Sunday, July 31, 2005

Cyberspace therapeutics

There's no doubt that cyberspace can be used for therapeutic purposes. In fact, some clinicians are doing email and chat psychotherapy, which are fascinating analogues to in-person therapy. As a clinical psychologist, I was intrigued by these kinds of interventions when they first appeared online and have had many interesting discussions with professionals who do this type of work. My colleague Michael Fenichel and I founded one of the first online case study groups to explore the pros and cons of psychotherapy in cyberspace.

But I've also been drawn to thinking about the therapeutics of cyberspace on a wider scale. Other than analogues to individual psychotherapy, how else might cyberspace help people address social and psychological issues in their lives? Well, there are thousands of online support and self-help groups that address almost any issue you can name. But what about computerized psychotherapy? Or the online communities that people join, the relationships they form, the information they discover, or even imaginary gaming and role-playing environments. Can they be therapeutic too? I think so, which led me to develop a psychoeducational program called eQuest that encourages a person to address and resolve some personal issue by exploring online resources, relationships, and groups.

The basic philosophy of eQuest is that developing a healthy online lifestyle can improve one's in-person lifestyle (and vice versa). Although a consultant might assist a person in this objective, such professional guidance isn't always necessary. On their own, people can discover and benefit from the therapeutic features of cyberspace.

Now this conclusion might seem obvious, but it's important to examine it in light of an important debate in the history of clinical psychology - a debate between what I'll call the Stuck Theories and the Growth Theories. The Stuck Theories (like traditional psychoanalysis) maintain that people are so locked into their psychological and social problems that they cannot change on their own. Some outside intervention, as from a mental health professional, is required. On the other hand, the Growth Theories (as in many humanstic approaches) state that people have an intrinic potential to change for the better, that this potential might be blocked by outside forces, but the internal push to change will thrive as soon as the right opportunities present themselves.

I'm leaning towards the rosy and optimistic Growth Theories when I say this, but I think cyberspace can provide those opportunities. The Internet is all about empowering the individual. When developing an online lifestyle, people have so many possibilties to explore - information, relationships, media for self-expression - that they are bound to find the right ones to open that path to personal growth.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Behaviors of Tech Support

Given the rather relentless problems with my computer lately, I have spent quite a bit of time on the phone with tech support people from various companies. This is nothing unusual for any of you out there, I'm sure, because negotiating tech support is an unavoidable part of life in cyberspace. It's a learning experience. As such, especially being a psychologist, I could not help but take note of the various ways they behaved. In fact, as "helpers," tech support people face challenges similar in many respects to the psychotherapist. Here are some of the challenges I noticed:

Dealing with emotional people: People who call tech support often are frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, and sometimes desperate and angry. They might even show transference reactions to the tech support person - emotional reactions that come from other relationships in their lives and really have nothing to do with the tech support person. Some tech supporters are patient in the face of these emotions. Others lose their composure, and respond with impatience and poorly suppressed anger. They might be struggling with their own transference reactions.

Assessing the client's knowledge: If you're going to help a person with a problem, it's a good idea to get a sense of how much the person knows about it. Some tech support people catch on quickly to the fact that the client is computer savvy. They are willing to "work together" in solving the problem. Others seem oblivious to the client's knowledge. They continue talking in a rather pedantic way, even when the client tries to prove that he/she is not a total newbie.

The tech talk ratio: Once the client's knowledge level is assessed, the tech supporter should, ideally, talk at a level of technical sophistication that matches the knowledge level of the client, or maybe slightly surpasses it, which gives the client an opportunity to learn something new. So a 1:1 or slightly higher ratio of expert-to-client technical discourse is good. A low ratio means talking down to the client, which no one likes. A high ratio means talking over the person's head, which may impress some people... but nobody really likes that either.

Avoiding rote responding: I'm sure tech support people deal with many of the same issues over and over again, so there's a tendency to fall into rote patterns of solving a problem. Their instructions and speech patterns become robotic. Unfortunately, there's a danger that they might be thinking in a mental set and not actually be hearing what the client is saying, Instead they hear and respond to what they expect the person to be saying. Sometimes doctors make the same mistake.

