Nov 252008

We can expect our ever-greater immersion in the web and the Internet to alter our psyches —and so, our world. [These thoughts were engendered by my nearly simultaneous reading of Jaques Lacan’s Ecrits and the book, “The Hyperlinked Society” that I mentioned in earlier posts Michel Bauwens had asked me to read, as well as an article by Clive Thompson that I alluded to earlier. Each book/article was only vaguely suggestive at best, so don’t blame any for this.]

Almost a quarter century ago, Sherry Turkle presciently described the personal computer in the title of her book “the Second Self.” This was before the graphical user interface and before the web, when  most computers still had green or black screens in which text appeared in one typeface. Those early personal computers responded to and seemingly added to the manipulations  or programming attempts of their users — especially the children that were Turkle’s focus, in such a way that they seemed to be an extension of self, yet not quite the same as oneself.

The second-self notion is now even more apt, except that the connection between device and (first) self is even tighter than that.  Like mirrors, one’s computer — along with PDAs, smart phones, etc. — is a projection and reflection of oneself, a kind of necessary auxiliary to one’s own memory, personality and intentions. Certainly today, all sorts of one’s preferences and personality are reflected back to one.

Taking in Our “Objects”

As psychoanalysts understand, those we pay attention to end up becoming part of us, what they call our objects. Everyone has some internalized image or model of primary caregivers, the first people to whom we paid attention, the ones to whom we generally paid most attention in our most formative years, and also those to whom we primarily looked for attention. But we also introject in this way everyone we pay attention to, whether in direct conversation, in the classroom, by reading, on the stage or movie or TV screen or whatever.  Since each person’s world is formed by her own patterns of attention paying and desires for attention, the self as a psychological phenomenon is largely composed of the taking in and partial integration of all these moments.

Unconsciously at least, there is no sharp division between yourself and your “objects.” Your parents and everyone else you pay significant attention to shape you to some degree, and in ways you cannot easily be aware of. You  take in attitudes, emotional stances, ideas, ways of speaking and moving, and much else. You react also, and those reactions of loyalty, love, anger, fear, disgust, need,  hate — and, as a result of the latter ones, guilt — also form you.

Now comes the computer, (along with smart phones, PDAs, and such) which greatly integrates both your own sense of self, through mastery of various computer skills, through your own attempts at expressions, through lists such as address lists of who is important to you, and in the case of the Web, your bookmarks, hyperlinks, your connections through e-mail, blogs, comments, multiplayer games, virtual worlds such as Second Life, lists, social networks, etc. You are tied through attention and partial attention to and from a wide range of others. As Clive Thompson points out this now means that through such services as Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter (and, I would add, e-mail, listservs, text messaging and cell-phoning) you are quite constantly in a mode of attention paying with many ”objects.”

What happens here, fairly clearly is that the boundaries of self change. You draw in others, and you too are drawn in. What was your introjected object, the set of conscious and repressed impressions of those close to you, is extended now through the immediacy of what is stored in your hard drives or on the Internet. What is inside your own mind and what is in your computer becomes less and less clear sharply separated, less and less permanently one or the other. Likewise,the boundaries between your own computer and the entire Internet keep becoming more and more permeable, so that the difference between your world and yourself, between your objects and yourself becomes less and less evident.


An analogy to bear in mind is home (and sometimes workplace as well). One of the main reasons it is important not to be homeless is that home is a place full of resonances of our attachments to others, from those who live with us there, to the evidence of the attention we have paid and of those who have paid attention to us, in photos, in books, in all manner of artifacts we associate with one person or another. Home is also, ideally a place of refuge and insulation in which to sort through and revisit the various interactions we have had in the wider world. It is also a place to which those who seek our attention, want to pay attention to us,  or — most often— both, know how to at least attempt to reach us. So your home also represents or extends yourself, or that of all the selves who share this space with you — usually your family.

To a considerable degree, one’s neighborhood and larger community are an external extension of this, an area where selves merge and boundaries are somewhat fuzzy. Roughly speaking, the farther from home you go, the sharper the boundaries between self and others. On the Internet, however, distance as such is irrelevant. Even such boundaries as exist we easily move across when we so desire. We are more and more part of a single super-self, at the same time attempting, at least if old enough, to maintain our individuality through exclusion of real attention to certain others, in fact most others. In sizing and shaping our world to our own internal rhythms, we enlarge and entangle ourselves, until self and effective world become nearly one.

The Superself in Action

People today constantly check to  see whether anyone is remembering them at the moment, paying them attention through trying to contact them, while in so doing these others are to receive attention at the same time. The computer or smartphone is an extension of oneself, far more, say than an old-fashioned telephone or an actual mailbox, and the other appears within this “second self” this extension of self, this hyper mirror, or, one could say this portable parent, the partially introjected mother. The other appears then, already introjected, already swallowed, as it were into the complex interiority one now feels. Further moving in this direction are the social networking sites, the virtual worlds one might inhabit,the blogs one regularly receives or reads, the comment lists to the blogs, etc. If the laptop or desktop or smart phone is in effect within the boundaries of oneself, then paying attention becomes an increasingly internal kind of act.

I have previously described the act of paying attention as aligning with the mind (or even the bodily movements or emotions ) of the attention receiver. This alignment is now even more apparent, occurring as it does within the extended confines of one’s own minds. Attention becomes a relationship with one’s own objects, even though there is a mutuality which also allows these objects to represent real others.


As I suggested before, with its constantly added affordances, the Internet draws more and more of us in, and draws each of  us in further and further, tying us more and more directly to the others who in some way connect to us, in some way gain our attention and vice versa. Our social networking pages, such as Facebook, for instance,  come to resemble a partial census of our internalized objects, both reminding us of them when we check out our own pages, and revealing part of our superself to others who care to check. Those who do will overlap their own superself, so that the Net becomes an ever tighter set of pseudo-synapses that ultimately join us all.

New political loyalties as well as other convictions about how the world must change will grow out of this, and already are doing so. The Obama campaign and the widening commitment to oppose global warming are examples. Increasingly, I suspect, a new kind of psyche emerges from all this, and with it a new way of interacting with, and in fact defining, the world.

A superself in some ways is the essence of a god, the shared, communal transcendent sense of what is good, right, mete, just, and at the same time unstatable, mystical. So in all likelihood, the Internet will not only be the basis of a new economy but the holy space of a new, empowering and powerful religion that will draw more and more of us in.