What We Talk About When We Talk Across Cyberspace: How We Relate in the Age of the Internet

There is perhaps nothing that can be said about modern life more true than observing the ubiquity of the internet. It is indeed everywhere. People now meet through the internet for purposes of casual acquaintance, sexual encounters, and potential long-lasting relationships. People plan their travel online (does anyone remember travel agents?). People bank. People read. And, judging from the enormous profits generated by pornography on the internet (according to Forbes, $14 billion in 2001), people have sex through it. Warfare is also now waged through cyberspace.

Many, including those in the psychological world where I work and travel, are thinking not only about this influence, but also about how this influence is changing human behavior and thinking. A local psychoanalyst, Stephen Hartman, who tends to have a more favorable view, writes “cyberspace is creating a shift in how we experience and understand reality.” MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle, in an article published in the New York Times, agrees with Hartman on this point: “I’ve learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.”

And while some writers are speaking favorably about these changes and the new possibilities of relating afforded by the internet, not all are sanguine about the changes. In her article, Turkle bemoans the changes taking place. Her article begins, “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating.” As a researcher, she has participated in studies examining how people use modern technology. But one need not be a researcher to see the new drive to communicate in daily operation. There was the driver I saw this morning texting from her car as she inched along in heavy traffic. There were countless people on their phones walking down city streets. Recently two theatre goers I talked to were appalled by the texting being done during the performance by people in seats next to them. There is Facebook and Twitter. Never before have there been so many ways in which to connect to others.

But what is lost in the process? Dr. Turkle believes the answer is a lot: “And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.” She sees conversation being replaced by “sips” of online connection. She distinguishes that an online connection is not necessarily the same experience that two people have in a conversation. (She doesn’t make the point, but this seems similar to the difference between a friend and a Facebook friend.) “We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.” Let’s think about what constitutes a conversation: thoughts, emotions, reactions to the other. Dialogue. It can seem rare today that people actually talk, discuss, argue, implore in any thoughtful sense. She poignantly writes, “A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, ‘Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.’”

In the loss of conversation, Tuggle sees the loss of self-reflection. We use conversation with others to learn to converse with ourselves. Conversation is a model for internal dialogue. And it is also provides a way of reflecting. It is through discourse, through talking, that one can better know oneself. As my clients often say, they can hear themselves think when we talk, and what they say often takes on a greater shade of reality.

It seems to me that Tuggle is writing about psychotherapy when she says “FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers.” There is something about patience when my clients and I meet. Against the backdrop of this fast-paced, fast-food life, that seems refreshingly anachronistic. She also notes how in conversation, there is something active taking place, a way of “tending” to one another. This is my experience as a psychotherapist. Of course, most of the tending is what I do toward the client. Though as in any relationship, especially when talking about intimate matters of the heart and soul, there is some reciprocal tending as well.

I’m glad that psychotherapy offers a place where there is the opportunity for people to converse. And I’m appreciative of people, such as Tuggle, who make space around the dinner table for the family to talk to one another. To talk about what is really important and matters, with one’s family, intimates, one’s therapist, and to use more than 140 characters at a time, is hopefully not an experience of the past.

In upcoming blog posts, I’ll write more about Stephen Hartman’s and others’ ideas about some of the more positive changes to the human psyche and ways of relating that technology fosters.

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