VI: in the realm of the unconscious - Langdon Winner

VI: in the realm of the unconscious

W.H. “Ping” Ferry

The words in my essay on technology addiction were brought to the page via a grant from W.H. “Ping” Ferry, a New York intellectual and philanthropist who had spent his long life engaged with the most innovative thinkers of his generation, focused on some of the most pressing social problems.  In his 80’s, he still ambled out to his garage in Scarsdale every day, where he banged out letters to hundreds of colleagues on an old black typewriter and gave out $1000 grants demanding from recipients neither proposal nor follow-up report.
One day in 1991 Ping sent me a letter.  He wanted me to understand that the problem facing humanity was not just specific machines like nuclear weapons or Dalkon Shields; rather it sprung from an entire technological system.  Finding like minds was, even then, a rarity.  Ping and I began a correspondence -- and one day I mailed him a cassette tape of a lecture I was particularly proud to share, demonstrating that I had indeed digested his feedback.  He punched out a quick note on his typewriter informing me he didn’t own a cassette player, never had, never would.  When I proposed that he walk next door and borrow a tape recorder, he refused and returned the tape, unopened, in the envelope! 
I felt I’d had another lesson from the inimitable W. H. Ping Ferry.
The essay he commissioned for inclusion in Technology for the Common Good continues, hopefully incorporating his wisdom.

The twelve-step recovery movement says that, to heal, the addict must make "a searching and fearless moral inventory.”[i] On the personal level this undertaking includes claiming responsibility for instances in which we have violated another person's integrity. On the collective level we might claim responsibility for technological society's uncounted viola­tions against humanity, animals, the plant world, and the Earth. But, as Kellogg tells us, addictive behavior is not natural to the human species. It occurs because some untenable violation has "happened tous."[ii]
And indeed, we have undergone an untenable violation: a collective trauma that explains the insidious reality of addiction and abuse infusing our lives. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disordersdefines trauma as "an event that is outside the range of human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone."[iii]Psychiatrist Abraham Kardiner describes it as "an external influence necessitating an abrupt change in adaptation which the organism fails to meet."[iv] 
The trauma endured by technological peoples is the systemic and systematic removal of our lives from the natural world: from the tendrils of earthy textures, from the rhythms of sun and moon, from the spirits of the bears and trees, from the life force itself. This is alsothe systemic and systematic removal of our lives from the kinds of social and cultural experiences our ancestors assumed when they lived in rhythm with the natural world.


Photo by Edward Curtis

Deloria infers that technological people "have no idea" about much of anything that resides outside "the artificial technological universe with which [we] are familiar." Human beings evolved over the course of some 3 million years and 100,000 generations in synchronistic evolution with the natural world. We are creatures who are physically and psychologically built to thrive in intimacy with the Earth. A mere 300 generations ago, or .003 percent of our time on Earth, humans in the Western world began the process of controlling the natural world through agriculture and animal domestication. Just five or six generations have passed since industrial societies emerged out of this domestication process. Our experience is indeed "outside the range of human experience," and by the evidence of psychological distress, ecological destruction, and technological control, this way of life has necessitated "an abrupt change in adaptation."
Though largely ignored, evidence jumps from the pages of anthropological texts suggesting that the very psychological qualities so earnestly sought in today's recovery, psychological,  and spiritual move­ments, the very social equalities for which today's social justice move­ments struggle so valiantly, and the very ecological gains sought after by today's environmental movements -- these  comprise the same qualities and conditions in which our species lived for over99 percent of its existence.
For nature-based people, addiction was not a normal occurrence. Rather people lived every day of their lives in the wilderness. We are only beginning to grasp how such a life served the inherent expectations of the human psyche for development to maturation and health. In nature-based people who today maintain some vestiges of their Earth-based cultures, we can discern a decided sense of ease with daily life, a marked sense of self and dignity, a wisdom which most of us can admire only from afar.


