Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California
Dr. Nicolle Zapien is a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC), located in San Francisco, California in the US. She is a member of PINC’s ethics committee and its visiting scholar committee. Dr. Zapien is the founder of The Center for Psychoanalysis and Technology, a space for conversations at the intersection of psychoanalysis and consumer technology and the founder and host of the podcast, Technology and the Mind, which can be found at https://centerforpsychoanalysisandtech.com/episodes/. She works with adults and couples in
private practice in Oakland, CA.
Technology-mediated relating: A mass seduction
Teleanalysis prior to the COVID-19 pandemic had been used by some analysts as a matter of course and for others only in exceptional circumstances such as to provide continuity of care for those who traveled or moved during treatment. Many more of us have used teleanalyses in a greater proportion of our work if not all of our work in the last years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, also due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also engaged in more technologically-mediated interactions in addition to teleanalysis altogether in the form of video conference meetings, online seminars, and increasing use of various apps for billing and payments, grocery, prepared food delivery and so on. Psychoanalysts have begun to theorize some of the differences between traditional in person psychoanalysis and teleanalysis, but we have largely not extended psychoanalytic theories to the dynamics of technologically-mediated interactions outside of the consulting room. It has been made infinitely clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, to even to the most ambivalent users, that there are many benefits to technologically-mediated interactions, and yet our collective increase in use (e.g., total time spent on screens and total increased diversity of applications used) of technology might be understood as a grand intrusion by consumer technology into our relationships, a mass seduction facilitated by the tech industry, closing gaps in space and time, where reflection, dreaming and negative capability might otherwise live. This closing of the gaps in space and time, I argue, is compelling even as it is overstimulating, (as all seductions are) urging us to spend more time in convenient virtual interactions, unconsciously shaping our views of time and space, our bodies, ourselves, others, and groups both through the media themselves and through the messages imparted within the media. If we were to analyze this slide toward more and more technologically-mediated interactions as a seduction in the ways that Laplanche discusses seduction, we might find that it is critical to side step the question of whether or not technology is good or bad but to begin to consider how we might maintain some observing function capable of reflecting and thinking about what might be communicated in these interactions and the dynamics embedded within technology-mediated relating. Psychoanalysis with its emphasis on unconscious dynamics within individuals and between them as well as sophisticated understandings of group dynamics, including seductive ones, may be well-positioned to extend our theories to include the dynamics of technologically-mediated interactions.
Key words: Technology, teleanalysis, seduction, negative capability, seduction theory, embodiment, psychoanalysis, Laplanche.
The consequences of the use of a technology product or service is not always fully understood by those who develop them or by their end users, despite well-developed product design processes and user testing. Only after larger numbers of people use a new tech product or service for a longer period and there is time to reflect and consider the impacts do the unintended social and emotional consequences, (not to mention the unconscious dynamics they evoke within and between people), become somewhat apparent. Some strikingly negative recent examples of unintended (or perhaps denied or disavowed) impacts include: Twitter and Facebook’s impact on our recent elections; TikTok’s influence on teen risk-taking behavior in the form of dangerous TikTok challenges; Microsoft and Amazon’s racially-biased facial recognition programs, and, experiences with Alexa violating our privacy despite promises to the contrary. These outcomes, and countless others, were either unthinkable during the product design process or if they were considered at any point in the process, they were dismissed prior to product launch or at each product update, ostensibly in service of timely product releases and profitability.
Of course, technology products and services also offer us a host of positive, useful, and sometimes unintended or surprising benefits as well. Consumer technologies can be thought of as offering a potential space (Benjamin, 2018) or a transitional space (Winnicott, 1971) in which to play or dream, with all the hope and development that is implied in these psychoanalytic concepts. During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, which continues as I write, there have been concrete and tangible benefits to technologically-mediated relating that we have all experienced through being able to continue our work and to remain in contact with others personally and professionally and avoid contagion. Regardless of whether the consequences of tech use is negative or positive or intended or not, the impacts are often amplified through the scale and speed of its use, leveraging social sharing at the pace of machine time, in a disembodied and potentially intrusive manner which may have “….the negative effect of foreclosing many, if not all, of the values that practitioners of depth psychology….tend to affirm, such as the freedom of imagination, ‘negative capability’, interior depth and the privacy of the self…” (Frankel & Krebs, 2021, pg.113).
These are not new phenomena or concerns. Decision scientists have been documenting problematic human decision making with attention to the social and emotional consequences of poor risk assessment associated with technology for decades (Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky (Eds.), 1982). Business and tech sector leaders have taken up these concerns and have been calling for experts from more diverse disciplines to help them consider the unintended consequences of tech products and services earlier in the design process (Nohria & Taneja, 2021). Their current processes consider these issues through attention to design thinking, usability testing, and human factors research (Rosenbaum & Chisnell, 2000), yet these studies and theories do not take into account unconscious processes or group dynamics in the ways these are understood and well-developed within psychoanalytic theory and practice (Bion, 1961; Stokes, 2009; Shapiro & Carr, 2012).
