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Robert M. Young Home Page Index of writings by Robert M. Young WORD version of this article Introduction to this article Email Robert M. Young Process Press Science as Culture Free Associations Kleinian Studies Human Relations, Authority and Justice
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET IN THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF HUMAN RELATIONS
by Robert M. Young
The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is to set my Mackintosh G3 to download my email. By the time I have had a bath and a light breakfast, there are usually about three hundred messages waiting in my Eudora Pro ‘In’ file which I scan before my first patient arrives at eight am. Only a handful are worth opening right away, and an even smaller number have been sent to me as personal messages. Most come from email forums and egroups.
I subscribe to about a hundred and ten email forums and egroups and moderate seventeen, including ones on human nature, group relations, psychotherapy, psychoanalytic studies, Klein, Winnicott and one called Human Nature, Authority and Justice which focuses on group and institutional issues relevant to Eastern Europe. I also have two announcement forums, one about books of interest and one providing all sorts of information of potential use to the likes of us. I open only a small number of the email and egroup messages I receive. I go by the subject lines and am sometimes misguided. People who want to be sure to have their message opened had better put my name –- not just ‘Hi!’ Or ‘Question’ –- in the subject line, a note in my signature makes that clear. Anyone can set up an egroup for free in a couple of minutes on any topic, for example, Parents of Children with leukaemia, including links and a vault or web site. There are search engines with which you can discover if your interests are catered for. One lists about 90,000 email forums; another over a quarter of a million egroups. (The difference is that egroups are web based and has lots of extra facilities, while email forums use only email and lack certain frills). There are, in addition, a lot of search engines which will scour the web for web sites on any topic and others -- AskJeeves.com is my favourite -- which search the search engines. There are even forums which evaluate the growing number of search engines.
There is a very rapidly growing list of web sites, many with extensive archives. You can also find an increasing number of books and articles in the internet, and certain journals and periodicals are accessible on the web, with more coming on-line every day (I subscribe to an announcement forum listing them). You would be amazed at how much is academic and cultural information is available on the web and how extensively used it is. We tend to think of the web in terms of consumption of goods and services, and we read endlessly about the entrepreneurial potential of the internet. My point for the moment is that scholars, practitioners, consultants and students are already making dramatically extensive use of the web. On the 26th of February my web site, human-nature.com had its millionth hit. It gets between one and three thousand visits per day. Compare that with how many people read a given writer’s work on a given day in a learned journal in institutional libraries. I also get serious queries and comments on my work as well as what I can only call fan mail, something I rarely got before my work was available on the web.
I find all of this very exciting. Nota bene, I am not saying to you that lots or even many of the messages I receive are profound. There is no reason to expect that messages sent over the net are any more likely to be of much interest that utterances in a conversation or in a seminar. Alas, there is reason to expect them, on average, to be less often of interest, since any jerk or windbag can join most forums, and very few forum moderators vet the messages before they go out. I don’t vet messages, because I would find it tedious to do so. Moreover, though the forums I subscribe to which have the messages vetted have less dotty ones, they have no more interesting ones, since their moderators vet for civility and sanity, not quality. There are, of course, elite forums and others devoted to a particular course or seminar which vet potential subscribers, and on these the average quality of messages is much higher.
