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Cyberpsychologist John Suler
Dr. John Suler.

John Suler: ‘We need to understand how technology helps and hurts us’

Author, professor and psychologist and one the pioneers in the field of cyberpsychology John Suler speaks on range of issues — from impact of technology to Taoism to psychoanalysis. He also shares tips on how to tackle trolling and bullying in the online world.

It is widely accepted that you are the first psychologist to study the impact of the Internet on human behaviour. Did you expect to see such advancement in technology and impact when you started out?

When I first started doing research in cyberpsychology, I knew that the internet had opened up a whole new realm for human interaction that we needed to study, although some psychologists at that time were skeptical about whether anything truly important was happening online. That skepticism has now faded away. As I mention in my book Psychology of the Digital Age, I have always refrained from trying to predict where technology might take us, because not only does the technology take unexpected turns, but people start using the technology in ways no one ever anticipated.

One of your interests is eastern philosophy. There is a perception that concepts of eastern philosophies are hard to understand for most westerners. What attracted you to eastern philosophies?  

I became interested in eastern philosophy as an undergraduate student, when one of my professors required us to read Herrigel’s classic book The Method of Zen. From that point on, I was hooked on  eastern philosophy, especially the idea that there are ways of perceiving and understanding reality that transcend logic and rational thinking.

Science is a wonderful tool we humans created, but it does not have a monopoly on understanding the mind or the world around us.

When we talk about technology and artificial intelligence, we are essentially talking reducing the world in terms 0s and 1s or in the form of binaries, isn’t it? Do you think natural processes can be templatized in such a form? Or, as philosopher Alan Watts puts it, are “we are trying the catch the reality of water using the net of technology”?

Concerning this issue, it’s important to note that Taoism is based on the idea that all things can be explained in terms of the interaction of opposites, the interaction between yin and yang. So in that sense it is a dualistic system.

In fact, The I Ching inspired Leibnitz to create the binary system, which is the language of computer science. However, as evident in the ancient yin/yang symbol that all of us are familiar with, Taoism carries this dualism further, beyond the realm of how scientists usually think.

It’s the idea that yin and yang blend into each other, exist within each other, create each other, and that they together  emerge from a realm that transcends dualities. That’s what Alan Watts was referring to: the illusion that dualities actually exist as a distinct reality.

According to you, is psychology a science or an art?

It’s both! It is the objective study of phenomenon “out there” in the world, while also recognizing that this study is also a personal and emotional expression of our own personality, lifestyle, and of the human mind itself.

You have spent over 25 years researching various facets of cyberpsychology. If you have to list out top three reasons on why policymakers and educationists need to concentrate on this subject, what would they be?

– If we don’t understand the psychology of how we use technology, technology will start to use us.

– We need to understand the psychological reasons why more and more technology is not necessarily good.

– We need to understand how technology helps us and how it hurts us.

You have also spoken about how psychoanalysis and eastern thought converge at a point. In both, I believe, imagery and symbols play a key role. Can you elaborate on why you believe so?  

Images and symbols come from a realm of experience and wisdom very different than relying only on words and logic. They are sensory, holistic, and packed with meaning.  A picture is worth a thousand words.

How do we tackle issues like bullying, trolling? Any tips?  

The basic rules: Learn to recognize it in the early stages. Don’t reply to bullies and trolls. Report them.

Favorite book? Favorite food? Favorite Zen quote?

It’s hard to pick out one favorite book, although I must admit that I love really good pizza. Here’s one of my favorite Zen quotes: “To study Buddhism is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to forget ourselves.”Dogen Zenji

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