I know I have spent a lot of time in my column talking about the importance of organic stimuli in our lives and how the gradual erosion of our natural and traditional living environments has led to a diminution of organic stimuli. I have frequently described these stimuli as flowing blendable continual stimuli that are like waves on the ocean or like the shifting shapes in a lava lamp. These are the stimuli that move us to bond and to merge and to rejuvenate ourselves. They are positive pleasurable stimuli. However, not all situations in life are positive and pleasurable. When we get sick or hurt ourselves, and particularly as we age, we experience more organic stimuli on the discomfort, ache and pain spectrum. These stimuli have a greater component of defined discrete stimuli: sharp stimuli that literally or metaphorically tend to hit us, pinch us or sting us. They warn us that we are dealing with dangers of a smaller or larger nature that have to be dealt with so that we don’t deteriorate and so that our capacity to survive is not affected. Actually, many of these negative organic stimuli can be found in the areas of hard physical labor or more primitive living conditions. The discomfort involved in a hard nasty and brutish life. It is precisely this discomfort and the vulnerability to the negative aspects of nature – negative climate events, disease and wild animals among other things – that pushed people to protect themselves against nature with technological innovation. Centuries of innovation have led to the successful use of technology and technology-created living environments to mediate between humans and nature, and, in the process to protect people against the negative aspects of nature.
Now, although technologically-created products are diminishing discomfort, aches and pain in terms of people’s health, negative organic stimuli are still present to some extent in dealing with the external world. However, in the areas of labor and living conditions, there have been improvements. Certainly, the creators and controllers of the technology, the people who live in modern technological society, are living with fewer discomforts, aches and pains in their external world reality. Now because modern technology makes more and more of life not only mediated but also frictionless, it tends to put people in experiential vacuums. As the use of modern technology grows, so does the presence of these experiential vacuums, and so does the numbness that people experience. So the opposite of pain is not always pleasure. Sometimes, it is numbness.
And sometimes the numbness prevents people from experiencing pain that they need to experience to prevent them from experiencing a greater pain later on. Sometimes, people have to inoculate themselves with little pains to learn how to ward off big pains later on. As modern technology leads us to live in more and more levels of mediated experience, we protect ourselves from the primary experience of pain (and frequently of pleasure too). And as we go on living in our nice safe-on-the-surface numbness, we become increasingly incapable of picking up signs of the potential build-up of future big painful situations. How long has it taken people to confront the reality of climate change? And for those who have confronted it and accepted it, how long has it taken these people to realize that their lives may have to change significantly, if the human race is going to be able to survive the effects of climate change? People are going to have to experience more pain now than they would have had to experience, if they had perceived the potentially devastating effects of climate change earlier. But they were too numb to pick up on the signals before. And the only reason some people are acknowledging climate change now is because some really painful experiences are occurring like the increased intensity of California wildfires and the increased frequency of Gulf Coast hurricanes. But even here, many people and, in particular, many people in power all over the world, continue to live in deep numbness with regard to the increasing effects of climate change. They are people who have prospered under the protective mediating umbrella of modern technology and they feel that they are capable of keeping real external world pain at arm’s length.
A similar situation can be said to apply to the Covid pandemic in which we are living. There had been warnings of a big pandemic coming for some time. But we had refused to acknowledge it and to properly prepare for it. And even after having been infected with Covid, Trump, and Bolsinaro still refuse to take the pandemic seriously. And, as a result, the U.S. and Brazil have among the highest infection rates in the world.
To many people, the mediation of modern technology gives them a sense that nature is always controllable and repressable. These people have no preparation in their own lives for the unleashed pain that nature can cause. Never having been put into the position where they had to manage significant amounts of external world pain and discomfort on a regular basis, when the pain of climate change or a pandemic comes along, they start living in denial. They are unable to absorb the pain of these crises in a manageable way. This is why, for instance, there are so many people who walk around today without masks and demonstrate their denial by saying that masks are limitations on their freedom. Particularly in the affluent protected frictionless mediated United States. Hopefully, there will still be enough people that are sensitive to pain and who can help us to deal effectively with both of these crises.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow