organization people technology

Technology and Repression

Richard Veryard
February 1993
updated July 1999

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Technology deserves to be treated as one of the more important objects of repression. Psychotherapy should develop techniques for dealing with this, as well as with all other objects of repression.

This document aims to provide the basis for discussion on the relationship between technology and psychoanalysis.

Technology affects our thinking in numerous ways. But we refuse to think about how it does this. The pervasive influence of technology is systematically deleted from our conscious minds. So this systematic deletion itself becomes an important psychological fact.

However, technology has not been properly placed on the agenda of psychoanalysis (although it perhaps relates to issues of patriarchy and rationality, which have been explored by feminist psychoanalysts), and has therefore not been systematically surfaced.

So this paper is about the way people repress their awareness of technology, and the impact this repression has on their thinking (and thus on their lives). It concludes with some ideas for addressing this repression, based on action at two levels: psychological and socio-technical.

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Views of Technology

veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > views of technology
on this page
  • What is technology?
  • Technology as attachment
  • Technology as escape
  • Technology as return
  • Technology controls us
  • Technology as object of repression
  • perception page
  • Technology extends the reach and power of the sense organs
  • Technology creates new sense data
  • Technology changes our perception of our own bodies
  • Technology changes our perception of our position on earth
  • Technology communicates itself - irresistibly
  • Technology affects our knowledge
  • Technology dominates our experience

  • What is technology

    In this piece, I want to scope technology very broadly. I shall therefore include things that you possibly don’t normally consider as technology at all. Certainly not just the latest high-tech. Just as McLuhan understood television by comparing it with the invention of printing, we can learn a lot about modern technology by comparing it with earlier technical innovations, from the middle ages or even from the stone ages.

    Thus for example, medical/clinical technology includes hypnotism and the dissection of corpses, surgery as well as pharmacology. Optical technology includes mirrors and lenses, as well as cameras and the draftsman’s technique of linear perspective.

    I shall be looking at technology exclusively from the Psychological Perspective: the way we feel about technology, and the way it affects our experience (often unconsciously). I shall ignore the other possible perspectives on technology, which I have elsewhere characterized as the Engineering Perspective, the Scientific Perspective, the Historical Perspective and the Sociological Perspective.

    Technology as attachment

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > views of technology > attachment

    Technology as escape

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > views of technology > escape
    Escape from self Technology provides surrogate experience.

    "Too dull to think, people might read: too tired to read, they might look at the moving pictures: unable to visit the picture theatre they might turn on the radio: in any case, they might avoid the call to action: surrogate lovers, surrogate heroes and heroines, surrogate wealth filled their debilitated and impoverished lives and carried the perfume of unreality into their dwellings. And as the machine itself became, as it were, more active and human, reproducing the organic properties of eye and ear, the human beings who employed the machine as a mode of escape have tended to become more passive and mechanical. Unsure of their own voices, unable to hold a tune, they carry a phonograph or a radio set with them even on a picnic: afraid to be alone with their own thoughts, afraid to confront the blankness and inertia of their own minds, they turn on the radio and eat and talk and sleep to the accompaniment of a continuous stimulus from the outside world: now a band, now a bit of propaganda, now a piece of public gossip called news." [Lewis Mumford]

    Escape from others Technology enables escape from social pleasures into solitary pleasures.

    "The whole trend of the age is away from creative communal amusements and towards solitary mechanical ones. The pub, with its elaborate social ritual, its animated conversations and - at any rate in the North of England - its songs and week-end comedians, is gradually replaced by the passive, drug-like pleasures of the cinema and the radio." [George Orwell]

    "We have already substituted the personal hi-fi for the concert, the rented video for the evening out, the televised press conference for the public meeting. Now the trend is to reduce social contact even further." [Richard Veryard]

    Escape from problems Technology progress enables escape from the past into the future.
    Space travel The possibility of escaping from the earth, together with the possible need to escape from the earth (because of pollution, nuclear war, or merely overpopulation). [Romanyshyn]

    Technology as return

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > views of technology > return
    Architecture Postmodern buildings, revelling in the æsthetic opportunities of technology.
    Hypertext Fragmentation of reality, fragmentation of experience, fragmentation of the self - reassembled into postmodern hyperreality. Both fragmentation and reassembly are ‘encouraged’ by technology and by technological culture.

    "Every manifestation of human culture, from ritual and speech to costume and social organization, is directed ultimately to the remodelling of the human organism and the expression of the human personality." [Lewis Mumford]

    Psychoanalysis Technology provides myth, drama, catharsis. Technology is about desire. Tapping into its energies provides a force for personal and social renewal. Or the opposite.

    Technology dominates our experience

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > views of technology > domination

    It is quite easy for an office worker today to spend far more time ‘interacting’ with machines - computers, telephones, faxes, photocopiers, etc. - than with other human beings. This was once only true of clerks and secretaries (the ‘female’ jobs) but is now increasingly true of professional and management ‘grades’ (the ‘male’ jobs).

