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Psychotherapy and the consumption principle contd ...


Internet and Identity

When the therapy process occurs over the net, this imaginal dynamic takes on new dimensions. I am not in a room with the client, and likely have no visual contact of any sort - only the words on a screen. Left without significant nonlinguistic sources of information about the client, and faced with a logically constructed analysis and treatment plan, what are my options? Is there an ethical manner in which to proceed? How do I even challenge the narrative structure the client has imposed on their life in accord with the dictates of the preferred net derived diagnosis and treatment, culled and tailored from the billions of bits of available information floating in cyber-space, like so many stock tips? Yet without the ability to challenge the constructed self-narrative, which requires some level of independent access to their subjectivity, typically enhanced through extra-linguistic observation, how do I assist in the untangling of fantasy, wish, and reality?

Assuming I do proceed with keyboard therapy, who is my client? I am not inferring that the ISP has a hand in the therapy, but am asking who the subject is to whom I am writing. Cell phones provide a useful method of entry to the issue raised here. Research continues to be conducted regarding the incidence of traffic accidents involving use of a cell phone by a driver. Current indications are that such cell phone use results in upwards of a 30% greater incidence of accidents. Why? Such drivers are not where their bodies are. It is not a matter of driving and conversing simultaneously; we do that all the time. Nor is it a problem with listening to another sound source, such as a radio while driving, again a common and safe practice. So what is it about being on the phone? You inhabit a transitional space. You can do the experiment yourself. If you shift your attention to where you "are" while on the phone in your home or office, you will note that phenomenologically you occupy some space different than your immediate physical environment. Instead, we tend to share an imaginary space with our co-conversant. Not a problem when you are seated in your kitchen or behind your desk.

However, when driving, the occupation of a phenomenological space other than that behind the wheel is disastrous. What is of interest here is how the use of a such a simple piece of technological apparatus can be such a significant factor in the induction of imaginary experience. In net therapy, what will coalesce is a similar corporeal decoupling and concurrent stimulus of the imagination and the unconscious. Granted, these are aspects of traditional therapy (the couch and abstinence). Now, however, the fundamental anchor of mutually recognized and sensorially validated embodiment is gone. The impact of the freedom to decouple the corporeal, to lay down embodiment and the constraints it puts on presented identity, is already a well-known net phenomena. To be sure, a number of those who construct net identities wildly at odds with their off-line self do so for conscious exploitative purposes. But a significant number do so because this embodiment of the social imagination, the net, allows them, invites them, to experiment with other aspects of themselves, as well as with other social identity structures, in short, to play with identity in a polymorphous manner. When I "meet" a client on line how do I know "who" it is, or what its relation is to the person's dominant way of being in the world.

If a person walks into my office and presents, for example, in a transgender manner I am sensitized to the struggles that person must face, the biases they encounter on a daily basis, and the conflicts which can arise when identity is so constructed. If I cannot respond sensitively to that person's social, psychological and emotional position, it is incumbent upon me to either make a referral or seek supervision or consultation. If they appear on my computer screen in written text, and do not disclose their transgender identity, I am left without important information regarding that persons life and struggles, and may well blunder in my practice, out of ignorance arising from the veil of the computer screen. To complicate the matter further, if the transgender identity is only a net identity, I am treating a lacunae ridden persona with no conception of how that persona relates to the client's dominant identity structure.

I have chosen an extreme example here in order to make a point, but the reality is likely to be that the richness of the dynamic between the imaginal identities at play in the field of net communication, and the lived identity of that person on a day to day basis, will escape the therapy. This leaves it at best flawed, at worst harmful. I am aware that this rich interplay of identity elements, wish, and fantasy is part and parcel of the therapeutic endeavor. Yet in the standard formats to date there is always the check of embodied presence and nonlinguistic communication. With the net, these are left behind, and alternative, disembodied pathways to those varieties of information have not been discovered, or integrated into treatment modalities, at this point.

On a less dramatic level, consider transference phenomena under these conditions. One solid, immediate check on transference is the physical presence of the other. That embodiment is a strong impediment to development of a transference psychosis. The body of the other is a simple and immediate reality check. The traditional use of the couch in psychoanalysis may attenuate this phenomena, but it does not negate it. Net therapy cuts this out from underneath the client and, just as importantly, the therapist. On the positive side, this is likely to be a powerful aid in activation of the problematic thoughts and behaviors. However, we do not have any idea how it will play out in treatment. Is there a greater risk for a transference psychosis arising? How do you assure yourself after a powerful session that the client is sufficiently integrated to "leave your office"? Isn't your own ability to treat the client, and not a (counter)transference projection, diminished in this environment? The provision of psychological services over the net is not simply going to be a matter of traditional therapy under a different guise. The method of reproduction of the therapeutic project this technology portends is going to be sufficiently different that if it is to be engaged in, it needs to be provided with new methods for safely creating and maintaining the therapeutic container. Simply put, the change in material conditions requires a change in practice that is as yet unarticulated. It should not be done on the fly if we are to avoid mistakes similar to those made at the initiation of modern psychotherapeutic practice where clients were damaged as the enterprise was constructed in vivo.


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