The Here and Now of Cyberspace

Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.


Where is Cyberspace?

What can we be referring to when we speak of "the here and now" in Cyberspace-based relationships?

Where is "here" and when is "now" in Cyberspace?

Cyberspace may be described as a psychological construct which we as an online society invent, individually and collectively, to describe where experience takes place when people interact via computer. When and where online discussion and sharing take place are not so easy to pinpoint. Some refer to Cyberspace in spatial terms, seeing it in terms of what appears on the screen or projected onto "the mind's eye", while others experience something more spiritual-- e.g., a sharing of intimacy within a cohesive group as described by Yalom, explored by Rogers, and experienced daily in countless online milieus. People in all walks of life are fascinated by the potential for human interaction, communication, self-expression, self-help, sharing, selling... and the list goes on.1

Most of us tend to use our offline life experiences as reference points for online life, and if we are comfortable with typing, reading and writing we are more likely to have an easy time integrating e-communication into our daily lives. Many people become drawn to one aspect of online experience or another, based on interests, cognitive make-up, and preferences for one sensory channel or another. A wonderful thing about the Internet is that there is something for everyone: interactive chat (both text-based and graphically rich), message boards, support groups, e-mail, list-servs, interactive gaming, literary, professional, and artistic communities, and any number of potentially addictive activities all available, on demand, all the time.

For many, the here & now is whatever is on their screen at the moment. Some people go online to quickly and efficiently do shopping, or find information. Many people also use the Internet to reach out and seek the services of mental health professionals, a group who tend, online as well as off, to rely on interpersonal communication as the essential tool for facilitating therapeutic change. Online mental health professionals are increasingly gaining skill and experience with various styles and modalities of meaningful online communication. Regardless of where Cyberspace may "be", when a mental health practitioner is "meeting in session" with a client, whether asynchronously or in real-time (f2f, video, chat or phone), in order to experience "being connected" to the person on the other end there is a continued need, just as in days of yore, to understand the client's experience of here and now.
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Many counselors and psychotherapists, including those who meet with clients online, rely on close analysis of interpersonal dynamics between therapist and client, using the "here and now" of that particular session. Surely this now happens, not only through the use of chat rooms replete with emoticons, but also through the familiar e-mail letter exchange, which (particularly with groups) may become part of a continuing subject "thread" focused on specific issues. Many deeply meaningful and powerful relationships can be formed and/or maintained via the written letter. It may be "asynchronous" communication, but it still is experienced as "here & now" reality. And the written word can be powerful.

I will leave it to the philosophers and linguistic pugilists to argue about the contents and location of Cyberspace but would like to address the issues and implications which follow from the fact that "wherever" one may physically be as one reads a letter or "speaks from the heart" through one medium or another-- shared experience is what enables communication to be meaningful and powerful.

The Internet and computers have allowed for time shifting similar to opening a personal letter which arrives days after the writer posts it in the snail mail. Many long-term loves and short-term "treatments" (including by Sigmund Freud) were possible with that form of communication, which once might have been called PostalSpace just as correctly, in describing the tool, or channel, which was used to facilitate person-to-person communication. One needs to be aware of experiencing time-shifting as time compression or expansion. For example, one might erroneously assume that no response for 4 days means one is being ignored or abandoned. An active online person may experience time expansion, here, as things happen constantly online, and one may anticipate having an e-mail answered within minutes, as is often the case, and experience a delay of days as meaningful when it need not be. On the other hand, one might experience time compression when one comes online to 187 messages after a few days on a trip or vacation, and have a sense that everything is happening quickly when in fact the discussion on a list 2 days ago has already fizzled out and all is quiet.

In the digital communication era, our sense of time mirrors our ability to compress it and shift it. Here and now are instantaneous.

Here & Now in Cyberspace

In terms of experiencing an immediacy, synchronicity, and shared experience such as might be expected in a consulting room, the here and now "in Cyberspace" is a much more elastic concept, and heavily dependent on one's physical and psychological environment and how one projects and/or interprets the meaning and emphasis of the other's words at the time the "send" button was hit. "Empathy" can be more complex and challenging online. It requires simultaneous consideration of many factors, and skillfulness with maintaining a thread of shared experience and authentic communication across time and space.

