John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created May 1996, revised Feb 1999, Jan 00

Human Becomes Electric

Networks as Mind and Self
cyberspace as mind

Psychological and philosophical research can approach the rather fascinating question as to how the internet itself possesses a "personality." Old-timers, for example, often lament how the "character" of the net is changing as new and different types of people come online. Like the "self" of groups or an individual, the cyberworld consists of various subcomponents that collaborate, conflict, dissociate, and develop over time. Psychological models of the mind may help organize our understanding of this world. Where is the id, ego, and superego dynamics of the internet? Is the internet, or its subnets, self-actualizing organisms? If the internet is a complex system of links and associations - not unlike the human brain - is it a form of consciousness that is an extension or a manifestation of the human world? Perhaps someday it can attain its own independent consciousness. Would we then consider it human in its own right, or is there something so uniquely human that machines, no matter how complex, can never acquire it? Consider this conversation between the leader of an interplanetary explorer fleet and one of the fleet commanders (taken from a story by science-fiction writer Terry Bisson as quoted in "How The Mind Works" by Steven Pinker, W.W.Norton, 1997):

"They're made out of meat."


"There's no doubt about it. We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."

That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

"They use the radio waves to talk. But the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."

"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they're made out of meat."

"Maybe they're like the Orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."

"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take too long. Do you have any idea of the life span of meat?"

"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the Weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."

"Nope, we thought of that, since they do have meat heads like the Weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."

"No brain?"

"Oh, there is a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat."

"So ... what does the thinking?"

"You're not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat."

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?"

A few years ago, I spoke at a conference devoted to eastern philosophy and psychology. For my talk, I decided to focus on the concept of "self." What is this thing called Self? Well, I said to the audience, why not look it up on the internet, the information superhighway? I mean, you can find everything on the internet, right? If the internet marks the next stage in the evolution of the human mind and self, then why not consult it about the definition of its own destiny? So I told the audience about my attempt to discover the self in cyberspace. And this is a true story!
I fired up the computer, logged on, and immediately aimed my browser at the Alta Vista search engine on the Web. I entered in the keyword "Self" and hit the search button. In a matter of seconds, after furiously scanning all of cyberspace, the engine came back with a reply... 2.5 million hits! Looks like the self is everywhere! Maybe that meant something. Or maybe I just needed to narrow my search. So I entered in the keywords "True Self." This time I got 11,000 hits. Better. I was on the right track. How about "Essence of Self?" The search engine hummed away and returned 245 hits. Now I was definitely zooming in on the target. I could tell this was the right path because a lot of the hits included web sites devoted to philosophy, spirituality, and poetry - although it also turned up the American Legion Magazine and a web page called "Understanding Diarrhea in Travelers." No, really! In fact, maybe there was a connection here. After all, when asked what is the Buddha, a great Zen master once replied, "Dried turd." On the other hand, maybe those anomalous search engine results meant that the hunt for the self will lead to glitches and dead ends. But I wasn't going to let that stop me. Finally, I entered in the keywords "The True and Essential Self" and clicked the search button. Once again Alta Vista went out into the vast Netherland of global electronified knowledge and came back with... zero hits. Nothing! The void! The True and Essential Self was no where to be found, well at least not in cyberspace.

People at the conference enjoyed my talk, so I decided to publish it on my Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors web site. About a year later, I received this e-mail from a visitor to the site:
Hi John,

I was reading your essay "What is this thing called self." You say that on an altavista search you looked for "The True and Essential Self" and found no hits, that this "True and Essential Self" is not out there.... Well, now it is, because if you try the same search again it will find 1 hit... "The True and Essential Self" is in your essay!! It seems the answer has been closer to home than you thought all that is DEFINITELY zen!...... have a good day!



See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Cyberspace as a psychological space
Identity management in cyberspace
Presence in cyberspace
Intensive case studies in cyberspace and the evolution of digital life forms

The Psychology of Cyberspace Home Page