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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021


Parallel Papers Session 1
Friday 5 July 1.45pm-3.00 pm, EEST
Paper Code: PP26
CE Credits Available

More-than human relations: technology as an actor in our discontented organizations and civilizations.

Presenter: Nick Waggett
Moderator: Louisa Brunner

New and emerging technologies, and how we relate to them, are a significant part of the ‘radical disruption to many of our previously taken-for-granted patterns, routines and expectations’.

Technologies of many kinds, including smart phones, social media, algorithms, and machine learning AI, may be implicated in the ‘unthinking response to fundamental disruption [that] can lead to amplification of conflict.’

In order to understand their role in these radical disruptions, we must take seriously the idea that technologies are powerful actors in what we have previously considered to be exclusively human relations and social dynamics. We need to understand how technology is entangled in our intra- and inter-psychic processes.

Whilst all previous technological revolutions have, along with many benefits, thrown up problems that have had to be addressed over time, such as working conditions in factories, the current wave of technologies are different in that they are designed to be relational: they connect us and enter into our relationships and in so doing make significant changes to them. Algorithms designed to keep us engaged also filter what we get to see and therefore change our perception of reality.

The paper will develop findings from my Doctoral research which investigated the impact of information and communication technologies on organizational processes. In parallel with their many advantages, these technologies are transmitters of anxiety because they are often the only place where the split-off bad aspects of ourselves can be evacuated, in the absence of true containment in our modern networked society. However, technology is a failed container. Drawing on Bion’s theory of thinking, technology has no alpha function which is required for the containment of anxiety and the emergence of genuine knowledge rather than a surface knowing, which has no meaning. We are less able to make sense of our own experience and that of others: empathy is reduced.

As anxiety and unthought elements ricochet around our networks at increasing speed and amplification our social defences against it become ever more rigid. As Menzies Lyth showed, social defences inhibit development of the individual's understanding, knowledge and skills that enable reality to be handled effectively and pathological anxiety mastered. As a result, we feel helpless in the face of new or strange tasks or problems such as the climate emergency and mass migration.

In response, our role as psychoanalytic practitioners is to contribute to increased understanding and containment; to help maintain flexible and abstract thinking and conceptualisation; and to promote and enable relatedness and empathy. We must embrace the benefits of new technologies, and the advances they bring, whilst recognising their role as actors in our entangled civilizations.

Biographical Summary

Dr Nick Waggett is course lead for the Professional Doctorate in advanced practice and research: consultation and the organisation, and the Qualification in consultation at the Tavistock Clinic. He has a Masters in health service studies and a Masters in consultation and the organisation: psychoanalytic and systemic approaches, and completed the Professional Doctorate in consultation and the organisation in 2018. His Prof Doc thesis investigated the impact of new technologies on organisational processes and the implications for consultancy practice. Nick was previously Chief Executive of the Association of Child Psychotherapists. He has taught on several academic programmes and provided consultancy to organisations in the public sector.