    It is quite easy for a child to spend more time learning knowledge and skills from machines - TV, computer games - than from human teachers. Indeed, the TV offers up-to-date and well presented information on school subjects such as geography, science and politics; few teachers have the knowledge, skills and resources to compete with this.

    (My own experience: my teachers persisted in teaching Newtonian physics, as if Einstein and Heisenberg hadn’t happened. The A-level syllabus barely acknowledged anything later than 1900, and we had no right to be aware of modernity.)

    Technology controls us

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > views of technology > control

    Our personalities, our memories, our images of ourselves - these are constructed (de-constructed, re-constructed) in an increasingly technological world. You are what you eat. You are what you watch. You desire what you are not.

    organization people technology

    Repression and its Objects

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > repression

    What is repression?

    Freud and his followers noticed that sex and death were systematically deleted from consciousness. They speculated on the emotional pressures that caused this deletion, and attributed various symptoms to the ‘repression’ of feelings about sex and/or death. Psychoanalysis techniques have been developed to ‘surface’ and deal with repressed feelings about sex and death.

    Psychoanalysis is based on Freud’s original insight, that people repress certain things, and this repression can lead to unhealthy behaviour and/or psychological state. Freud identified certain things that people typically repress, and provided two kinds of explanation for this repression

    Functional what purpose does the repression (typically) serve

    Mechanical what mechanisms (typically) carry out and sustain the repression

    Of course, a complete theory requires both a functional explanation and a mechanical explanation.

    A therapy then needs two further elements, which Freud also claimed to provide:

    Analysis how can we trace back from the symptoms to the repression itself

    Cure how can we improve the psychological health of a person by dealing with the repression (e.g. by surfacing it into awareness)

    Psychoanalysis assumes that the analysis and the cure are the same thing. This may well be true, but there are other schools of therapy that do not make this assumption.

    Objects of repression: sex, death, class, race, gender

    As surely everybody knows (and this common knowledge is itself significant) the object of repression that was of the greatest interest to Freud was sex. He also acknowledged the importance of death, although he thought this of somewhat lesser importance. Some psychoanalysts ranked death higher in importance than sex, and this became one of the closely-fought issues differentiating the many schools of psychoanalysis that have been created during the 20th century.

    sex and death are today the most obvious objects of repression, to the extent that many psychoanalysts can operate as if these were the only ones. Open-minded clinical experience might conceivably identify other possible objects of repression, but some psychoanalysts will automatically create links back to either sex or death. (They will be helped in this by their clients, who will usually enter psychoanalysis already with the expectation that this will happen.)

    Later thinkers, seeking to find links between Freud and Marx, have suggested that class can also be an object of repression. Many people are willing to accede to the fiction that class doesn’t exist, and are easily persuaded to act against their class interests. This has been extensively analysed by sociologists and political activists, who have analysed in great detail: (i) the typical psychological motives for repressing class awareness (ii) the typical psycho-social mechanisms that effect this repression, (iii) the political consequences of this repression, and (iv) some political strategies for overcoming this repression. For some reason, however, no school of psychotherapy has been founded to deal with issues of class.

    Schools are now emerging, however, to deal with issues of race, which is of great interest to people who define themselves by their membership of ethnic groups, or think that they ought to. Schools are also emerging to deal with issues of sex from a feminist perspective; this entirely recasts what exactly is sex, as an object of repression; sex is reformulated into gender.

    It might be argued that because most psychoanalysts deal most of the time with sex and death, these are therefore the most important objects of repression. This may well be true, although an alternative explanation is that they happen to be the objects that are easiest to bring to the surface. This in turn could be either because of the prior expectations of both analyst and analysand, or because they are nearer the surface than other repressed objects and therefore easier to trace.

    Even if we think that sex and death are the most important objects of repression, we don’t have to exclude other objects of repression. A complete and general theory of psychoanalysis should cover all possible objects of repression, rather than focussing on those objects that a given writer believes to be of greatest importance.

    Technology as object of repression

    Technology affects our thinking in numerous ways. But we refuse to think about how it does this. The pervasive influence of technology is systematically deleted from our conscious minds. So this systematic deletion itself becomes an important psychological fact.

    However, technology has not been properly placed on the agenda of psychoanalysis (although it perhaps relates to issues of patriarchy and rationality, which have been explored by feminist psychoanalysts), and has therefore not been systematically surfaced.

    organization people technology

    The process of repressing technology

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > repressing technology

  • Technology raises powerful emotions and denials
  • Technology communicates itself invisibly
  • The medium is the message
  • Why do we want to blind ourselves to technology?

  • These examples show how technology affects our thinking in numerous ways. But we refuse to think about it. It is systematically deleted from our conscious minds. So this systematic deletion itself becomes an important psychological fact.

    Technology raises powerful emotions and denials

    Some people experience fear of technology; others are fascinated by it. But many people refuse even to discuss the effects of technology. They resist any notion that it might be important. Or they acknowledge its importance at a general intellectual level, but refuse to analyse it in detail. (Likewise, well-educated people will concede the importance of the sexual drives in theory, but don’t want to examine their own, for fear of what they may dis-cover.)

