Tag Archives: cyberspace

Basic psychology of cyberspace

People act differently online than they do in person. I’m sure we all know this intuitively. And while some people, such as Marshall McLuhan have dared to pontificate on why this may be, what psychological work has been done to understand this phenomenon?

Here are a few excrips from a portion of a book, The Psychology of Cyberspace, by notable psychologist John Suler. The section these excripts come from is titled “The Basic Psychological Features of Cyberspace” and is worth reading in full.

Reduced Sensations

Can you see a person in cyberspace – his facial expressions and body language? Can you hear the changes in her voice? Whether an environment in cyberspace involves visual and/or auditory communication will greatly affect how people behave and the relationships that develop among those people. Multimedia gaming and social environments (such as the Palace), audio-video conferencing, podcasting, and internet-phoning surely are signs of the very sensory sophisticated environments to come. However, the sensory experience of encountering others in cyberspace – seeing, hearing, and COMBINING seeing and hearing – is still limited. For the most part people communicate through typed language. Even when audio-video technology becomes efficient and easy to use, the quality of physical and tactile interactions – for example, handshakes, pats on the back, dancing, hugs, kisses, or just walking together. – will be very limited or nonexistent, at least in the near future. The limited sensory experiences of cyberspace has some significant disadvantages – as well as some unique advantages – as compared to in-person encounters (see Showdown).

Texting

Despite the reduced sensory quality of text communication, it should not be underestimated as a powerful form of self expression and interpersonal relating. E-mail, chat, instant messaging, SMS, and blogs continue to be the most common forms of social interaction for reasons beyond their ease of use and low cost compared to multimedia tools. Drawing on different cognitive abilities than talking and listening, typing one’s thoughts and reading those of another is a unique way to present one’s identity, perceive the identity of one’s online companion, and establish a relationship. E-mail relationships in particular have evolved into a very complex, text-based form of communication – with chat or IM relationships approaching that complexity.

Equalized Status

In most cases, everyone on the internet has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself. Everyone – regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, etc. – starts off on a level playing field. Some people call this the “net democracy.” Although one’s status in the outside world ultimately will have some impact on one’s life in cyberspace, there is some truth to this net democracy ideal. What determines your influence on others is your skill in communicating (including writing skills), your persistence, the quality of your ideas, and your technical know-how.

Recordability

Most online activities, including e-mail correspondence and chat sessions, can be recorded and saved to a computer file. Unlike real world interactions, the user in cyberspace can keep a permanent record of what was said, to whom, and when. Because these interactions are purely document-based, we may even go so far as to say that the relationship between people ARE the documents, and that the relationship can be permanently recorded in its entirety. These records may come in very handy to the user. You can reexperience and reevaluate any portion of the relationship you wish. You can use quoted text as feedback to the partner. One sign of a flame war is the blossoming of the infamous arrows >> that highlight the ammunition of quoted text. Although it’s tempting to think of the saved text as an objective record of some piece of the relationship, it’s fascinating to see how different your emotional reactions to the same exact record can be when you reread it at different times. Depending on our state of mind, we invest the recorded words with all sorts of meanings and intentions.

Although the ability to record has many advantages, there is a downside. Because people know that everything they say and do in cyberspace can be tracked and recorded, they may experence anxiety, mistrust, and even paranoia about being online. Should I be careful about what I say and where I go? Will it come back to haunt me? Who might have access to these records?

It is important for us to understand the landscape of cyberspace if we, especially as Christians whose goal is to proclaim the good news, are to operate effectively in it.

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Technology as a god

Technology has become a god “in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits, and their relationships to accommodate it. If this be not a form of religious belief, what is?”

Neil Postman, The End of Education

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The soul of cyberspace

think of technology itself as an animistic dynamic that filters through the individual machines, being an over spirit to them — an animistic spirit that’s way beyond what humans are comprehending on their own level.

So says Britt Welin, quoted here from an excellent paper by Douglas Groothuis titled “TECHNOSHAMANISM: Digital Deities in Cyberspace”

…when one is on psychedelic drugs “and you tune into a cyberspace environment, you lose your parameters and you find yourself entirely within the electronic environment.” Welin’s husband, Ken, also strives for union with cyberspace. He says, “Our video-computer system’s set up to ease us into a level of intimacy where we can use it in a transparent sense” and “enter into a trance relationship with it.” It then “ends up having a spiritlike existence.”

According to Erik Davis, the labyrinthine recesses of cyberspace, with its unfathomable complexities and strange potencies, “may soon appear to be as strangely sentient as the caves, lakes, and forests in whic h the first magicians glimpsed the gods.” To the sacred and mysterious natural spaces of unwired ancient animists we may now add the sacred and mysterious cyberspaces of the wired modern animists. Leary and a cowriter saw computers as fulfilling the goal of “magick” as defined by archoccultist Aleister Crowley: “The art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with our will.”

(emphasis mine)

I am inclined to agree with Leary. Cyberspace is made up of almost pure thought-stuff. That is at the same time both its blessing and curse. Operating as a disembodied mind, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are gods, or at the least god-like in our ability to shape our [digital] world. Like the builders of the tower of Babel, our God-given ability to create can be misused to the point where it becomes spiritually damaging.

Although cyberspace technologies in themselves need not be demonic, they easily become conduits of deception and distortion when appropriated by the pagan practitioner, since their simulations are so seductive and their magnetism is so compelling. Because such technologies facilitate the construction of artificial environments, they can be a particularly powerful tool in the hands of cybermagicians who long to “create their own reality” one way or another.

We need to be very careful when it comes to the cyberspaces we create and choose to live in.

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