Technostress: Reclaiming Your Altered Self – Part I

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Summary: Electronic space is reshaping our identities and personalities. From our concept of privacy, time, space, and need for intimacy, we are the guinea pigs of new forces in human development. Try to take a few minutes and reflect on how elements of electronic space are impacting you and members of your family.


Over thirty years ago, I discovered a personality type that I called Techno-centered. I was practicing psychotherapy near Silicon Valley and began to see individuals and couples who were highly identified with technology. They lacked the ability to tolerate ambiguity, so necessary for real communication, evidenced yes or no logic was intolerant of human mistakes, and often wanted people to be more computer-like.

Responses to insights in therapy sessions were often along the lines of “I can’t process that”; or “I need more downtime to figure this out”; “I don’t know why she can’t talk faster, she’s so inefficient”, or simply “It doesn’t compute, my central processor isn’t working”. More than the metaphors of computer technology encumbered these individuals.

After my original discovery, I undertook a great deal of qualitative research with adults and kids outside the confines of therapy. Technostress, and one of its manifestations, Techno-centered personality, I noted, was growing rapidly and had potentially negative impacts on human societies. The concept of normalcy was being stretched.

Technostress, The Human Cost of The Computer Revolution was published by Addison Wesley, and immediately began to draw fire from the computer industry. I was labeled a “dinosaur”, a throwback to a prior era in history, “Luddite who wanted to smash technology” and “psychologist who couldn’t distinguish obsession compulsive symptoms from Techno-centered ones”. 

Techno-centered personalities have over the years gone viral, promoted by large corporations and technology companies that manufactured myths to sell the computer revolution. People were working more hours not less, school test scores weren’t rising and in many cases were actually falling, and the millions of jobs added in the computer-mediated service industry were repetitive and could be done by almost any individual with a 9th-grade education. The entire service sector was being deskilled and employees were becoming dial watchers or information processing specialists, clicking and clacking on computer keyboards in dimly lit rooms all day long for minimum wage.

What’s become accepted as ‘normal’ is masking deeper truths, ones that are compromising our survival instincts as a species. Our social and electronic environments, to a large extent, shape our personalities, yet some intrinsic part of our self-identity remains intact. 

Electronic Space

Electronic devices and networks have altered every aspect of our lives. We are both perpetrators and guinea pigs. Our perceptions of self, time, intimacy, truth, and social connection have been transformed entirely. The way we govern and our tolerance of outrageous political behavior is in part the result of electronic networks. Social media is no substitute for face-to-face town meetings or reflections on social problems.

We are living in a new environment that I call Electronic Space. This is the global space of over 12 billion connected devices, networks, and systems expanding to over an estimated 25 billion devices by 2030. Electronic space has replaced our connection to nature, meaning the natural world. The natural world has become for most of us an artificial green space in a city, a weekend hike, or a trip to the beach. On holidays, we might venture out onto a river, only to realize later that the majority of the flow is controlled by an Army Corp of Engineers project upstream.

Power grids and thermostats mediate climate change in electronic space. If you are hot, turn up your air conditioner, and if heat and drought destroy your farmland soil, appeal to advanced industrial countries to build giant greenhouses under glass driven by solar. At every critical point, we are actively compensating for separating from the natural world. We are creating an entirely new skin, and standing the last 40,000 years of evolution on its head. There is little reality or life without electronic devices and systems.

Electronic space is driven by several key factors impacting our development including:

  1. Images and mobile communication take precedence over human need.  We pay closer attention to images and voices on screens than human connection in person.  Parents or caregivers make choices to watch images or communicate on their mobile phones instead of relating to their children. I have witnessed the scene, time and again, where a child wants and needs attention—tugging on the mother or father— only to be ignored by a parent busy on his/her mobile phone. Parents have tried in some instances to eliminate the child’s need for closeness and intimacy by giving them a mobile or entertainment device to occupy their time. The TV as baby sitter wasn’t sufficient to kill the need. Parents generally don’t want to experience, nor do they have time for another human with needs. Human needs are messy and complex, full of ambiguity and require time to nurture.
  2. Collapse of time. Any Warhol, capturing the effects of emergent media, once said that everyone would get their fifteen minutes of fame. Today, fifteen minutes seems like a lifetime. Instant connection and results are the watchwords of today. Family dinners, once important for social learning and transmitted stories, have been reduced to minutes, new deliveries of packages are promised within two hours; and any delay in buying food at check out can result in impatience and anger. The solution for time delay and potential frustration is to automate further for seamless speed.
  3. Sense of omnipotence. Computers and their networks offer little co-efficient of resistance. The power of the machine, the cognitively designed interface, and the easy of entry of letters and images, promotes the feeling of power and omnipotence. The feeling is one of making things happen, with a minimum of real change. The press of a few buttons gets your meal delivered, tickets to a movie, or trip thousands of miles away. Omnipotence is also misleading: we can gather 1 or 2 million signatures to address climate change or reform gun laws that make us feel powerful, but unfortunately, little actual change occurs as the result.  The sense of omnipotence also fuels the ability of demagogues to use networks, as a pulpit, Trump and Trump-like politicians are an example.
  1. Collapse of space. We can visually connect and communicate with people on the other side of the world, or get our food delivered from farms in Chile or Brazil or China for that matter. The entire movement in globalization is unthinkable without electronic space. Every employee and family is subject to the vagaries of a vast global marketplace where labor prices are determined by playing people off against each other. Appeals to ‘fair wages’, and treatment of workers are context dependent. China employees political prisoners to make things that compete with workers in Asia and the West.
  2. Multiple identities. We can be anyone on the screen that we wish to conger up, or present parts of ourselves that we value but don’t need to embrace. Millions of individuals seeking fun or mates on Tinder, for example, have had the experience of the person on the screen is not the same person who appears in person for a date. This not only applies to physical appearance but qualities of the person. What you see and learn about a person on the screen is often very different from the in-person reality. Your neighbor, government representative or priest might present their self over the web as caring and ethical while harboring a second identity on another site involved in child pornography.
  3. The evaporation of private space, both mentally and physically. Every keystroke you engage in is monitored and known to others. Most firms, like Facebook, Google, Apple, or Amazon, generate significant income off the networks ability to gather data. Data is the new gold.   Even if all data gathering was outlawed, the data is recorded somewhere. You are also being watched daily by satellite, in all public spaces. Satellites guide killings for political reasons from space, high above the Earth.
  4. The medium is the message as Marshall McLuhan, media guru once said. Social media has questionable truth-value; it is a misleading way of knowing the world. Its images can often lack accurate content, context or measured impact. Drama often prevails over the actual chain of events; and individuals often react based on those images. Everyone is an expert in the making. Even Kane West, singer and songwriter, ran on a Trump sponsored ticket to split the African American vote for President of the U.S.

In part two, due out shortly, you’ll read about what you can do to reclaim part of your altered self.

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