Many of the dilemmas and opportunities caused by the emergence of the Internet fall squarely in psychology's domain, Russ Newman, PhD, JD, APA executive director for practice, told a townhall meeting at APA's Annual Convention.

"Profound cultural shifts are occurring that include changes in the way we exchange information, the way we communicate, the way we relate to each other, the way we behave, the way we feel, even the way we think, organize and problem solve," he said.

That's why, he urged the audience, "We have an opportunity to be a pre-eminent profession within the Internet culture."

Indeed, said Newman, the arenas are myriad in which psychology can lead in maximizing the Internet's opportunity and mitigating its threats.

New ways of organizing

In just one pervasive example, said Newman, the ability of "anyone to connect with anyone and some to connect with everyone," is allowing the network--"an organizational form linking heretofore separate people, groups and organizations"--to compete with, if not replace, the more traditional organizational forms: the hierarchies--as in government and corporations--and the marketplace. The network's flexibility, as adopted by many of the new dot-com companies, is "thought to be much better suited to the complexities of the changing society and defined by its ideal of cooperation and motivated by group empowerment in pursuit of knowledge."

In the coming decades, said Newman, the hierarchy, the marketplace and the network forms are likely to integrate, with the aid of technology, to create a hybrid form with the strengths and the efficiencies of all three. And the development of that new form is just one of the cultural convergences psychology is positioned to facilitate, he indicated.

Avoiding enabled narrowness

On the other hand, said Newman, one of the Internet's threats may be an ironic narrowing of information for individuals--and even an unwanted narrow-mindedness. That's because people have begun to manage information overload with technologies for filtering, personalizing and customizing.

Such screening, along with telecommuting and doing business online, may allow us to communicate only with like-minded people, he warned. As a recent article in Time pointed out, Newman said, society may be able to avoid contact with the supermarket check-out lady, the librarian and the shoppers at the mall, who "are all handy reminders of the larger community that we are part of, multicultural, socio-economically diverse, yet bound by a common nature."

Psychologists, as experts in how people relate to each other, should be key in dealing with such challenges of emerging technology as well as its benefits, said Newman.

And with regard to health services, he said, "the question is not simply whether health services should be delivered via the Internet, but rather what services under what conditions can be effectively delivered through the Internet or other telecommunications technologies."

Research is just beginning to answer these questions, he said.

Meanwhile, psychology's wisdom will also be tapped for other trends, he predicted:

  • The new "electronic democracy" will allow individuals not only to vote and express their views to the government online, but also to know immediately whether a representative has voted as "instructed," raising the specter of citizens manipulating their representatives like puppets.

  • "A growing body of literature is demonstrating how electronic communication may be effective for some things, but not for others." For example, "Electronic communication is particularly effective at monitoring the status of an issue, sending alerts, broadcasting information and invoking action," he said. But research is finding that it is not nearly as effective as face-to-face communication for negotiation and consensus building.

  • In terms of personal relationships, the Internet promises more connectedness through e-communities and communication with friends and relatives. However, said Newman, "some research has already found loneliness, depression and disconnection resulting from Internet use."

Further, he indicated, "There may be as of yet an unidentified price to pay for technological advances in a culture where relationships can be pursued or discharged at a click of a mouse."

Facilitating culture integration

"But even beyond this," said Newman, "psychology should be positioned to help facilitate the many changes necessary to integrate our existing culture with the Internet culture. If we as psychologists are not central to this necessary integration of people, behavior and culture, we will have missed an opportunity, I assure you, we will come to regret."

He noted that there is no one way for psychologists to bring their skills and expertise to bear on the cultural convergence process. "We will be limited only by our creativity, our flexibility and our integrity," he said.