THE DIGITAL UNCONSCIOUS

Modern information technology recovered the psychoanalytic concept of the Unconscious.

An important distinction has to be made between the unconscious of the last century, and the unconscious of today. Starting in the 1960s, there was a crucial paradigm shift in this regard. For the greater part of the XX century, Sigmund Freud’s original model was dominant:

This model is based on the hydraulic machine. The mind (the ‘’ego’’) presides over the unconscious (‘’the id’’). The ego also represses the id, so that only the ‘’tip of the iceberg’’ is visible. The rest remains hidden in the depths of the ocean. To psychoanalyze means to bring the hidden content to the surface.

But psychoanalysis changed its own definition of the Unconscious. In the 1960s, Jacques Lacan explained the Unconscious as a linguistic, rather than energetic (hydraulic) mechanism. The model is best represented by a palimpsest.

This is a manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely scraped off or erased. Visually, the earlier writing appears as a ghostly trace. You might also think of it as something ‘’half uttered’’. Its meaning is at the tip of your tongue, but still needs to be formulated.

In the new psychoanalytic model, the conscious is a text written on top of the unconscious. This implies that the two ‘’layers’’ of the psyche exist parallel to each other. We cannot speak of the unconscious as something hidden in the depths. Rather, it is something that lays hidden in plain sight. This is what we mean by the famous expression ‘’read between the lines’’. Some parts of the unconscious text are half-legible. This is because there was a mistranslation, such as you will encounter e.g. in symptoms, or dreams, or slips of the tongue. The conscious tends to misread thoughts in the unconscious. To psychoanalyze means to translate the unconscious text properly.

Every day on the Internets we work with so-called hypertext. The hypertext is technically NOT a palimpsest. There are links, established by clicks, between words. But consider augmented reality, which is becoming everyday reality. In augmented reality, the overlapping of our conscious text, and the virtual text on screen, creates a third entity. This entity is not fully articulated, but it contains the properties of both ‘’layers’’. Just like in the psychoanalytic model, it is a text that simultaneously belongs and doesn’t belong to the background. Visually, it is often represented as a ghost.

You can see the ghost both as a metaphor, and a realistic description, of the unconscious text.

There is an important lesson for digital education. In our consumption of the media, the eye is first attracted to the element that falls out of the picture. It can fall out literally, for example, in 3D cinema, or with Google glasses. But it can also fall out metaphorically — as half-uttered desire, weird or ‘queer’ behavior, a resistant, or rebellious element, et cetera. As we move deeper into virtual reality, this paradox will become even more obvious. The center of gravity is precisely the element that defies gravity.