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