Showing optimism and enthusiasm: People with problems like to know that there's a light at the end of the tunnel. A good tech supporter shows some optimism. It doesn't happen often, but once in a while the tech support person gets excited talking about computers, usually in response to a question they find interesting, or in reaction to a client who seems to understand something about computers. People who are frustrated and disappointed with their machines usually want to regain that enthusiasm that they might have lost.

Speculation: One tech support person told me that "I'm not supposed to speculate." I guess they don't want to mislead people. And yet, they often seem to speculate about the cause of a problem. Seems to me that's a good thing, as long as the client doesn't get confused or makes bad decisions based on the speculation.

Recognizing one's limitations: We may want to idealize the tech support staff, hoping and praying that they have the solution to our problem. But let's face it: no one knows everything about computers. Perhaps in some cases the tech supporter needs to appear like the omniscience healer of the machine, but most of the time it's probably better to admit when they don't know something - that when they have to put you on hold it's because they're running to consult their supervisor or some documentation. When I asked one worker at Apple exactly what "file persmissions" were, he replied honestly, "You're asking something that goes over my head"... and then he proceeded to describe to me what he did know about the topic, which went over my head. I appreciated and respected him for that.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Land of Errors Revisited

To be quite honest, I'm not terribly motivated for computering this week. So this post will be short.

Now perhaps some of you might have thought that I was exaggerating in my previous post about living in the land of computer errors. I wish I was. As the story of my still rather new dual processor G5 Mac turns out, the TIger OS was corrupted - corrupted by causes unknown. So I spent the whole past week erasing/reformatting the drive, then slowly, one by one, reinstalling all my programs and migrating back all those gigs of files that I had backed up to DVD. Then came reconfiguring all the settings in those programs in order to recreate the environment that is my "home." And that's what it's like when you have to erase and reconstruct your system - like your home burning down and having to be rebuilt.

I did learn one important lesson, far more important than things like why we should repair permissions. Our trepidations about the machine going awry really boils down to two fundamental anxieties: separation anxiety (being disconnected from online living).... and.... anxiety about loss (losing files, perhaps permanently).

Actually, those two really boil down to one, because anxiety about separation is anxiety about losing the connection to others.

So there you have it. It's all about loss. Cultivate a healthy Buddhist attitude about how all things must pass, and you'll never get anxious about your computer again. I can imagine a modern Zen master instructing us on how every program and every file on your machine is a little piece of your identity that you don't have to cling to. Just let go.

As for me, I've got several gigs of images to migrate.

Perhaps in my next post I'll say a little about phone calls to tech support. I learned a lot about that this week also.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Vacations from Cyberspace

This past week we were away on a family vacation, which meant a week away from my computer. A whole week. What would that be like? It seems to me that the way we respond to periods of separation from our computers reveals something important about our relationship to our machines and our lives in cyberspace.

I remember in years past feeling a distinct separation anxiety while away on long trips. What was I missing in my online groups? What important emails were waiting for me? Things move fast in cyberspace, so even a few days absence could seem, in net time, like weeks or months. I remember devoting much time during car drives or airplane flights to ruminating about my online activities and relationships, composing emails in my head, formulating plans of action for when I returned to the net. When I bought a laptop, I'd sometimes bring it along, hoping that the hotels were wired. Or I'd hunt down an Internet cafe. Sometimes my concerns weren't just about keeping up with cyberspace happenings, but preventing problems - especially problems that could trigger a breakdown in communication. For example, would my email account fill up with spam, causing incoming mail, including important messages, to bounce?

At the very least, these kinds of ruminations reveal the prominent place cyberspace holds in our psyches. Separated from the net, we might feel separated from important parts of our identity, or from that sometimes soothing or exciting, and maybe even oceanic feeling of participating in something bigger than ourselves. Extreme responses might be a sign of what some call Internet addiction - a withdrawal reaction complete with anxiety, depression, and unrelenting cravings.

