Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Cutting the Gordian Interknot

John Suler

As I mentioned in my last post, converting the family room downstairs into my very own man cave required clearing out the closets. When I pulled down one box from the shelves, I discovered a massive octopus-like entanglement of cords for computers, printers, external drives, scanners, digital cameras, sound systems, and various long-forgotten devices.

How could I have let this happen? I’m usually very careful about storing stuff. Talking to myself as Oliver Hardy would address his comedic partner Stan Laurel, “This is another fine mess you got me into.”

As I began to disentangle the knotty beast, I consider its symbolism: complexity, intricacy, confusion, bafflement, unruliness, intractability, futility. Was this not a metaphor for our digital age?

Knowing I should probably save some of these wires while discarding the rest, I decided to tackle the long and tedious task of unraveling this Frankenstein’s monster. But first, being a cyberpsychologist as well as photographer specializing in conceptual images, I took the photo you see on this page. As we all well know in this age of online photo-sharing, if you don’t have a picture then it didn’t really happen.

As I began to disentangle the knotty beast, I consider its symbolism: complexity, intricacy, confusion, bafflement, unruliness, intractability, futility.

Was this not a metaphor for our digital age? There is the mishmash of stuff that collects on our computers and phones. There is the growing jumble of text, buttons, images, ads, notifications, and contacts in our social media accounts. Last but certainly not least, there is the seemingly never-ending hodgepodge of the entire Internet – a complex, confusing, unruly network of intermingling things that some theorists say resembles the connectedness of the human brain, but is perhaps more akin to convoluted gray matter gone haywire.

We spend most of our digital days trying to carefully navigate these knots of cognitive overload as best we can, just as the figure in the photograph. But is that our only strategy?

Cutting the Gordian Knot. That’s the expression that came to mind as I wrestled with the recalcitrant mound of tentacles. According to the legend, when Alexander the Great marched into Gordium, the capital of Phrygia, he was shown the chariot of the ancient founder of the city, Gordius, which was tied to a pole by an extremely intricate knot with its lose end hidden. Prophecy stated that it could only be untied by the future conqueror of Asia. Rather than attempting to slowly undo the knot with his hands, Alexander pulled out his sword and sliced right through it, thus leading to the phrase “cutting the Gordian knot” as a metaphor for a bold solution to a complicated problem.

So too we might try such a bold response to our digital entanglements: Just cut the chariot loose. We could be like Paul Miller, a technology journalist who decided to abandon the Internet and all social media for a year in order to become more productive as well as “find himself” (he made a video for YouTube about it). Or like Sherry Turkle, a leading expert on the psychology of the digital self and critic of our unhealthy symbiosis with digitized interconnectedness, we could get rid of our phones. The Fear of Missing Out will prove to be an obstacle, but as Christina Crook suggests in the title of her book, there is also the JOY of missing out.

If those actions feel a bit too bold, we can go more moderate with our cut. Some of my undergraduate students tell me they dropped out of all institutionalized forms of social media, although they still text with family and friends. In the true spirit of Sunday, the day of rest, we could take the day off from our devices. Cutting the Gordian Interknot might simply mean not taking your phone to bed or turning it off during the family dinner. As for me, I paid no attention to social media while setting up my man cave last summer… I didn’t miss it. In fact, it felt like a relief.

Just a small slice of cutting oneself free from cyberknots can go a long way. Absence can make our heart grow fonder. We might come to appreciate the Internet more, perhaps even learn to use it more wisely and moderately thanks to our swordplay taking the edge off of digital compulsions. In fact, I have a feeling that cutting the Gordian Interknot will become a trend, as I indicated in one of my recent tweets (in exactly 140 characters with spaces, I might add):

The History of Social Media Use:
Past, Present, and Future…
1.  Only geeks
2.  Only cool people
3.  Everyone
4.  Only un-cool people

About The Author

John Suler

John Suler is author of Psychology of the Digital Age (2016). He is Professor of Psychology at Rider University's Science and Technology Center and Honorary Professor at the Royal ...

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