New Internationalist

Addicted To Perfection

Issue 162

new internationalist
issue 162 - August 1986

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Photo: F Dickson / Camera Press
Addicted to perfection
Adults and children alike may be tempted to escape from the messy
emotional conflicts around them into the relative calm of a perfect
computerized micro-world where everything behaves according
to strict rules. Anuradha Vittachi argues that human beings
should not have to reach for such infallibility.

MICHAEL, aged twelve, used to ask his father to play tennis with him. But unless Michael won, the game would end in tears. After a while his father became so nervous of Michael's tantrums that he would subtly lower his standard of play so that Michael could win.

Then his father bought a computer and Michael learned to play video games. At first, the pattern was the same. If Michael lost he would storm off, shouting at the computer. But a few days later, Michael would creep back to try again. And again. Eventually, he was to be found constantly at the computer. Now, aged fifteen, he spends most of his free time hunched over the keyboard. He doesn't just play video games now - he's a sophisticated programmer, in love with his machine.

Why did Michael form such a close bond with a machine? Why do so many adolescents - and not a few adults - form such bonds?

An answer offered by psychologists is that people see more than just the machine's competence: they see a way of exploring and expressing their own competence. Professor Sherry Turkle, of MIT's Program in Science, Technology and Society, after a six-year study of computer users, claims that 'computers enter into the development of personality, of identity, and even of sexuality'.

Pre-adolescent children, for instance, use video games as a means of asserting their effectiveness. Children, as small dependents in a defeatingly powerful and complex world, tend to be short on experiences of mastery. Families and classrooms are full of hidden agendas and power dynamics that they cannot grasp. The video game provides a more limited and fairer test; in a microworld, a child can and does win.

And, unlike school exams, these video 'tests' are fast and exciting. Any hamfisted adult who has tried to play will testify to the speed of hand, eye and decision-making required. If you don't muster all available resources, you don't stand a chance. But if you do learn to mobilise and focus your energies, you are swiftly rewarded.

School exams condition most children to believe they are failures. But the computer trains children to assert their will and to win. Seymour Papert, high priest of computer learning, believes that computers help school-children develop self-confidence. Normally the teacher always knows more than the child: whatever the child 'discovers for herself, she knows it is old news for the teacher. Whenever she swims across a new river, the teacher is already on the bank, waiting. But with a computer, a child can swim far beyond teacher or parent. As Papert puts it, she has the sense of 'being a mathematician, rather than learning mathematics'.

As adolescence approaches, the child's psychological preoccupation switches from 'mastery' to 'identity'. The adolescent finds his outline by bumping hard against someone else's: in this way he begins to differentiate his identity, his own voice and values, from that of the others. Usually that 'other' is an authority figure, a parental voice. As therapist Joan Evans of the Institute of Psychosynthesis explains, confrontation is essential for this process to take place. But it is, she admits, no fun for the parents, who till now have regarded being close, gentle and mutually yielding as the loving ideal between parent and child.

Being bumped into is a painful process, as Michael's dad discovered. He ducked the confrontation - by letting Michael win. So Michael found himself a new challenger, who wouldn't let him off so lightly: the computer.

However much Michael raged, the computer stuck to its guns. And when Michael crept back to try again, the computer didn't gloat, or chide. It didn't get irritated when he made the same mistake a dozen times. It didn't mock. St Computer was not only ascetically uncompromising, it was also divinely patient.

In the end, the kid has to give up on the relationship with the computer altogether, or to rise to the challenge. He can't go on blaming the computer for 'being mean' or 'cheating' forever. In this way, the computer 'helps' the kid to grow up by facing up to his own responsibilities within the relationship - in psychological jargon, he is differentiating the part he plays in the system from the part played by his partner - something that's very hard to do when the partner is a complex, emotionally fluctuating human being.

But the relationship between child and computer doesn't always go down such positive routes. Instead of being a stepping stone towards achieving confidence and identity, the computer can become a boulder sealing the doorway to a private world where the child can hide.

Michael may have developed a more mature relationship with his computer - but he still gets into a foul mood if he loses at tennis. When things get sticky in the real world, Michael doesn't wait to resolve the mess - he scurries to the safety of the computer room, with its one-way emotions.

It's even worse when the computer addict is older. Colin, for instance, is head of a data-collecting project. His secretaries keep leaving because they're bored - he doesn't leave them enough work to do, though he is so overworked he rarely sees his family. When his wife had their second baby, she had to postpone the time she left the hospital because he was too busy to pick her up.

Why does he not delegate some of this work? Because Colin plus his beloved word processor are a hot combination no human secretary can beat when it comes to carrying out a task perfectly.

Perfection is the key: the unconscious ideal that many humans reach for. Mercifully, we all fail constantly. Full of chagrin, we rage at life (like Michael at the computer) and call it mean or a cheat, until we finally realise that humans were never meant to be infallible; realise that vulnerability is what gives us our human warmth.

