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by Patricia M. Wallace
Cambridge University Press, 19999
Review by Roderick Nicholls, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001

The Psychology Of The InternetCommunication between human beings is increasingly mediated by electronic personae developed for the Internet. In her taxonomy of environments opening up within the Internet, Patricia Wallace includes the World Wide Web (WWW), email, chat rooms, MUDs and metaworlds. Few Internet users frequent all of these virtual environments, but the ones we do inhabit often become an integral part of our personal or working life. Hence the dynamics of computer-mediated rather than face-to-face interaction deserves careful attention as an integral part an intriguing cultural phenomenon.

Wallace's "first goal for this book is to explore the psychological impact of the online world on our behaviour" (12) and she succeeds in producing a fine, comprehensive overview of the relevant academic research. The central ten chapters consist in detailed analyses of topics such as role-playing, aggression and gender issues on the Internet. Wallace assesses the research into these topics judiciously through several overarching themes - anonymity is used particularly effectively - and her judgments regarding conflicting conclusions of research projects are invariably balanced. In brief, The Psychology of the Internet would function admirably as a textbook for a university course in psychology or communications.

The book's "second goal" -- more normative than descriptive in nature -- is to suggest ways in which the Internet can empower human beings (12). In one sense, of course, the goal of consciously shaping the Internet into a medium with a psychological climate conducive to human well-being is uncontroversial. Does the alternative not lie in a technological determinism that conceives adaptation as humanity's primary task? Yet a good case can be made for the proposition that this particular technology is inherently liberating. After all, the spirit animating the Internet's development is captured in the slogan "information wants to be free." Its distinctive bias is toward disrupting traditional hierarchical means of transmitting information or, more positively, instituting myriad connections between equals. The trajectory of the Internet encourages a transparency in cultures (legal, medical, political, financial, etc.) previously guarded by credentialed experts and vested interests.

As Wallace puts it, the whole idea that the Internet can empower ordinary people is rooted in "the technology's potential to spread around power" (236). But if that is so, then we are rightly skeptical of any attempt to shape the evolution of the Internet. For example, Michael Lewis' recent book, Next: The Future Just Happened describes how the SEC (the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) engaged in a semi-farcical defense of the financial industry in its case against 14 year-old Jonathan Lebed for stock market manipulation. Wallace shies away from the socio-political as opposed to the psychological dimension of such issues. Her brief discussion of post-Napster peer-to-peer sharing of digital audio (and video) files, for instance, tries to be scrupulously neutral regarding the substance of the relevant legal case. Yet The Psychology of the Internet clearly opposes any top-down legislation or regulation: "the last thing we want is for some 'agency' to come along to 'control and guide' the Internet" (13).

An examination of the ways in which the dangers of pre-Internet pornography are magnified on-line makes Wallace's positive goal of empowerment a little less elusive. For the issue of pornography reflects the fact that "many of the concerns surrounding the Internet involve children and adolescents," and adults cannot avoid "providing guidance" of some sort (246). Responsible parents ought to hold firm against the regulation temptation and become involved in their children's explorations on the Internet by learning what is out there and how things are done on-line. In general, the cautious, decentralized optimism informing The Psychology of the Internet amounts to the moral prescription that people ought to understand precisely how their behavior is affected by the Internet because such understanding is the only way to improve the virtual environments in which that behavior occurs.

On the face of it, this sounds like nothing more than a well-meaning platitude that is as applicable to television as to the Internet. Wallace, however, gives weight and direction to the moral obligation to "understand" the Internet. On almost every page of this book there appears a phrase such as "the research shows" or "the research suggests" -- an inevitable consequence of pursuing its first goal of producing a comprehensive textbook on "the psychology of the Internet." Her assumption that the book's descriptive and normative goals complement each other is often well founded. The chapter entitled "Group Dynamics in Cyberspace," for example, begins with an exposition of the social psychology research supporting a counter-intuitive conclusion: group discussions do not lead to more moderate decisions but rather, when "like-minded" people talk things through, there is a tendency to "polarize towards one of the extremes" (76). The follow-up examination of "exaggerated group polarization effects that can occur on the Internet" (76) entails sound practical advice (regarding composition of groups, procedures, etc.) for any organization utilizing virtual work-groups.

The Psychology of the Internet abounds with cases in which "the research" qualifies or undermines intuitions, conventional wisdom and speculations regarding the Internet. This supports Wallace's belief that an understanding of the effects of specific Internet practices on behavior as recorded in the research constitutes our only "guide" to improving the Internet. Yet it also raises a methodological question. Creating a personal home page, for example, is often part and parcel of an avid Internet user's task of constructing an electronic persona. And Wallace points to research suggesting that a core claim of postmodern theorists of cyberspace is misleading: "rather than fragmenting the self, personal home pages are attempts to integrate the individual, make a personal statement of identity, and show in a stable, replicable way what the individual stands for and what is deemed important" (33). The postmodern claim, however, is surely that the Internet is a medium especially well-suited to a new conception of self - that it has the potential of assisting in self-transformation. That psychological research shows most actual home pages to be attempts to present an idealized and holistic self, might therefore be no more significant than the fact that early television shows tended to replicate radio aesthetics.

Wallace's method, in other words, tends to constrain normative thinking to the confines of existing psychological research. It is noteworthy, for instance, that The Psychology of the Internet mentions the convergence of the Internet with interactive video and virtual reality but the substance of the book is almost exclusively devoted to the textual dimensions of the Internet. This is obviously because environments such as email, chat rooms and MUD's provide records and archives that are perfect for psychological research. What is not amenable to treatment within those terms of reference tends to be excluded. What is excluded, however, is not necessarily unfounded speculation nor irrelevant to human well-being in an increasingly virtual world. As Wallace admits, "this book is about psychology more than technology" (5). An informed meditation about the possibilities of the technology could, for example, easily lend normative support to the idea of home pages as a means of realizing a more postmodern self despite research showing that the WWW is not widely being used for that purpose now.

The idea of a postmodern self was popularized by social psychologist Kenneth Gergen in The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. And over the last decade an eclectic group of writers such as Sherry Turkle and Allucquere Rosanne, working in the disciplinary interface between psychology, sociology and technology, has extended it into a postmodern vision of cyborg humanity. A specific body of research could not, by itself, entail a critique of this kind of work because it is as much "philosophy" as anything else. Unless psychologists participate in the debate, however, there will continue to be a proliferation of books such as Jeri Fink's Cyberseduction: Reality In The Age of Cybertechnology that make huge philosophical claims regarding the Internet under the aegis of psychology. At one point Wallace does take issue with the overall thesis of Silicon Snake Oil, Clifford Stoll's highly critical account of the Internet, noting that "some research suggests greater Internet use is associated with increased loneliness" (233) but that other "research suggests … just the opposite" (234). Exactly the same academic jab, however, could be made at Nicholas Negroponti's effusive discussion of the new technology in Being Digital. In each case, moreover, there is little sympathy for trying to get a sense for the big picture. Of course, this is less a criticism of The Psychology of the Internet than a comment regarding the loss of an opportunity for a professional psychologist to engage more popular accounts of the Internet's effects on behavior. And Patricia Wallace might legitimately respond that it is futile to strive for the big picture when it comes to a "moving target" such as the Internet.

© 2001 Roderick Nicholls

Roderick Nicholls is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University College of Cape Breton and has published in the areas of science, technology and society, applied aesthetics and 19th century philosophy.




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