Talks with localized foreigners, outsiders on the inside, hybrid characters of all kinds and people engaged in work that matters to global citizens and identity adventurers. Suggest a person for us to interview (or grill someone yourself and share it with us)!
Today we’re diving deep with Sweden-based Internet media theorist Leon Tan, PhD., who is also a psychotherapist with an online private practice. Born in Singapore and trained in New Zealand, his interests include ‘mixed reality’, globalization and cultural theory.
We discovered the debonaire doctor on Twitter, exploring a most modern zone of culture clash: where virtuality meets what many insist is “real life”. Since he’s a mental health pro, he’s particularly interested in how we can become our best selves in this rewired network.
TRUTH ABOUT OUR PURSUITS Sample Leon Tan tweet: “in what way is spending all day in World of Warcraft any worse than spending all day in an unstimulating heavily routinized job?”
e+H: Leon, thanks for joining us today. Besides your therapeutic work online with individuals, you also consult organizations which want to establish online mental health services?
Yes, organizations and universities. I’m also developing a hybrid online therapy system combining writing therapy programs with access to online therapists.
e+H: Besides location independence — the client and therapist don’t have to be close to each other — what’s the main benefit of online therapy over the regular kind? What’s the danger?
Online therapy is simply a way of engaging in therapeutic conversations. Its benefits include relative anonymity (one does not need to be seen in public walking into a clinic or mental health agency) and flexibility (sessions may be arranged at times outside 9-to-5 workdays).
Dangers include the possibility of misunderstandings, especially for people with little experience in communicating and interacting online, technological failures, and privacy breaches resulting from malicious attacks or carelessness on the part of practitioners and clients.
e+H: I imagine people on the move or living in far-flung places might appreciate online psych help. How can we tell if it’s the right decision?
IS VIRTUAL LIFE REAL? e+H: How did you become intrigued by the virtual vs. the actual?
As a result of my interest in the opportunities and risks posed by the Internet’s virtual spaces and networks, I became interested in French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s virtual philosophy.
It’s common to find bizarre and naïve ideas that deny virtual entities the status of reality.
For example, this one psychologist seems to believe that online therapy (and online experiences) are only ‘simulations’ of reality. Health professionals in policy circles fear young people are ‘losing’ themselves in (or worse, becoming ‘addicted’ to) unreal virtual worlds, at the expense of their actual lives.
I think such ideas are moral panic — to protect the status quo by demonizing practitioners of new social orders.
CREATING A NEW SOCIAL ORDER e+H: So you’re saying the networked lives (like we love to create here at expat+HAREM!) are entirely real.
Yes, as are the virtual components of those lives: linguistic, visual and aural ideas and memories. While aspects of networked life may be simulation, the simulation is in fact realer than real if “simulation is a process that produces the real.”
e+H: I recall reading about the benefits of facing real life fears in an online world, with Second Life. Where did the idea come from that Internet-enabled social interaction is somehow unreal?
That argument is based largely on the conflation of real with actual. Virtuals are separate, and seen as lacking material substance.
One source is an influential work of 1994 which proposed a virtuality continuum which opposes virtual to real, implying that things taking place in virtual environments are unreal. The continuum of Milgram and Kishino has been cited over 800 times in academic literature.
Years earlier Deleuze had argued the virtual is not opposed to the real, but to the actual.
A mixed reality continuum is defined by actual environments on one hand, and virtual environments on the other. Everything is entirely real.
IS SOCIAL MEDIA AN INTERNET BUBBLE OF LOW-QUALITY CONNECTIONS? e+H: What do you think of the warning that social networking produces what Umair Haque calls “thin relationships”?
If ‘thin’ refers to relationships that are lacking in ‘mutual investment,’ we can find examples both online and offline. Casual interactions with bureaucratic functionaries or with salespeople, for instance. In the article you link, Haque’s thin relationships are based on ‘weak, artificial connections,’ which raises the question of what we can consider ‘natural’ as opposed to ‘artificial’ connections.
Online or offline, we’re inevitably investing our social relations with desire and memories, making the relations entirely real. Besides, there is also a role for both strong and weak ties. It’s not as though we are going to become best friends or lovers with absolutely everyone we encounter in life.
This particular article seems to lack insight about the multiplicity of different relationships made possible by the Internet. Consider instead Digital Diasporas, a 2009 book which shows how diasporans and their home and host communities are deriving a great deal of value from social interactions online.
For many, the online space has become extremely important in the absence of an actual ‘homeland.’
FUTURE OF HEIGHTENED CONNECTION + RELEVANCE e+H: Many of us find our cyber interactions are often closer to what we hope for than those we experience in actual life. How do you envision this playing out in the future?
Networked life makes possible all sorts of connections that were not previously possible (or at least were difficult to come by) in actual locales.
Individuals with relatively obscure lifestyle interests have been able to meet others with similar interests located in different parts of the world, leading to what I’m calling mixed reality or networked communities.
Then there is the so-called ‘online disinhibition effect’. Individuals loosen up and experiment more with their expressive and creative capacities. Social interactions may be richer and intimacy building more rapid. It may also lead to complications where we reveal too much too soon.
It’s been observed people used to the public lifestyles of online social networks think differently not only about politics and public affairs, but also about the more intimate social relations of everyday life.
We’ll need to cultivate ‘network intelligence’. Emotional and social intelligence. Skill in producing and managing multiple identities (one for every context and relationship).
We’ll also need to develop sensitivity to and literacy in network and media effects.
BECOMING YOUR BEST SELF, ONLINE e+H: Leon, thanks for spending some time with expat+HAREM — it’s been realer than real! Now a question for our readers — how are you becoming your best self online?