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Yermi Harel

"The Missing Inside Learning"

Some Thoughts about Group Relations in Cyberspace

By three methods we may learn wisdom:

first, by reflection, which is noblest;

second, by imitation, which is easiest; and

 third, by experience, which is the bitterest.

 Confucius, (c. 551-478 BCE)

"The missing inside learning" - the title of this article, connotes for me many important issues. The most significant is that which relates to the way the participants of the second online conference entitled "Systems psychodynamics of virtual teamwork" described their learning experience in the closing plenary. Furthermore, the learning of the 'missing' is crucial and a pre-requisite for any learning and development. It also represents a way of thinking and acquiring knowledge in the history of scientific research. And finally, it will say something about learning, in sub-optimal terms, following curiosity and experience.

Anton Obholzer in the foreword to the book Group Relation Conferences: Reviewing and Exploring Theory, Design, Role-Taking and Application wrote (2006: xv):

Importantly, there is now new and impressive evidence, partly represented by the papers in this book, that the 'Tavistock' Group relations model is in a new and vital phase of development: it has moved on from a phase of preoccupation with conferences design, with particular reference to the relation between stability and innovation, to phase of application in all sorts of different contexts including the commercial world.

This article will not be a goal-directed one. It will stop in many places without staying there for long periods. Perhaps it will be a little jumpy in its rhythm. It is going to be a cluster of thoughts about the integration of group relations in cyberspace. I hope it will lead you through the paths that I have gone in thinking, searching and experiencing, while serving as a staff member in that on-line conference.

So let's begin our journey. I would like it to be like a matrix.

What is Cyberspace?

Cyberspace is like the missing space (the white triangle) in the image below, appearing virtually, existing nowhere, and created by dynamic joining of computers across the globe.

In Wikipedia: the word 'cyberspace' (from cybernetics and space) was coined by science fiction novelist William Gibson in his 1982 story Burning Chrome and popularized by his  novel Neuromancer (1984: 69):

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

Gibson later commented on the origin of the term in the 2000 documentary film No Maps for These Territories:

All I knew about the word "cyberspace" when I coined it was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.

Norman Holland (1996) opens his paper The Internet Regression in a straightforward and provocative way saying:

Talking on the Internet, people regress. It's that simple. It can be one-to-one talk on e-mail or many-to-many talk on one of the LISTs or newsgroups. People regress, expressing sex and aggression as they never would face to face.

He proceeds with an inspiring psychoanalytic exploration, which highlights drive theory, of what he considers the three major signs of regressive behavior in cyberspace: flaming, sexual harassment, and (curiously) extraordinary generosity and openness.

Without referring to the question whether cyberspace provokes regression, it is clear that one of the main obstacles is the dualities that can exist. The protagonist can be vivid and alive with a complex and interesting internal world, while at the same time, he can be imaginary, phony and perverse. We do not have the capacity to control and examine this. Although we can reduce this uncertainty and ambiguity on the technological level, it is still a broken space. This manifestation of cyberspace is arousing and stimulates the main dilemma: 'should I take part in this?'

My First On-Line Conference

In the summer of 2007 I was invited to be a staff member on the second online, six weeks conference, which was hosted by Orgdyne.com, and entitled: "Systems psychodynamics of virtual teamwork - the role of trust and anxiety in collaborative group process". In my Tavistock model education, first you elect the director of the conference and then he chooses the team he wants to work with. To my surprise this was not the case. There was no director to this conference, at that time. There was a group of people, who were recruited by the administrator, who was also the sponsor and the host of this conference. Then we were engaged in the process of choosing our director for this conference, and finally two women were chosen / volunteered to co-direct. One of them held a different view of group work while the other was a member in the previous conference. (In the modern 'new' world you learn quickly and can jump very high.) The directors' authority was challenged and was constantly in doubt, especially from the administrator's side. A lot of resentment was projected into it. Perhaps this occurred because of the inverted bottom-up way the team was built, perhaps it occurred because it was two women who were to co-direct, and perhaps this is how things go in the new crazy world. The hierarchy was discussed and there was talk of a 'new hierarchy' in cyberspace, replacing the old one. The new hierarchy is more open and longitudinal.

The fact that the administrator was also the entrepreneur of this event, the way that all staff was gathered together, and the administrator's triple role were very crucial issues throughout the pre-conference and conference periods. The administrator also controlled the technology, and he who controls the technology has the power in cyberspace. This gave him an unofficial role and power, which we tried to explore and restrict, but failed. At a dynamic level it is important to better understand this role on which all staff and members probably projected many of our primitive anxieties and prejudices about life in cyberspace

There were two periods in the work: three months of pre-conference staff work which included synchronous and asynchronous meetings, and the six weeks of the conference itself. Many things were a surprise for me, but especially the low commitment of the members to engage in the work of the groups and the low attendance in them. Every member paid a fee, and some members did not post even once.

The Conference Closing Plenary

I will try to give you the taste of the character of the closing plenary (a synchronous event) through some edited quotes. Just five members out of twenty who paid for the conference attended. These were half of the ten members that were mostly engaged in the whole conference. Seven staff members were present, out of eleven. The administrator did not attend as he felt that the staff did not appreciate him and he could not stand it, and two other staff members were traveling at that time, and could not attend. Another staff member who did not attend was defined as the 'man at the frontier', and his roles and commitment were not fully explored. The five members were overwhelmed with feelings of the great work they had done and the learning experience that they had shared during this six weeks journey. They composed a metaphor of a boat: Noah's ark boat (different races, genders, languages, professional perspectives...). Building on Noah and the ark the question they asked was what flood or disaster this experience would help them survive. One member wrote: "Maybe the big flood is actually from within, and God and rain are just a metaphor". The others were influenced by this comment and spoke very openly about their feelings, thoughts and their learning.

