The internet has been in popular use in the UK for 20 years. Now that is has, essentially, come of age, a string of books has been released examining the effects of the internet on humanity. Virtually You addresses the effect of the disparity between our online and offline personas on our psychological well-being and society. It is a welcome addition to the good arguments already put forth in Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier.
The author, Elias Aboujaoude, is a Silicon Valley psychiatrist who helped to lead the largest US study on problematic Internet use published to date. The study looked at the internet habits of 2,500 US adults and 'revealed alarming rates of online pathological behaviour'. This led Aboujaoude to conclude that while the internet is 'a force for good in many arenas', its dark side still casts a long shadow over society. He acknowledges that each wave of new media has had its detractors, yet believes that the internet's 'much deeper penetration into every aspect of our lives today makes it more insidious, and potentially more dangerous'.
The 'I' is omnipresent in contemporary cyberspace. Yahoo ran advertising last year with the strapline 'your own personal everything'. Today technology is all about the first-person singular pronoun — iPad, iPhone, iPlayer. The centre of the webiverse is you, 'the new you', the virtual and improved you. The Photoshopped you. The avatar you. Your dangerous e-personality. In The Fountainhead in 1968, author and thinker Ayn Rand wrote: 'Civilisation is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilisation is the process of setting men free from men.' Today it seems that while, on the [inter]face of things, our online life is personal, we are actually reverting back to the savage and the dangers of mob rule.
Danger, as any good girl will know, is hellishly attractive, but spelt out by Aboujaoude, the dangers of the e-personality are anything but: delusions of grandeur, narcissism, viciousness, impulsivity and infantile regression. Each of these five foes gets a chapter of discussion in the book, before he concludes:
The part of our psyche that usually reigns in these instincts — what psychoanalysts have traditionally called the superego — finds a worthy competitor in the Internet-assisted id, with its infantile self-centeredness and its dark dreams that demand to be satisfied.
In a world where the concept of long-term planning and the future are becoming lost in favour of immersion in the present, selfishness and narcisurfing — the act of googling oneself — the consequences of our actions have apparently become a lesser concern.
Aboujaoude also draws on clinical work, personal experience and academic research to try and make sense of the psychological characteristics that define our e-personalities, the ways we behave and portray ourselves online. The blurring between our work and social lives, our friend circles, our online and offline lives have become such that we are 'living in the existential equivalent of a well-shaken vinaigrette.' The dangers of the e-personality play out to extremes, as given in examples of high profile tragic news stories: 13-year-old Megan Meier's cyberbullying-related suicide; Philip Markoff, the 23-year-old 'Craigslist Killer'; and the online live video stream OD of troubled 19-year-old Abraham Biggs.
Virtually You is also peppered with less extreme case studies from the psychiatrist's own clinical practice in the field of the Impulse Control Disorders. Aboujaoude's clinic in Stanford has seen a large increase in the number of patients seeking help for internet-related addictive and damaging behaviours. We are not all addicts, yet we are all affected by our internet use more than most realise. Often the bleed from online to offline behaviour is played out on a more minor scale: we become more impatient and impolite in our face-to-face interactions. We are less willing to work at it when the going gets tough in our personal relationships. We withdraw into our other virtual lives, lonelier but 'safer'.
Whilst most of the arguments in Virtually You are common sense, this easy-to-read book offers a decent, layperson’s introduction to the broad psychological effects of the internet. At times it is uncertain who the book is aimed at, as basic terminology from the fields of psychology and technology are painstakingly explained. At others, the author’s tone can come across as flippant, while some of the arguments provide more questions than answers. All these complaints aside, Aboujaoude still makes some important points:
Our e-personality cannot tolerate down time. There is always a discovery or a connection to be made; always some fun to be had. Yet idle time, when the browser is shut down, the smart phone is out of charge […] is necessary to our ability to reflect on the world around us and our ability to self-reflect […] to assess ourselves and our place in the world, as well as consider the downside of the new technologies that are keeping us so busy.
Aboujaoude does not call for the internet to be switched off, but he does ask us to pause, to take stock, and then to proceed with caution. Sometimes we need someone to state the obvious, for these are wise words indeed.
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Next week's editor's blog: Graphic novels, Cardiff’s Literature Lounge and the Daniel Owen Festival