    Technology communicates itself invisibly

    When watching television, we cannot all the time remember that we are watching television. We forget that we are wearing spectacles or contact lenses. When we are reading a book at night, we cannot all the time remember that this is a book that has been printed by movable type, and that the electric light is powered by a coal-fired power-station 50 miles away.

    But - it may be argued - we can remember these things when they are drawn to our attention. So this is not real repression, just temporary absence from awareness.

    Of course people know they are watching television, or can easily become aware of this. But what they do not know is precisely how watching television differs from the experience it simulates, and how this difference affects their thinking. And this is something people find it practically impossible to think objectively about.

    The medium is the message

    So said McLuhan. It’s a good slogan, but like most slogans, at best misleading. Umberto Eco unpacks McLuhan’s slogan into three contradictory formulas:
      1. The form of the message is the real content of the message. This is the thesis of avant-garde literature and criticism.
      2. The code, that is to say the structure of a language - or of another system of communication - is the message. This is the famous anthropological thesis of Benjamin Lee Whorf, for whom the view of the world is determined by the structure of the language.
      3. The channel is the message (that is, the physical means chosen to convey the information determines either the form of the message, or its contents, or the very structure of the codes. This is a familiar idea in æsthetics, where the choice of artistic material notoriously determines the cadences of the spirit and the argument itself.
    Even if we reject these apparently extreme positions, we could argue that form and content are so closely intertwined that neither can be considered or touched in isolation of the other. You cannot change or control one, without changing or controlling the other.   How does this apply to technology? In many situations, technology plays the role of the medium, the form. Controlling the technology means controlling the agenda, and vice versa.   When we conceptually distinguish form and content, then to argue that they are practically inextricable, this applies not merely to the obvious mass media (TV, popular film, newspapers), but also to other forms of entertainment and communication (Nintendo, Disneyworld, party politics).

    Why do we want to blind ourselves to technology?

    Dependence We do not want to see how dependent we are. We treat technology as a commodity, which will be available to us at our whim, and we do not want to think that it might not always be available. (Borgmann shows how powerful is the pressure to increase the availability of any given technology.)
    Loss of control We don’t like to discover that our ideas and perceptions are not our own.
    Self-identity We do not want to see how alike we have become to our machines.

    organization people technology

    The process of making technology visible again

    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > technology as object of repression

  • The importance of visibility
  • Towards feminist engineering?
  • Therapeutic possibilities

  • The importance of visibility

    In an earlier paper, I argued that technology was becoming increasingly invisible, and should make itself visible again. I still believe this is valid, although there are some theoretical issues to resolve. (For example, Scruton’s assertion that there is a contradiction between the visibility of the surface and the visibility of the structure, as well as Sennett’s assertion that there is a contradiction between visibility and involvement.)

    Furthermore, its very expression reveals that it is only a partial solution. It is not for technology to make itself visible, but for us to make technology visible to ourselves. We need to address the socio-psychological forces towards the invisibility of technology (e.g. the attitudes of engineers, and the economic system in which they operate) and the psychological reasons why consumers accept and even welcome this invisibility.

    Towards feminist engineering?

    There is a sense in which engineering is a non-feminist occupation (many excellent women engineers notwithstanding). The great engineers of the past - Brunel, Eiffel, Ebenezer Howard, Leonardo da Vinci - embody certain masculine virtues as well as shortcomings. Many of the techniques of engineering were developed in warfare, and only later applied to peaceful technology.

    Some modern writers on engineering emphasize human scale, and this suggests one route towards the ‘new man’ engineer, aware of softer values as well as hard. But others will continue to look for new strong masculine images: technology as protector, technology as magic (silver bullet), technology as order. These are ambivalent images, and have their dark sides (shadows). But we do not deal with the dark by shutting it off, and we cannot deal with technology and its pervasive influence on human culture by distancing ourselves from it. Instead, we must engage with technology, informed with a fine sense of its strengths and weakness, its light and dark.

    Therapeutic possibilities

    If the analysis is accepted, then it prompts the exploration of therapeutic possibilities.

    The theoretical argument is not dependent on clinical experience, but the development of therapeutic techniques is. Without specific clinical experience, we can only speculate on the therapeutic possibilities of a technological focus in psychotherapy.

    organization people technology


    veryard projects > technology > technology and repression > references
    Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form

    Harvard University Press, 1964

    p 69
    christopher alexander
    Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life 

    University of Chicago Press, 1984

    p 55 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Umberto Eco, Faith in Fakes pp 234-235 buy from amazon uk
    Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (1934) pp 315-316
    Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (1967) p 10
    George Orwell (Listener, 21st January 1943)
    Robert Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream (1989) out of print
    Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire (1986) p 12 buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (1977) buy from amazon us buy from amazon uk
    Richard Veryard, "Cry God for Maggie, England and St Clive"
    London: New Society, 9th May 1985

    Richard Veryard, "The importance of visibility in systems"
    Human Systems Management 6/2, 1986, pp 167-175 (pdf version available)

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