The self and the machine

I recently read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, and was captivated by the freshness with which the book deals with the possibilities of human emotion and self-expression. It felt extraordinarily raw — as if a whole cluster of emotions were being experienced not just for the first time by the novella’s characters, but in human history. At the same time, it felt dated. This came from a more innocent time before Freud had inaugurated the study of the psyche as a distinct branch of medicine, when it remained the province of literature and religion. It was particularly arresting to encounter this phrase in the author’s preface, suggestive that there was a characteristic personality type that emerged from the zeitgeist of that particular time:

‘The Hero of Our Time is, my good sirs, indeed a portrait, but not of a single person. It is a portrait of the vices of our whole generation in their ultimate development.’

This reminded me of a couple of other literary phenomena. Milan Kundera wrote (I think in Life is Elsewhere, but I can’t lay my hands on the passage) about the ways in which physical gestures are transmitted through copying from person to person throughout, and beyond, specific cultures. It’s a kind of underground language and a theme that clearly fascinates Kundera, as he returned to it in Immortality, in a passage reminiscent of Dawkins’ idea of the ‘meme’:

‘A gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person’s instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations’
Milan Kundera, Immortality

And of course there’s the famous case of life imitating art, with the cult of melancholy (and at least one copycat suicide) that followed the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774.

What has all this to do with digital technology? Two quite distinct things spring to mind. On the one hand, this idea that there can be a zeitgeist-wide process of personality contagion is now confirmed by processes that happen constantly, constrained by the speed of light and thought rather than the publishing cycle. These processes have become simultaneously faster, more diffuse, more diverse and (at least theoretically) measurable, as witness the now notorious experiment that Facebook carried out on it users when it filtered their feeds and monitored the impact on their moods.

At the same time, digital technology has sped the process whereby the study (and care and maintenance) of the self have been colonised by the sciences. Freud himself now appears suspiciously literary in his approach when compared with more modern approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT operates unapologetically at a more superficial level, offering the promise of liberation from the idea that we are condemned to excavate our pasts, slave-miners of the self. It also claims a basis of empirical evidence hard to find in the realm of Freudian psychoanalysis. It can certainly be modelled far more easily in software — useful in reducing the cost of treating depression, for example, as health systems like the NHS can now prescribe the use of self-administered, computer-based diagnostic programmes as cheap replacements or complements to talking therapies.

CBT’s systematic approach and reliance on attentive monitoring of personal moods, beliefs and emotions makes it look like an older cousin to the ‘Quantified Self’ movement. The sensor-laden technology that we now carry with us constantly in the form of mobile phones, watches and wristbands measure more and more of our daily lives, and their capacity to harvest Big Data of the self, hold obvious and enormous clinical (and of course, commercial) potential. As we continue to identify data points for factors in our well-being, some, like exercise and sleep quality, that can be monitored passively, and others, like time spent meditating, diet or mood fluctuations, that require direct user input, the idea is constantly implicitly reinforced that the mind/body complex can be helpfully reduced to a machine — albeit an enormously complicated and sophisticated one — and that if only we can optimise the inputs and maintenance regime, it can be continually improved.

So when I read just over a year ago that the empirical superiority of CBT had recently been challenged, I noticed the guilty technophobe in me exulting. I confess I was pleased to see hints of a recognition that the self is too complex, too irrational, too sacred, to be captured by science and technology. Because, while part of me is drawn to the whiggish allure that I can use the most rational evidence base to fix myself and my family, another part strongly resists the idea that I can reduce the very stuff of my soul to the same numbers and bits that underpin my calendar, task management and so on.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been surveying the interrelationships between mental health and digital communications technology. We’ve looked at the idea of flow and how it can be supported or hindered by productivity tools; the impact of digital technology on the mental health of young people; the experience of mental health problems in a digital age and in particular how those suffering such problems have resorted to Twitter; and most recently, we’ve delved into the relationship that people with learning difficulties have with digital. We’ve come across a lot of inspiring work from others that we’ve been tweeting, some of it sadly reflecting the prevalence of mental health problems among ‘knowledge workers’ like ourselves (here and here).

I’m left with the feeling that these are early days, and there remains massive scope for creative thinking in developing ideas for the use of digital technology to support mental health. It’s easy to forget that smartphones have only been with us for just over a decade, and — to get back to the idea of the zeitgeist — it’s in the nature of human beings to experiment constantly and for collective preferences in the form of fads, fashions and movements to rise and fall. Just as there is a process of contagion of personalities and moods, there is also a contagion of models of the self. CBT and related forms of self-monitoring clearly still hold great potential for improvements in well-being, and I’m not suggesting that they will come to be seen as the modern equivalents of phrenology and eugenics in the succession of obsolete models for understanding the deep motivations of personality.

But I think the initiatives that have most interested me are those that suggest a space for a wider sense of what might be useful, encouraging and creative for a self to engage with. We’ve found a few nice examples, but this is also where it feels like there is still the most unexplored room for development, probably because it’s harder and less obvious: in studying the ways in which digital technology can support a longer-form, more haphazard, less scientific and dare I say it more literary exploration of the self.