Photo by Edward Curtis

Anthropologists report that in small, face-to-face communities most nature-based people practice an easy form of democracy. Everymember has a say and members of the community listen to each other.[v]Workaholism does not exist.[vi]  The population tends to remain stable, held in check by natural (rather than technological) fertility controls arising out of diet and lifestyle.[vii]  And ecological sustainability reigns: all tools are made of natural substances, and movement from one place to another allows for remaining waste to biodegrade into the Earth.
As psycho-historian Paul Shepard notes:

White, European-American, Western peoples are separated by many generations from decisions of councils of the whole,  life with few possessions, highly developed initiation ceremonies, natural history as everyman's voca­tion, a total surround of non-man-made otherness with spiritual significance, and the 'natural' way of mother and infant.[viii]

The loss of such experiences in the face of an increasingly human-constructed, technology-determined reality, and the loss of living in fluid participation with the wild, constitutesthe trauma we have inherited.
The hallmark of the traumatic response is dissociation. This is also the psychological result of the kinds of social changes that took place via domestication. Shepard describes this process as the initiation of a heretofore unheard of tame/wild dichotomy in which things con­sidered tame (domesticated seedlings, captured animals; the mechani­cal, controlling mentality required to keep them alive) are prized and protected, while things considered wild ("weeds," wild animals; the fluid, participator way of being human) are threatening.[ix]
This split between wild and tame lays the foundation for both the addictive personality and technological society.  Ultimately such a split imprisons us in our human-constructed reality and causes all the unneces­sary and troublesome dichotomies with which we grapple today -- from male/female and mind/body, to secular/sacred and technological/Earth-based. Shepard writes:

In the ideology of farming, wild things are enemies of the tame; the wild Other is not the context but the opponent of 'my' domain. Impulses, fears and dreams -- the realm of the unconscious -- no longer are represented by a com­munity of wild things with which I can work out a mean­ingful relationship. The unconscious is driven deeper and away with the wilderness.[x]

In his work on the post-traumatic stress of individuals, psychiatrist Ivor Browne describes dissociation in terms remarkably similar to Shepard's. He sees it as "unexperienced experience,"[xi]  experience that has not been properly processed by the psyche and integrated into memory. Just as animals often meet threats of disaster by "playing dead," so traumatized people split their consciousness, "freezing" the experience of loss and pain from awareness and playing dead in mind and body. This mechanism is a brilliant way to protect the psyche from threats that our nervous systemssimply were not built to handle, and changes that we were never meant to integrate.
The purpose of dissociation, then, is self-preservation. As Ivor Browne describes it: "Whenever we are faced with an overwhelming experience that we sense as potentially disintegrating, we have the ability to suspend it and 'freeze' it in an unassimilated, inchoate form and maintain it in that state indefinitely."[xii]Technological people's dislocation from the only home we have ever known is a traumatic event that has occurred over generations, and that occurs again in each of our childhoods and in our daily lives. In the face of such a breach, symptoms of traumatic stress are no longer the rare event caused by a freak accident or battering weather, but the everyday stuff of life experience.
Kellogg describes trauma as "the freeway to addiction,"[xiii]  and his technological metaphor is not lost. As human life comes to be structured increasingly by mechanistic means, the psyche restructures itself to survive. The technological construct erodes primary sources of satisfaction once found routinely in life in the wilds, such as physical nourishment, vital community, fresh food, continuity between work and meaning, un­hindered participation in life experiences, and spiritual connection with the natural world. Bereft and in shock, the psyche finds some temporary satisfaction in pursuing secondary sources like drugs,  violence, sex, material possessions, and machines. While these stimulants may satisfy in the moment, they can never truly fulfill primary needs.  And so the addictive process is born. We become obsessed with secondary sources as if our lives depended on them.
Today the world is awash in a sea of both personal and collective addictions: alcoholism, drug abuse, sex addiction, consumerism, eating disorders, codependence, war-making, and global drama. Psychotherapist and author Anne Wilson Schaef points out that beneath these behaviors liesan identifiable disease process "whose assumptions, feelings, behaviors, and lack of spirit lead to a process of nonliving that is progressively death-oriented."[xiv]  While her words describe the addictive process of in­dividuals, they also characterize the addictive process of a civilization.
Techno-addiction finds its momentary satisfaction through machines and power, but it is also an addiction to a way of perceiving, experienc­ing, and thinking. As the world has become less organic and more depend­ent on techno-fixes, humans have substituted a new worldview for one once filled with clean rushing waters, coyotes, constellations of stars, tales of the ancestors, and people working together in sacred purpose. But the ancestors from the western world took on the crucial task of redefining their worldview in a state of psychic dislocation, and so ended up projecting a worldview that reflects the rage, terror, and dissociation of the traumatized state. They dreamed a world not of which humans are fully part, but one that we can wholly define, compartmentalize, and control. They created linear perspec­tive, the scientific-technological paradigm, and the mechanistic worldview.
Life on Earth encased in the product of such a construction is, to quote the Hopi, hopelessly koyanaskatsi, or out of balance. As a psychotherapist, I believe that to address this imbalance at its roots will require more than public policy, regulation, or legislation. It will require a collective psychological process to heal us technological peoples who, through a mechanized culture, have lost touch with our essential humanity.

