Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bored Robots in a Mundane World

Robotic version of a young man
It is common perception that we live in a world driven, shaped and molded by technology. It may seem that technology has made us become more automatic, that it is interfering and influencing not only the way we live, but also the way we think, feel and behave; in short, technology is changing our perception of and interaction with ourselves and the world.

All you need is to watch people in the modern industrialized world. They are constantly and consistently connected to the Internet with their various shapes of devices ranging from phones to tablets to pads. Books are becoming obsolete as new hordes and generations of e-readers are replacing them. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 needs to be rewritten and updated with the temperature at which chips burn (in a microwave perhaps?).

But I am going to claim that it is – as almost always in life – a two-way street. It is not only that technology is affecting us but that we ourselves have brought technology into the foreground. We can look at this development of modern technology historically by tracing it back to the first machines: steam engines, mechanical ways of farming and defiant chess-playing computers.

The brilliant mathematician Alan Turing saw the many possibilities of the computer and foresaw its next step / model (which we are currently in the process of refining), namely Artificial Intelligence. Whether a machine can think is the question he poses; in the meantime, we are trying to create rudimentary forms and versions of thought-machines bound and circumvented by our current standards of knowledge and know-how.

But interestingly, before we look at electronic and automatic versions of human beings in the near or distant future, let us consider how mechanical we ourselves have become over time. In fact, I claim that it is us who have become robots even before the advent and modern advances of technology.

Our lives have become more and more mechanical. Evidently, I do not have the experience and first-hand knowledge of how life used to be in the past and I am not here to glamourize the “good old days” (I am not old enough for that). But within my limited experience, I can see a growing trend in the direction of more mechanical ways of thinking and living and I find this both disheartening and frightening.

I am living through interesting time periods of transitions and changes. I have experienced life without computers where television used to rule our daily life. Even until less than a decade ago, I was still able to walk and commute without any access to the Internet through smartphones, but I finally succumbed to the pressure of technology.

I lived in a time period where we still used record players (although I never owned one) and cassette and video tapes, which I owned massively and in bulks. Then CDs appeared and I remember the excitement of putting in the first CD in a newly purchased CD player. Nobody had cellphones but some lucky and distinguished few brandished a beeper, a completely useless device by modern standards.

But I do not regret any of those previous experiences. I still think that technology has given us a lot of conveniences, don’t get me wrong, but I am glad that I also happened to live in a time where we were deprived of technology or where it at least did not rule all the aspects of our lives.

As a teenager I used to have a typewriter, which embodied a very cumbersome - not to say pain in the ass – writing process and it made it much more challenging to produce, store and distribute my own writing in the era before word processors and blogs.

Moreover, I remember once my bus broke down and I was not able to contact my date (it was a first date too!) and that the relationship never recovered from this unfortunate and unexpected mishap. Today I would have merely sent a text message with an emoji and be able to smoothen the whole situation (or so I think).

But we had technology coming and it was merely a matter of time and circumstance. Our life was already becoming mechanical and automatic. We started limiting our patterns of thought and our imagination and goals and achievements, as a result. As we have reached more comfortable living standards, we have also become laxer and lazier in our lives as well as our outlook on the future.

Instead of looking for new and fresh ways of doing things, we often fall back into the tried and tested, the safe and well-trodden path. Instead of coming up with our own answers and philosophies, we are being spoon-fed cookie-cutter answers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the growing self-help industry that gives us half-baked, half-chewed and undigested answers taking away our own capacity to come to the same and even better truths.

Our behavior is also mechanical and regulated. It seems that we have stifled that which makes us different in the fear of not fitting in with society and our peers; consequently, we lose our own individuality. We look the same. We eat and dress the same. We are machines that feed and talk; we do not seem to be in control of our own minds.

Our cities and living environments follow that same pattern. We have malls that are filled with identical stores. When in the past, we had a certain amount of choice, now we all go to the same coffee shop. We even talk and think alike in many cases and become easily replaceable in jobs and relationships. Put differently, we are robots or robotic versions of ourselves.

Since our relationships with ourselves are fragmented and lack direction and imagination, it is only natural that our interactions and relationships with others are not going to be genuine or fulfilling or even worth its salt. We have come to identify ourselves with the mechanical faces we have put on and are confused about our true selves.

It pretty much comes down to the fact that we are afraid of feelings. Many of us see them as a hindrance, a limitation, and even label it as a weakness. We control our emotions with the iron fists of logic. We try to look for the best out there in terms of jobs, living space, and mates.

Yet our standards of quality are often driven by convenience and materialistic considerations. The “best” job turns out to be the one with the greatest economic benefits. The “best” mate is the one with the strongest appeal in terms of looks and appearance or even again in terms of economic prosperity.

We prefer a physically attractive person so that we can supposedly enhance our own looks and overcome the shortcomings we see in ourselves. We might look for the educated partner not because of stimulating and deep and profound conversations but because we may believe that they represent entry to higher-level and better-paying jobs or to more prestige and acknowledgment in society.

