Our Screens Are Making Us Dissociate
If being online makes you feel detached from your sense of self, you’re not alone
In her bestselling memoir Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener describes life inside the tech industry and the toll it took on her, and the world.
“My impulse, over the past few years, had been to remove myself from my own life, to watch from the periphery and try to see the vectors, the scaffolding, the systems at play,” she writes of her time in startup land. “Psychologists might refer to this as dissociation; I considered it the sociological approach.”
She’s not the only one thinking about dissociation — a rupture in your relationship to your thoughts, behaviors, emotions, actions, and even your identity or sense of self. In recent years, dissociation has transcended its academic origins and become a catchall term for our modern malaise — a single word for the good moments, the bad, and the times you can’t tell the difference. Whether you’re having an out-of-body experience or simply spacing out in a boring meeting, dissociation describes a diverse range of experiences with a variety of triggers. But Wiener’s book suggests a technological component to our collective dissociation — as though the platforms on which we discuss dissociation could be driving the feeling itself.
Dissociation exists on a broad spectrum. It’s the feeling you get when you zone out during a conversation, or when you can see yourself from above, as if your life is a movie. It can be a serious psychiatric illness, especially when it’s the result of past trauma. The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association’s bible, includes dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, and depersonalization/derealization, a sense of unreality about yourself or your environment. But psychiatrists also recognize many forms of “normal dissociation,” which include such banal experiences as fantasizing, daydreaming, and highway hypnosis.
“People do it all the time,” Mary-Anne Kate, a trauma researcher in the psychology department at the University of New England in Australia, says of dissociation. Pop culture is taking notice. The dead-eyed penguin from Madagascar is one of dozens of…