“Psychology of the Digital Age” by John R. Suler

I think few thoughtful people would disagree that the Internet and modern communications technology are reshaping society and human interaction in fundamental new ways. Given the radical nature of these changes – Professor John Suler argues – their psychological study deserves its own distinct framework, which he christens “cyberpsychology”. Suler’s suggest framework involves the application of eight “dimensions” through which we may consider the ways – both positive and negative – in which digital technology is altering human experience: the physical, the real, the temporal, the textual, the sensory, the interactive, the social, and – underpinning all these, and most fundamental of all – the dimension of identity.

For instance, viewed in terms of the temporal dimension, we can see that digital media allow for both synchronous and asynchronous communication; that is, you can live chat with someone instantaneously, or reply to a message hours, days, months or even years after it was first sent. Both these options differently shape the nature of the interaction, determining what “rules” are to be adhered to. It might be acceptable to leave it a few days before replying to a friend’s email, but a failure to respond to their instant message straight away may cause offence. Concerning the textual dimension, written communication has traditionally implied a cooler and more considered form of response than the spoken word, but the ability to electronically transmit our thoughts instantaneously in written form erodes this distinction, leading to the sort of spats, heated controversies and flame wars that we’ve all become familiar with.

But as well as disrupting established norms of communication, digital media also cause us to question more fundamental notions, such as who we are, and even what is real. The ability to tailor our online presence may serve multiple purposes – allowing us to present an idealised picture of who we consider ourselves to be, to hide beneath a mask of anonymity, or even to indulge in fantasy or role play. From Snapchat filtered selfies, to witty Twitter bios, to “tweaked” LinkedIn résumés, most of us have given in to the temptation to edit our online persona so as to present a more attractive face to the world. Such technology may also serve a darker purpose, allowing cybercriminals to filch your online identity, or political propagandists to pose as “concerned citizens” in order to spread misinformation. All of which leads to a very interesting question: if a large part of who we consider ourselves to be is determined by our communication and interaction with others, and online technology allows us to tailor that to an unprecedented degree, then what does that mean for the question of identity? Digital technology would seem to present great scope for reinventing and redefining ourselves, and the therapeutic potential is obvious: an individual may find liberation from years of bullying and abuse by evolving a new online persona and establishing new, positive relationships. Or conversely, the same person might utilise that freedom for trolling and cyberbullying, tormenting strangers with similar forms of pain and humiliation that they themselves were subject to.

As with most forms of technology, the Internet presents a wealth of such pros and cons, and Suler does a great job of patiently unpacking these in relation to each of the “dimensions” of cyberspace. To this, he brings not only his psychological expertise, but the insights gleaned from two decades of participatory research in online communities and social media. As such, the book is a valuable introduction to the field, and fellow psychologists, students, therapists, healthcare professionals, educators, researchers, policy makers, etc, will greatly benefit from Suler’s psychological framework for exploring the various challenges and benefits of cyberspace and media technology. However, while its comprehensiveness and meticulous research does give it the general feel of a textbook, this is offset by the author’s warmth and humour, by personal anecdote and a generally unstuffy attitude to his subject, thereby also making it an easy and engaging read for the interested layperson.

Given my philosophical interests, I found the most fascinating sections to be those which dive deepest into questions of ethics, identity, and reality. Of especial interest is Suler’s notion of “the online disinhibition effect”, which unpacks the various reasons why online interactions can differ so drastically from their real world equivalents: we are, he argues, inclined to be both more generous and emotive, and more vicious and uncaring, in our online interactions with others, because at some level we consider that what we are doing – and therefore the people we deal with – to be less real. There are also intriguing and illuminating discussions of the uses of online avatars and what they may reveal about us and others, the question of AI and computer sentience (and its potential therapeutic use), Big Data and surveillance, the Singularity, sex and cybersex, education, and much more that will be of interest to the philosophically minded technoenthusiast.

In summary, Psychology of the Digital Age is a comprehensive and subtle exploration of the various ways that online technology is disputing norms of interaction, behaviour and identity. Professor Suler has done an excellent job of setting out a clear framework for future discussion and exploration of these subjects in a way that will be beneficial and fascinating to both professionals and laypeople, and to whom it is highly recommended.

[Disclaimer: The above review was based on a complimentary review copy from Cambridge University Press]

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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