by Patricia M. Wallace
Cambridge University Press, 19999
Review by Roderick Nicholls, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001
Communication between human beings is increasingly mediated by
electronic personae developed for the Internet. In her taxonomy
of environments opening up within the Internet, Patricia Wallace
includes the World Wide Web (WWW), email, chat rooms, MUDs and
metaworlds. Few Internet users frequent all of these virtual environments,
but the ones we do inhabit often become an integral part of our
personal or working life. Hence the dynamics of computer-mediated
rather than face-to-face interaction deserves careful attention
as an integral part an intriguing cultural phenomenon.
Wallace's "first goal for this book is to explore the psychological
impact of the online world on our behaviour" (12) and she
succeeds in producing a fine, comprehensive overview of the relevant
academic research. The central ten chapters consist in detailed
analyses of topics such as role-playing, aggression and gender
issues on the Internet. Wallace assesses the research into these
topics judiciously through several overarching themes - anonymity
is used particularly effectively - and her judgments regarding
conflicting conclusions of research projects are invariably balanced.
In brief, The Psychology of the Internet would function
admirably as a textbook for a university course in psychology
The book's "second goal" -- more normative than descriptive
in nature -- is to suggest ways in which the Internet can empower
human beings (12). In one sense, of course, the goal of consciously
shaping the Internet into a medium with a psychological climate
conducive to human well-being is uncontroversial. Does the alternative
not lie in a technological determinism that conceives adaptation
as humanity's primary task? Yet a good case can be made for the
proposition that this particular technology is inherently liberating.
After all, the spirit animating the Internet's development is
captured in the slogan "information wants to be free."
Its distinctive bias is toward disrupting traditional hierarchical
means of transmitting information or, more positively, instituting
myriad connections between equals. The trajectory of the Internet
encourages a transparency in cultures (legal, medical, political,
financial, etc.) previously guarded by credentialed experts and
As Wallace puts it, the whole idea that the Internet can empower
ordinary people is rooted in "the technology's potential
to spread around power" (236). But if that is so, then we
are rightly skeptical of any attempt to shape the evolution of
the Internet. For example, Michael Lewis' recent book, Next: The Future Just Happened describes
how the SEC (the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) engaged
in a semi-farcical defense of the financial industry in its case
against 14 year-old Jonathan Lebed for stock market manipulation.
Wallace shies away from the socio-political as opposed to the
psychological dimension of such issues. Her brief discussion of
post-Napster peer-to-peer sharing of digital audio (and video)
files, for instance, tries to be scrupulously neutral regarding
the substance of the relevant legal case. Yet The Psychology
of the Internet clearly opposes any top-down legislation or
regulation: "the last thing we want is for some 'agency'
to come along to 'control and guide' the Internet" (13).
An examination of the ways in which the dangers of pre-Internet
pornography are magnified on-line makes Wallace's positive goal
of empowerment a little less elusive. For the issue of pornography
reflects the fact that "many of the concerns surrounding
the Internet involve children and adolescents," and adults
cannot avoid "providing guidance" of some sort (246).
Responsible parents ought to hold firm against the regulation
temptation and become involved in their children's explorations
on the Internet by learning what is out there and how things are
done on-line. In general, the cautious, decentralized optimism
informing The Psychology of the Internet amounts to the
moral prescription that people ought to understand precisely how
their behavior is affected by the Internet because such understanding
is the only way to improve the virtual environments in which that
On the face of it, this sounds like nothing more than a well-meaning
platitude that is as applicable to television as to the Internet.