Another exciting thing about all this is that I am now in touch with all sorts of admirable people with whom I would not have been likely to be in contact in my pre-internet life. The threshold for writing to people is much lower. All you need is an email address, not even an envelope or stamp or a stroll to the post box or departmental mail tray. I have received letters from all sorts of people, including eminent people in many fields, e.g., heads of training institutes abroad. I even had a nice email from the eminent writer Michael Moorcock from Austin Texas, agreeing with a talk I’d given in Winnipeg on ‘dumbing down’ in the media. Of course, I also get cranky ones and ones from students beseeching me to write their essays for them. One American high school student wrote to ask why I thought I was as good a writer as Joseph Heller. He had this reaction to an essay I had put on the web on Catch-22. I could have ignored this, as one can ignore any email, but I chose to reply with some comments explaining what literary criticism tries to do, but he wrote back that I didn’t fool him. Mind you, someone else has been interviewing Heller’s US Air Corps comrades and is writing a book on the real events behind Catch-22, and I greatly value my correspondence with him. I can say the same of coming to know certain contributors to various email forums. For example, there is a disbarred recovering alcoholic lawyer in Oregon who is a stalwart (latterly the moderator) of a forum called NETDYNAM, the purpose of which is to reflect on group processes on the forum itself. I have found him one of the most thoughtful and perceptive people I have ever ‘met’, though I have never been in the same physical space with him. We have, however, been in the same bit of cyberspace for more time and involving more considered exchanges than I have with some people I count as close friends and colleagues. Being in the correspondence with Pierre Mersenne in the seventeenth century. must have felt something like this. He acted as a redistribution person for the letters of eminent scientists and philosophers. Indeed, one of the main history of science email forums calls itself Mersenne.
The future is not far away. My new PC came with software, earphones, a microphone and an electronic camera which allow me to converse and to be in visual contact with colleagues and supervisees in Sofia, where I am in charge of a distance learning doctorate in Psychoanalytic Studies. Clinical supervision can also be done in this way, though I have not got down to that yet. The potential uses of this technology is breathtaking for friendship, education and clinical work, not to mention electronically mediated sexual relations. Once again, we are bombarded by capitalism’s uses for the internet, but these are not the only uses which are available. Something similar happened with Walkmans. People went ‘tut tut’ about kids immersing themselves in rock music and being antisocial until it dawned on them that Walkmans can play Boccherini and Vivaldi and books on tape, too.
A few days ago I had an email from a graduate student in Psychoanalytic Studies in Sofia asking for references to help her prepare to present a seminar on trauma. I thought about this, made some notes about concepts of trauma in psychoanalysis as distinct from recent work on PTSD and looked up some historical scholarship about these issues. I then searched the index of the CD-ROM of psychoanalytic journals and found some key references. I then emailed a number of forums on traumatic-stress, history of medicine and psychoanalytic studies, asking for references and for thoughts on the concept. Some came within minutes, and within two days I had an impressive list of references, some smart advice about where to look further and some very helpful ideas about the concept and its history. I sent all of this and some scanned articles as attachments to the students in Sofia, where there are practically no library resources in these matters.
I vividly recall when it first dawned on me that one could publish on the net. There was a Canadian graduate student (who later turned out to be pretty dotty) who announced that a professor in California was putting his papers on the net. This was a new and exciting idea to me. I asked about doing it and got some guidance which eventually led me to approach the boffins at my university for help. They rather reluctantly started putting things on the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies web site. Then I had the great good fortune to discover that a person who was very active in setting up email forums in psychiatry and who had founded a consortium of over fifty of them called InterPsych, with over ten thousand subscribers in all, was a mature student in my own university, His name is Ian Pitchford. I got to know him and got his help in setting up the Sheffield forums on Psychoanalytic-Studies and Psychoanalysis-and-the-Public-Sphere. InterPsych was at that time in crisis, since someone was trying to co-opt it for commercial purposes. The then head of my centre, Tim Kendall, was prescient and generous enough to pay for Ian and me to go to New Your to try to head this off. After some acrimony, we smote the Philistine and carried the day. Ian then became involved with the Centre’s web site (thereby financing his graduate studies) and built it up into a world resource. He and I later set up the human-nature.com site independent of the university and put all sorts of writings and links there. He also established some new and highly-successful forums, one on Evolutionary-Psychology, which has about 1500 subscribers, including practically every eminent person in this burgeoning field, and Psychiatry-Research, which also attracts excellent people and has a high level of debate. He has a genius for finding research materials to share with his forum subscribers and useful texts and links to put on our web site. Subscribers to his forums are extremely well-informed. He is now busy writing up a very promising dissertation about the scientific basis of psychopathology, and I am trying to learn to do web work, which is not easy, but, I continue to believe, possible for a technophobe such as I.