Because I am insufferably adamant about the need to throw off the chains (freeways, electromagnetic technologies, nuclear weapons) of mass technological society and become as wild as the Earth intended, I am dedicated to healing. This is recovery not just of the "unexperienced experience" brought on by the trauma, violation, and abuse people now sustain -- but it encompasses recovery of the joy, laughter, and compassion we so sorely miss.   It is, as Morris Berman proposes, "the recovery of our bodies, our archaic traditions, our unconscious mind, our rootedness in the land, our sense of community, and connectedness with one another."[xv] 
Such a choice involves recovery of a respectful intimacy with the natural world. Those who have made a tran­sition in this relationship -- from one of speeding over the land at 75 miles per hour and manufacturing genocidal weapons to one of wonderment, curiosity, and loyalty -- will attest to the discovery of long-forgotten strengths and convic­tions.  
But because of the breach of intimacy technological peoples have endured, there also is pain in opening ourselves to a world being wantonly destroyed before our eyes. Radioactive fallout rings the globe. The trees of the Black Forest are withering. The seals in the North Sea are dying of immune-deficiency disease.  And the poisons keep leaking out.
Then, there are our feelings about how the natural world for most of us is nonexistent in our lives today. We cannot see the moon overhead because of the smog. Our feet do not touch the Earth when we walk. We rarely walk. We spend our time fixated before electromagnetic screens. We do not know how to speak to or learn from the natural world.
Finally, we have feelings about how as children we were rarely en­couraged, taught, or given the context within which to establish an authentic relationship with the natural world.  Such an intimacy is essential to our growth into mature human beings, and was built into our lives throughout our evolution.  Yet technological society denies us this intimacy from the start. As children, we barely learn how the moon changes shape, why snow is cold, or how the earth spirits can help us live. The excavation of feelings about this lost past, and about our present losses, provides the psychic crucible for a non-mechanistic way of being; as we feel, we come alive.
And "What will come of such conversations?" ask you who worry that heart-felt experience supplants political action.  One overlooked outcome of any authentic recovery process is that it refutes personal power­lessness. My experience as a psychotherapist and an activist tells me that because the clear-sightedness and love for life that stream forth can be so mighty, the passion to become involved can be held back by neither bulldozer nor virtual reality. The words that spring to mind when I am faced with yet another violation of life are these: "Over my dead body . . ." And when I see an opportunity to create something new: "To Life!" (1991)[xvi]


This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.



[i] Anne Wilson Schaef, Co-Dependence. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986, p. 27.
[ii] Kellogg, “Broken Toys, Broken Dreams.”
[iii] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1987.
[iv] Abraham Kardiner, “The Traumatic Neurosis of War,” Psychomatic Monograph II-III. New York: P. Hoeber, 1941, p. 181.
[v] Peter Wilson, The Domestication of the Human Species. New Haven CT: Yale UniversityPress, 1988, pp. 42-43; StanleyDiamond, In Search of the Primitive. New Brunswick NJ: Transaction Books, 1974, Chapter 8; and Colin Turnbull, The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo. New York: Anchor, 1962, Chapter 6.
[vi] Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1972, pp. 14-32; Frederick McCarthy and Margaret McArthur, “The Food Quest and the Time Factor in Aboriginal Economic Life,” in C.P. Mantford, ed., Records of the Australian-American Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, Vol. 2, Anthropology and Nutrition. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1960, pp. 92-192; and Richard Lee, “!Kung Bushman: Subsistence: An Input-Output,” in A. Vayda, ed. Environment and Cultural Behavior. Garden City NJ: Natural History Press, 1969, pp. 59-74.
[vii] Margaret Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory. Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989, pp. 85-90; L. Binford, An Archaeological Perspective. New York: Seminar Press, 1972; and Mark Nathan Cohen, Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven CT: Yale UniversityPress, 1989, p. 109.
[viii] Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1982, p. 120.
[ix] Shepard, p. 120.
[x] Shepard, p. 120.
[xi] Ivor Browne, “Psychological Trauma, or Unexperienced Experience,” Revision, Vol. 12 No. 4, Spring 1990, p. 26.
[xii] Browne, p. 27.
[xiii] Kellogg, “Broken Toys, Broken Dreams.”
[xiv] Schaef, Co-Dependence, p. 21.
[xv] Berman, Re-Enchantment, p. 282.
[xvi] Adapted from Chellis Glendinning, “The Conversation We Haven’t Had: Technology, Trauma, and the Wild.” Chapter 4.

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