Friday, 20 June 2008

Misery and meaning

So, there’s a credit crunch going on. And a war on terror. Oh, and the world is getting too warm too quickly. In the classic 1970s sit-com constantly on repeat in my mind, there is a battle going on between the Jones and the Frazer- between “Don’t panic!” and “We’re doomed!”

And in one ear, the hopefulness of The Smiths’ “Ask” is ringing out whilst in the other, I can hear the dolorous tones of “
Heaven knows I’m miserable now".

Vacillating between the denial and embrace of a kind of thanatos, I was interested to stumble upon the “Web of misery”. This is a tool for making predictions based on new online indicators of economic distress, devised by the eLab eXchange, which is part of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at the University of California, Riverside. It now seems possible to measure how the US economic recession has affected people's online behaviour by inviting people to predict how much traffic is likely to increase to internet sites devoted to 10 subjects that are often associated with economic distress- Alcohol, Education, Employment, Food, Gambling, God, Guns, Health Care and Real Estate. For example, some are at greater risk for problem drinking as unemployment rises, so the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration could attract increasing numbers of visitors seeking help. Similarly, during periods of economic hardship, there will be increases in gun ownership and interest in religion. The outcome of these 10 “markets” will be determined early in the third quarter of 2008 using Nielsen Online's NetView audience measurement service. And in the spirit of free enterprise and lottery love, you can even try to dodge your own personal credit crunch by winning a prize of up to $500 for playing. Hmm…

Thus we have a predictor based on others’ predictions and on that most slippery of things, “confidence” (which, incidentally, is what powers behaviour on the world’s economic trading floors). It strikes me that if there is a “web of misery” online, there must also be a “web of joy” or perhaps, more significantly, a “web of meaning”. They will surely co-exist- our fears of the future, our anxiety around death, our denial of meaninglessness, these will themselves be constituents of the kind of meanings we seek and find. If we consider online behaviour, there are a number of ways of tracking the “web of meaning”- there is plenty of freeware which will track your web useage, how far your mouse has travelled, how many different sites you have viewed, what you have searched for, “where” you have wandered to in cyberspace (are we still using that term, by the way?!) On their own, these measures may not add up to more than a fairly small hill of beans- they can’t capture the complexity of the meaningfulness of online activity, because it spreads out not just through cyberspace but also through the noösphere. However, the sum of our online activity, much like the sum of our face-to-face social interactions, is surely an indicator of something significant.

Whatever the “web of meaning” is, and it is probably closest to the semantic web, there are reasons to be cheerful. As people experienced in the delights and dangers of online education, Michael and myself have found that the online context brings some particular opportunities for learning, for making connections, for forging meaning in miserable times. Our courses, the MA in Psychoanalytic Studies and the MSc in Psychotherapy Studies, use slightly different blends of pedagogies, but both focus largely on the power of asynchronous communication, the gradual building of dialogues on particular topics which has such a different flavour to synchronous communication, be that face-to-face or online. As this dialogue progresses, we are continually surprised and delighted by the way students make connections with one another- people they never meet in the flesh, and have little in common with, but who become trusted companions in the search for meaning. Indeed, we find that some of the characteristics of online behaviour, such as the oft-cited “online disinhibition”, have significant advantages. As they study a particular topic, students will find themselves engaging in self-disclosure, sharing the most personal experiences with one another, opening up about losses, traumas, sorrows and joys, making links between theory and personal experience and clinical practice. And overall, we found in our research that students value the online experience highly, more so than comparable face-to-face courses (see the bottom of this page for our most recent research). Interestingly, we have found that some students are more comfortable with the disembodiment, with the lack of visual feedback and bodily presence, with the “not knowing” about the Other; and some students find this same disembodiment a barrier to deep learning. I suppose we come back to the role of confidence- we are continually working on ways of engaging these students in a way which facilitates their self-confidence and ability to learn.

E-learning is no panacea, but as we sit on our “web of misery” and think about the future, eLearning does offer new ways of connecting, new ways of building our own “webs of meaning” which allow us to capture those bits of significant information flying past us, onwards into nothingness.