Wallace, however, gives weight and direction to the moral obligation
to "understand" the Internet. On almost every page of
this book there appears a phrase such as "the research shows"
or "the research suggests" -- an inevitable consequence
of pursuing its first goal of producing a comprehensive textbook
on "the psychology of the Internet." Her assumption
that the book's descriptive and normative goals complement each
other is often well founded. The chapter entitled "Group
Dynamics in Cyberspace," for example, begins with an exposition
of the social psychology research supporting a counter-intuitive
conclusion: group discussions do not lead to more moderate decisions
but rather, when "like-minded" people talk things through,
there is a tendency to "polarize towards one of the extremes"
(76). The follow-up examination of "exaggerated group polarization
effects that can occur on the Internet" (76) entails sound
practical advice (regarding composition of groups, procedures,
etc.) for any organization utilizing virtual work-groups.
The Psychology of the Internet abounds with cases in which
"the research" qualifies or undermines intuitions, conventional
wisdom and speculations regarding the Internet. This supports
Wallace's belief that an understanding of the effects of specific
Internet practices on behavior as recorded in the research
constitutes our only "guide" to improving the Internet.
Yet it also raises a methodological question. Creating a personal
home page, for example, is often part and parcel of an avid Internet
user's task of constructing an electronic persona. And Wallace
points to research suggesting that a core claim of postmodern
theorists of cyberspace is misleading: "rather than fragmenting
the self, personal home pages are attempts to integrate the individual,
make a personal statement of identity, and show in a stable, replicable
way what the individual stands for and what is deemed important"
(33). The postmodern claim, however, is surely that the Internet
is a medium especially well-suited to a new conception of self
- that it has the potential of assisting in self-transformation.
That psychological research shows most actual home pages
to be attempts to present an idealized and holistic self, might
therefore be no more significant than the fact that early television
shows tended to replicate radio aesthetics.
Wallace's method, in other words, tends to constrain normative
thinking to the confines of existing psychological research. It
is noteworthy, for instance, that The Psychology of the Internet
mentions the convergence of the Internet with interactive video
and virtual reality but the substance of the book is almost exclusively
devoted to the textual dimensions of the Internet. This
is obviously because environments such as email, chat rooms and
MUD's provide records and archives that are perfect for psychological
research. What is not amenable to treatment within those terms
of reference tends to be excluded. What is excluded, however,
is not necessarily unfounded speculation nor irrelevant to human
well-being in an increasingly virtual world. As Wallace admits,
"this book is about psychology more than technology"
(5). An informed meditation about the possibilities of the technology
could, for example, easily lend normative support to the idea
of home pages as a means of realizing a more postmodern self despite
research showing that the WWW is not widely being used for that
The idea of a postmodern self was popularized by social psychologist
Kenneth Gergen in The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life.
And over the last decade an eclectic group of writers such as
Sherry Turkle and Allucquere Rosanne, working in the disciplinary
interface between psychology, sociology and technology, has extended
it into a postmodern vision of cyborg humanity. A specific body
of research could not, by itself, entail a critique of this kind
of work because it is as much "philosophy" as anything
else. Unless psychologists participate in the debate, however,
there will continue to be a proliferation of books such as Jeri
Fink's Cyberseduction: Reality In The Age of Cybertechnology that
make huge philosophical claims regarding the Internet under the
aegis of psychology. At one point Wallace does take issue with
the overall thesis of Silicon Snake Oil,
Clifford Stoll's highly critical account of the Internet, noting
that "some research suggests greater Internet use is associated
with increased loneliness" (233) but that other "research
just the opposite" (234). Exactly the same
academic jab, however, could be made at Nicholas Negroponti's
effusive discussion of the new technology in Being Digital.
In each case, moreover, there is little sympathy for trying to
get a sense for the big picture. Of course, this is less a criticism
of The Psychology of the Internet than a comment regarding
the loss of an opportunity for a professional psychologist to
engage more popular accounts of the Internet's effects on behavior.
And Patricia Wallace might legitimately respond that it is futile
to strive for the big picture when it comes to a "moving
target" such as the Internet.
Roderick Nicholls is
an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University College
of Cape Breton and has published in the areas of science, technology
and society, applied aesthetics and 19th century philosophy.
© 2001 Roderick Nicholls