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NETDYNAM:  Some Parameters of Virtual Reality

by Robert M. Young

When I was a boy I listened to the radio almost all the time. I could spend the rest of my allotted time today telling you in great detail about all the programmes I tried never to miss and many of the main characters, e.g., Henry Aldrich, The Shadow, Jack, Doc and Reggie in ‘I Love a Mystery’. When I was old enough to go out under my own steam, the same became true of the movies. Then it was records, then reel-to-reel tapes then compact cassettes, now compact discs. I can be sitting in bed watching a movie from the 1950s on the television and quite often can tell you the next line.

So why can’t I individuate more than a handful of people on Netdynam, when I have been a member of that email forum for half a year, having been invited to join by Harriet Meek? I think there are three answers: lack of subject, lack of physicality and fear of engulfment.

I am on fifty-five email forums and moderate two. Many are technical, to do with being a forum leader, with kinds of software, with electronic publishing. But most are based on conceptual and/or clinical domains. They have subject matter (italicise that word). In my case, that means things around psychoanalysis, groups, psychology, sexuality, on the one hand, and history, philosophy and social studies of science, on the other. I see what people think and consequently have a sense of them as individuals. Their ideas provide the core, and the ways they express themselves and conduct themselves on the forums provide the raiment, as it were. But the ideas come first. They provide the subject matter. I don’t think that’s because I am a desiccated intellectual. Actually, to some extent the same is true when I meet people in the flesh. Until I have some sense of what they believe, I cannot firmly attach names to them unless they are very visually striking, indeed, or do something dramatic. I wonder how much this is something about me and how much it is a general feature of communication on the net. I know that there are internet bulletin boards where people interact around more or less exclusively personal matters, but I have never been drawn to them. I am writing a book about changing ideas about sexuality and joined a forum for the detailed discussion of such things, but I got off quite soon, yet I have remained on one devoted to the intellectual discussion of sexual matters.

This brings me to physicality. One of my favourite books is Peter Strawson’s Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959). It is the best essay on the concept of the person in relation to the mind-body problem that I have ever read. A central point of his argument is that extension (a Cartesian abstraction from the concept of body) is metaphysically essential for individuating particulars, e.g., individual people, but more generally any particulars. He has a lovely chapter about an imaginary world based exclusively on sounds, but it turns out that you cannot isolate particulars there. My experiences with the radio and with music mean that this is not a simple truth. I would add that narrative, plot and melody are also keys to individuation. The people whom I have individuated on Netdynam are the ones whose stories have registered with me. I don’t mean just biographical data. There was a period when people were putting such data on the forum. I thought it was useful, but it went right through me. What has stuck is stories, just like it was on the radio, where I also had recognisable voices. I can still hear the tremolo in Mercedes McCambridge’s voice (she went on to be Luz in Giant) and the power and insinuation in Orson Welles’ and the officiousness in Jack Webb’s. These are individuating aspects of the physicality of sounds, but as mimics prove, they can be imitated and therefore not reliably individuated.

I think physicality is mightily important to forming object relations. When it is absent, as in the novel, the author supplies it in characterization, and we see and hear the person in our mind. This is powerful and explains why the novel is more visual than the radio and the radio more than television or the cinema. I also think physicality is important in framing the boundaries of our sense of containment. Its absence, it seems to me, is perhaps the most important reason why such dramatic splits occur on the internet. People are easily idealised and easily denigrated. People are thought wonderful and fall in love and into lustful connections with great ease. People are also subjected to horrible invective, as in flaming and flame wars. Sometimes the same person gets both treatments. I have seen it often, and the rhetorics reach new highs of praise and romanticism and new depths of primitive vilification, complete with orifices and dramatic insertions at both ends of the split and of the body. A theoretical way of putting this is that with a plethora of cues, physicality militates for the depressive position, while words on screens leave out so much that they permit unconscious phantasy to run riot. Mark Slouka has commented that ‘Social roles had always been bound and kept in check by the constraints and limitations of the physical world... Take away those boundaries and the ego could refract wildly and at will’ (Slouka, 1996, p. 5) He calls the net a ’strange aphysical climate’ sand suggests a thesis which is worrying in the light of the growing significance of the internet: that ‘morality matters only within the bounds of the physical world’ (p. 2).

