Virtually You – The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, by Elias Aboujaoude MD, is a timely and much-needed look at how the omnipresent Internet is effecting the personality, behavior, and indeed the life, of the multitudes who interact with it. Elias is a psychiatrist and specialist in Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, and Impulse Control Disorders, and makes an excellent case in this book for a new psychiatric condition, namely, Internet Addiction.
To be clear though, this book is not a thesis on this proposed condition, it is so much more than that – it is built on insightful and very original thinking, and quite shockingly exposes the effects that the Internet is having on people from all walks of life. This book is a real metaphorical eye-opener, but despite this, it is not alarmist at all, and the author comes across as very reasonable throughout. The author is not some old foggy trying to flog his fire-and-brimstone prophecies of a wicked “interweb” technology on us, but rather a very Internet-savvy guy, with a truly impressive grasp and understanding of the essence and nature of the Web, and this coupled with his obvious knowledge of psychiatry and the human mind, makes it impossible to dismiss him.
Using examples of real-life patients he dealt with, as well as well-known real-life cases from the public domain, in the first half of the book the author describes certain human traits that that are emphasized and exacerbated by the Internet – narcissism, delusions of grandeur, “ordinary everyday viscousness” and impulsiveness. There are chapters dedicated to each of these, and you must admit, they are not very desirable attributes to aspire to. There are a plethora of jaw-dropping examples in the book based on these, but the pick for me related to the Freudian id, ego and superego, and the authors contention that the Internet represents an inflamed and enlarged id for humanity – one that is raging out of control, unheeding of the ego or superego. I particularly enjoyed his brief description of each of these concepts, and am glad to say that it is in fact a GOOD thing to have a large ego, considering the ego is the mature, reasonable part of the psyche which listens to the superego, and thence tames the impulsive id. The next time someone accuses you of having a big ego, thank them profusely for their unwitting compliment – that’ll confuse ‘em! But back on point, it is quite scary when you consider the Internet is feeding our ids, while forcing our egos to take a back seat. It is essentially a regressive step in terms of human development, which leads us nicely on the second half of the book.
The remaining chapters detail how the enhanced behaviors mentioned above manifest themselves in life, and the actual effects and consequences of these changes on the human race. This is where the book really excelled itself, in my opinion. He delves into the whole “friend” nonsense of Facebook, whereby the guy you sat beside in a class once in the 3rd grade, and whom you haven’t seen in real life since, and whom you in “normal” life wanted nothing to do with, is suddenly classed as a “friend”, and is sharing in, and privy to, the most intimate details of you and your family’s life. Maybe that appeals to you (it does after all appeal to most), but I honestly find it bizarre and pointless!
He further describes how we are regressing in many cases; the most obvious example would be the infantile text-speak which is ubiquitous today, even among adults, in place of actual and grammatically proper language. He estimates that the typical vocabulary necessary for this text-speak is approximately 800 words – in other words, the vocabulary of a 5-year old. Or how about the “illusion of knowledge”, the mass of misinformation which abounds on the Web, yet is touted by the masses as Gospel – numerous Wikipedia and other famous misinformation examples are cited, and make for frightening reading. Leading on from this, peoples attitudes and behaviors are changing accordingly, with respect for traditional “experts” on subjects (such as professors, doctors etc) massively waning, if not totally disregarded by some, as people increasingly consider themselves experts based on a quick Wikipedia scanning of some articles.
Elias also attacks the privacy debate regarding Internet content, but from an unexpected angle. Apart from the obvious stuff that is re-hashed in the media ad nauseum, his arguments on the death of privacy are from a psychological point of view. Firstly, he details how the great natural healing mechanism for humans is being able to forget painful events and experiences (the concept of time here is essential, time to forget etc, which is important later), and that this healing power has now being robbed from humanity, in most cases. Google search pages, Facebook and blog posts, old Tweets etc. all serve as a veritable archive of all the notable events of your life (especially for the E-generation), and therefore you can never truly forget and forgive old grievances or sorrows. This is something completely new for humanity, and only time will tell its effect on us. Another fascinating point of his regarding privacy, is related to a decades old quote of Ayn Rands – “Civilization is the progress towards a society of privacy“. If that is the case, we are surely in dire straits.
Equal parts fascinating and troubling, is his argument on how the Internet effects our very understanding and appreciation of something as fundamental to humanity as the concept of time, which is closely linked to memories (as mentioned above). Throughout human history, the “monster” of time has been tamed to an extent by breaking time down into “manageable” units and containers – “years, months, hours, minutes and seconds”, and categories such as “weekdays, weekends, vacations, and holidays”. Yet this “subjugation” of time is under attack, as the world becomes a finger-on-the-pulse type world of instant and continual updates and news, where everybody is instantly reachable by everybody else. In fact, the extra productivity gains that e-working have given us, and which you would have thought would have freed up more private time for people, have actually been turned against us: most of us are virtual slaves to the company we work for, tied via the Internet and technology to the company’s Blackberry, home VPN connection etc. We are never really not plugged-in anymore to the company’s nerve-system – weekend time is no longer or own, or the same as it was.
Another fundamental point of the author’s, is that the “e-personality” we possess leaks into our “real life” persona’s, dragging with it the narcissism, delusions of grandeur etc, as well as adversely influencing other behavior such as our conversational and reading abilities, even our manners and empathy for other people. Ironically it seems, our contact with other humans on the Internet, is causing us to behave in an increasingly dehumanizing manner offline, towards those same people. Perhaps, the author muses, the Internet is in actual fact bringing us closer to our true Hobbesian identity?
Ultimately I suppose, this book poses the question of whether the Internet on balance benefits humanity, and I would love to see it serving as a discussion point on this. The author very fairly balances the good, such as unparalleled access to information, power of communication etc, against the regressive, harmful impact on our psyche and on society itself. Having read this book, I think you would have to seriously question on balance whether the Information Superhighway is a net benefit to humanity – would we really be worse off if we had to walk to the library or local bookshop to browse and buy our books, or if we had real friends instead of supposed friends as per the definition of a website? Or how about we emotionally and mentally evolved in a forward direction, as opposed to regressively? How about we stopped writing like 5-year olds, and went back to writing language as per the rules of grammar? I mean really, would you have enjoyed reading a review such as this that was all “da bk was gr8 wot a r33ly cool time, lolz! c u l8r xxx”? I think not.