Two of the basic ways that people can identify themselves are by who they are and by what they do. Who they are assumes that a person is not so fragmented, so pulled in different directions that he lacks an essence, a coherent sense of self. It deals with what a person is when he is still and temporarily free from activity. It includes his lasting relationships with other people. Such a state of being is hard to come by in a modern technological society where the tempo of activity and the shifting of relationships seems to continually accelerate.

Perhaps this is why people today increasingly identify themselves and others by what they do, by what they are like when they are in motion, in activities. People feel a need to keep doing things in order to block out all the activity that surrounds them, activity over which they feel no control, and replace it with the stimulation of their own activity over which they do feel control. People today frequently adopt a posture of what has been called in this column conative acceleration – a speeding up of the will – in order to keep moving forward in spite of the stimulation generated from all the activity around them.

But there are consequences from all this preoccupation that people have today with what they do rather than who they are. Not focusing on who they are means leaving out of both their self-assessment and their assessment of others a very important aspect of identity.

People move around quickly today in the vacuum and tension-pocket environment that has been created by all the complex technology in modern living environments. These modern machines exist in order to facilitate the flow of modern life activities. These modern machines, particularly the consumer technology with which people intimately interact on an ongoing basis, and the robots that are projected as examples for the performance of an increasing number of work activities, all become both mirrors and models for how humans behave. These machines and robots subtly influence people to shift their bonds with other people to more instrumental connections. The focus on the connection is in terms of how a person functions. Does he do what he is supposed to do in different situations? Can he be relied on to fulfill his obligations?

And, of course, there develops a similar focus on one’s connection to oneself. Rather than focusing on who we are when thinking about ourselves, we focus on what we do. We increasingly look at ourselves as a series of defined functions and activities rather than as a coherent sense of self. As a result of this, the value by which we judge ourselves is instrumental value. We approve of ourselves if we are reliable in what we are supposed to do. And we love ourselves primarily in a conditional way, based on our success in our actions.

One problem with this approach is that it does not provide a consistent flow of self-love and self-grounding. Success in performing functions and activities leads to temporary spurts of self-love and self-grounding that then dissipate and leave a person in a vacuum in terms of love and grounding. These periods of relatively pure vacuum are periods when a person is vulnerable to a range of feelings from self-criticism to self-doubt to self-hatred, as the person tries to pump up his will to be successful at more tasks, so he can give himself more love and more grounding.
Or if a person despairs at his capacity to be successful when he performs, he can fall into a lifeless numbness. All of these vacuum emotional states are causes for concern and can create enormous destructive stress. A person needs to balance out his self conditional love and his appreciation for his instrumental value with self unconditional love and his appreciation for his intrinsic value, in order to give himself the strong emotional grounding that he needs.

Another problem is that once a person defines himself too much by his functions and activities, he fragments his sense of self. He loses his core. He becomes subject to being pulled apart psychologically by the forces of entropy that exist in an experiential vacuum. He no longer has the quiet comfort that comes from having a coherent sense of self.

A similar problem occurs in the creation of connections based exclusively on conditional love and instrumental value with respect to other people. There are spurts of both love and grounding in these connections, but they don’t last. And during the spaces between the spurts, a person feels alone in a social vacuum, and he experiences the destructive entropic effects of this intermittent isolation. There is no sustained emotional connection, no sustained emotional grounding when relationships are based entirely on contingent conditional love. If a relationship is to have deep meaningful roots, there has to exist some sustained emotional continuity. And this means it can’t be built exclusively on a valuation of a person’s efficacy in the execution of particular functions and activities.

So both intrinsic values and unconditional love need to be an important part of the equation of how people identify themselves and others. Who a person is is as important as what he does. There has to be balance between these two orientations. Too much focus on who a person is can be just as harmful to a person and to the people around him as excessive focusing on what he does.

A person who bases his assessment of himself and others exclusively on intrinsic value and unconditional love, is a person who has no motivation to actively engage the external world and form a meaningful life narrative. It is like the person lives in a womb-like world with no sense of his mortality and no need to make and preserve organic imprints and prepare for death with a surrogate immortality. More fundamentally with too strong a sense of intrinsic value and unconditional love, a person feels no impelling need to define himself properly in relation to others as a separate defined discrete figure.

Most people up until recently have lived in situations where there was a reasonable balance between unconditional love and conditional love, between intrinsic value and instrumental value, both in attitudes towards oneself as well as attitudes towards others. In more traditional preliterate societies where a person is very strongly identified according to a series of community classifications like tribe, moiety, phratry, clan, extended family and immediate family, he has a lot of grounding in his social world, a lot of confidence that he has a very specific place in the wider social arena, a strong sense of his intrinsic value as a result of his specific place, and a strong sense of the unconditional love that both he feels towards himself and that others in the community feel towards him. The same is true for his attitudes towards the other people that surround him in the community.

