbing of the will. We become so over protected that we start losing our free agency altogether. Every decision, even the smallest little decision, becomes overwhelming and burdensome. We become numb to our free will and we become numb to our sense of self. Because one of the things that defines our sense of self is that we are an agent that acts. But as a paralyzed selfless person, we become vulnerable to cults and to becoming robots and zombies.
As an overprotected person losing his sense of agency, his will and his sense of self, one, of course, also loses his capacity for purpose: one’s capacity to make and preserve imprints. One becomes too numb and paralyzed to make and preserve imprints, to feel really alive and to prepare for death.
All of these problems are the result of an overdose of good intentions. On one hand, who could be upset with an app that prevents young drivers from hurting themselves or killing themselves. It’s only when we start overdosing on the very common phenomenon today of overprotection that problems result. But as technology advances and more and more new technological devices and apps are created, this is precisely what’s happening today. And as people become more and more overprotected, the tolerance for friction continues to decrease. So increasingly smaller amounts of friction become more and more overwhelming. And then people feel a need to develop devices and apps for levels of friction that before they would have tolerated and overlooked.
The truth is that if we always continue to think in terms of protecting people from harm, we will end up living lives without a meaningful life narrative. That part of our lives between the womb and the grave will become like an empty bubble. We will always be safe, but we will always be, to a certain extent, dead to ourselves.
Of course, for some people, feeling overprotected for a long period of time could lead to a reaction in the opposite direction. People can try to pull out of their numbness by taking big risks and thus feeling the effects of these incredible stressful risks that come from pulling away from numbing conventionality. Drug addictions, involvement in mass violence or suicide, supporting destabilizing leaders like Trump. For many people, there does come a point where overprotection is suffocating, and then they start doing dangerous risky things to feel alive. And because they rush into these activities and situations, and aren’t fully prepared for the consequences, they can end up doing incredible damage both to themselves and to others. But for many of these people, it almost doesn’t matter, as long as they can have a short period of time, sometimes even a few moments, when they feel fully conscious and in control of things, before they fall apart.
All of us should become aware of the danger of too much protection and be willing to take risks in at least some areas of our lives. Risks help us to feel vibrantly alive and to make and preserve meaningful imprints. There is a saying about romance that could be applied to a lot of different areas of life: “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” In other words, take a risk, be vulnerable and live.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow