1500 years of experience in one room

Little_Sisters_of_the_Poor_810_500_55_s_c1I was deeply moved recently when I stayed with a priest in a retreat centre in Ireland.  He offering mass on Saturday evening at a local convent and I asked to join him.  I was a man amongst 30 elderly nuns with varying levels of frailty.  I looked around the room and wondered about their lives, and how they must feel about the demise of their order due to the lack of the next generation, taking vows and joining them.   What must it be like to devote your life to a way of being that once was very important to society then loses its value.  I discussed this with the priest and he said, these women were ‘lions’ in their day; missionaries working with the poor and dispossessed,  nurses and school teachers….each with at least 50 years of experience and 50 years of giving free-work for their cause.  I reflected on this, 30 nuns with 50 years experience in one room…. 1500 years of experience, 1500 years of work, 1500 years of prayer in the same room as me.    I felt humbled and moved, grateful and also sad.   Looking at these frail women, some clearly who had strokes and in poor health, some with bright eyes and smiles…. a way of life was disappearing before my eyes, 1500 years of experience fading away.   I reflected on the contrast between these nuns lives and our contemporary values and working lives; how we are pre-occupied with our image, brands, self-importance,  speedy results,  material success and the fetish of anything new.    1500 years of a counter-culture looking me in the eye, moved me once again to reflect on our own culture.  There is still time for learning from our elders, for giving, for deepening our common humanity and for prayer.

Apple Watch and the Neurotic Age

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I joined millions of viewers online to see Apple CEO Tim Cook launch the new Apple Watch, and I admired both the extraordinary technology and the ‘classic’ Apple design aesthetic. I reflected on how we become so blasé about new technology, when only a decade or two ago this product would have seemed like science fiction. A watch that you can ask questions and it answers you! A watch that is also a phone, and an email device, and that can automatically pay your grocery bills without using a credit card. It also opens up new possibilities for health research and individual health and well-being monitoring, which I will return to. This watch is marketed by Apple as their most intimate product yet. To cite Tim Cook ‘ “It’s a revolutionary way to connect” “Apple Watch is the most personal device we have ever created. It’s not just with you, it’s on you.” 

Its not just on you, its in you!

“We gain instant and intimate contact with others through our machines, and we also experience intimate contact with our machines. New technologies and machines have become emotional attachments in our lives, and there is a reciprocal relationship between machine and human” (Western S. 2008) I thought Tim’s claim that ‘it’s not just with you, its on you’, only went part way to describe the real aims of this watch (building on previous technologies). Apple and other hi-tech companies, are working on the premise that their products (hardware and software) are so intimate and personal that they are not only on you but ’in you’. What I mean by this is that you internalize these objects, so that they affect your ways of being in the world.

It is not what computers do for us; its what they do to us (Turkle, S. 2005)

Once these objects are ‘in you’, they become part of you, and this is really a great business model for Apple and other tech companies; but what does it do to us? When this happens, you not only have cognitive and affective attachments to the brand and it’s products; you function like a cyborg (Haraway 1991). Technology becomes part of your emotional, bodily and cognitive self. Increasing numbers of us, (particularly the young ‘digital natives’) are so shaped by today’s mobile technologies and social media, that they cannot imagine a life without being in constant relationship with their Facebook, Instagram, google search engine, emails or whatever is their preferred object of desire. The smart phone has become an appendix to the soul, something we feel lost without. Now the Apple watch takes this a step further, it not only acts as the transitional object that we reach for to transition us to our virtual world, it becomes part of us. It is attached to us, and we become emotionally and bodily attached to it. Furthermore; it interacts with us; we read the watch face, whilst it reads us. It doesn’t wait for us to initiate communication, the watch becomes a super-ego for us, nagging us, prodding us, reminding us to stand up if we sit for too long, telling us our heart rate and stress levels, when  to exercise, to have a health check, to go to an appointment, and as more apps are included we will be nagged about many other things.

