Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Illusion of Control

Yesterday I was observing someone playing with a new iPad, waxing enthusiastic about how great it was. And in fact, the graphics are gorgeous, the screen luminous, the applications almost endless and endlessly powerful. You can have your favorite music on the thing, your favorite photos, your favorite books on its super reader, your favorite blogs constantly updated, and all of it available at the literal touch of your finger as it scrolls effortlessly through your increasingly digitized world. Fully loaded, it knows all kinds of things about you, including when you need to enter data, whereupon it automatically displays a keyboard on your screen.

And as I mulled about this later, and about the marvelous control offered by iPhones and iPods and all the other gadgets beguiling each of us with constantly-updated information geared specifically to ME, this notion of ‘the world at your fingertips’ started to appear in a slightly different light. My music, my websites, my blogs, my photos, my world—it’s all about some postmodern illusion that if I can just buy enough gadgets, I can inhabit a world that is tailor-made for me alone. I don’t have to wait for a radio to play my favorite song: I can have it and all my other favorites on my iPod/Phone/Pad. I needn’t listen to other crap—other songs, traffic, bird calls, jabbering other people, construction noise--ever again. Plugged in, I can control my sound environment, and then my visual environment, and my information environment, and everything else in my world.

And yes, it’s an illusion. And the question always is, who—and I can be sure it’s not only me—benefits from this illusion of control. Who gains from my thinking that I can actually, and for an increasingly affordable price, control my world? Well, how about the mandarins who actually do control the world? How about the corporate masters who have, in the last 30 or 40 years, increased by geometric leaps and bounds their share of the wealth of not just this country but the entire world? It’s a bit like bread and circuses in ancient Rome: If the plebes can be given entertainments that are gripping enough (and the slaughter of a few Christians, or gladiators, or lions is quite tolerable for this), then they’re less likely to demand a real life. In our world, it’s bread and circuses as well—the Super Bowl and all sporting events, the Academy Awards and all contests, stupid sitcoms and countless murder-and-mayhem cop shows keep everyone at home and off the streets—but increasingly now, it’s our gadgets. If the plebes can be sold the illusion of control, they won’t notice that they have no control at all. Democracy? A joke. No matter who’s in power, money talks. Not votes. Money. Those with it get more powerful, those without it get the illusion of power via more and more gigabytes, greater capacity to find a new restaurant via GPS, and even the occasional ‘opportunity’ to cast a meaningless vote or two.

Lest one think that this illusion of control is peculiar to our age, it’s important to see that the illusion goes deeper than iPads. Or rather, the human urge to get control does. If one thinks about it, all of civilization constitutes an attempt to assert control over the constantly changing vicissitudes of life. Humans invent fire to control it, to warm themselves with it, to frighten threatening animals with it, to cook with it. Levi Strauss made a great deal of this, of cooking, drawing an elementary distinction between the raw and the cooked. Those who eat things raw are animals; primitive life forms. Those who cook are the civilized ones. Cooking not only makes food more digestible, it sets up the basic distinction upon which civilization is built: raw vs. cooked. And it leads to other distinctions: tame vs. wild, agriculture vs. hunting/gathering; protection from the elements vs. exposure to them. And it is all a question of control, of controlling the environment, making it habitable no matter the weather or the availability of wild food, no matter the gods who control such things. And of course, this level of control can be extended almost infinitely: control of weather, control of travel, control of life itself in its most fundamental code, the gene.

More deeply still, the very symbol of humanity, conscious thought, if introspected, can be viewed in this light as well. Those who meditate find this out very quickly. The mind is an inexhaustible thought machine. Consciousness, or what we think of as consciousness, is almost totally consumed with a continuous train of thoughts: thoughts about what we shall do later, thoughts about what we have done earlier, thoughts about how we can prevent this event from going bad or get even with the one who made that event go bad, thoughts about how to best control the situations that are coming and/or edit the past dramas we’d like to change. Very little time is spent, under normal circumstances, attending to what is happening now. The actual conditions of this moment. And the illusion is that as long as I—what I consider to be my basic self, which is this conscious self thinking and apparently controlling my story—am engaged in this sort of thinking and controlling what I see and feel and am, then “I” am in control. And of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The conscious “I” controls very little in life. Most of what we perceive, and most of what we make decisions about, is perceived and decided upon long before the conscious self appears to resolve it. Milliseconds before I choose to go get a snack from the frig, the impulse has already been set in motion in stomach and brain. Well before I think to go chat up that lady, interior impulses have already impelled me to do so. So where Descartes famously concluded that “I think, therefore I am,” a galaxy of information indicates that human being is controlled at a considerable remove from conscious thought. This is not to say that the illusion of control afforded by such ‘thinking’ can’t be useful and even necessary. Imagining that we are in control has undeniably beneficial effects, especially for those who have grown up in chaotic environments where the feeling of chaos and lack of control can be deeply debilitating. But as an exclusive diet, as a controlling illusion, it leads us to all the ills to which humans are subject. As Stephen Asma notes in a recent book (Why I Am a Buddhist), the desire to be a self in control is the fundamental problem: “Once we give up on this exaggerated delusion of control, we attain some degree of liberation—we stop trying to own everything; this is my experience, this is mine, this is I, this is myself.”

Nor do we have to buy into the Buddhist idea of liberation to see that the illusion of control, the desire for control over all life has led humans into a serious dilemma. One aspect of it has already been noted: being deluded about our control, being diverted into meaningless forms of control, makes it easier for those who have ruthlessly grabbed power to maintain their power over us. A population busy with iPads or iPods is less likely to make trouble over the growing income gap. But even more serious consequences of this mania for control can be seen just as easily. Civilization and the “control” it provides humans has driven us to the edge of a cliff. In this ultimate sense, we have gained “control” over our environment—we use fossil fuel to power our lives; we use corporate agriculture to reduce the work necessary to feed more and more of us; we use scientific ingenuity to control our susceptibility to disease and even death--only to find that we are controlling ourselves into overpopulation, global warming from overuse of fossil fuels, and the feverish destruction of the critical varieties of plant and animal life we have evolved with and will, at some point, be unable to do without.

In this sense, control is a paradox: The more we control our planet, the more we lose what it provides us to survive. And we are all, without exception, susceptible to this; all of us, to one degree or another, ‘control freaks.’

So what to do? How control the mania to control?

If I knew, I wouldn’t have to write about it. But quite possibly it’s as simple as recognizing it in ourselves and others, and gradually letting go of the illusion. The fundamental truth is that life cannot be controlled. Life is defined by its uncontrollability (Interesting how word usage intuits this: the term “out of control” is now used as a superlative akin to “awesome”). The more we try, the unhappier we get. The more we try, the unhappier all other life gets as well. I’m reminded of George Carlin’s wonderful riff on “stuff.” We spend our lives trying to accumulate as much “stuff” as we can, as much stuff as our neighbors seem to have. And then as our apartments and houses and garages fill up with “stuff,” we have to find or buy new stuff to store all the useless stuff we’ve accumulated, and so have to keep accumulating ad infinitum, our lives reduced to the idiocy of getting and keeping and finding ways to store more and more until we are more controlled by our stuff than it is by us. Carlin made this funny. But the humor came from the fact that we all know how truly, sadly insane it is.

Lawrence DiStasi

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