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<nettime> So, Reality is Really "Depressing", Eh?
Newmedia on Tue, 1 Sep 1998 15:34:30 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> So, Reality is Really "Depressing", Eh?


Folks:

What does the Internet do *to* us?  The medium *is* the message, afterall.
Media change us, right?  Well, how does the Internet change us?  Really? 

Dr. Robert Kraut is apparently one of the few social psychologists
focussed on Internet issues.  He's at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh
(longtime prime military research facility) and he had quite a few large
computer vendors signed up (like Intel, etc.) to fund the first major
study to gauge the social impact of Internet usage.  He promised his
sponsors that he would answer these questions and find out what was
happening. 

The first phase of the study is out.  It's just what you would expect,
Internet users are, naturally, "depressed."  It was front page NYTimes
yesterday ("Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace", Amy Harmon).  He
was on CNN this morning.  Dr. Kraut is suddenly a star.  Many more studies
will be funded.  Whoppee!! 

I saw this one coming.  Even though Kraut and his crew profess total
surprise, I did point out the distinct possibility of these results in our
"interview." Two years ago, I was consulting to a publishing house which
wanted to put some money into ground-breaking academic research.  Mostly
we were looking at video search-engines, micro-transactions and new
interfaces but we tripped over Dr. Kraut because I had expressed an
interest in the social aspects of net-use. He wanted $20,000 for a seat at
his table; which we didn't pay.  But, I saw this one coming, nonetheless. 
(As I suspect, he did too.) It would have been fun to be there when the
main course was served, so to speak. 

"By the end of the study, the researchers found that one hour a week on
the Internet led, on average, to an increase of .03, or 1 percent on the
depression scale, a loss of 2.7 members of the subject's social circle,
which averaged 66 people, and an increase of .02, or four tenths of 1
percent, on the loneliness scale", reports the NYTimes.  So, 10 hours per
week means, on average 10% rise in the "depression" index?  And, what
exactly is the effect of the unlimited Internet billing option? 

(BTW, the study had 169 subjects, all from Pittsburgh schools and
community groups, and lasted for two years.  It will be published in
American Psychologist later this week, according to the Times.)

On CNN, Kraut went right to the core (that is the paradox) of the issue. 
When asked if this wasn't the same sort of anti-social tendencies cited
early on for TV, he said, "Yes, television is similar in many ways.  But,
TV is driven by a few powerful producers and the Internet is different. 
It's all a matter of which services are offered and we still have time to
fix the offerings on the Internet." 

Hmmm . . . very interesting.  So, TV is sculpted-fantasy designed to keep
us unaware of reality and therefore pretty much narcotized, is that it?
Electronic narcotics, yup, that's the ticket.  But, TV isn't "plastic"
anymore.  And, the problem with the Internet is that it's out of control
and people aren't offering the right . . . er . . . e-drugs, yet. 

So, with some careful social engineering (and lotsa more money for more
studies), we will design an effective electronic Prozac and avoid the
messy side-effect of people getting even a small glimpse of reality --
which is, understandably, depressing.  Is that it?  Leave it to Social
Psychology to fix it for us. 

Social Psychology is a facinating field.  In his 1933, "The Shape of
Things to Come", H.G. Wells wrote that Social Psychology would become the
"soul of the race" after WWII had so wacked-out everyone that the
scientists would begin to coaggulate into a "new class" with its eyes set
on the "World State."  Some think of Well's Social Psychology as "soft"
Eugenics, without all the nasty problems of mass steralizations.  "Liberal
Fascism" as Wells called it or "Fascism With a Friendly Face" as Bert
Gross called it. 

Launched directly out of Psychological Warfare in WW II (largely under
British direction), Social Psychology gave us T-Groups, sensitivity
training, conflict resolution and all the rest of the
we-can-program-a-better-race stuff that has dominated the last 50 years of
history.  It's flagship publication, "Human Relations" is the joint effort
of Tavistock Institute (Psy-War's homebase for H.V. Dicks, J.R. Rees and
crew) and the Institute for Social Relations (at Ann Arbor's U. of Mich
after relocating from MIT following SocPsych "founder's", Kurt Lewin,
death in 1948).  The journal makes for eye-opening reading, indeed, if you
can find it. 

