Psychological Causes of Cyberspace Intimidation

Aletha S. Hendrickson
University of Maryland, College Park

Do the foregoing intimidatory scenarios imply that cyberspace is always intimidating? No, for the same reasons that not everyone is affected by writing or math or any other epistemological-related anxiety. Cyberspace intimidation affects only those psychologically disposed, and can be defined as "the feeling of awe, fear, and inadequacy triggered by electronic 'rhetors' and experienced by those psychologically disposed to react to persons, objects, or situations perceived as frustrating or threatening."1 In the broader context, intimidatory relationships hinge on fear, authority, and power. We have already seen how authority and power can be compromised by cyberphobia. The innate fear of powerless intimidatees is purposely exploited, or in the case of cyberspace intimidation, is triggered in the susceptible by fear-evoking stimuli.

The Rhetorical Dimensions of Cyberspace
Aletha's Stuff:
Intimidation of Cyberspace | Types of Intimidation
Technological Causes | Textual Features of | Active and Passive
Benign and Destructive | Works Cited | Notes

Fear is triggered psychologically in technophobes because many intimidatees are kakorrhapiophobic; that is, they fear failure. They also fear disapproval, rejection, criticism, looking stupid, and being helpless. In The "Art" of Rhetoric, Aristotle catalogs "fearful things" as he observes "the frame of mind in each case which makes man fear" (II.v.16.1). He also notes that "things to be feared are either non-existent or far off," and he defines fear "as a painful or troubled feeling caused by the impression of an imminent evil that causes destruction or pain . . ." (II.v.16,1) [emphasis mine]. Situations as well as "fearful things" can be said to instill fear. Given the complexities of constantly shifting technologies, it is not surprising that cyberphobes would invariably sense fear in a technologically intimidating situation.

Fear is the major emotional component of intimidation and is a subjective, conscious feeling--as Aristotle indicates. The subjectiveness of fear is also acknowledged by Stanley Rachman in The Meanings of Fear; he terms it "the experience of apprehension" (1). He differentiates between conscious fear, the "feelings of apprehension about tangible and predominantly realistic dangers" (e.g., the unreasonable fear of some technophobes who are afraid to activate a computer for fear of hurting something, or the reasonable fear of a former employee of a major manufacturing corporation I know who, by one keystroke, caused one hundred employees' computer screens to go blank for four days), and unconscious anxiety which he characterizes as "feelings of apprehension which are difficult to relate to tangible sources of stimulation. The inability to identify the source of fear is usually regarded as the hallmark of anxiety . . . " (13). Intimidatory fear is not the latter unconscious anxiety but rather a conscious fear. Cyberphobes well know what they are afraid of: anything computer-related. Noting reaction to fear-evoking stimuli, W. Sluckin in Fear in Animals and Man observes that fear elicits two behaviors well known to cyberphobes: "flight and immobility" (239). Such responses are seen even in professionals who refuse to navigate cyberspace (I know of a physician who chose to retire recently rather than to learn the computer programs required to process Medicare claims via modem), and in those who freeze at the keyboard when encountering prompts such as the following confusing onscreen E-Mail instruction:

		Which telnet would you like to use?
			TELNET	tN3270	Quit

These responses to cyberspace intimidation aren't all negative--at least to the publishers of the popular ". . . for Dummies" series that, in effect, invites technophobes to release (unfreeze) the potential of the software they just purchased.

Additional psychological factors that feed cyberspace intimidation include the obvious human tendency to worry, frustration due to time and financial constraints, human resistance to change, and workplace pressures (exigencies). Since these factors are apparent, I will concentrate instead on epistemological factors including a constantly expanding information base and language which require immersion in special topoi.

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September 16, 1997 at 10:40 AM
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