I am spelling all this out, because I think that forums and web sites like those which he and I have created promise to be (and in some fields already are, e.g., those concerned with PTSD) the basis for dramatic and important developments in scholarly and clinical work. There are, for example several in group and institutional dynamics. I have got the rights to some of my books reverted to me and have put them on my web site, along with my published and unpublished essays and various other materials –- including a dozen books of my writings and over 150 of my essays, reviews And innumerable bibliographies and reading lists. As I have indicated, people appreciate this. There is the additional advantage that search facilities on computers can be used with the text, thereby improving on the inadequate indexes which most books have. If you search psychoanalysis on any search engine you will be informed about this site.
I need hardly tell you that book and journal publishing are big business and risky business. I can attest to this. I am an admired book and journal publisher, but I have lost a considerable fortune (over 1.3 million pounds) and I and my partner will spend the rest of my days paying for my decision not to take Free Association Books into receivership. Publishing on the web, by contrast, is effectively free. I pay thirty dollars a month for unlimited space on the human-nature.com web site, and, as I have said, email forums and egroups are now effectively free. The full texts of over twenty books are at the human-nature.com web site, and many more will be put there when I can get round to scanning them in. Other archives contain many thousands of books, many classics and other works out of copyright but increasingly new works, as well. Net publishing is itself a thriving new industry, and I belong to several forums concerned with e-books and e-journals. Of course, when putting writings on the web one has to be careful about copyright, and I am as far as books are concerned. As for journal articles and book chapters, however, it is my experience so far that the owners of copyrights are not chasing them yet, though this might soon change. There is an organization called Ingenta which grew out of the privatisation of the university network called the Bath Information and Data Services, which is swimming in the opposite direction and selling electronic offprints from scientific journals at twelve pounds a pop. They have signed up lots of academic publishers. Learned journals of a Left tendency started in the sixties are finding that the economics of publishing and the changed political atmosphere are driving them into commercial havens. I am sorry to say that the journals I have founded are no exception. Science as Culture is now with Carfax, as is the new journal Psychoanalytic Studies. Free Associations has very recently been rescued from intermittent publication by Karnac Books. The secret of success is economies of scale plus very high institutional subscription rates. The Editorial Director of Carfax, (bought recently by Routledge who were then bought by Taylor and Francis), who publish over 200 journals, told me that they can break even on 200 institutional subscriptions, bearing in mind that they typically charge institutions over a hundred pounds per year; in the case of Science as Culture the current institutional subscription rate is £29.50 per quarterly issue of about 125 pages. The individual rate is £36, publishers see these as loss leaders, ways of getting institutional ones.
My fear, of course, that the days of the current wonderful anarchism of net publishing are numbered, but, as long as the net itself is kept anarchic, I think that things will just pop up in new places. My vision of the future is that people will care less and less about hard copy publishing, and the internet will let a hundred, a thousand, millions of flowers bloom. This, of course, raises the question of quality control, but I am confident that search engines, web sites and forums will look after this. I am delighted when a vetting agency, e.g., The Encyclopaedia Britannica, tells me that my web site is going onto their recommended list. I get such messages at regular intervals, and web sites in various fields also make evaluative judgements about my web sites and those of others.
My experience is that many academics are rather timid abut the internet, particularly in the realm of publishing. They fear that if something is on the net, no reputable journal will touch it. This has not been my experience; on the contrary, journals write to me from time to time and ask if they can publish essays of mine which are on the net. Although journals sometimes huff and puff about writings on the net, I have never seen any problem arise. Nor have I ever heard of a journal getting nasty if you leave an article on your web site. Many, e.g., Carfax journals, are happy to see one reproduced as long as there is a full acknowledgement, including a link to a place to subscribe. In the realm of intellectual periodicals there are two admirable ones seeking to cover a wide domain in knowledge and culture, Arts & Letters Daily and Sci/Tech Daily, which consist of nothing but summaries of essays with links to the web sites of periodicals featuring those writings. Book publishers now regularly offer the first chapters of books as enticements. As for whole books, my experience and belief are that putting a whole book on-line entices people to buy it, since reading anything long on-line is unbearable, while printing out a whole book on the printers most people have is seriously tedious, and what you have at the end is an unwieldy stack of pages. Hard copy bound books are still an attractive package, although electronic books into which one inserts programmed texts will very soon hit the shops.