Now this unconditional love and intrinsic value are balanced by the presence of conditional love and instrumental value based on a person’s skills in the social role he is supposed to perform in society. These skills can be in areas as diverse as practical work skills, skills in the arts, skills as a lover, and skills in the area of magic (although sorcery and witchcraft would be frowned upon). And the moment that measurable skills are present, at that moment there is going to be some competition usually among people of the same sex and the same age with regard to the demonstration of those skills.

It is within the competition among persons displaying skills that some of the more meaningful personal organic imprints are made and preserved within the memories of groups ranging from different social organizations to whole communities. The key is the collective memory, because preliterate groups by definition do not have the means to write down outstanding records or other outstanding events.

Among most of these groups, warfare also has provided a meaningful method to obtain conditional admiration and a strong instrumental value. And among some of these groups, there have been grotesque tangible souvenirs that reinforce group memories such as scalps, heads, and captured slaves. All of these combat prizes are totally repulsive to us members of modern civilized societies, but they have played a meaningful role in determining prestige in some preliterate societies. At any rate, these members of preliterate tribes are definitely people who have identified themselves by both who they are and what they do, with probably a greater emphasis over all on who they are, because of all the memberships in different sub-groups in their tribes.

A different balance between unconditional love and conditional love, between intrinsic value and instrumental value was created in urbanized civilization. As people left their folk societies to seek out opportunities in city centers, they left behind them the different layers of support they had in their home group. No longer did they have easy access to the tribes, the clans, the villages, the communities that had helped to identify their place in the world, to give them secure emotional attachments and secure opportunities for work. In the new living environment, people were relatively anonymous, free from many of the obligations that were present in the larger traditional cohesive social groupings, but also free from the support, from the grounding that came from those groups. Nevertheless, group life in the form of family units was still present in these cities.

Often it was both extended and immediate family, and people definitely still played a more important role as mirrors and models for other people, particularly children, than did complex machines. But work moved more and more away from the base of family and family contacts. And people had to prove themselves and demonstrate their worth to strangers who were hiring people for specific jobs. If a worker didn’t do his job right, he was fired and wouldn’t have the money needed so that he and his family could eat. Yes there were still families and other social groups built around the church, the synagogue and the local community. But by necessity, conditional love and instrumental value began to play a more dominant role in the way people identified both themselves and others.

The discussions of preliterate traditional societies and urbanized civilizations here presented were brought in to show two different configurations of intrinsic value and instrumental value, of unconditional love and conditional love, both of which configurations represented balances of these different qualities that allowed people to maintain their humanity. In both kinds of human groupings, people could give reasonably good answers to both who they were and what they did. Today, that is no longer the case. As people focus more and more on their instrumentality and on giving and receiving conditional love, both in regard to others as well as to themselves, they become more and more like machines. As they focus on what they do to the exclusion of who they are, they increasingly lose their core organic selves and become like robots. People have to find a way to get in touch with who they are again, if they don’t want to lose their humanity.

© 2015 Laurence Mesirow


  1. Congratulations Larry, I know that this is your 100th article and a very important reason to celebrate.
    Your original contributions regarding the understanding of the consequences and emotional costs of the interaction between humans, computers, IT and technology are very meaningful and enlightening.
    Congratulations on your endeavor and we expect and wish for many more to come!!!!!!
    Dr. Jorge Cappon

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Durante mi estadía en la Ciudad de México en los años setenta, me di cuenta que esta enorme ciudad contenía en sus colonias distintos "medio ambientes vivenciales", que iban desde muy antiguas a muy recientes; desde muy primitivas a muy modernas.

Observé que había diferencias sutiles en la conducta de la gente y en sus interacciones en las diferentes colonias. Esta observación fue fundamental en la fundación de mis teorías con respecto a los efectos de la tecnología moderna sobre los medio ambientes vivenciales y sobre la conducta humana.

En México, publiqué mi libro "Paisaje Sin Terreno" (Editorial Pax-México), y luego di conferencias para la U.N.A.M. y la Universidad Anahuac. También, presenté un ensayo para un Congreso de Psicología.

Ahora que mis hijas son adultas, tengo el tiempo de explorar mis ideas de vuelta. Le agradezco mucho a y en especial al Sr. Daniel Ajzen por la oportunidad de presentar mis ideas.