Publishing the private notes

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Notes for paper given to 2012 New York regional meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO)

Notes for paper given to 2012 New York regional meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO)

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  • 1. I NO LONGER WANT TO BE ALONE: REPUBLISHING THE PRIVATE 1David PatmanMy talk begins with a question: • In a society which appears to place such a high value on privacy and the protection of personal information, why is that so many people seem willing, if not eager, to publicly share intimate details of their private lives via social media?In addition to laws and statutes which seek to protect personal privacy, an increasingnumber of organizations have implemented social media policies to prevent employeesfrom willingly or inadvertently exposing sensitive information online.Why would anemployee want to do this?My working hypothesis is: • Electronic media provides an environment that facilitates public communication of material that cannot find expression in the organizations and public institutions of post- industrial society .By electronic communications technology, I mean smart-phones, PCs, tablets, largecapacity cloud and personal data storage, and the high-speed fixed and wireless networkswhich connect them - the hardware, but not the software (although this distinction is notclear cut).Sherry Turkle and other psychoanalytically-informed commentators argue that socialmedia encourages users to behave in ways which are regressive. I argue that this isactually a misunderstanding about the nature of media and their effects. In my view: • Social media should be regarded as a symptom not a cause .While behaviour associated with social media could be characterised as various forms ofpsychopathology (and are in individual cases) such symptoms are not caused byelectronic media, but by the alienating effects of industrial society. Electronic media makethese symptoms visible.Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan believed that mental activity arises from theinterplay of the physical senses (beta elements in Bions terms) - for him the psychic isinherently tactile. Media technologies extend one or more of the senses, containers whichexternalise parts of the self (in a way not dissimilar to projection). • The dominant medium - and therefore the dominant sense - in any society shapes how both self and society are experienced .McLuhan saw a qualitative difference in culture between societies dominated by speech,print technologies and literacy, and electronic media (Ill give some brief illustrations ofthese differences).One of McLuhans key ideas was that the medium is the message, implying that mediacontent is much less significant for a society than the medium itself. Also, he thought thatthe content of any new medium is the old medium which it supersedes: new mediacontains old media, in an almost Bionic way. For example, the content of the book isspeech, the content of film is the book, etc. In McLuhan’s terms:1 (notes for paper given to New York regional meeting of ISPSO 2012) 1
  • 2. • Social media as we know them - Facebook, Twitter, etc - are not media at all, but media content . They are to the internet what programs are to television.Following McLuhan, social media - or more accurately the social content of the internet -can be thought of as an expression of the older, print media, such as the book and thepamphlet. Thus, early human interactions with computers have been algorithmic and text-based, with emails are structured like letters, and even today blogs tend to be structured ina linear, narrative way (eg. as a timeline) and joining tends to be organised in terms ofindividual accounts and unique identities - just as in print culture.Actually, adoption of a new medium tends to occur when an older one as failed in itscontaining role, thus the content of new media is actually a failed older medium. • In the case of the internet, social media represents the failures, not of electronic culture, but of industrial society .Our fascination with social media (content) applications is a kind of schadenfreudebecause they reflect the failed project of literacy and modernity.This is true of other electronic media: they contain and express the old media. Forexample, the plot of most compelling TV shows - police, legal, family and hospital dramas -are usually about institutional failure and the efforts of heroic individuals to beat thesystem. • Electronic media are, as it were, the harbingers rather than the perpetrators of the death of the modern world . Is this death also the death of privacy?The main effect of print technology, according to McLuhan, is the creation of the publicindividual as a distinct, and self-aware entity. Such individuals relate to each other throughlogic and rationality and, together, constitute a kind of social machine. However, for thecomponents of the machine to work in harmony, the messy parts of experience(associated with sound, touch, taste and smell) must be split off into an area which cantbe seen - the realm of the private. • Modern civil society is characterised by a dialectic of privacy versus public- ityMcLuhan suggests that the social splitting public from private facilitated by print media ismirrored by a division of the psyche into conscious and unconscious. In non-literatecultures, the unconscious as we know it in industrial society does not exist.Electronic communications technology provides a medium for the return of the repressed,as it were, through its blending of public and private space. • The speed and immediacy of electronic communication publicly involve people in each others private lives, a prospect which is both enthralling and terrifying .Traditional hierarchical institutions, which owe their existence to print, are profoundlyscandalised threatened by electronic media because they break down the public facade,releasing inappropriate (even indecent) material.For people, electronic communication offers an opportunity to rediscover and de-privatisean emotional experience which has been lost for several hundred years. Social media isthe manifest content, or symptom, of this repressed reality. It is the media of industrial,literate, visually-oriented society that separates us from ourselves - not electronic media. 2
  • 3. • We are alone together, as Sherry Turkle observes; but we have been so since Gutenberg: electronic media makes us more aware of our isolation - and offers the hope of reconnection.This perspective brings up the possibility of interpreting the content of electronic media asif it were a symptom, or a dream - as symbolic of, or an enactment of, something normallyrepressed that cannot find expression through another means. This also points to thecreative and reparative possibilities of electronic media.It is possible to detect patterns and rhythms in the blogosphere which express and amplifyshared feelings and preoccupations: things which ‘go viral’, or become ‘memes’. Suchphenomena have meaning and can provide insight into the social dynamics of our era, justas Charlotte Beradt’s collection of dreams provides an insight into the mind of NaziGermany. Closer to home: the popularity of certain topics or questions on the ISPSOlistserv may be able to tell us something about the ISPSO. • The internet equivalent of the dream is the meme An opportunity for organizations is that social media can be used as a medium for self-diagnosis, for identification of organizational (not personal) breakdown. Employee use ofsocial media at work, particularly in ways which appear to be damaging rather thanproductive, indicates a point at which the organization has been unable to provide requisitecontainment. • Social media compensates for, in the Jungian sense, what is not emotionally available at work.What I think is needed, and what I think psychoanalysis can offer, is a way to notice andreflect on these effects. Psychoanalysis emerged at around the same time as electrictechnologies such as the telephone, and I think its adoption as a technology may havebeen for similar reasons. Psychoanalysis remains the most effective medium for getting intouch with the parts of our private selves that have been repressed by our industrial culturebecause: • The consulting room restores the auditory (speech) and tactile (couch) qualities of experience, which have been discarded by industrial society in favour of the purely visual .Perhaps, then, we can discover a form of electronic media which offers a similaropportunity for collective reflection on what has been repressed. It is no accident thatsocial media has been associated with revolution and the overthrow of repressive stateinstitutions.Such a medium would be synthetic, rather than analytic, bringing together and makingsense of the disparate experiences, images, likes, friends, followers, posts, tweets andtags that currently populate the internet. It would allow us to wonder about the creativepossibilities that are emerging, as well as the painful feelings seeking to be heard. • The technology for the ‘interpretation of memes’ is being imagined and invented right now.My hope is that technologists and psychoanalysts can find a way to share insights whichallows our disconnected post-industrial age to recognise and reconcile the private lives ofour industrial past which will confront us with ever greater insistency as the electronic agecontinues to evolve. 3