I have up to now spoken in quite specific terms about the role of the internet in the practice of human relations as it impinges on people like us. I now turn to broader issues. You would have to be deaf, dumb and blind –- no, with new computer voice and touch technologies, that would not do it; you would just have to be massively inattentive –- not to know that the internet is growing apace and becoming central to our lives. One current advert says six people a second are going onto the internet. Globally the online population will grow from 4 percent today to 11 percent in 2003 when 500 million people will have Internet access, and there will be over 717 million Internet users worldwide by the end of 2005. Sixty-two percent of the population in the US will be online in the US by 2003, up from 28 percent in 1998. Europe still trails the United States, however, when the total number of home Internet users is considered. Proportionally, there are four times as many homes connected to the Internet in the US as there are in Europe. One quarter of Britons are regular net users. One fifth of Europeans use the Internet. This figure ranges from 5.7 percent in Portugal to 38 percent in Norway. There are 7.8 million in Britain, 5.3 million in Germany and 2.4 million in France. Internet penetration across Europe will almost double by 2003. Thirty-three percent of Europeans, nearly 60 million people, will have access to the Internet by then. Asian and European countries will close the gap with the US when new technology such as DSL and cable-modems enter the market. Internet users in countries such as China and India will outnumber those in the US by 2010 due to a combination of their high population density and their current investment in infrastructure. In the Asia-Pacific region 171 million users are expected online by 2005. The number of adults online in South and Central America is expected to increase to 43 million while together, the Middle East and Africa will account for just over 23.6 million users. This world-wide growth is unlikely to abate. These statistics are courtesy of an email forum, NUA Internet Surveys, which h regularly sends internet statistics and trends to 200,000 subscribers.
The internet will soon be accessible in many forms, via television, mobile phones and I don’t know what all. I can vividly recall when I first saw a Sinclair PC in the early 1980s and heard of email, which has existed since 1970 (Naughton, p 197).. I could not imagine them being of any significance to me. I changed my mind when the Amstrads came along and, although I had a serious phobia to overcome, I finally managed to write my book Mental Space on one. Then Joe Berke persuaded me to get a Mackintosh, and Mark Alexander helped me to get onto the internet -- not an easy task in those days. Demon Internet was a boon, allowing people without business or university access to the internet to get online. It took weeks of anxiety and hanging on the phone line to get the modem aligned with the internet service provider. We are talking June 1992, pre-history as far as domestic use of the net is concerned. There were, for example, no search engines, and surfing the net was pure lottery, hoping something interesting would turn up. However, very soon after this, my productivity, my social relations, my influence, my gratifications and it is fair to say practically my whole life were transformed. I am now engaged in human relations of many sorts which simply were not in place before that year, and my access to culture, friends, knowledge and many consumer items, especially books (which I can order in seconds) are unrecognisably better. Of course, since then Jeff Goldblum has assured us that going on-line with an iMac as easy as ‘One, two three, and there is no three’ (I’ve tried, and it is so). PC prices are tumbling while you get more and more for your money. In America local calls are free, while my university has been paying an average of £150 per month for my time on the net. Nowadays TeleWest offers unlimited time on-line for £10 per month, and Alta Vista if only asking £60-70 initial payment and about £10-20 per year for unlimited access. As you will know, this situation is changing daily and dramatically, and free usage on the American model is within sight. You can also buy net access via television for £200, a decent PC for about £500 and an excellent one with all sorts of peripherals for £999. Nine years ago I paid £7000 for my first Mac IIsi plus laser printer and scanner.