This is part of the point of netsex and telephone sex, as well as the virtual games on MUDs and MOOs (Multi-User Domains and MUD Object-Oriented), where people play with their identities, their sexual orientations, their genders, whatever they like. Sherry Turkle has praised this form of play in her new book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995). I think that in her zeal to see the internet as an experimental playground for postmodern ideas about identity she is being facile and insufficiently attentive of the things that go wrong with object relations, part-object relations, bizarre objects and so on. People being who they like on the net and splitting those aspects of the self off from the rest is another way of saying ’schizoid’ and for getting people into trouble, as recent history of Netdynam has tragically shown. The founder of the forum committed suicide, and no one saw it coming. He had invested his optimistic self in the forum and completely obscured the rest, including his career crisis personal isolation and despair, from his virtual family.

New technologies are available but not yet widely deployed which may change much of this for the better by adding dimensions. There is a cheap one called ’CU-see me’,. I have the software but not yet the camera. Once I get it, I can see the person at the other end and hear his or her voice. I think it will make a huge difference by providing familiar dimensions and by individuating my interlocutor. We have known since J. C. Lavater’s physiognomy, Sir Charles Bell’s Anatomy of Expression and Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions that the representation of the emotions on the face is the key to the inner world.

I turn last to engulfment, which is really a subdivision of the hazards of lack of physicality. I know lots of people who won’t have anything to do with the internet and think of it as a potential nightmare, with all those email messages and garish web sites crawling up their phone line and into their computer and overloading their hard discs and jumping into their eyes and down their optic nerves to fill every neurone and every millimetre of mental space with rubbish and with demands on their time and emotional resources. There is, I can attest, some truth in this, but you don’t have to open email: you can file it or bin it, if your curiosity doesn’t get the better of you. You can also use your software to highlight certain sorts of email, e.g., forums you value highly, personal letters, even Netdynam.

However, there are less totalised forms of engulfment anxiety. If I confine my worries about engulfment to messages from Netdynam itself, I have to confess that it is, all by itself, too much for me. I don’t open all the messages and don’t read the full text of all the ones I open. I play various kinds of hooky and am not a fully attentive camper. I will never be an Eagle Scout. I am too busy and have other priorities and don’t want to be fully immersed in this large a family. The one I started out with was too much. The one I have off-line is more than sufficient. I have seen it said on Netdynam that I am thought of by some forum members as an absent parent. I decline the projection.

The thought I am left with is that the internet poses new problems about the relationship between object relations and morality — not, perhaps, a virtual morality but a morality of the virtual, in which the absence of physicality leaves us perilously and primitively within the domain of unconscious phantasy while ostensibly belonging to groups

This is a talk given, with contributions by other Netdynam subscribers, to a conference of ISPSO, The International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, in New York, 14 June 1996.


Bell, Sir Charles (1924) Essays on the Anatomy and Philosophy of Expressio, 2nd ed. Murray.

Darwin Charles R. (1872) ) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Murray.

Greenberg, Jay R. and Mitchell. Stephen A. (1983) Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Lavater, J. C. (1775-78)Essays on Physiognomy , 2nd ed., 3 vols. in 4, trans. Th. Holcroft. Symonds, 1804.

Slouka, Mark (1996) ’Virtual Anarchy’ (edited extracts from The War of the Worlds. Abacus, 1995), Guardian 30 Jan. 1996, 2: 2-5.

Strawson, Peter F. (1959) Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. London: Methuen.

Turkle, Sherry (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. N. Y.: Simon & Schuster.

Young, Robert M. (1995) ’Psychoanalysis and/of the Internet’

______ (1996) ’Primitive Processes on the Internet’

Both available at home page:  http://www.shef.ac.uk/uni/academic/N-Q/psysc/staff/rmyoung/index.html

The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

email: robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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