Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More Chaos, Less Consistency - Psychology for a Digital Age

I’m not sure where it was that I first heard about ‘online therapy’ – counseling administered chiefly over the internet. Some quick browsing indicated that a number of psychologists are keen to embrace the opportunity to access clients who may be unwilling or unable to opt for more traditional face-to-face therapy. Several others are worried that an internet-based practice could easily morph into a low-investment, high-returns business wherein the best interests of the client would be less than paramount. Debate about the value of such a practitioner-client interaction is lively and ongoing, and shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon. The only conclusion that seems to have been reached is that the internet is irrevocably here, and that the psychological community will have to come to terms with it.

In the past, psychologists could occasionally seem like sages, providing telling insights into human cognition and behavior. Freud (not a psychologist by training but certainly a clinician) revolutionized our understanding of the psyche, Jung mapped our dreamscapes, Piaget decoded the complex underpinnings of childhood development, Skinner demystified learning, Rogers and Maslow explained motivation and spirituality, and Sternberg and Gardner made breakthroughs in their studies of intelligence and creativity. Psychologists responded to what was happening in the world – soon after World War 2, Adorno and others investigated the roots of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi complicity. New York street crime galvanized social psychologists into examining issues of social responsibility and apathy, and the civil rights movement prompted the study of racial prejudice. Inquiry also reflected philosophical currents – shifting from determinism to humanism to an interest in multiculturalism.

Yet as far as the internet is concerned, psychologists seem to be two steps behind, grappling with a phenomenon they don’t quite understand. This has something to do with the nature of the internet itself – always changing, always expanding, accommodating more strains of thought and special-interest communities everyday. Ostensibly, psychologists are interested in exploring the right issues – how can learning and work be adapted to the internet? How is the internet shaping identity and relationships? What are the methodological issues that need to be addressed in this particular field of inquiry? Yet the conclusions reached are curiously stilted, in all probability due to the nature of the questions being posed. Research topics are either so broad as to be almost generic (“Investigating the relationship between the internet and social capital”) or very narrow (“Understanding narcissism as demonstrated on undergraduate students’ Facebook profile pages ”). It is educators, sociologists, anthropologists and media specialists who currently seem better equipped to situate their queries so as to provide both depth and breadth with respect to topics such as blogging, cyberbullying and instant messaging.

Interestingly, some psychologists have been quick to identify and diagnose internet related disorders such as addictions to surfing, cyber-sex, gambling and shopping online, and to offer treatments for the same. This is indicative of an underlying tendency to look at the internet in faintly moralistic terms – is it good or bad? Questions about what the internet is doing to us posit the internet as a concrete entity acting upon individuals in specific ways. But it is apparent that as with other forms of technology, the internet has insinuated, and been allowed to insinuate, the very fabric of our lives. Any attempt to investigate it as a self-contained object ‘apart’ from its users is doomed to be inadequate.

Does the internet isolate us, or does it enable us to make new connections? Do we use the internet to experiment with multiple identities, or to refine the one we are best known by? These are limiting questions, because they are based on the assumption that there is one answer, or a similar tendency that will hold true for a certain set of people at a certain point in time. At most, such questions allow for the researchers to claim that behaviors lie ‘somewhere in between’ on a pre-defined continuum. They do not sufficiently accommodate the answer ‘both.’

The complexity of the internet lies in the fact that it allows untrammeled choice with respect to self-presentation and community membership. The lines between the public and the private are in constant, often intentional flux.  The possibilities for agency are immense, and so are the possibilities for conformity. One can be one’s best and one’s worst self online. The high-tech world of the web is uniquely suited to the expression of the most primitive fantasies and desires, even as language and information are evolving to keep pace with the potential for knowledge sharing and communication.

One interpretation of this constant upheaval is that engaging with the internet is a project in being truly authentic, in many ways at once. The internet places us in multiple contexts at the same time, and accordingly, a person can choose to edit, censor or express. If, as Erving Goffman explained, our social lives involve the enactment of multiple roles, then the internet can be thought of as a theatrical kaleidoscope that permits us to essay more than one role at a time, although we do think strategically about how our performances will be refracted onto different stages and for different audiences. This is not an argument in favor of lives being lived online to the detriment of day to day functionality. It is an assertion that what is online need not necessarily be ‘fake’ or a ‘façade.’ Even pretense is likely motivated by an authentic psychological need, just as purported internet-specific addictions are often symptomatic of persistent ‘offline’ problems. The relationships between users and the internet, online and offline behavior, the public and the private are clearly more complex than psychological inquiry has currently allowed for.

Cognitive psychologists have it simpler, since the neural responses to stimuli are more easily measured and more standardized. But when considering the personal and social implications of internet use, it may be too much to expect a consistent clustering of responses. Bottom-up analysis and qualitative research (suited to understanding lived experiences) would be a good place to start, even if the goal is to catch up with the subject(s) of interest.

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