Under the Influence

Culture

In the not too distant past, people everywhere were still insulated from much awareness of the world beyond one’s local family and tribe. We might now take for granted how much technology has expanded our reach beyond the immediate time and place we find ourselves in. Mobility through technology allows very different peoples and cultures to mingle and merge, as it also expands our reach.

We moderns seek an explanation for everything, and now we can find it ‘online.’ We look to, reference and then quote the experts – or share a meme that claims a truth through an emotionally appealing story – for winning our ideological and psychological battles that the subjective, private self feels obliged to acknowledge in order to be validated and heard. The risk is to hand over our personal agency to collective forces, becoming enslaved by ideologues or by anyone who has our ear. Even if it lies unacknowledged, in the shadow of every ideology there lies an end game.

Every generation fights a new bogey man: whatever public institution, once deemed and revered as expert, eventually falls from grace. This is how it must be. All will eventually fall, as long as the categories themselves of ‘public and private’ remain in a dynamic tension in which one negates the other, rather than serving as that which shows us a third way which places agency back into one’s experience where we can then turn to – that place where all struggles ultimately find their residence.

Hurry Up!

After thousands of years of toil and disease, in which millions of human lives lived were fraught with pain and suffering, technology began to serve us well. But somewhere we have moved beyond a level of relative comfort to a place we’ve never been before. Unlike the self-reliant nature of walking, the speed of a car, while increasing our freedom to move, at the same time increases our expectation of ever greater speeds. Our desires seem insatiable with the idea that technology will increasingly bring more freedom, comfort and one day perhaps the Promised Land itself.

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La Fileuse (Maryo File la Laine). – The Spinner. Zincograph with hand-coloring Indianapolis Museum of Art. PublicDomain

With desires and expectations far removed from human nature we’re twice as vulnerable in an era when technology and social media become the primary source of opinions, stories, images and ideas that are ‘shared,’ ‘liked’ and distributed in their most base form. Memes, quickly consumed as simple explanations, offer platitudes and solutions in an increasingly complex and shared world. We fill our need for ever deeper, more personal reflection with collective opinions distributed just as other goods are bought, sold, and often time, borrowed on credit. Faster food, faster cars, faster weapons, faster information foster unreflected opinions that define reality and tempt us into drawing conclusions about what is broken and how things should be. How to fix what technology driven by a desire for ever-increasing speed breaks? Speed kills, but more than that, while giving an illusion of connecting long distances, cheats us out of deeper bonds to each other and the world that the slowness of essential daily tasks once provided.

Our desperation to make the world better shares this hurried frenzy. We risk the loss of skills for mediating between a multitude of competing ideas, where a deeper understanding of the nature of social and individual problems might counter the overbearing collective influence.

Perhaps our hurry serves to move us past the unbearable pain of increased awareness of the plight of others whom we are often powerless to help, and into the pleasure of believing in a solution that fits our cultural frame of reference. With the solution in mind, rather than the problem, all that’s left is to blame those that don’t share our vision, who we then scapegoat as either unenlightened, brainwashed, or simply “haters.” (Perhaps our exasperation is an important clue that our understanding is not yet complete and still wants something from us.)

Technology in the Driver’s Seat

Although technology extends our awareness, it can breed emotions for things and events far beyond our reach, and still carry with it an expectation that our influence and responsibility might increase too, giving the impression that together, we can solve the world’s problems. Alone with one’s computer, the bigger-than-ever world is now at my fingertips. Perhaps this is why frustration, depression and pathology more readily find us offline, as we never quite find our unique voice that can skillfully mediate and express ideas that we’re attracted to. We remain dispossessed; both afraid and unaware of the reach and limits of our own agency. With all of the speed of technology, the experts we seek for validation still own us.

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Influence

The increased reach of our psyche is far out of proportion to our individual influence on the world’s troubles. The more power, influence and responsibility I think I’m suppose to have, the more I suffer when things beyond my control break my heart. I feel this deeply.

Power and influence, and the question of who has it and who doesn’t, are breeding a new pathology. Never before have we had a spotlight big enough to expose so much to so many. The power of one small cellphone to globally broadcast any event to anyone anywhere is unprecedented. The changes brought to our psyche and to every culture are perhaps unstoppable and seemingly chaotic, contributing as much to the solutions of our problems as to the pathological states that bring harm to so many of us.

No matter one’s beliefs or culture, common archetypal themes grip and haunt us all. In a world saturated by apocalyptic visions and imagery, it is to our teleological views that we might now turn to, not to believe in them more, but to see through them and the power that belief infuses into crumbling cultures. Regardless of their veracity, it is our very belief in them that divides us into opposing forces of believers and heretics, penetrating our awareness and identity with a desire to convert the unfaithful over and above anything else. Falling into belief (defined here as a mistaking of the desire for something ultimately unknowable to be true) is itself pathological, ever in need of validation, reassurance and defense that is beyond the human condition to obtain.

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F-15 and F-16 flying over a burning oil field in Kuwait in 1991. US Air Force. Public Domain

While it once seemed that the old institutions of church, social mores, government and superstition were to blame for our oppression and lack of freedom, as these structures begin to crumble, we might increasingly recognize a kind of personal free agency, unincorporated, to the extent that we don’t, out of fear and desperation, seek out ideologies and authorities to replace those fallen idols.

The desire to win an outcome stemming from any collective ideology, empowers the experts, who in the cultural free fall, solicit our dependence – increasing their influence over us while limiting the pool of ideas of what is possible. Corruption can be more readily justified through strength of belief. The antidote to belief is to stop worshiping at its altar, not the altar of any one specific belief, but the altar of belief itself. Ultimately, at root, what any of us always has – and which remains the very ground of our existence, is experience.