I will now give some quotes:

Staff member:  "I have a big split inside me; in a way the people that came today are optimistic about the opportunity to learn from experience and this make[s] me happy. In the other side most of the member[s] did not join us today. Why?"

Participant B:  "Aren't we also safer in missing them?"

Participant A:  "I am missing some of these absent voices, as well. At the same time, it is amazing that they are also a presence and that can provide the energy to support our capacity to be considerate towards those who are not always in front of us".

Participant B:  "I'm still with the missing. I think the 'missing' play an important role here. If the outside flood is actually the inside flood, then the missing outside is the missing inside. The missing learning indeed, the things we want to fill, which again is the desire to live, and the capability to do so".

Participant A: "I, too, share the 'missing inside learning' perspective as well. In that, a vital act is to reach out to the other members, in any way, to let them know how we feel/felt about them".

Staff member: "The missing inside.... Maybe you can explore here your unlearned regions, and your resistance to learn".

Participant A:  "To me, the missing people in this Conference are a metaphor of what is 'left out' in any action (you stay on shore, you marry, you travel ....). Their absence (motivated by what ever reason) will remain with me as a potent, positive reminder".

It makes sense, and it is very pertinent and relevant that at the end of the closing plenary the conference members were exploring and investigating the 'missing' in their experience. This exploration is very common to any closing plenary of group relations conferences. I think that cyberspace, with its limited audiovisual channels, intensifies the phenomena of the absence, and there are structured 'missing's in the encounters and meetings of people in cyberspace. These feelings have a significant role in the conscious and unconscious of the participants. The question is what is missing?

The 'Missing'

In the history of Neurology, Pierre Paul Broca, a French physician, is famous for his discovery of the speech production center of the brain, known as the Broca's area. He arrived at this discovery, almost 150 years ago, by studying the brains of aphasic patients. This study of the missing functions of the deficit brain, gave him an understanding about the full functioning brain (lesions research). The 'missing' is a function. It can be understood and recognized. It can be grounded into our body experience and knowledge.

Judit Szekacs-Weisz (2007) in her article in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis "mindless bodies - bodyless mind" raises many questions about essential and central issues of psychoanalysis concerning the area of new Information Technology, which are relevant to our discussion, too:

•·         What primitive mechanisms do we put to work in this sensually limited audio-visual space?

•·         Does transference without a three-dimensional body exist? And if so, what is it like?

•·         What kind of splitting and juxtapositions do we develop?

•·         What happens in the course of these processes to the body and ego boundaries?

•·         What does the interpersonal field without body boundaries look like?

•·         Which areas of it expand, and which are the contracting ones?

•·         Where are we when we type the replies to the other person's electronic message? Here, or there?

•·         What part of the "me" stays at home and which of its split-off pieces wander around in a known / unknown space?

•·         Do we fantasize more, or is the sensual experience becoming less fundamental for us?

•·         Where are the affects directed, and what are their objects?

These questions are significant also to our discussion about group relations in cyberspace. One important issue is whether the 'missing' is too big and therefore does not allow fruitful work. The other interesting point is what is different in cyberspace? We have all kinds of missing experiences; people, voices, opportunities and much more. I am still asking myself if the 'missing' in cyberspace is the same as the missing that we already know of, or whether it has anything exclusive and special. This question has much importance because the resentment that is often raised in cyberspace is "Is this real?" or "What is real?"

More about Learning

The wobbling and fluctuating pendulum between innovation and creativity, as opposed to tradition and stagnation, is engaging and fascinating for many disciplines, and undoubtedly also for the field of group relations. In the last decades the world has changed; information technology has become an essential part of our modern life, and cyberspace is taking an indispensable place in many ways. These two domains are somewhat contradictory. While in group relations thought the boundaries are very important and well defined, in cyberspace there are no borders at all. The sky is the limit... Can we challenge the knowledge and the way of thinking of group relations with cyberspace? And if we can, how do we do that?

From my experience, the first conference that I took part in encouraged me and gave me the incentive to have more experiences. I swooped into this experiment without any expectation, and to my utter surprise there was very strong emotional involvement among the staff itself during the pre-conference and the conference, and among the participants as well. I felt that I had an opportunity and a potential space for self-learning, and, of course, the space to resist and push aside the experience. From this conference with these initial, basic, elementary and missing experiences, I should be able to build a new structure which can hold the contradicting components and can re-assemble them together. The contradiction is built-into this amalgam. While in group relations the structure and boundary should be strictly maintained and managed, in cyberspace the matrix-like, fluid and variable environment is part of its character, and loosening them more and more is a prerequisite.

I can think about three lines of development:

•(1)     To use group relation tools for understanding what happens in groups and forums in cyberspace.

•(2)     To adopt as much as is possible from the face-to-face conference structure and to adapt it to cyberspace.

•(3)     To create something new that takes into account the characteristics and psychology of cyberspace.

George Herbert Mallory, the English mountaineer who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920's, replied to the question "why do you want to climb Mount Everest?" with the retort: "because it is there". Is his answer suitable for us as well?


Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer.

Gibson, W. (2000) No Maps for These Territories, a documentary film.

Holland N. (1996) The Internet Regression


Obholzer, A. (2006) Forward. In: Group Relation Conferences: Reviewing and Exploring Theory, Design, Role-Taking and Application. Karnac Books.

Szekacs-Weisz J. (2007) mindless bodies - bodyless minds. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 67: 291-298.