In what follows I want to acknowledge the inspiration of three recent books on the internet which I have read to help me in preparing my remarks today. I begin by saying that I am not a techno-geek. I cannot, for example, read and follow instruction manuals. (Robert Pirsig was kind enough to put my mind at rest about this.) The first book is a remarkable history of the internet by a gifted writer, John Naughton, who is both a fluent journalist (he was the TV critic and is now the Internet correspondent of The Observer) and an academic in the Systems Group at the Open University and is conversant with the technical aspects of computing. It is entitled A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet. It is the best –- best-written, most accessible, best-informed –- book on the internet that I have read. Where relevant, he tells the story as part of his own life, beginning in rural Ireland and ending up in Cambridge. I found this approach particularly engaging, since I have my own history of love affairs with successive communications technologies, extending from a crystal set to short wave radio to wire and tape recorders and hi-fi and, as I’ve mentioned, on to computers and the internet. He takes us through developments extending from abstract work at MIT before modern computing existed and lays bare the intellectual and technical foundations of the successive stages leading to the internet, e.g., Norbert Wiener’s concepts of feedback and cybernetics, the transistor and microchip, computer symbiosis, Alan Turing’s research at my college in Cambridge on the logic underlying computing, communication between computers, command and control research, packets, HTML and TCP/IP, the agreed procedure for assembling and reassembling the packets which make up net messages and which Naughton calls the DNA of the internet. There were certainly visionaries early in the history Vannevar Bush laid bare the essentials in an article entitled ‘As We May Think’ in The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, and JCR Licklider wrote, at a time when most of what computers did was number crunch and help in gunnery, ‘…it will mediate communications among human beings’. He focussed on the potential for interaction between computers, the essence of the internet. (Naughton, 1999, pp. 72- 73
Great principles are embedded in the net. One was enunciated by Ted Nemson, a genius in the development of hypertext, who came up with four maxims as he walked home from school after deciding not, after all, to stab his school teacher: They have guided his life: ‘most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong’ (p. 219). After further reflection, he wrote that everything should be available to everyone. Any user should be able to follow origins and links of materials across boundaries of documents, servers, networks, and individual implementations. People like him led to the final vision of the internet -- that ‘here should be a united environment available to everyone providing access to this whole space’ (p. 221). Another moving point Naughton makes is about the utterly fundamental role of altruistic, democratic and even anarchist principles at its foundations. For example, no one who wrote the codes or who has contributed to its development has ever made a penny from intellectual property rights (Naughton, 1999, p. xii).
It cannot be said that the subject of the second book I want to mention, Jim Clark, never made a penny. On the contrary, he has founded three successive computing companies and earned for himself more than a billion dollars from each. The first, Silicon Graphics, brought three dimensions to design, architecture, cartoons like ‘Toy Story’ and all sort of imaginative computer-based work. The third, currently abuilding, is an attempt, via a programme and a corporation called Healtheon, to be the mediator in the biggest US industry by intervening in all medical transactions and eliminate paper work. The third was the first and best freely available web browser, Netscape, which appeared in 1994 and which he did not invent but did turn into the product which made the internet accessible to anyone. It was to the net what the Mackintosh was to personal computing: the key to user-friendliness. The importance of this cannot be over-emphasized. The point and click system on Mac was purloined by Microsoft by getting round the Mackintosh patents in the making of the successive Windows systems (which are still far inferior to the Mac environment). Netscape does the same for the web. You don’t need to be a boffin or nerd; the software does it for you. Once again, Microsoft came along later with Internet Explorer and used its monopoly position with the MS-DOS operating system to undermine Netscape’s legitimate market leadership. Microsoft are currently the subject of a huge lawsuit for doing this.
