Extending the Terms of the Social: Digital Worlds and the Fluid Social


Digital worlds and the fluid social.

social network



Response to Vincenzo Di Nicola’s “Terms of the Social II: The Sociology of Knowledge”

Introduction by Vincenzo Di Nicola, MPhil, MD, PhD

John Farnsworth, PhD, trained in sociology and is now a senior psychotherapist in New Zealand. We share mutual interests at the intersection of sociology, psychotherapy, and philosophy. Together, we are exploring French philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory of the event as a contemporary science of being to create a new foundation for the “psy disciplines.” With his sociological background, Dr Farnsworth is my key sounding board for this series on “Terms of the Social.” In this essay, he extends our understanding of the social, notably the Sociology of Knowledge, to encompass the digital world and—invoking Polish-British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity”—the fluid social.

– Vincenzo Di Nicola, MPhil, MD, PhD, FCAHS, DLFAPA, DFCPA

The Fluid Social

Vincenzo Di Nicola, MD’s columns on the social deserve a warm welcome and wide support. As he writes in “Terms of the Social: Updating the Lexicon of Social Psychiatry,” “the foundations of psychology and psychiatry … are precisely upside down,” and these columns provide significant ways to stand them on their feet again.

This response is a proposal to expand 1 dimension of the Terms of the Social. That dimension is implicit in each column, but I am suggesting the value of making it explicit—and that dimension is what I call the fluid social. In my view, it enhances Di Nicola’s project for social psychiatry as a whole. In simple terms, which I outline below, it is the increasingly fluid, social world we all inhabit which has emerged primarily through the digital. By this I mean: digital technologies, digital interfaces, relationships conducted through the digital, and the increasingly mobile life we all experience on a daily basis.

Why can this enhance Di Nicola’s project as a whole? Visibly and invisibly, digital technologies shape nearly every transaction we have; incrementally, they are reshaping our sense of identity, our modes of conduct, what we take to be our communities and, clinically, our mental welfare. Moreover, the changes affect not just this generation but, the evidence tells us, those beyond.1 In other words, our experience of the social and of sociality is undergoing profound transformation. A social psychiatry which recognizes these increasingly fluid worlds can monitor, assess, debate, and respond to them in the very terms of the human which are the columns’ key feature. In short, my response is design to enhance and extend the Terms of the Social in relation to a “theory of humans as social beings” (Social Psychiatry Comes of Age).

I write this from my home disciplines of sociology and psychoanalysis. I also write from a small society, Aotearoa New Zealand, which has itself faced all these challenges of the mobile social. Most poignantly, it has been through the devastating 2019 Christchurch mosque attack that was then relentlessly viral livestreamed by alt-right extremists.2 The copycat attacks which followed starkly foregrounded the splintering of common experience through the rise of atomized communities and new forms of online sociality.

The Forces of the Fluid Social

My response is to ask what forces shape these new realities? I will highlight 3: (1) the impact of digital technologies, (2) the role of liquid capitalism in accelerating global digital activity,3 and (3) the implications these both raise for the Sociology of Knowledge and what continues to count as knowledge.

In a nutshell, they describe mediated relationships—ones which are now as prevalent as face-to-face ones. Think of any café where the participants are more immersed in their devices than the conversation at the table.

The most dramatic signal of change was the global pandemic and, universally, the move online. No one, anywhere, could ignore this abrupt transition from face-to-face to mediated interaction. Yet, the pandemic itself was simply a fault line: it dramatically highlighted changes were already well advanced. How, then, have these affected the Terms of the Social?

Digital Relationships, Digital Identities

Digital technologies have become the ultimate form of mediation because they are so ubiquitous. They are the go-between for any kind of online interaction: banking, scheduling children’s parties, accessing DIY advice, password management.4 Such pervasive mediation unsettles what we mean by the social: the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) is simply its latest, transformative upheaval. In fact, AI has long been part of a global digital environment of data scraping and extraction, partnered and powered by the silent activity of algorithms. Like the emerging Internet of Things, these devices and their codes largely ignore us and talk directly to each other. They are the mediated waters in which our children will swim. These are some of the revised terms of the social.

Liquid Capital, Liquid Vulnerabilities

Second, these changes are mobilized to maximize corporate profit-taking: global capitalism in a phrase; platform capitalism in another.5 It is easy to forget that most of the largest global companies are tech companies6: aside from Google, Apple, or Meta, there are less familiar names like Softbank, 3M, or Raytheon.7 We know from Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams just how persistently these products shape the terms of our social interaction, on- or offline, every time we click a link or schedule a meeting. Yet, invisibly, they are constantly extracting data fragments whilst we do. Meanwhile, we rely on another invisibility: the bandwidth that assists our conviviality, conflict, or interchanges. This, as we know, is mediated sociality at work; equally, it can be described in terms of data or algorithmic capitalism.8

As clinicians, we know the social harm these platforms can create whilst they are busy extracting data—addictions, mental health damage, bullying, risk-taking, distorted body images, anxiety, or depression.9 Despite the benefits that Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube offer, these platforms still create what McLean Hospital describes as “The Digital Age of Vulnerability.”10 The vulnerable are, particularly, the young, as studies illustrate.11 Yet the elderly, too, are increasingly at risk in numerous ways, whether it is from cybercriminals or difficulties managing the digital literacy necessary to sustain their access to online sociality.12

All these experiences constitute the digital terms of the social. They parallel what Polish- British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes as the experience of liquid modernity.13 These digital terms infiltrate every aspect of our social lives—even our cultural identity. In Aotearoa New Zealand, “Maorifuturism” has become a live concern: how to sustain digital inclusion when the identity and history of indigenous people thrive on oral, face-to-face, group interaction.14 How, then, to reproduce online conviviality without atomizing their very experience of embodied, relational identity?

