Learner Therapist (69) … Digitally mediated relationships
Torrey OrtonDec. 26, 2016
Who’s at lunch with who?
I was out to a demonstration lunch a while ago. Two demonstrations were occurring: the successful pretence of a great chef and the aspirational pretences of a bunch of diners. The pretentiousness was exemplified by the number of discrete courses – around 20: enough to occupy the whole of the only page in the menu. A socially and ethically interesting question was: who else was there and were those who were there actually there? Why they and we were there would be to follow the pretence path, but that’s another story.
Rather, it was clear from the number of phones tables and in hands that there were others being summoned, cajoled, invaded by the experiences of some diners. Perhaps the reverse was also true in response and maybe some of the apparently sharing diners were actually partaking of their digital partners’ pretences and not really present in the lunch for those moments (either in their own view or the view of their lunch relationship partners). And some connections with unknown unpresent partners on both ends may have been secondhanding the partnerships of the first instance in simultaneous sharings with unknown others…and so on around the digital twittiverse.
If you think that experience is hard to express and, more so, to comprehend, I’m sure you are not alone. Acquaintances of mine who are masters of the digital disciplines continue to amaze themselves with the unintended disclosures of their notionally private selves which blow around the cloud of endless remembering as a result of a burst of communication neediness from the grip of a heart ache or break, or a glass too many. In the same vein of virtuality, we can wonder which of these dining relationships were authentic, real, present (add your favourite behavioural, emotional, or cognitive criterion of existence here). And what would they be being authentic about?
How can we know what happens at lunch?
These kinds of practical implications of relationships are what concern my therapy patients. In fact these kinds of questions / concerns are what people are usually in therapy for – things to do with who can they be usefully connected to in myriad ways and which of those ways are appropriate on criteria that they embrace and think can be embraced by the others, and consequently may actually be embraced in a real relationship. For example, clarity about relationship types would allow increased fine judgment of what type is actually uppermost in one’s own mind and one’s partner(s) mind(s) in a specific relationship moment, event, history and prospect.
I propose that without a systematic way to classify digital relationships on non-digital criteria, we do not know what we’re talking about in discussing, and especially researching, contemporary digitally mediated relationships. Digital criteria are simple: can a digital wire be tripped in a recording device by an effective sensor signal? For an analogue example of criterion domains, are we talking about personal relationships, commercial relationships, organisational relationships, spiritual relationships …and how would we know when a relationship is one, some, or all of these at any one time (and other things not yet itemised)?
And suppose that whatever the type, there is virtuality in play. Most coarsely, is there any difference between a virtual sexual relationship and a real sexual relationship (of the body contact variety)? At least one thing is for sure, so far: no unwanted progeny can result from the virtual one without a shift of level from digital to analogue! On the comestibles side, the longest virtual lunch still leaves a half-full plate of offerings on one side and a wholly empty stomach at the other end of the digital appreciation.
One approach to classifying relationships and behaviours would be Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance as a tool for grasping realties. It is quite a nice theory of knowledge (which tells us how we can say something is and is such a thing reliably). It is also noticeably not standard issue RCT scientific research reality. Perhaps some research should be on the phenomenology of digital behaviour?
Back to the pretentious lunch…
How could the key physical experiences of the lunch be captured and shared digitally as they are occurring? La Grande Bouffe (1973) did a good job of capturing an imagined experience of dining, as did Tom Jones (1963). But sharing real experience is notoriously difficult and highly reliant on shared communication skills and relationship depth and intensity in the experience domains of interest. Some experiences cannot be shared with the inexperienced other than by involving them in such experiences, and we are back to relationship depth and intensity. Virtually we may get a feel for the experience, but not the experience. Rather we will be having the experience of a tantalising possibility which may be the experience of an intentional or provocative deprivation, which might then be shared by the virtual attendee with the real one and we’re back to tantalising and provocation. In addition, the range of possible experiences of the virtual kind – email, twitter, text, Instagram, telephone, Skype, … – offer different degrees of deprivation potential, usually out of the awareness of the participants. Bring on the phenomenology!? Give me a ring or a ping if you are interested.