Jim Clark did not invent Netscape, Marc Andreessen did. People with access to networks were an elite and tended to despise non-tecchies as riff-raff. By inventing MOSAIC, the basis for Netscape, Andreessen let the riff-raff in and thereby democratised computing forever. Clark hired him and commercialized the software, and, as he did with all his projects, make the boffins a fortune by transforming the financing of net products. He turned the process of going public into a new thing by offering stock for sale to the public before there were any profits. He was impelled to do this in a way which the conventional stock market wisdom called premature, because he wanted tens of millions of dollars to build a huge, computerised sailing yacht. He got away with it and started the book in .net companies which fill the press today. As I said, he also looked after his programmers. Andreessen got eighty million dollars, for example, and Clark’s other key computer engineer (many trained in technical instituted in India) got between five and eighty-five million. Mind you, the venture capitalists got hundreds of millions, and in one case1.8 billion, and, as I’ve said, Clark has to date made three fortunes of over a billion. The venture capitalist who had driven too hard a bargain in return for his investment in Clark’s first company begged to be allowed to invest in Netscape. Clark adamantly and repeatedly refused, and the man killed himself. He transformed net investment, as we are seeing exemplified this very day with lastminute.com (co-founded by my partner’s niece).
The book about Jim Clark’s entrepreneurial genius was written by Michael Lewis, author of the funniest and most shocking book ever written about the stocks and bonds market, Liar’s Poker. It is entitled The New New Thing: How a Man you’ve Never Heard of Just Changed Your Life. Like its predecessor it is a gripping and heady read, and I commend it to you. The third noteworthy book is by the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee. It is called Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web by its Inventor. It is nothing like as well-written as the other two, but is far more moving and visionary. I go further and say that it is beautiful. He lets us see how his mind works and, without boasting at all, conveys the purity of his altruism. His temperament strikes me as the opposite of that of Jim Clark, who is overbearing and grandiose, shouts, storms out, jets around and generally behaves like a tycoon. Clark comes from modest, even underclass beginnings in Plainview Texas, had an alcoholic and violent father, was chucked out of high school for various pranks involving explosives and a skunk and for telling his English teacher to go to hell. (Lewis, 33, 284-5). After a stint as a sailor he eventually got a doctorate at the University of Utah. Berners-Lee is a quiet Englishman who went to Oxford and whose parents were in computing. He had a job at the European nuclear physics research centre, CERN, near Geneva and got interested in the fact that the computers there could not talk to each other and there was no proper system of storing information. There was even a cacophony of phone directories. He created a program called ENQUIRE, named after a Victorian book (of which I have a copy) entitled Enquire within upon Everything. I suppose his invention, the world wide web, is potentially a literal fulfilment of that title in cyberspace. The number of documents on the net was estimated to be 400 million in 1998 and was expected to double by 2000. (Naughton, p. 28). In fact, it has reached two billion. There are about eight million web sites. (.Net, Apr. 2000, p. 13). That makes no allowance for CD-ROMS. I have one with all of Darwin’s main writings, others on the history of cinema and of popular music and another with all articles from six major psychoanalytic journals from their beginning .until 1995 and have been offered an update of that. Many of these link the CD-ROM with web updates. The web is also becoming the fount of free music downloads. There were over one billion music downloads in 1999 onto computers and MP3 players.
