The Black Hole of Cyberspace

(and the unanswered e-mail)

So what crossed your mind when you first landed on this page and saw.... nothing? Were you a bit confused, frustrated, annoyed - not sure what was happening, or where you were - maybe for just a split second? Did you doubt yourself, maybe thinking you had made a mistake with your browser? Or did you doubt me, thinking I had made a error in designing this page? Maybe you guessed I was intending to play some kind of trick on you. Maybe you weren't sure.

Welcome to the experience of the BLACK HOLE - those moments on the Internet when we initiate some action and in return receive.... nothing. Not even an error message. As if our intentions were completely gobbled up by some mysterious beast akin to those pits in outer space that swallow anything that comes their way, letting nothing escape. The Black Hole defies and completely undercuts what everyone praises about computers - "It's INTERACTIVE!" In the Black Hole there is no interactivity. It's just you and the yawning void. The Internet gives no response and spits in the face of it's own name.

The Black Hole may surface in many forms. Broadly defined, it's ANY situation in which the Internet fails to provide you with any response or feedback. Nada. Zip. I'd like to focus on what is perhaps the most common and problematic manifestation of the Black Hole.... The Unanswered E-mail.

So what happens when you hit "send" and the electrons you personally configured go flying out of your computer into the net - and days, or weeks, go by with no response from your e-mail partner? What happened to that message? Did it get to your ISP? Did it get into the Internet? Did it get to your partner's ISP and down into her/his computer?... You don't know. You may never know. Even your most sophisticated computer guru can only suggest possibilities. It's a complete uncertainty that would make even Heisenberg's head ache.

That's what you're left with when you still haven't received a reply to your e-mail. That's what the Black Hole is all about.... UNCERTAINTY. That uncertainty in turn generates a plethora of questions and self-doubts. Did the message get lost somewhere in all those thousands of miles of wires? Should I resend it, or would that just annoy him, or make her feel guilty, or put pressure on him, or make me look like I'm overly eager? Did the message indeed get to her, but she hasn't read it yet? Maybe he's away on vacation. Maybe she's got lots of mail and hasn't had time to read mine yet. Am I that unimportant to him, that she would read all those other messages before mine? Maybe she's in trouble or hurt! ... Maybe he did read it but hasn't yet replied. But why not? Don't I deserve a timely reply? I'm busy too you know! ... Maybe she's mad at me. Did I write something that would make him that angry? Or maybe she wants to keep me sitting on the edge of my seat. Maybe he's just toying with me. How dare she!... Did I forget to send the message? I better check my Outbox.

The Black Hole is like an inkblot test. It draws out whatever is on our mind. It's a blank screen onto which we project our wishes, fears, and insecurities. Deciding what to do about the unreplied message requires that you grapple with and resolve these projections.

But at least the inkblot looks like SOMETHING. The Black Hole has no texture, color, shape. It's completely formless, completely unresponsive. And it surfaces unpredictably. That makes for two strikes against basic human nature. Humans instinctively want and need an environment that gives responses and is predictable. We need people who react to us and are consistent. The Black Hole rubs us the wrong way. It's not giving us what we need to feel solid, sure, and empowered. At a deep unconscious level, maybe it even stirs up those primitive fears of being negated, eaten, and engulfed.

Now maybe I've overstated my case. But the next time you send an e-mail and receive no reply, take a look at those inklings in the back of your mind.

John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created May 1997