Internet Algorithms and Our Unconscious

By Dan Perlman, LMSW

Having never before written a blog, nor constructed words for consumption beyond those to whom I’ve handed a physical copy, I hope not to embarrass myself in my contributions to the Cobb Psychotherapy blog. I plan to do my part and hope, with all humility, to contribute something worth reading and perhaps stimulate some of the ole grey matter (in the brain).

My grandfather used to make a speech such as mine above, and then say, “Okay, now I’ll get off the soap box.” According to Wikipedia, a soapbox is a raised platform which one stands on to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. The term originates from the days when speakers would elevate themselves by standing on a wooden crate originally used for the shipment of soap. To be reminded today of the need for an elevated soap box in order to be heard is a link to the past, which contrasts the degree to which information and ideas flow freely today. But perhaps not all information is healthy or helpful to us.

I recently read that former president Obama suggested that becoming “cocooned in information that reinforces our biases” is one of the dangers we face today, especially as the internet plays a larger role. It struck me that one of the fundamental ideas of psychodynamic thinking relates to the idea that much of who we are is “outside of our awareness.”  More specifically, who we are, what we feel, and why we behave as we do is actually thought, in psychodynamic circles, to reside outside of our own consciousness.  

This got me further thinking (which can be dangerous) that maybe we’re unconscious of the “cocooned reinforced biases” forming around our ideas because of our isolated exposure to the flood of information.  Maybe these biases are building up at such an accelerated pace and to such an extreme degree today because of the often reinforcing and isolating nature of the internet itself.  In a world where algorithms drive much of what we see on our screens, the impact on our unconscious is still decidedly unknown. How we slow this down, catch our breath, and begin to consciously understand our reactions to it all is a great challenge. 

It would seem, now more than ever, that we all might benefit from getting out, socializing, and meeting friends in the real world.  To see, talk, and hear one another without the filter of the web between us may be of supreme importance in 2018.  Perhaps, at the very least, the benefits of the individual strong therapeutic alliances we aspire to form with clients can open minds to bring people of different biases together and pull people away from the cocooned silos. 

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Dan Perlman is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.