Curiously, during my family vacation this week, I felt very few of these things. I gave some thought to my online living, but mostly I felt refreshed to have a break from cyberspace. This was probably due, at least in part, to the fact that my machine was not especially nice to me last week. The problem with crashes that I mentioned in my previous post forced me to call Apple tech support and then reinstall the OS and all my third party programs. It took a whole day to get all my configurations back to "normal." And what caused the problem in the first place is still unknown.

My low net separation anxiety during this vacation might also be attributed to the fact that my attention was more focused on my new Canon slr camera. Sometimes we substitute one technological preoccupation with another.

My personal opinion is that it's a good idea to take time away from computers, cyberspace, and technology in general, including longer vacations as well as a routine weekly respite - a day of rest, a Sabbath for appreciating in-person living. There aren't many things in life that you should do every single day. It might not be a good thing to ALWAYS be connected. In Inherit the Wind, the Clarence Darrow character mentioned the "charm of distance." Important lessons can be learned in cycles of disconnecting and reconnecting.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Living in the land of errors

A piano teacher I know once summarized what it was like taking piano lessons as a child: "It was like I was living in the land of mistakes." Because I too take piano lessons - but as an adult - I easily can resonate with that perfect lack of anything even close to perfection in my playing.

I'd like to offer up a variation on that phrase - one that applies to computering. It is like I am living in the land of errors.

Do you ever go one day without something - big or small - going wrong with your computer? I surely don't. Since I've been installing and working with several new programs this summer, my family will quickly attest to the fact that a string of obscenities can be heard around the computer workstation at least once a day.

Sometimes the error is simply a failure to communicate between me and the machine. For example, prior to OSX, I easily could select all the files in a folder and move them to another location. Just yesterday I once again was trying to figure out how to do this in Tiger. The Help Center gave me no insights, so I experimented on my own. I tried every variation of selecting, dragging, and dropping that I could think of, but nothing was working. Several times I ended up opening 150 files rather than moving them. Once my mouse aim slipped and I accidentally opened up all the files and applications on my desktop. Did you ever sit there and watch your computer struggling to open up many dozens of files and apps in rapid fire succession? Of course, command-period didn't cancel the struggle, like it would in the pre-OSX days. So I just sat there and watched helplessly until the fireworks ended.

Sometimes, I believe, the responsibility for the error rests squarely on the shoulders of the machine. Now I don't want to sound like I'm picking on Tiger - because when all things are considered I truly love it - but I installed it about two weeks ago with some considerable trepidation. As I mentioned in my previous post on "mysticism," the OS can be a Pandora's box. At first, after the smooth installation, everything seemed A-OK - until I try to shut down at the end of the day. About half the time the OS crashes. It's one of those hard crashes where the only way to escape is to press and hold the power button. On the positive side, the G5 is at least courteous enough to tell me that I have to press it, and, upon restarting, that the "OS unexpectedly quit"...... No, really?!.....

I'm sure you have similar stories. I assume that every day you too are running into all sorts of errors with the machine. Things that don't work. Things you might be doing wrong. Things the computer is doing wrong.

So what is the psychology of living in the land of errors? I guess we might react in several ways:

- To avoid more errors, we don't try something new

- We devote some time to trying to solve the problem, then give up if we can't

- We call tech support and hope that the call won't last hours, they know what they are doing, they don't talk to us like we're children, and their fix works

- We work around the problem, perhaps in a way that's less efficient, maybe even forgetting that there was a problem (a kind of denial)

- We get annoyed with and blame the computer, like it's some kind of stupid person or unruly child

- We get annoyed with and blame ourselves, perhaps thinking that we are inadequate to the challenge

- We refuse to accept errors and compulsively try to make our machine "perfect," perhaps driving ourselves crazy in the process

Some of us might indeed expect or hope that our machines will be flawless, that because we have control over it we can create a place where everything is just right. But as we all know, nothing is perfect. Perhaps our computer companions are doing us a favor by reminding us that we always will be living in a land of errors.