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Do big data and data mining influence our identities? Interview with Jacob Johanssen

An Opinion Piece by Jacob Johanssen, published by In Analysis

Jacob Johanssen is a Senior Lecturer in the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), University of Westminster, UK. His research includes digital media audiences, psychoanalysis and the media, affect theory, psychosocial studies, critical theory, and digital culture. Johanssen is also the author of the book ‘‘Psychoanalysis and Digital Culture: Audiences, Social Media, and Big Data’’ (Johanssen, 2019), that is intriguing for various reasons which will be further elaborated on in this interview.

Liviu Poenaru: Few psychoanalysts come to mind who are interested in the effects of the digital environment. Most of the studies in this realm explore the way the individual engages with media, the way we project ourselves on the web; the issue is generally addressed in terms of unconscious drives expressed online. Internal factors, linked to early experiences, are notable in this perspective. The bi-directionality of the effects related to the human-machine interaction, internal and external world, is still widely ignored, as well as the interaction between internal and external factors. So, you are one of the few scholars to address this dichotomy—and these are the reasons you are important for In Analysis—arguing that digital media fundamentally shape our subjectivities on affective and unconscious levels. Before you give us more details about your views on digital culture, how do you understand this gap?

Jacob Johanssen: I think this is a very interesting observation and I would agree with it. Before answering your question, I need to emphasize that I am not a psychoanalyst myself, so I did not undergo clinical training, but a media scholar who draws on psychoanalysis. I am very interested in what clinicians make of our digital environment and digital technologies. As you say, there are academics who study those phenomena by drawing on psychoanalysis and there are clinicians who are also interested in them. Those two fields should perhaps be in more dialogue than they are at present. Looking at the clinical side, those accounts often tend to discuss data from the consulting room and how patients for example bring fantasies, experiences, or thoughts in relation to digital media to the psychoanalytic session. Those are then discussed in relation to the wider problems or crises the patient may present. So it is more a question of how the patient may bring something already inherently unconscious to their media use, in a way how established patterns of relating are unconsciously transferred to the online realm for example. I think this is a very valid angle and we may display particular behavioural patterns online that are linked to early childhood experiences for example. In a way, this perspective shows the foundations of the psychoanalytic paradigm, namely the rela-tionship between past experiences, symptoms and present ways of being that may be conflictual or distressing for the individual and show themselves in a variety of situations. Yet, at the same time, we live in an age where we cannot really make a clear distinction between the offline and the online anymore. How we relate to media is of a far more symbiotic nature than previous generations did for example. In that sense, I think we need to keep in mind that media themselves affect our unconscious, its very structure, as well as our desires and fantasies. The clinical community could acknowledge this a bit more at times perhaps. This perspective is more advanced by some academics who draw on psychoanalytic theory. Another debate within clinical circles concerns the very status of psychoanalytic practice in relation to the digital, so if analysts should text their patients, have sessions on Skype, and so on. This perspective is perhaps more open too such views, without necessarily developing them much theoreti-cally. So there is a question of eroding or blurring boundaries between the patient and the analyst, between time in and outside of the consulting room. Those questions are also relevant beyond psychoanalysis because they concern societies as a whole and how work time and free time have become so blurred for many individuals.


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Jacob Johanssen

About Jacob Johanssen

Jacob Johanssen's work revolves mainly around two themes: exploring Freudian psychoanalysis as a theory and method for media audience research with a particular focus on psychoanalytic conceptualisations of affect, as well as using psychoanalysis to think critically about contemporary digital culture more broadly.

His research interests include audience research, social media, digital labour, psychoanalysis and the media, affect theory, psychosocial studies, critical theory, as well as digital culture. His work has appeared in the International Journal of Cultural Studies, International Communication Gazette, and Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture.


Jacob Johanssen
24 April 2019
Published By
In Analysis
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