What is so affecting about Berners-Lee’s story is the counterpoint between the technical aspects of the development of the web and his values. Many years ago I coined the maxim that technology is the embodiment of values. I cannot think of a more convincing example of its truth than his work. He wrote, ‘My vision was a system in which sharing what you knew or thought was as easy as learning what someone else knew’ (Berners-Lee, p. 36). All documents had to be made equal in some way. There are three and only three essential features to his solution. The first is a Universal Resource Identifier, more commonly known as a Uniform Resource Locator or URL (pp. 66-7), a unique address, e.g., http://www.human-nature.com. This is a location in a server which can be anywhere geographically. Another way of saying this is that the information is location independent (p.p. 171-2). The web will find it. Berners-Lee called this ‘the most fundamental innovation of the web, because it is a unique specification (p. 42). The second is HTTP, a Hypertext Transfer Protocol, an instruction. The third is HTML, Hypertext Markup Language, which is used to mark up documents for the web, thereby making it available for sending to any computer in a readable form. Recent software does this for you at the touch of a button. Berners-Lee comments,
What was often difficult for people to understand about the design was that there was nothing else beyond URLs. HTTP and HTML. There was no central computer “controlling’” the web, no single network on which these protocols worked, not even an organization anywhere which “ran” the Web. The Web was not a physical “thing” that existed in a certain ‘place’. It was a “space” in which information could exist (Lee, p. 39)
This meant that there could be no central control (p. 42). Couple this with the fact that the network of computers was itself neither centralised or decentralised but distributed (see diagrams), and you have a system where the message will always find a way He was deeply opposed to any form of control and has fought and won whenever this principle has been threatened.
Philosophically, if the web was to be a universal resource, it had to be able to grow in an unlimited way. Technically, if there was any centralised point of control, it would rapidly become a bottleneck that restricted the Web’s growth, and the Web would never scale up. Its being “out of control” was very important (p. 106).
No registers, no approval. Anyone can build or buy a server and put anything on it. There are, according to a recent census, 6,409,521 servers (.Net, Apr. 2000 p. 13). There are efforts to restrict this, e.g., with respect to pornography, but the web can always get round any obstacle. Everyone can have a voice for all the world to hear, for good or ill (p. 110).
The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner. What we believe, endorse, agree with and depend on is representable and, Increasingly, represented on the Web. We all have to ensure that the society we build with the Web is f the sort we intend (p.133).
Putting in technical language, he says, ‘For people to share knowledge, the Web must be a universal space across which all hypertext links can travel. I spend a good deal of my life defending this core property in one way or another’ (p. 176). The web has the potential to lead us to perspectives far away in space and traditions from those our local gatekeepers want us to know about. I now know why I was twirling the tuning dial on any short wave receiver I could lay my hands on as a child and why I bought a second hand Hallicrafters S-40a Communications Receiver as soon as I could save enough money from delivering newspapers and listened avidly to the BBC and Radio Moscow from the wealthy and reactionary suburb of Dallas where I lived as a teenager.
Berners-Lee concludes that with the web ‘we can collectively make of our world what we want. (p.228). I regard him as a huge benefactor of humanity, up there with Thomas Alva Edison who not only invented the light bulb but the whole system of generation and distribution of electricity which gave it energy. He also gave us the phonograph and a much improved telephone. The internet now conveys telephone messages, a vast and growing archive of music, films, encyclopaedias, tens of thousands of volumes of the world’s classics. The forty-four million word Encyclopaedia Britannica has recently been made available online free. The sixty million word unabridged Oxford English Dictionary goes online this week, unfortunately not free. It was £1800 in a twenty volume hardback edition last published in 1989, and will now be sold on a yearly subscription basis for between £400 abd1000, but its revision process will be revolutionised (Guardian 11 Mar. 2000, p. 9).
Tim-Berners Lee has declined all opportunities to make money out of the World Wide Web and instead occupies an office at MIT where he is in charge of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (p. 100) the task if which is to keep the web open and free and un-owned. (Berners-Lee, p.100).
The Chairman of General Electric says that the internet is the single most important event in the US economy since the Industrial Revolution’ (Lewis, p. 268). It has rightly been called ‘the greatest co-operative enterprise in the history of mankind’ and ‘the fastest growing network in human history’ (p. 271). With it I can communicate with anyone in the world at any time in text, sight and sound -- instantly and effectively for free. This includes conferencing, groups, family chats. The facilities for chat rooms are already available free in conjunction with free egroups and as well as in other formats. It is ‘a totally open system’ (Naughton, p. xi) of ‘unparalleled resilience and dependability’ (p. xii). Britain’s Prime Minister promises to have it available to all in this country within five years. Ninety per cent of secondary and sixty-two per cent of primary schools in Britain are already online, and the government is spending two billion pounds on internet access. It behoves international agencies to do the same world-wide. Thabo Mbeki, now President of South Africa, has said ‘the people should seize the new technology to empower themselves, to keep themselves informed about the truth of their own economic, political and cultural circumstances, and to give themselves a voice that all the world could hear’ (Berners-Lee, p. 110).