Fluid Knowledge, Labile Realities

Lastly, the Sociology of Knowledge. As Di Nicola writes in “Terms of the Social II: The Sociology of Knowledge,” “The core of Mannheim’s theory on the sociology of knowledge concerns the relationship between culture, including knowledge, and what he called ‘social reality’.”

But what, now, is “social reality” in Mannheim’s theory? The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard repeatedly commented on how a different “real” appeared in the digital environment. He observed an emerging world of simulacra, where real objects are exchanged for online simulations of truth and reality. As he wrote, the map now “precedes the territory”; indeed, becomes that territory itself.15 In this world, our reality is constantly reshaped through digital simulation. Baudrillard’s writing anticipated many new “realities”: deepfake news,16 online celebrity culture, simulated performance, viral memes, social influencers, the simulated intimacy of AI companion apps, and, recently, the first announcement of fake AI.17 Beyond private interaction, the rise of online tracking endlessly blurs the boundaries of public and private activity.18 The Cambridge Analytica scandals, and the recent French elections, demonstrate how data harvesting creates minutely detailed psychological profiles that target and influence voters.19

Even the unconscious intimacies of our private behavior are changing: our gestures, mannerisms, speech codes, and our self-presentation have all become digitally shaped. As the Australian sociologist Nick Osbaldiston argues, social media, whether it is Snapchat or TikTok, have become just “a type of social performance.”20 What, then, is real; what reliable? At these moments, the social and the digital social become indistinguishable. The digital social is even infused with the family household: it is babysitter, health monitor, intergenerational mediator, remote security agent, lifestyle and household organizer.21

This is the new Sociology of Knowledge, shaped by routine worlds of surveillance, silent algorithms, illusion, distortion, and self-presentation. Yet, AI literacy, predictive analytics, and corporate “knowledge management” themselves are undergoing continued change.22 Knowledge and its mediators are no longer fixed; instead, they have become mobile, fluid, and protean. Indeed, AI promises a new form of coming partnership that will alter all these boundaries yet again that increasingly blends the human with massive neural networks.23 Such seamless intersections reconfigure knowledge, reality, and the social.

The Fluid Social and the Clinical

What does this mean for clinicians: how do we adapt, accommodate, reconfigure, and integrate these transformations? We know, for example, how social isolation has expanded across all age groups—a corollary, in part, of new online worlds.24 Yet, simultaneously, strategies to address this experience have begun to emerge.25 We reminded daily of the recent rises in complex conditions, often exacerbated by online interaction: eating disorders, gender identity, autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and neurodiversity.26 Yet these, too, have begun to prompt new responses that draw precisely on that digital technologies that may have intensified them.24

As the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler describes it, new technologies are the pharmakon, both poison and cure: the means that may undermine or address the very conditions that “make life worth living.”27 In other words, psychiatric and mental health communities are attempting to devise strategies to engage the very volatility of the digital social. Moreover, they do so in ways that are human: that respond to the “terms of the social.” For instance, Indian psychiatrists Sharma and Palanichamy employ psychosocial interventions to address technological addictions. The Rochester Institute of Technology is testing digital avatars and a therapy platform “RITchCBT” for substance disorders.28

Conclusion: Terms of the Fluid Social

Strategies such as these evoke Vincenzo Di Nicola, MD’s advocacy of a “slow psychiatry”29: they are grounded in humane, dialogic, interactional and culturally specific approaches—in Stiegler’s language, what makes life worth living. They offer opportunities for conviviality, porosity, and syncretism that he advocated, in an earlier column, across online and offline worlds.30

So, I end by advocating that we expand the Terms of the Social to accommodate the fluid social—the digital social. In the foreseeable future, its enactment will be, without question, exploratory, provisional and, sometimes, unpredictable—but it may also provide a potent response to the unfolding worlds ahead of us.

Dr Di Nicola is a child psychiatrist, family psychotherapist, and philosopher in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he is professor of psychiatry & addiction medicine at the University of Montreal and President of the World Association of Social Psychiatry (WASP). He has been recognized with numerous national and international awards, honorary professorships, and fellowships, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and given the Distinguished Service Award of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr Di Nicola’s work straddles psychiatry and psychotherapy on one side and philosophy and poetry on the other. Dr Di Nicola’s writing includes: A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families and Therapy (WW Norton, 1997), Letters to a Young Therapist (Atropos Press, 2011, winner of a prize from the Quebec Psychiatric Association), and Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Sciences, the Humanities, and Neuroscience (with D. Stoyanov; Springer Nature, 2021); and, in the arts, his “Slow Thought Manifesto” (Aeon Magazine, 2018) and Two Kinds of People: Poems from Mile End (Delere Press, 2023, nominated for The Pushcart Prize).

Dr Farnsworth is a sociologist and psychotherapist in private practice in Dunedin, New Zealand. He received a Distinguished Service Award in 2018 for his work with the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists (NZAP) and has since become one of its six Life Members. He has published widely, both as a sociologist and as a psychotherapist in a range of fields that includes ethnography, research methods, media, history, and critical organization theory. His latest, forthcoming publication for the journal Ata is, “What is the unconscious?” Dr Farnsworth works with Dr Di Nicola on revisioning psychiatry and psychotherapy in light of the event. Their forthcoming volume is called, Changing the Subject: The Event in Psychiatry, Psychology and Psychotherapy.


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