Sunday, June 26, 2005

Images and the edges of cyberspace

When I first went online more than a decade ago, I found the text-based tools of the Internet - like Gopher and WAIS - interesting and useful, but it wasn't until cyberspace went visual with the new "browsers" like Mosaic that my eyeballs started popping. Let's face it, what made computers and cyberspace take to public use like wild fire was the fact that we weren't just reading text, but rather interacting with windows, icons, and pictures - and experiencing the sense of space and place that images create. Words appeal more to the conscious rational mind, images to the unconscious dreaming mind. In fact, it was my fascination with the visual and spatial qualities of the Palace chat community that launched me into cyberpsychology.

As an imagistic type person, I've been delving deeper into digital photography this summer. I recently purchased the slr Canon 20D and am digging into Photoshop CS2. I contemplated writing about these pursuits here in this blog, but I hesistated, thinking that perhaps it wasn't relevant to cyberpsychology.

Or is it? As I suggested in my previous post, I'm not entirely sure what "cyberspace" is. I can't exactly define it, but I know it when I see it. When I place online a picture from my camera, clearly that picture becomes part of cyberspace. So then the camera itself has entered cyberspace, has become an extension of cyberspace, another eye for the Internet.... Right?

If there are any doubts remaining, I should mention that I'm researching online resources for digital photography, and have entered the forums at PhotoPoint and dpreview, where I get information and insights that lead to changes in my camera and PS settings, my techniques, and my philosophy of photography. I share photos online with family and friends. After contemplating the pros and cons of whether I wanted to bother with the arcane world of color management, I decided to go ahead and download the printer profiles that have now become integrated into my computer workstation and how I interpret color. Since I first started my online book The Psychology of Cyberspace, I've been creating graphics for it in order to highlight certain psychological themes. It seems to me that the psychological aspects of photography are intimately intertwined with the psychological aspects of what I do in cyberspace.

Which makes me think.... is it possible to find the edges of cyberspace, the boundary beyond which we have left that psychological realm? If you have your hands on a cell phone, the Tivo or XM radio clicker, or an iPod, don't you have at least one foot in cyberspace? As technological gadgets enter more and more spaces in our lives, cyberspace follows. It and we are all interconnected in very subtle and hidden ways. Perhaps we don't even need the gadgets in our hands to be there. Perhaps just a thought, an image, of something you experienced in cyberspace places you there.

When it comes right down to it, cyberspace is an extension of the mind - an image of the mind.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Mysticism in Cyberspace

Even though I've been tackling a variety of new programs and online activities so far this summer, I've noticed that there's one challenge I keep putting off - installing a new operating system. Gossip says that Tiger, despite its name, goes in smoothly without much of a fight, so why am I hesitating?

Back in my early days of computing, I played with the operating system like it was a game of tiddly winks, cheerfully flipping in and plucking out extensions and control panels in order to customize my machine with such necessities as Christmas lights hanging from the menu bar. Over time, as I realized that things can go terribly wrong if the OS is not happy, I came to appreciate it as the mysterious heart and soul of the machine - that complex entity that you don't mess with unless you have a good reason. If the OS is peaceful and harmonious, all is well... If not, something, maybe everything, goes awry.

How many people really understand the OS? Those of us who take pride in our computing skills know a thing or two. The tech support people usually know a lot more, until they face a dilemma that forces them to put customers on hold so they can run to the company guru. Who do the gurus go to when they don't understand the machinations of the OS? One of my fellow students in graduate school (since serving as a consultant with many elite computer companies) could understand what a computer was doing by reading the binary code .... that's right, by perusing the seemingly endless string of ones and zeroes! Are people like that the ultimate gurus?

I don't think it's happenstance that we use terms like "guru" and "wizard" to describe the technological elite. Despite our scientific zeitgeist, a part of the human mind still views the workings of computers as magic and mysticism. We just can't help ourselves. It's in our nature to sense the transcendent when we experience something new and wonderful springing, seemingly, from a source beyond our understanding. The first time I saw a photograph on my Mac Quadra, I nearly fell off my chair. "How does it do that?" Even the guru's gurus have that same feeling of wonder and awe when they witness some new software or hardware marvel, or when an old and familiar program suddenly produces something unexpected.

Of course we could argue there's nothing transcendent at all happening here in our machines. Even though it may seem like a mind-boggling constellation of code, it's still just code. Just a string of ones and zeroes doing their job like the programmers instructed them. But when you stack up enough ones and zeroes, something mysterious starts to happen. The interaction effects go beyond what the programmers expected. It takes on a mind of its own. The transcendent "other" steps in. Call it HAL, Colossus or Skynet - if we want to get a little paranoid about the machine somehow developing that mysterious thing called consciousness - but it's not necessarily a threat or just science fiction. It's the Internet, Cyberspace, that living and growing entity, maybe even a consciousness, that transcends the sum of its individual human and microchip parts.

There's even something mystical in that simple one and zero at that micro-level of the bit. The mathematician Leibnitz created the binary system. Where did he get the idea? One legend says he was inspired by the I Ching - the ancient Taoist text based on the insight that all things arise from the interaction of ying and yang, the this or that, the simplest dichotomy that springs from the unity of all things that knows no distinctions.

So we might consider the possibility that in our everyday computing, even though we don't realize it fully, we reside between the infinites. To one side, there's the deceptively simple but marvelous bit. And on the other, the incomprehensible complexity of all of cyberspace. What could be more mystical than that?