But the longing for perfection persists. If we were only perfect, says the fantasy, we would be beyond criticism; we would be loved; we would be good; we would never be rejected or hurt ... It is a deep-seated neurosis, our 'addiction to perfection' to use the succinct phrase coined by Jungian therapist Marion Woodman. And the development of the computer both reflects and exacerbates this neurosis.

Why worry if people choose to devote themselves to computers? The anxiety about the psychological health of hackers, or Michael, or Colin, centres around the conviction that it must be 'better' for a human being to have a good relationship with another human rather than with a computer.

But what is interesting is that the question needs to be asked at all. It would never occur to anyone to wonder whether my son would be better off finding his identity while interacting with me or with my washing machine. What is so different about computers as machines that we compare them to humans, rather than to other machines? How is it that when we fantasize about computers they appear as robots - human-shaped?

To answer this, I went back to my direct experience. Why do I have a washing machine? I could always wash my clothes by hand. But I now put a machine in an intermediary position between my hand and the clothes-washing. My rationalization for this is that the clothes come out cleaner and that I save time and energy. Neither of these 'reasons' need be correct. However, I choose to project onto the machine the idea that it is liberating me - though in reality I am giving away a measure of my power to it.

Most of my relationships with machines follow this pattern of low-level dependence. But there is one machine I am seriously dependent on: my typewriter. I've projected onto this far more than the idea that it will write clearer words on paper than I can write by hand; I've projected magic onto it. I believe that I can't write as well on another machine. If there were a fire, it would be the first object I'd save. So I've given away a great deal of power to this machine.

The computer is like this - only even more so. It can not only write but draw, and colour - and change the colours, like my imagination can change them. If I want to present the argument back to front, I can swap the paragraphs in a trice. It erases without mess. I can spin an object so I can see it from all sides. Computers are becoming increasingly able to replicate the mind - at a touch from the traditional ambassador of the mind, the hand.

The computer can also do something people are not good at: remember. Well, our conscious minds at least aren't good at it. And because of this capacious memory, a computer can detect patterns in data that are only visible when an enormous amount of it is held together simultaneously. It may well be that my unconscious could show me equally fascinating patterns but I don't spend much time listening to my unconscious.

The more time I spend looking at the patterns shown me by the computer, however, the less I come to value the patterns selected by my unconscious - so I may become far more dependent and powerless than I've ever been before.

These are all tiny examples of how we give away our power by projecting it onto computers. The absolute example is the most horrifying of all: the way we've let computers decide if and how World War Three will happen. We've put our planet into the utmost danger - in order to 'be secure'. These are the grisly paradoxes we have arrived at, through our haste to project - rather than to hold on to and deal with - our responsibility and our power. Just as Michael and Colin have run to the false security of the microworld rather than face up to resolving human conflict so, collectively, have we all.

Anuradha Vittachi, formerly a co-editor of NI, Is now a freelance writer and psychotherapist.

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If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites
one author to justify their style of argument.

Editor: You quote psychologists liberally. Is this just to add specious authority to what is mere speculation?

Vittachi: The references to the psychologists are there to add authority. They don't make what I say any more 'true', since I will have selected for quotation those authorities that back up my own point of view - and have discredited in my own mind those that argue a different case.

So why put the authorities in? Well, if I were writing this article only for you, I wouldn't bother. We've known each other for years and you know that what I write is, to the best of my knowledge, what I believe to be the truth. I don't write cynically. It is still 'opinion', but it has such integrity as I have. The readers, on the other hand, have no personal experience of me. All they know is that I am a journalist - and readers would be unlikely to trust my opinions without supporting evidence - though they would be wise to note that the supporting evidence is just as much biased in favour of my beliefs as the rest.

 

Editor: You excuse one of your statements as 'psychological jargon'. Could this be because it makes no sense in ordinary language - and therefore perhaps no sense at all?

Vittachi: I'm suspicious too that this is often the case when specialist language is used. And, like you, I'm irritated by authors who excuse themselves but do it anyway - 'Sorry to use this cliché but.'

As a result of these two well-ingrained antipathies, I did hesitate before writing this part of the sentence. I elected to go ahead because I felt that the substance of the statement had already been expressed in the first part of the sentence, in ordinary language (though ordinary language can create illusions too). The purpose of the restatement was to recast the thought in more abstract form. I hoped It might shift the readers' focus from the particular content of this example to the more general principle at work: the process, rather than the content - which is, of course, precisely what you are asking me to do here.

 

Editor: 'Vulnerability is what gives us our human warmth' Is surely a questionable proposition presented as a universal truth. Presumably you could also argue that the search for perfection is one thing that distinguishes human beings from animals - though this might not fit your case.

Vittachi: I wondered whether I would get away with saying this so nakedly! Yes I agree that searching for perfection is different to addiction.

An example. I could say: 'I would prefer this article to be perfect and will aim in that direction.' But when it's needed I will hand it in. If I were an addict, I would find it too galling to hand you an article that exposed its - and therefore my - imperfections. But by denying that imperfection had a place in the human scheme, I would be reducing my chances of engaging with other beings.

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