Infinitely Adjustable: Reflections on Technology and What It Means to Be Human
Among the varied and unending quests to comprehend the meaning of human experience and the nature of being human, broad consensus can be found as to the inevitability of suffering. Where does our suffering come from?
Freud (1930) claimed that it came from three principle sources: our (fallible) bodies, the caprice and constraints of the natural world, and our relationships with others (society). He argued that we focus on this last source, as we can do little to alter either antecedent. Being human involves entering into a world distinctly not of our choosing—in Heidegger’s (1962) view, we are figuratively thrown into a world of particular circumstances, and we must navigate this “thrownness” in as resolute and authentic a manner we can manage. We are dependent upon our relationships with others, and yet, because society forces a moderation of our demands—a curbing of our hunger for power and control—we long to alter this essential thrownness.
The quest to maintain both personal integrity and social connectivity is arduous—and, ultimately, rewarding (Thompson, 2006). Indeed, it is essential to the process of maturity. Both classical analytic theory and existential philosophy advocate accepting one’s circumstances, then determinedly implementing a more honest or authentic response. The limits and boundaries imposed by society are indispensable to this project and, in the digital era, are among the many things that seem to be shifting.
The internet is immediate, both gratifying and invasive. Text messages interrupt us in our most private spaces, and virtual reality offers instantaneous access to everything from news to test scores to merchandise to significant others (Osit, 2008). The powerful capacity to satisfy our desires (or, at least, what we think we want in a particular instant) exempts us from limits previously imposed by space, time and society. Equipped with our own personal magic wand, we can modify our (digital) selves and realities perpetually. Little personal sacrifice is required, and in a way, perhaps, we can retain our infantile sense of omnipotency. We can avoid accepting the conditions of our thrownness.
The loss of omnipotency, in an analytic view, is necessary to relate to others as independent, subjective selves, rather than internal objects (Ogden, 2004). In cyberspace, however, the Other can endure as object or projection. Cyberspace blurs the distinction between psychic and physical realities, and increasingly shapes the formation of subjectivity (Hartman, 2011).
Goren (2003) suggests that subjectivity and direct experience have become commodified, fueling a pervasive sense of detachment. Goren states that that this commodification of subjective experience has an ironically cyclical effect: “The more experience becomes a commodity, the less real it probably feels as experience per se, leading to an increasing effort to recapture experience through further commodification” (p. 503).The subjective self is also becoming increasingly multiplicitous, as we maintain multiple distinct social media profiles and create myriad avatars (Hartman, 2011). While perhaps evading some of the suffering imposed by less malleable interpersonal relationships, to every gain there is a cost.
The evaporation of privacy is among the most difficult to deny and frequently discussed impacts of the internet. As Hanlon observes, “the location of self [has become] a node within a cybernetic network rather than a biologically bounded individual” (2001, p. 568). How this alters our foundational sense of self remains to be determined. As noted, one potential consequence is a loss of the boundaries and dynamics essential to the process of maturity and formation of a coherent subjectivity. Another consequence may be a weakening of bonds in geographic communities: as we spend ever more time interfacing with the blue screens of Facebook and Twitter, flesh and blood human communities evidence flagging vitality. On the other hand, our sense of a globalized, digitally-connected human network appears to be gaining potency.
Allow me, for a moment, to bracket my skepticism. I believe that technology has the potential to be an authentic, powerful, democratizing force in the world. I believe the internet is one of the most promising tools available in the fight against global climate change, an issue I feel passionately about. And yet, I am wary.
Perhaps most troubling to me is the mechanization of the self in the current era. Although others (Goren, 2003) have discussed the anthropomorphization of technology, I believe it is the other way around. I believe we now view ourselves largely in the image of technology. Digital accessories are increasingly experienced as part of the self—a self that is more rational, productive, compartmentalized, and immaculately packaged then the selves of bygone eras. Subjectivity and reflection are devalued and our bodies have become objects to be managed, rather than beings to be nourished (Goren, 2003). Indeed, our capacity to manipulate our bodies seems prime for reinforcing the narcissism and omnipotence our hand-held devices foster.
Of course, commentary about the digital era is, at this juncture, mainly speculation. What is clear is that amid blatant economic and environmental distress, we have thrust ourselves increasingly into virtual realities. This may ultimately enhance or constrain our capacity for connection, may make us more creative, or less so, and perhaps even capable of imposing limits of our own making. For my part, I feel grateful for my birth year, while maintaining, with Yogi Berra, that “Prediction is difficult, especially of the future.”
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Hartman, S. (2011). Reality 2.0: When loss is lost. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21(4), 468-482. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10481885.2011.595339
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Ogden, T. (2004). The matrix of the mind: Object relations and the psychoanalytic dialogue. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Osit, M. (2008). Generation text: Raising well-adjusted kids in an age of instant everything. New York, NY: AMACOM.
Rosen, L. D. (2012). iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Thompson, M.G. (2006). Vicissitudes of Authenticity in the Psychoanalytic Situation. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 42(2),139-176.
-- Amber M. Trotter
Today's guest contributor, Amber M. Trotter, has a background in sociology and environmental activism and is currently pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology at the California School of Integral Studies.