Perhaps this mysticism also helps explain the media motivation and anxiety that I've been discussing in previous entries. Does that awe and wonder, that sense of magic, draw us into new realms of cyberspace.? And might our encounter with unknown forces beyond our comprehension also create some anxiety? Tell me you didn't feel those things the very first time you turned on a computer or logged onto the Internet.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

MMS: Media Mental Set

Because I'm on a roll here with discussing media transitions - and creating new terms and acronyms - allow me to add just one more: Media Mental Set (MMS).

Traditionally, in psychology, "mental set" refers to a fixed pattern of thinking that fails to take into consideration new information or perspectives. For example, the early astronomers tried to calculate the movement of planets based on their assumption that all heavenly bodies revolved around the earth. They were caught in a mental set that led to bizarre conclusions about the shape of planetary orbits because they failed to see a different perspective: all the planets revolve around the sun.

Extending that concept, I'm proposing the idea of Media Mental Set - i.e., how people's thinking and perspective can get stuck within a certain computer-generated environment (media). They approach issues and problems, including psychological and social ones, strictly in terms of that particular environment, while failing to see alternative solutions and experiences offered by other types of environments (media). Their thinking gets "stuck" within that media.

MMS might be determined by personality and attitudinal factors, and not simply intellectual and critical thinking abilities. It's interesting how even some intelligent people who are quite knowledgeable about online communication can still get locked into a mental set about the type of communication modality they prefer. They tend to idealize that modality. They harbor nostalgic feelings about it, and feel they need to protect those feelings. Their intellectual defense of that modality postures like territorial behavior. They might also feel some of that media transition anxiety that I discussed in my last post.

A few times, when offering some consultation for professional groups operating via an email list, I've recommended that the group experiment with a discussion board format. Even when the group considers itself sophisticated about online communication and specifically wants to develop itself as an online organization, the resistance among some people to trying a new modality can be surprisingly intense. Every time I mention a benefit of discussion boards over email lists, there is a flurry of retorts about how "you can do that in email too." Or the points about the benefits are ignored, as if they flew right past people's heads. If I could see their faces, I imagine their eyes momentarily glazed over before their thinking snapped back into place and returned to the same old same arguments about why they prefer email lists.

You see the same sort of debates - the same sort of arguing from one's media mental set - between some PC and Mac users about their particular platform. In fact, in order to be here right now typing this post, I had to shake loose some of my own stiff thinking before I realized that creating a blog might be a worthwhile pursuit. I caught myself saying things like, "A blog is really just a web site".... "Chronological formats for posting aren't really useful".... "Blogs are just a fad anyway."

Now I don't want to overly pathologize Media Mental Set, because I think there is a natural human tendency to see things in terms of what we already know, according to the familiar mental templates that make our lives predictable and managable - and to overlook or minimize things that are novel. Ideally, we learn how to balance our familar and useful mental maps with the ability to challenge and modify them with alternative ways of thinking.... Read Piaget. He explained this very well :-)

Friday, June 03, 2005

MTM: Media Transition Motivation

Media transition anxiety, as I discussed in my last post, would stop us dead in our tracks if not for its counterbalancing force - Media Transition Motivation. "Motivation" comes from the Latin "motus," meaning "to move." Something moves us from our old cyberspace environments into new ones. Something internal pushes us into trying out new software despite any trepidations that stand in the way. What creates that motivation? Here are several possibilities:

1. Necessity: It's the mother of invention as well as media transitions. Our familiar programs, workspaces, and social environments seem a bit tired and outdated. They don't work as well as they used to, or we become painfully aware of how we could be doing a lot more than what the status quo allows us. In this age of information and communication, if others are gathering resources and sharing in ways that we can't, we may find ourselves woefully behind the curve and out of the loop. I was forced to upgrade to OSX when Eudora for sys 9 could no longer send emails. Sometimes you just have to move on.

2. Pride: Being behind the curve is not exactly a prestigious position, especially for those who consider themselves sophisticated users or even hackers. Maintaining one's self-esteem requires that push into the next new thing that everyone is talking about, or perhaps even beyond them and into the leading edge of the curve. I'm not a professional digital photographer or website designer, but CS2 and Studio MX make me feel like one :-)

3. Competition: Not far from pride is the need to be at least one step ahead of the others. Bigger, faster, more powerful, unique. The shine of those winning medals can be irresistable, especially in a culture that idealizes both technology and competition.

4. Mastery: Even setting aside the pride that might accompany one's accomplishments, people sometimes push forward into a new cyberspace challenge simply because it's a challenge. The competitive perks may be irrelevant. It's the sense of mastering the thing that motivates you.

5. Adventure: Some people shy away from the unknown, while others seek it out. There are sensation-seekers who repel down cliffs and jump from airplanes, and they have their counterparts in cyberspace - the people who want to go where no one has gone before. It's an online rush. That was my impression of many people at the Palace, back in its pioneering days.

6. The Carrot: At the end of the struggle, there's a specific reward. Your own blog. A burned disk of your favorite mp3s. Talking with people who love pugs, like you. Psychologists call it a "reinforcement." People will work long and hard for a big reinforcement, though usually there are small ones along the way, including those step-by-step moments of mastery.

We might organize all of these motivations according to Maslow's famous hierarchy. At the bottom, we have those basic needs to resolve the practical problems of everyday living, which means we have to communicate in order to acquire resources. At intermediate levels, we establish social bonds, share experiences, and feel like we belong. At the highest levels, as we pass through stages of mastery and self-esteem, we enter new cyberspace environments as a way to self-actualize, to creatively express ourselves... and figure out who we are.