From Tinder to Transference: A Roundtable on Technology and Psychology

with Jamieson Webster, Alex Kriss, Carlene MacMillan, and Marcus Coelen

How does technology affect emotional intelligence? Do the tools we use make us happier, sadder, dumber, smarter? Are those even the right questions to ask? We asked four mental health professionals to tell us about the role that technology plays in their practice, and in the inner lives of their patients.

Alex Kriss

The job of the psychotherapist is, in no small part, to help the patient find middle ground between extremes. This is what Janet Malcolm called “the freedom to be uninteresting.” When the patient can imagine more ordinary ways of being than the Gothic binaries of love/hate, depression/mania, or serenity/suicide, she begins to discard oppressive patterns of behavior in favor of living like herself.

The same philosophy should be applied to considering the role of technology within the psychotherapy context: it is not pathology or balm, but something in between, and what that something is depends entirely on how it is used.

Jamieson Webster

Patients know they have your cell phone. Patients will text you. Patients will search you on the internet. Patients will find out what they can. Patients will ask you to Skype or FaceTime them. Patients will use any of this technology, which becomes part of the transference. Why shouldn’t they? And why shouldn’t the technology be absorbed into the treatment?

Marcus Coelen

In psychoanalysis, the question of technology and media is the question of transference. Strangely enough, the German term for transference—“Übertragung”—is also used for “transmission” in the sense of technical media, as in “live transmission”— “Direktübertragung,” or more commonly, “Live-Übertragung.”

“Übertragung”—“transmission,” “transference”—also means “metaphor.”

Carlene MacMillan

I actually find texting much more efficient than returning voicemails and playing phone tag. Even returning an email takes more effort to do than text. Particularly for teenagers, texting is very familiar with them. I’m happy to meet them where they are at, because they’re not going to call me, and even if I leave them a voicemail they’re probably not going to listen to it.

The one thing I’ve heard people worrying about is: What if you missed a text that was about suicide or some other kind of safety issue? But I think that the same thing can be true of a voicemail, especially if you’re using your work mail in your office. You’re not going to be checking it non-stop. I’m not going to check a voicemail in the middle of a meeting. But if I get a text, chances are I have my phone on me. I very rarely miss a text and so I find that it’s actually safer. I work with a lot of high-risk people who have chronic suicidality, so it actually matters for me.

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Alex Kriss is a clinical psychologist in New York.

Jamieson Webster is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York.

Carlene MacMillan is an adult and child psychologist who practices in New York.

Marcus Coelen is a psychoanalyst who practices in Berlin and Paris.