And all of this leads to boredom. We become bored with our lives. We become bored with our jobs, which we did not want or desire in the first place; bored with our partners because we did not listen to our feelings and were led astray by practical considerations. We reach the glass-ceiling goals we have set ourselves and see no room for improvement or further success.

In other words, we are the bored robots. And the life we have created is one of fantasy. It is make-believe but in its negative delusional form; the world loses its vivacious colors and turns into a dull mundane black-and-white world. Nothing satisfies or makes us happy in any lasting and fundamental way. We look to fill the void and turn to sex, drugs, money, possessions, fame, and might even expect and hope religion to fill those gaps within ourselves.

But more often than not this is not the solution. In those cases, we are trying very hard to escape from ourselves without actually knowing who we are. So we see it as temporary relief from the accustomed world of boredom until we wake up to the same monotonous music of our dreaded every-day life or at least our thinking makes it seem so.

So what can we do then to reach a more fulfilled and fulfilling life? The first step would be to get in touch with oneself. The best manner to do so is to establish contact again with our feelings and to really listen to oneself. It is important to lose the fear of others and of failure, this impending gloom and doom that we carry around with us non-stop and that constantly pushes us down.

It is time we regain our humanity and we engage in those activities that define us, while we manage to put aside the technological devices, at least, once in a while. We need to be free, of technology, of the opinion of others, and of our limiting and often self-defeating views, and we need to truly look at ourselves and at the world we live in and realize that we are neither bored nor robots nor do we live in a dull and mundane world.


Vincent said...

I found myself initially demurring at your consistent use of “we”, which caused me to ask why. An answer was soon forthcoming. You could say we because in your essay you are describing herd behaviour. A politer way of saying this is “we live in a culture”. Which is to say that it imposes norms upon its members, with costs associated with nonconformance.

Insofar as we live in a society which calls itself “free”, and we are able to agree with the adjective, not just have it imposed on us as a political slogan, there’s room for a plethora of subcultures, some of which are alternatives, some of which are vying for dominance.

Before I retired I definitely felt the herd pressure. I worked in an office, far away, so my life divided itself into compartments: commute, work in project-based hierarchical structures, go home to wife and young children & the duties arising therefrom. Little or no time or energy remained to deviate from the herd, for that requires entry to some cushioned world of privilege. Which retirement has brought my wife and me. Now we have a much greater choice in the use of technology. All our food is cooked from scratch, we wash up by hand, grind the coffee beans; we can walk all day instead of snatching minutes in the gym. When I get too old to drive, things won’t change much as we live near the town centre, within reach of all facilities, with buses to take us out to the countryside etc.

I see that it’s not the same for others. the poorer you are the fewer the choices and pride may take precedence over practicality, so that children will feel that they must have the latest technology even at the cost of going hungry.

We’re currently watching DVDs of The Ascent of Man, an old TV series by Jacob Bronowski. A particularly moving episode shows the lives of the Bakhtiari tribe , nomads herding sheep between summer and winter pastures. His point is that their culture remains unchanged over thousands of years because of their isolation, nomadism and harsh living conditions. They were unable to develop technology, and couldn’t use it even if they acquired it from outside, because they had to carry everything on foot, even crossing a big river with all their flocks (inevitably losing a few). And when they reach a certain age, they cannot cross the river so they detach themselves from the tribe and stay on one side to die. And this is the way they have always been.

So in light of all this, I heartily endorse your conclusions, that we should use whatever freedom we have to escape the slavish compulsions that are so intricately woven into our culture. And those of us who are privileged should try and clear paths for those who are less so, that they may escape too.

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thanks for your insights as always, Vincent! Yes, the "we" is used for reasons of herd behavior but also to include myself in the fray since the use of "you" would have been too preachy and accusatory in itself.

I think we are on automatic or pilot mode for most of our lives, while technology merely accentuates it. Yet I find it hard to resist the temptations myself and think a rejection of technology unthinkable at least according to current standards (perhaps until my own retirement?).

Now here's a question for you: Does the Bakhtiari tribe not also fall into and become victim to herd behavior. Sure, they may not have technology, but are they "free" in terms of non-conformance?

And to further complicate matters, if everybody followed non-conformance, would that not be another form of conformity?

Vincent said...

The Bakhtiari literally follow herd behaviour because it is their way to survival, though only a minority of the ethnic group still follow the ancient lifestyle. This is because they now have alternatives.

Some of the Lapps who live in Lapland are even more tied into herd behaviour because they follow the reindeer who remain wild in their annual migrations, whereas the Bakhtiari must shepherd their domesticated sheep who long ago lost the ability to survive in the wild. They need humans (just as wheat needs humans for its regeneration, having been genetically modified by humans long ago).

As for your last question, I've seen the phenomenon at least three times in my lifetime that wilfully non-conforming behaviour has become just another fashion to follow: the beatniks, the hippies and the punks. But there are many more that I'm not familiar with. You get a non-conformist, others follow. This is probably the only form of conformity. Every style and idea was once outrageous.

A true original does not follow. It takes a great deal of sustained effort.