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Schouborg, Gary (1999).

"The Internet as Cyber-Rorschach".

Clio's Psyche, 6 (2), 48-50.



The Internet as Cyber-Rorschach


Gary Schouborg


For me, the Internet is the ultimate Rorschach, placing even fewer constraints on my imagination than do the shapes of ink blots. I am referring specifically to the listserv function of the Net. Most obviously, my audience (composed of mostly unknown members of the listservs on which I post email) provides me with no body language to read. It also provides me, at least initially, with almost no information as to its assumptions, abilities, and aims. Out of this empty abyss comes correspondence that my mind readily shapes to its own hopes and fears.


As a philosopher I have spent a lifetime poring over writings of those whom I have never met. But they have at least come out of a recognizable tradition mediated by professors who eyed me face to face, giving me an embodied sense of the kinds of folk who take philosophy seriously. My professors also supplied me with heuristic methods that constrained my imagination, limiting it to a relatively small set of perceptions of the authors under consideration.


These same heuristic methods are available to me in cyberspace, but with this difference. The greats I study never find it germane to address me personally, but my cyber-correspondents do, confronting me not just with issue-oriented meaning but with personal meanings as well. It is the rare email that is so formal as to be devoid of any tone of politeness or rudeness, respect or disdain, admiration or denigration, friendliness or hostility. Moreover, the responses I receive are a miniscule part of my invisible audience, leaving me vulnerable to imagining that they are confirmed by who knows how many silent members of the listserv. The personal meanings they convey are thus magnified for me like sound emanating from an empty cave.


It is a revelation to me how thrilled I can be by unanticipated compliments emerging from the abyss of the Net, how upset by sleights and criticisms. No low-tech techniques of psychotherapy or spiritual practice ever opened me up like this cyber-koan to which humankind is being progressively introduced. Of course, before the Internet I knew what it was to take remarks personally, but my reaction is dramatically intensified in the naked context of cyberspace.


My email with longtime friends stands in sharp contrast. My enfleshed memories of them provide context for our correspondence, enabling me to be confident of when their compliments are sincere, their disagreements not attempts to get the upper hand, their criticisms not condemnatory.


In between is my experience of meeting a few of my unknown correspondents face to face. You readers who are old enough may recall how you once imagined what famous radio personalities looked like only to find yourselves surprised when seeing them in photos, on TV, or (gasp!) in the flesh. My listserv correspondents also surprise me. Certainly their physical appearance is always different from what I imagined. More significant is their bearing. Among those whose email is critical, some reveal themselves in the flesh to be supercilious, some competitive, still others simply interested in the issues. Among those whose email is "humorous", some reveal themselves in the flesh to be personally hostile, some defensive, and still others simply playful. Among those whose email is friendly, some reveal themselves in the flesh to be genuine and others to be insincere.


Interestingly, on resuming our correspondence after our visit, I find the memory of such meetings soon fading and my prior cyber-perceptions returning. For example, an individual whom I had found irritatingly smug on the Net, I found in person to be irrepressibly playful. Yet now that we have resumed our postings to the listserv, the perception of irritating smugness returns and I find it increasingly difficult to recall the playfulness I experienced when conversing with him face to face.


One explanation for this change in perception is that the senses provide us with information that escapes even the most articulate email. Verbal facility is no substitute for body language. Lifelong friends have given us a large archive of remembered body language, which provides a reliable context within which to understand current communications. Those we meet briefly provide similar information, often enough sufficient to resolve many verbal ambiguities, yet the briefness of those meetings fails to sustain memory.


Another factor is that people change their behavior from cyber- to physical space. The change is itself rooted in sense perception. For example, in posting to a listserv, I find myself addressing ideas much more than persons. This is understandable, since the bulk of my correspondence concerns ideas rather than personalities. Nevertheless, the lack of non-verbal cues accentuates my emphasis, making it is very easy for me to dismiss an idea with which I disagree. In the flesh, however, both the human vulnerability and the intelligence of the person's face present me with a much richer reality to respond to. The vulnerability prompts me to be more compassionate, while the intelligence directs me to seek out the context from which the offending idea arises.


Mercifully, I have not had a favorable cyber-experience turn unfavorable in the flesh, though I see no reason why this could not occur. With those to whom I was favorably disposed, meeting face to face only enriched the rapport and understanding. With those to whom I felt less favorably disposed, meeting face to face at least temporarily alleviated feelings of conflict.


For me, there is rich learning in all this. My projections onto emails from unknown authors provide lively insight into my hopes and fears. The contrast between perceptions in cyberspace and those in the flesh alert me to the richness of sensory information and the role of memory. As some of my cyber-relationships develop over time, I look forward to seeing how closely they approximate my face to face relationships and how they may continue to differ.