In addition to the characteristics of one's sending ("expressive") behavior, one also has unique experiences and styles of receiving ("receptive") behavior. Important factors affecting the ability to share a here & now experience online include such obvious things as shared language, culture and experience, and also include one's ease with the technology, sense of continuity and "object constancy", and one's ability to be patient and attentive, versus impulsive and needy for instant gratification. Also, when working with groups, it is important to understand, before making an interpretation, that one must let more than a few hours pass before assuming that there has in fact been a reaction at all (or lack thereof). Not everybody lives their life online.
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One's ability to switch gears to empathize with the emotional state and environmental context at the time of the post, becomes very important in understanding online communication of a deep and personal nature. Is it even possible to read a message in a sunny, cheerful environment, and genuinely feel connected in the "here and now" with someone who in fact wrote days earlier from a gloomy, far-off place? When one's own enthusiasm and sense of hope are only distantly echoed by the other, processed at different times of the day, through different linguistic eyes and with differing skills in using a computer and The Internet as tools? Possible, yes. Easy, no. One cannot deny the added challenge of trying to share the richness of human experience, complete with affect, humor, and nuance, without the important elements of real-time visual cues or the feedback we derive from speech and its accompanying sounds of silence, mirth, or hesitation.

Certainly there are some very capable online communicators among both counselors and clients. With skill and experience, there is every reason to believe that genuine and meaningful dialogue can and does take place across time and space. Communicating online, however, a mental health professional may need to take on a new responsibility, taking extra care to ensure the accuracy of shared meaning and emotional experience. The clinician or group leader with a sensitivity to the challenges and a mastery of basic online skills becomes much more likely to succeed in using online meetings as a productive venue for facilitating growth and healing through exploring the "here and now" in Cyberspace.

There is no denying that people are capable of sharing experience, meaning, and feelings using the tools which we have at our disposal in much of the world today. E-mail is ubiquitous while in many places wireless texting has become an essential communication form at home, at school and work, and in the community. Sometimes message-sending, now enshrined as the verb "texting", is indeed as the name says, instant messaging (a noun and verb). Sometimes communication is asynchronous (such as e-mail) but individual messages become part of an ongoing thread of back and forth (but sequential) dialogue, the overall sharing of thoughts round and round, constituting one collective instance of what is clearly a "here and now" experience. True, only the reader may be smiling or laughing at that given nanosecond, and for that person the here and now is a virtual memory trace of the sender. But when a response is sent, and the other receives it, a sharing again takes place and for the receiver, who picks up the thread where it was left on that end, a mutual here & now has again been experienced.

When two people meet in a chat room or instant message box, and see the other's words as they are produced, or very soon thereafter, there may be more of a palpable feeling of connectedness, of sharing an experience in real-time, in a synchronous rather than parallel here and now. I would submit that some people are able to have the sense of immediacy, constancy and connectedness when they sign on to a message board and begin replying, or when one posts to a list. When engaging through these communication channels, one truly feels connected to a different but equally real "here and now". Experienced and tech-comfortable computer-assisted communicators tend to grow better at effectively communicating, sharing key words and nuance more effectively, and improving the ratio of successful to nonsuccessful efforts at humor, satire, and sarcasm, some of the most conspicuously difficult things to convey through text-only communication in a virtual here & now world.

The implications for online therapeutic relationships are profound. Psychoanalytic, object relations, group dynamic, and Gestalt therapy approaches all rely on the here and now and its utilization within a therapeutic relationship. How two people communicate, and create a collective here and now in Cyberspace, will clearly color the entire course of treatment and communication. The extent to which dialogue is experienced as being synchronous versus asynchronous may have profound impact on a client feeling warmth, empathy, and genuiness -- the essential "non-specific factors" of the therapeutic relationship according to Carl Rogers and other therapy process researchers. Object relations theory highlights the crucial factor of object constancy -- a person's ability to sustain an object representation of another person who is not physically present, but remains present in one's psyche. How might one's ability to negotiate and maneuver around the Internet impact on optimal psychological functioning? How might this be approached through study of what constitutes a client's "here and now" experience? These areas are ripe for further exploration!

