MOM, DAD, COMPUTER
TRANSFERENCE REACTIONS TO COMPUTERS

by John Suler, Ph.D.

Back To Part I

You as You, Computer as Parent

This is the most basic, obvious type of transference - the type I've already described. You experience the other as being like your parent and yourself as the child you once were.

So let's say Leonard had a mother who had many rules for how he should behave as a child, but the rules always seemed to be changing. Even though he tried to figure out and obey his mother's requests, he never quite succeeded and never satisfied her. He could never seem to do anything right. As a result, he felt frustrated, helpless, and defeated whenever he tried his best but ultimately failed in the eyes of his mother. As an adult, Leonard experiences his computer in the same light. He is intimidated by it, is never quite sure how to please it. When he tries to accomplish something, the computer doesn't seem to like what he does. It won't respond. He gets error messages. He has failed once again. His computer makes him feel frustrated, helpless, and defeated. Maybe he even tries to avoid it, just like he did with his mother.

Jenny had a father who was frail and not quite competent as a person. She loved him, and so took care of him and was very attentive to his needs. Perhaps she sometimes sacrificed her own needs in order to attend to his. As an adult, she perceives her computer as something that is a bit fragile and vulnerable. She is very careful about how she uses it because she doesn't want to cause damage. She is very conscientious about running diagnostics and anti-virus programs. The health and well-being of her computer, she feels very earnestly, is in her hands. Some might even say she is bit over-protective of her machine.

Leonard and Jenny are only two examples. This first type of transference can take many different forms. Traditional psychoanalysis ("Freudian" theory) often described it in terms of sexual wishes and fantasies towards the parent. The child hopes to possess the opposite sex parent as someone to satisfy their sensual/emotional desires. Later, after resolving the conflicts associated with these wishes, the child learns to identify with the sexuality of the same sex parent. In his article "The Internet Regression," Norman Holland focuses on these types of transferences towards computers. The computer is seen as seductive, as a sex object, a satisfier of desire, as a symbol of sexual power and prowess. As an illustration, consider this real conversation from a cyberspace chat room in which the members are discussing how one of their friends "Suzy" on CUseeme (internet video conferencing) was flashed by a exhibitionist.

Daisy: so all she sees is a big penis on her screen! lol!
Hawkeye: lol
Daisy: I can't figure out why he wanted to see *Suzy's* penis!
Dragon: next ur gonna say she has a 15 inch monitor, right?
Daisy: 20 inch, Dragon
THR: geez and black and white haha
Mr. Tops: 17 in rotating
Daisy: hahahahhahah
Tweety: bigger is... bigger!
Dragon: wow, no wonder you gals like macs so much
Daisy: doesn't have to be bigger, just better
Daisy: and rechargeable
Tweety: or plugged in the wall...
Hawkeye: what about bigger AND better?
Mr. Tops: its not the size of the monitor, but the driver behind it
Tweety: with loads of amps
Hawkeye: as one of my friends like to say, "How hard is your big drive?"
Daisy: lol!
Dragon: more importantly, Hawkeye, is it compressed?
Daisy: more importantly, is it unzipped
Hawkeye: and how often do you optimize it?
Lola: or is it backed up?
Dragon: only in san francisco
Daisy: LOL!

Freud would have a field day with this dialogue. It's not too difficult to detect themes about phallic power, penis envy, castration fears, and a miscellaneous collection of heterosexual and homosexual issues. However, I don't want to dwell on the idea of computers as powerful (parental) sex objects. This type of transference applies to some people, but not all. I'm not even convinced that it is a prominent type of transference. The language of classical Freudian theory also gets downright sexist and culturally biased.

What I think is most important about this "erotic" transference is not the sexual feelings towards computers, but rather the perception of the computer as POWERFUL, perhaps in ways similar to how parents are perceived as powerful. This perception of power is obvious in the dialogue from the chat room. The computer can think faster than us, often has more knowledge on a subject, can perform tasks that we couldn't do alone... and now, in the age of the internet, is a link and guide to a vast, wondrous "outside" world. For some people, these qualities may stir up feelings of admiration, awe, fear, competition - not unlike transferential feelings towards any authority figure.

You as Parent, Computer as You

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

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