From the Narcissistic Age to the Neurotic Age

Christopher lasch famously wrote about the culture of narcissism (Lasch 1979), claiming our weak-selves constantly seek external validation, and how self-centeredness becomes normalized. Today I think a cultural adjustment has taken place, we seem more connected to others than ever, and perhaps these are ‘weak ties’, but I don’t see narcissism as being the real problem today. A change has occurred from normalizing a culture of narcissism, to making neuroticism a cultural norm.

Apple and other hi-tech companies no-longer just interpret our needs and provide product solutions; they create an ever-increasing neediness, a dependency and a regressed state of being, with a heightened obsessive anxiety. When we can no-longer decide for ourselves that our back aches and we need to stand up, we are in serious trouble. Whist Apple claim this watch will be a great benefit to health, putting us more in control of our own health and well-being which is clearly a good thing, this watch at the same time helps produce the neurotic age, and will surely increase mental health and social problems. For those with obsessional, neurotic or paranoid traits, this technology is a nightmare, as it amplifies their anxiety-ridden behaviour.  For others and young people in particular, it actually produces the neurotic age, shifting normality towards being obsessional, regressed, slightly paranoid about health matters, losing contact with others, being liked and constantly monitoring ourselves and our relationships.To realise where this state of affairs comes from, one needs only to turn to the words of Tim Cook who said proudly about Apple in a recent interview

We’re always paranoid. We live paranoid. And– we always want the very best product. And so if we’re not beating someone   else we’re trying to beat the thing that we have currently shipping… Everybody here lives on edge (http://www.cnbc.com/id/102502994)

And he says it in a way as if that’s how life should be lived, as if paranoia and being obsessive are good qualities, and  when there is no-one else to beat, beat yourself, and living on the edge (of neurosis and falling apart) becomes the new normal.

So there we have it.   Wonderful advances in technologies, but worrying times ahead unless we find ways to discern how to regain autonomy from the machine that constantly nags us like a overpowering super-ego, that gets inside of us and produces a constant stream of ‘engagement anxiety’ that makes us feel alive, yet in a kind of obsessive, deadening way.

Apple make surplus profits from being fantastic at what they do, (and by using cheap labour, and avoiding taxes).    They create excess, both in terms of profits and also in the libidinal economy that surrounds their products. Their own company is proudly paranoid, obsessive and neurotic, and they project this into their customers, who lap it up, as they are now affectively attached to this way of being.

The problem is that this surplus engagement with technology has the by-product of excess obsessional, anxiety.  This is making our culture a neurotic age.  An age when neurosis is normative, countered only by the fads of mindfulness, and the yoga class,  with readily available Apps to remind you to do your daily sun salutation, or to stay in the present… perhaps there really is no escape from the neurotic age.

Leadership Lessons

Time to find the space to discern with trusted colleagues what technology is doing to you, your team and your organisation.  Analyses the benefits and the costs, in terms of time and emotions.   It is my guess that the technology obsessiveness of the workplace is costing the economy billions;  hyper-emailing for a start is such a drain on time and energy.  It is also has a greater cost to the libidinal (emotional economy) of your organization

Coaching Lessons

Challenge the leaders you coach to take a hard look at how humans and non-humans interact. As a coach learn how to discern with your client and practice this process.  Be courageous and challenge the obsessiveness and paranoia that may help with short term gain and productivity but is socially undermining.   Help them realise it really is not ethical or cool to run an organisation this way.

Lasch. C “The culture of narcissism.” NY.: Warner books (1979).

Haraway, D. J. (1991). Simians, cyborgs and women : the reinvention of nature. London, Free Association

Turkle, S. (2005). The second self: Computers and the human spirit. Mit Press.

Western, S. (2008) Cyborgs and Entanglements: Locating Ourselves in a Strange Land. Conference Paper ISPSO, (published on academia.edu  https://birkbeck.academia.edu/SimonWestern