Psychoanalysis is perhaps uniquely positioned to enter this dialogue because there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that how we interact with technology and with each other via technology is governed by unconscious processes and dynamics (Frankel & Krebs, 2021).
Just because there are unintended consequences and technology motivates unconscious processes does not denigrate its benefits nor suggest we should turn away from technology. The benefits of its use were made strikingly clear during the last few years and we responded by increasing our use. Various technologies and apps, including telephones, allowed us from the spring of 2020 when COVID-19 required most of us to shelter in place, to maintain our clinical practices with patients, continue with our analyses, consultations, and training. We could stay in contact with those who were far from us without having to travel or risk getting sick. We saved time, we believed (and there is more to say about whether time is really ever saved, I think), and we have begun to bend space (and there is also more to say about what happens when we have the experience of closing distances without our bodies moving through actual space) by cutting our commute out some days or every day altogether, living in less expensive, or more desirable locations all the while serving patients in larger geographic areas than ever before. We convened meetings with participants who live in multiple locations at the same time. Some of us were in different locations throughout the week or year and while using a static background in zoom, doxy, or Skype (or whatever teleanalytic video conference platform we used) of our office, we gave the illusion that we were in the same place, and thought this strategic (and I would add, somewhat duplicitous). We have begun to live in a way that has the feeling of disregarding the limits of space and time and therefore that begins to disregard what it means to have a fully alive and always-in-the process-of-dying physical body.
And perhaps this is simply what happens when the first world has the feeling of running out of new markets of people to exploit so we bend time and space to continue to compete with each other for the best ways to optimize things.
In some cases, as we moved from in person analyses to more teleanalyses in the last years, we experienced examples of unexpected growth and development in the transference that we surmise wouldn’t have happened in person. There are cases of various (bodily) concerns being more available and comfortable for analysands to bring forward in a teleanalytic format, for example (Wooldridge, 2017). We were able to serve analysands who began treatment during COVID-19 who otherwise would not have been able to participate in psychoanalysis at all, were it not for teleanalysis, and we heard of candidates, or we were candidates, who otherwise would not have been able to participate in training if it weren’t for teletraining. The benefits of teleanalysis and teletraining for our field are clear. We justify to ourselves, that while it is not the same as in person analysis, it is an analytic process, there is a transference and there is movement and progress or in the case of training, there is learning and growth. These positives are counterbalanced with tales of those who missed the embodied experience of in-person analysis or training or felt too difficult to tolerate the ersatz experience that 2-dimensional telephone or online relating provides. We also experienced fatigue from looking at screens, aches in our bodies from moving less, or eyestrain and loss of hearing from ongoing use of earbuds. Our social lives and social skills may have atrophied.
As we all entered this COVID-19 phase, and without perhaps noticing, we began engaging in more technologically-mediated relating outside of psychoanalysis as well, altogether, more than ever before. This is precisely what the consumer technology industry wants – more users, more clicks, more views, more engagement, more data, and more different apps that each of us use. Interestingly, several tech CEOs in Silicon Valley (an area near San Francisco where many of the big technology companies are) do not allow their own children to have access to the products they develop and/or restrict access to cell phones, ipads (which are responsible for a large uptick in technology-mediated relating for each of us due to their portability) and Netflix for their children until the age of 14 (Lopez, 2020). I am suggesting that they are developing products that are seducing us in the Laplanchian sense and while they may not know what the enigmatic messages are that they convey along with the tech they offer, they know enough to protect their own progeny from it.
According to Laplanche, seduction occurs every time the child is confronted with the parental universe. He writes, “I give a kind of essential primacy to ‘seduction’…. Seduction, as an enigmatic message addressed unilaterally by the adult to the child is to be found at the very heart of the other ‘primal fantasies’, and particularly in what renders the ‘primal scene’ enigmatic and traumatizing.” (Laplanche, 1995). He goes on to note that the other primal fantasies are ones of various forms. He states, “The messages of the primal scene are frequently ones of violence, savagery, castration and anality. A message of exclusion is virtually inherent in the situation itself: I am showing you – or letting you see – something which, by definition, you cannot understand, and in which you cannot take part.” (Laplanche, 1995).
