The Future of Psychology

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1997

Imagine a whole society going into therapy. No, not thousands of neurotic New Yorkers sitting on couches, but an entire culture seeking psychological counseling. It might not be so outlandish a possibility.

Last week, I attempted to defend the Internet against those who believe it might be causing rather than addressing our psychological woes. But while the Internet itself may not be behind some of the more bizarre behaviors we exhibit online, it does have an effect on our culture at large. Sometimes, a new media can create new problems.

A few studies have been done on the effect of computers on learning, motor coordination, and even social skills, but they are missing the greater point. The Internet is an invention more like democracy, religion, or mass transportation. It effects us less as individuals than on our functioning as a society.

Psychologists are currently attempting to treat individual patients through online services, but this is an inefficient and inappropriate use of the medium. In fact, rather than simply being used to solve old problems in old ways, the Internet may soon inspire an entirely new brand of psychology. A civilization connected through new media, a global economy, and a hunger for more tolerant communities could bring the study and therapy of the human psyche away from the psychology of individuals altogether, and towards the psychology of culture at large.

In the spirit of broad-stroked and wild conjecture, then, I offer this preemptive diagnosis of our coming cyber-inspired societal anxiety, as well as a proposed course of treatment.

The Internet feels to many of its more spiritually-minded proponents like a hardwiring of human consciousness. If and when poor people and developing nations get access to these technologies, we will all have the means, at least electronically, to access one another’s information, opinions, and feelings.

Although it will certainly occur more subtlety than in a science fiction movie or new age novel, I do believe we are in the midst of a transition – intimated by the Internet – towards a more collective thinking, where the individual psyche becomes a component of a larger group mind. This doesn’t mean we stop existing as individuals, but it could mean we become more fully aware of every other living being, much in the way a coral reef’s individual organisms respond to one another as if they were part of the same, single body. We already know that women moving into a house together will synchronize their menstrual cycles. Why shouldn’t people communicating for the first time on a global level experience analogous sympathetic reactions?

The least threatening way to communicate this inevitable maturation – a job of the new psychologists – will be to speak of it as a movement towards global community. Ultimately, that’s all it really is.

The implications of such global community, however, are social, political, and spiritual. At first, psychologists will be called to address the panic and paranoia associated with forced cultural intimacy. The first day of school is scary because children are being forced to socialize. Likewise, it’s scary for adults to deal with the felling of the Berlin wall or Iron Curtain. We are required to mix with all sorts of new people.

On a cultural level, resistance to a true global political network (and I’m not talking about a “world government” here – just simple cooperation) will result in a short-term rise in nationalism and patriotism. This could lead to a temporary but distressing epidemic of new, perhaps balkanized nation states and ever smaller factions of patriots. Because of our past experiences, we can’t help but see unity as fascism, or at least a loss of personal and local power.

The resistance to spiritual evolution and religious tolerance will manifest as a fundamentalist revival, increased membership in the most orthodox churches, support for charismatic leaders with intolerant stances, and bizarre, cultish behavior.

Psychologists will be called upon to address these reactions to impending world culture. Sometimes this will mean teaching people how to create intentional barriers to unwanted social intimacy, such as rituals and techniques for achieving privacy. People should be given the tools they need to maintain their sense of safety without falling into cultish behavior or self-imposed exile.

Those who yearn to increase their participation in the global community will need to address their personal obstacles. Psychologists will work to reduce the level of fear associated with intimacy, non-institutional religion, and non-hierarchical civil society. They will need to develop an entirely new set of cognitive tools.

In what we might call the meta-psychology of society, dream analysis of individuals will become media analysis of the collective. TV, films, and online games will be understood as a group dreamspace, worthy of our attention. Jungian analysis of archetypes will be replaced by interpretation of branding and cultural icons as the “collective unconscious” is depicted, explicitly, in our media and commerce. The Freudian model of parental determinism will give way as people choose to grow into independent, free-willed adults. Instead of living as adult children with internalized and projected parents, healthy people will choose to live as ever-childlike adults, constantly testing new models against our always-changing experience.

Most significantly, psychologists will be called upon to conduct collective therapy through media rather than individual therapy in session rooms. It has already begun in forums as seemingly banal as Oprah Winfrey. The mandate will be to reduce cultural fear and anxiety associated with the collapse of boundaries and formation of collective awareness.

A bit new agey, perhaps, but lot more interesting than sitting in a room with Seinfeld.