This is the eighth essay in which I reflect on various aspects of the internet. Previous ones have been concerned with unconscious dynamics apparent in internet relations and with certain remarkable net phenomena, especially role playing games with one’s identity (MUDDs and MOOs) and the burgeoning of easily accessible pornography. I have also spoken hopefully about the possibility that the internet can obviate to some degree the dumbing down which is being enforced by the patrons and gatekeepers in publishing and the media, domains in which I have personally paid heavy dues. I want to close with some further reflections about this hope. First, I do not want my upbeat rendition of the possibilities of the internet to beguile you about the problem of content. Most internet forums are only intermittently interesting, some almost never are. ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ is a universally valid maxim, and the ease of the access of the net is a bore’s charter. On the other hand, the casual brutality of publishers’ refusal of excellent work which is not the right length or unlikely to sell a thousand copies is beautifully got round by net publishing. I am thinking, for example of recent languishing texts on Psychoanalysis in a State of Terror during the Argentinean dictatorship, edited by Janine Puget; Nicky Glover’s’ dissertation on psychoanalytic aesthetics and Jo Nash’s dissertation on a feminist-Kleinian epistemology. The second of these is now online, and the other two will be soon.
Standing back and reflecting on the past and future of the internet I want to close by touching on certain strange and unsettling aspects of it. Em Farrell has coined the term ‘physicality’ to capture an important absence on the net. We communicate from inside our heads through our fingertips in our private spaces – home or office. This can make for good human relations, but it can also lead to too-quick intimacies, as if nothing public has occurred. It can also easily lead to loss of self-containing civilities and forms of discretion. These can take the form of flames and flame wars but also of misperceived and intemperate splits, of idealisations and hatreds. I feel very ambivalent about these features of cyberspace, ones upon which Sherry Turkle has reflected with a more untempered optimism than I feel. Don’t get me wrong. My main purpose today has been to celebrate the internet, but I also feel a certain forbidding, as if I am being beguiled into believing that I do not, after all, have to be an adult and be tested body and soul in properly public space.
Another way of thinking about the tension to which I am trying to draw attention is to offer a distinction between the ubounded, an admirable feature of the net, and the unboundaried, a deplorable state of the inner world which generated anxieties and extreme, paranoid-schizoid splits. This is usually put in terms of the uncontained versus containment. The two attributes of the web which its developers and defenders value most are universality and access. I share their advocacy of these attributes, but I also know that people are rarely at their best in contexts of grandiosity. I believe that we are faced with an unprecedented opportunity, but we must find a way of bringing it into the realm of the middle ground, the domain of the ordinary and moderate, and strive to conduct its development as far as possible in a contained and detoxified way in what Kleinians call the depressive position.
This is the text of a talk given to the Psycho-Social Studies Group at the Centre for Social and Economic Research of the Faculty of Economics and Social Science, University of the West of England, Bristol, 14 March 2000.
(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.)
Berners-Lee, Tim (1999) Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web by its Inventor. Orion Business Books.
Lewis, Michael (1999) The New New Thing: How Some Man You Never Heard of Just Changed Your Life. Hodder and Staughton.
Naughton, John (1999) A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet. Weidenfeld and Nicholson..
Young, Robert M. (1995) ‘Psychoanalysis and/of the Internet’
______ (1996) ‘The Anthropology of Cyberspace’
______ (1996) ‘Primitive Processes on the Internet’
______ (1996) ‘NETDYNAM: Some Parameters of Virtual Reality’
______ (1998) ‘Sexuality and the Internet’
______ (1999) ‘Dumbing Down: Publishing, the Media and the Internet’
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