In the case of consumer technology, we are confronted with messages from the universe of others delivered into our offices and homes almost immediately and sometimes without knowing what we might hear or see before we click. We are being shown or let see enigmatic messages that are present in the content but also are part of the medium we use itself. Think for a moment about ads that appear in the margins of various websites for products we did not ask to see or notifications that ping us without us asking to have these served. The skilled tech user can turn these off but most of us either do not know how to do so or are in an ambivalent relationship with this kind of content. We both like shopping recommendations and notifications but we are also intruded upon by them. Even if we turn them all off, we are still served enigmatic seductive messages through that which we receive and through the simple act of feeling as if we are in control of what we search for or access but when it is returned, we may not have received what we expected or are prepared to take in. We are in the roll of child as user of technology relative to the tech executive creator/parent or the group of parents on megaphone who come through these apps in the form of memes, trolls, internet influencers and so on. They insinuate what we should wear or buy to garner sexual attention and to have power and what we might fantasize about or fear. Neither end user nor developer nor influencer is fully conscious as to what is communicated in these interactions. And some of what is communicated constitutes and is constituted by a seduction. Good notes, “LaPlanche’s idea is that human sexuality is constituted through what we might call an intersubjective unconscious, through the child’s failed translation of enigmatic sexual messages that are sent from parent to child and that are unconscious to the parents themselves. This is not seen as a pathological process per se but rather as the very way sexuality is constituted.” (Good, 2006). To call consumer technology seductive is again not to disparage its usefulness. In fact, according to Laplanche, “….seduction is merely a process: seduction is neither more nor less real than a parapraxis, the reality of which is not reducible to its materiality. A slip of the tongue is no more or less real materially than a correctly pronounced word. But a slip also does not boil down to each of the interlocutors’ conceptions of it, which are often incomplete and reductive. It conveys a detectable, observable message, which is partly interpretable by psychoanalysis. It is in terms of this third domain of reality and not of material reality that I persist in saying ‘seduction’ rather than ‘seduction fantasy’.” (Laplanche, 1995). The same can be said, I would argue, for how enigmatic messages of racism, sexism or various forms of violence, might be communicated within and through technology, in addition to other dynamics.
Many of us continue to provide teleanalysis for a portion of our schedules if not entirely, even as others are returning to in person work. Instead of receiving payment in person many of us now submit online invoices and use various payment apps to process payments. We take part in online versions of parties, meetings, performances, seminars, graduations, memorial services, and the like.
There is more food and grocery delivery ordered online and online reservation services being used. All of this is very convenient, and we are happy to have access to alternatives to keep our lives going during COVID-19. What we perhaps did not notice, or perhaps we are still in the middle of and therefore there isn’t enough Nachträglichkeit yet to allow for a full reflection, is that we are now more embedded in 2-dimensional interactions, with the accompanied unconscious communications that are included in the medium itself than ever before which implies less in person face to face relating and we may not be aware of how this shift is impacting us. I suggest we may be succumbing to the seduction of technology without pausing sufficiently to allow a gap in time to reflect or to use our analytic minds to consider and theorize the dynamics that are new in this new context. The seemingly simple and convenient act of bending time and space, which gives the illusion of saving time and traversing large distances, may be changing how we see or feel about ourselves, others, our bodies, time, and groups. And perhaps this seduction is traumatizing and it may call for theorizing. In Frankel & Krebs’ (2021) recently published text addressing the human virtual, digital technologies, and philosophical and psychoanalytic ideas about these phenomena, they present a weighty concern. They suggest that perhaps not only is technology influencing how we think, feel, pay attention, and relate to others, ostensibly through unconscious messages, but it may, due to its pace and intrusiveness, be potentially closing the gap that we need in order to have the space in which to think and feel at all. This is counter to the objectives of psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on free association (Freud, 1904), negative capability (Symington & Symington, 1996) the need for triangular space (Britton, 2004) and an emphasis on deep relating and working in the transference (Joseph, 1985). In fact, it may be that conducting psychoanalysis, or perhaps doing anything at all in the time of ubiquitous digital virtuality is somewhat different and more concerning than in eras previous. This is a call to us all to consider the possibility of actively engaging a gap, like the protected space and time of an analytic hour, so that we can protect a way to think about the dynamics of technologically-mediated relating and our minds.
Currently my clinical practice includes much more teleanalysis than before COVID-19 and I don’t go to my office everyday. While I do delight in having more free time due to a smaller commute, this time isn’t really saved. I end up spending some of my “saved time” actively observing or counteracting the impact of bending time and space on my body and mind as well as considering the implications for the decisions to continue to offer my services in these various formats. I also spend some of the “saved time” challenging myself to attempt to manage what I believe is the intrusiveness and seductiveness of technology-mediated relating. Perhaps I have lost something that occurred too conveniently and quickly to warrant thought that deserves to be fantasized and articulated.
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