Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More on the delusion of progress

Imagine you are in a sinking boat and you are trying to bail out the water using a leaky wooden bucket.  And further imagine that, unbeknownst to you, you are making no progress whatsoever because the water you toss overboard is blowing right back into another part of the boat.  

Suppose that someone comes along and gives you a better bucket, one without leaks, so that you are able to get more water with each scoop.  Then, a short while later, someone else comes along and gives you an even better bucket; this one is ergonomically designed, lightweight, and has a special shape that allows you to scoop faster and collect twice as much water.  

When you think back on when you started bailing with your leaky wooden bucket, it sure seems like you are in a much better situation now with your high tech bucket than you were before. The problem, of course, is that you are focused in on the immediate situation: how much water you can scoop and how fast, and not getting the bigger picture.  You can’t see that whatever bucket you use, the boat will sink just as fast.

When we scrutinize a specific technological innovation, our evaluation is usually limited to the set of conditions or problems that that technology was designed to deal with.  The physical operation of the technology itself often restricts our perspective.  Within this limited focus, it can appear that a new technology is a clear improvement over preexisting conditions.  The task at hand can be accomplished faster, or more efficiently, or more elegantly than before.  What we frequently don’t see is how peripheral conditions are affected.   

We see our green weed-free lawn and not the algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico that results from the fertilizer that washes into the gutter.  We see our growing list of friends on Facebook and wonder at how socially barren life must have been prior to the internet, as we sit physically isolated and alone in front of a computer screen. 

Technological progress is a mirage.  And we fall for it again and again like thirsty dogs baked senseless by the desert sun.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reify Wall Street

Try telling zealous patriots or ardent fans of a professional (corporate) sports team that their feelings of loyalty and allegiance are misplaced. 

Once an institution is reified and bestowed (linguistically or legally) with person status, it then becomes a potential target for our sympathy, empathy, respect, affection, and our anger and derision as well.  All of these psychological postures are misplaced, of course.  Institutions are conceptual constructions: organizational technologies designed to facilitate the coordination and direction of human behavior toward nonhuman ends.  They can neither appreciate nor return our feelings. 

Enter occupy Wall Street.

Who or what is the target of the protest message? There are numerous specific individuals “occupying” positions of power within the machine’s organizational structure who deserve the guillotine—or worse.  But the protest—at least in my corner of the occupy movement—seems to be directed primarily at abstractions such as “the corporate system” or “greedy banks” or “capitalism” or “rich motherfuckers.” 

It is clear to just about everyone that “the system” is the source of the problem.  One would think, then, that the obvious solution is to eliminate the system. 

One would think. 

But this thought appears to remain sequestered in the minds of a few anarchists.  The majority of the occupiers want to reign-in corporate power, apply various patches and tweaks to the wealth-distribution process, and then get on with business as usual.  The emphasis on nonviolence and non-engagement with the police is open genuflection to the status quo: the system itself must remain in place.

Slaves begging their masters for a little more meat in their Christmas gruel.

What if we actually treated corporations as if they were human beings? What if we acted as if they could actually bleed, actually suffer feelings of grief and insecurity—actually experience all of the physical and psychological pain that they generate for real people? What if we considered all forms of corporate-owned property as the exposed appendages of their physical bodies? What if broken windows and burned delivery vans and shattered computer monitors and severed power lines hurt? What if blocked shipments and crippled communication conduits caused them to feel actual frustration? What if the defacement of a corporate logo on a billboard or building caused them to feel actual humiliation? 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The loss of self-control

Civilization employs numerous devices for channeling human behavior, mechanisms for redirecting us away from our natural inclinations and toward activities that serve the needs of the machine.  Much of this redirection involves the intentional erosion of self-control.   Self-control is the clay out of which true resistance is molded.

Research on self-regulation has found that self-control operates very much like a muscle: it appears to be a limited resource that can be depleted and requires rest in order to reestablish its strength.  Self-control reflects the ability to inhibit behavior or override competing urges.  The exercise of inhibition is effortful, and inhibiting one set of urges leaves less energy left over for a subsequent set. 

People fail to exercise self-control following recent situations in which their self-control has been taxed or when there are multiple demands on self-regulation.  For example, a dieter who has to inhibit the desire for the delicious chocolate chip cookies in the lunchroom is more likely to binge on cheesecake at home later on.  Or the menial employee who has to submit quietly to a verbally abusive boss all day long on the job is more likely to lash out uncontrollably at his or her teenage child at the dinner table in the evening.

A wide variety of factors, environmental and psychological, can tap into our inhibitory resource and reduce the ability to maintain self-control, including noise, coping with stress, regulating mood and moderating emotional expression, delaying gratification, dieting, and engaging in activities that require physical or attentional stamina.  One study found that just the anticipation of a future demand on self-control can deplete the inhibitory resource. 

It is a fairly straightforward matter to trace the myriad ways that our self-control resource is overtaxed by life in modern techno-culture, with its continual stress, competing demands on attention, enticements, distractions, and a plethora of situations in which our natural emotional responses must be held in check. 

True resistance, then, requires an almost super-human level of self-control simply to overcome distraction and competing demands long enough to realize the extent to which resistance is warranted in the first place, let alone to meet the self-regulation demands of planning and executing effective courses of action and coping with their consequences.

What we really need, then, is—Wait!  I need to tweet about this…