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Footnotes

1 To be sure, there are still many individuals who struggle with computers and web-based technology. They may see Cyberspace as an inhospitable environment where many daunting tasks are required in order to simply collect one's e-mail messages. The entire process is experienced as difficult and the environment is one where only wizards seem to know the rules. For these goal-directed people, for whom "surfing" is out of the question, the end goal is to ultimately get to one's e-mail, read it and respond. It's not experienced as synchronous, and there's no expectation of it being so. This person may be frustrated by the keyboard, the waiting time to connect, and the lack of clear instruction what to do next. For this person the here and now is: Hell. But for many other people, Cyberspace is not at all difficult to visit, and logging onto the Internet can be like returning home to a blissful world, where anything is possible. This includes having meaningful communication in a mutually experienced here and now. The here and now holding environment of a place called Cyberspace.

2 It should be noted that it is equally important for the therapist to understand the client's "here and now" experience of the computer and Internet connection so as to avoid counter-transferential mis-understanding. As an example, I have observed a therapist conclude that a sub-group on a list were reacting negatively to a series of posts by another sub-group, based on their silence. Yet, in fact, she came to this conclusion after only a few hours, not even considering that most of the list may not have even yet read the posts, and this is why there was no response. For the therapist, the "here and now" of Cyberspace is real-time and immediate, and her projection is that group members similarly spend all of their time online and react immediately to posts, as she does. In this case it would be an error to suggest that she is sharing the same "here and now" experience as the entire group, many of whom may only view their e-mail once or twice a day, or once every few days. While it is far easier to be "in sync" with a single client than an entire group, it is important to remember that many people tend to take advantage of the time shifting potential of the Internet, and will respond asynchronously rather than immediately.


3 The online therapist should to the extent possible facilitate a shared sense of "here and now". Beyond the e-couch, it is equally important for psychologists and other mental health professionals who work face to face with clients to understand the dynamics which may occur online, and to be alert to descriptions in therapy sessions of online experiences where the client may feel disconnected or disengaged. Such experiences may be "grist for the mill" in face-to-face therapies, just as discussions of offline life are often the focus of online discussion.




"The words 'here-and-now' make a deceptively simple phrase out of a complex therapeutic concept. They need to be understood in terms of their theoretical meaning and practical applicability." (p.109)

Yalom, A. (1970). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
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The Here and Now: A Few Definitions (from the World Wide Web)

"here and now" -

1. A now-defunct video-based web community

2.A unifying principle of Gestalt Therapist Fritz Perls

3. Psychoanal. The present, as in a therapy or group therapy situation



Continuing Questions for 21st Century Therapists:

What is the Goal of Psychotherapy?
What are the goals and expectations for Internet-based counseling?
What is the importance of the medium? What are the potential risks and benefits?

Is psychotherapy equivalent, in computer terms, to "defragmenting" our hard-drives, or freeing up RAM? Should we even try to conceptualize human thinking as parallel to the information-processing of computers? Do we simply end up using computers as external brains with more processing power and/or more storage capacity?

How should "success" with online treatments be measurable -- by our friends lists? Our "followers"? How much time we spend online productively, by some criteria? How we are doing offline? How free from worries about time we are online? By the attention devoted to our f2f relationships? Some food for thought...



Psi CURRENT TOPICS IN PSYCHOLOGY   

EgoRepression   |  Evil & Hatred  |  Online Therapy: Technical Difficulties & Formulations Myths & Realities | "Facebook "Addiction"

Cyberspace Travels for Psychological Researchers, Educators & Practitioners - Asynchronously Live - APA (Fenichel) || Cyberpsychology   





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