Chris Simpson's "Science of Coercion" is a good introduction to the
overall landscape, although he focusses on the rise of "Communication
Science" rather than SocPsych, per se.  Art Kleiner's "Age of Heretics" is
also useful, particularly as it traces the efforts to use SocPsych and
related techniques in tranforming management.  Much more needs to be
written about this field. 

The irony, of course, is that the BBS movement and the various "human
interface" movements are really cut from much the same cloth as these
early SocPsych pioneers.  The expectation was that "communication" online
would fuel political and social awareness and, in many people's view,
action that would tend towards building a "better" world. 

Ha!  Ever heard that one? Universal access, anyone? <g>

This view is still widely held as shown by the RAND Corporation study a
few years back about "Universal Email."  Driven by RAND's chairman and
funded through a foundation he then headed, the Markle Foundation, the
study (the second part of which is nearing completion) pushed for
e-democracy through the social-engineered impostion of email on all
citizens.  When C-SPAN wanted to set up a debate with the study's author,
all they could find was me, oddly enough.  Hopefully, there are many folks
far more well informed than I to discuss this Kraut study, today. 

As the co-author of the RAND study, Tora Bikson, puts it in the NYTimes
referring to Kraut's team, "They did an extremely careful scientific
study, and it's not a result that's easily ignored.  It's not clear what
the underlying psychological explanation is . . . Is it because people
give up day-to-day contact and then find themselves depressed?  Or, are
they exposed to the broader world and they wonder, 'What am I doing in
Pittsburgh?' Maybe your comparison standard changes.  I'd like to see this
replicated on larger scale.  Then I'd really worry."  [One wonders if Tora
is familiar with Pittsburgh at all.  It's regularly voted among the "best"
cities to live in nowadays.  Odd comments.]

Worry on Tora.  Worry on.  It would appear that the Internet is just what
it appears to be.  (No, Tora doesn't have to worry about a job or about
funding. Much has yet to be spent to "discover" the obvious in this and
other matters.)

The Internet is just what it was supposed to be -- anti-TV.  It draws our
attention away from TV (flattening attention/ratings in the U.S. and, as
we are also told in today's NYTimes, making TV networks unattractive
investments). 

What happens when you draw people away from TV?  They get a little closer
to reality.  Just a little.  Like beginning to wonder if everyday life is
an elaborate dream.  Like in "The Truman Show" movie.  Wondering is
upsetting. Temporarily. 

So, what is the "underlying psychological explanation"?  Reality is
depressing.  Simple, enough.  Wondering about reality is depressing. 
Getting a new e-drug in your veins is depressing.  Will someone please get
the dosage right?  Will someone please find me the right e-drug?  I need
some help here. Dose me! 

In reality, it appears that we are nearly consumed by the Borg, no human
beings are in charge anymore, fanatics are blowing people up in shopping
malls, Ebola virus is on the next plane in from Ghana, recreational
designer drugs are back (Viagra), rock&roll is finally dead, aliens are
planning their "final solution" for humanity and Mayor Guiliani is trying
to eliminate strip- clubs in NYC.  Who wouldn't be depressed? 

"Out of Control" is good, we have been told.  This is another great irony
of the now-bulging "Kraut-file."  Religious net-gurus believe that if you
just let the Net go free then God will emerge from the data-smog.  "In the
beginning there was the Word.  And, it was HTML."  Goodness is self-
organizing, we have been told.  Reality *is* good if we can just stop
forcing it into "channels" (and, as long as we "overthrough matter", of
course). 

But, Professor Kraut's results point to the need to engineer net
"services" in order to get the desired social effects.  Should we
"control" services on the net?  Does telling people that they will be
happier, say on America Online, become a successful advertising slogan? 
Do managed "communities" become very popular now, since they have been
designed to deliver the socially-proper e- drug dosage? 

A 17 year-old participant in the study sums it up well (quoted in the
NYTimes), "I can see how people would get depressed.  When we first got
it, I would on for an hour a day or more.  But, I found it was the same
type of people, the same type of things being said.  It got kind of old." 

Sounds like she needs a new drug.  Maybe she'd like a little nettime? 

Best,

Mark


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