‘This is the moment when everything is changing'

Ian Florance meets Simon Bignell – a founder of the Society’s new Cyberpsychology Section.

Simon begins by suggesting that every opportunity he has had has been mentored. ‘People have opened the door for me in a way which almost seems like an apprenticeship system. You need to shadow people to get a feel for a role. You need to “come in from the side” as I think of it. That’s one of the reasons my interest in ADHD grew. A lecturer at Sussex University suggested we apply for a Nuffield Foundation grant and that led to research in schools into ADHD among seven to eleven-year-olds, and ultimately to a PhD at Essex University on inattention, hyperactivity and children’s language. That I took ten years to finish my PhD suggests one of the other reasons I’m interested in the area. I’m terrible at finishing things and I strongly suspect I’m undiagnosed ADHD. You often study what you suffer from.’

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did Simon’s journey begin?‘

I grew up in Worthing between the sea and the South Downs. So, I was healthy but had little inclination towards education. I had no meta-awareness and left school with just a couple of CSEs.’

Simon joined the Junior Leaders, part of the British Army, in 1986 at age 16. I’d never heard of this organisation before. ‘It was the youngest you could join the army then. While it turned me into something of a robot, it also toughened me up and got me into the habit of looking after myself. But it wasn’t for me. I came out to civvy street with poor social skills. I had many jobs before starting academia: grocer, window cleaner, carpet cleaner, labourer, call centre, sales and production administrator, ironmonger, pizza delivery, etc. I bumbled through.’

Self-education: a turning point
Simon’s grounding in psychology happened in Worthing Library. ‘I started reading – exclusively non-fiction. I read Dale Carnegie, the early popularising humanist psychologists, books on counselling and psychotherapy. I began to realise that this stuff wasn’t just about me: it was about everybody. I started to volunteer as a community mediator in disputes. I worked for the Samaritans for ten years and eventually became a trainer for them: this had a huge effect on me. We’d set up a tent at music festivals and people in crisis – often related to drugs – would come along. I’ve met some very interesting people that way.’

This led him to think that he needed some qualifications. ‘I thought I’d do an Access course; one of those courses that prepares students for Higher Education study. But before that I had to take GCSE maths. Thanks to a DVD introduced by Carol Vorderman I achieved that. I loved the course at Worthing Community College. It dealt with social sciences and humanities and introduced me to psychology more formally. I began to understand concepts that were new to me: scientific method; the importance of evidence; building models; generating hypotheses; empiricism. My initial humanism has remained, but I’ve added an understanding of scientific psychology to it. Pat, the leader of the course suggested I apply to university and I ended up at Sussex, at what was then the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences.’

The place was, Simon says, ‘buzzing’. ‘I studied psychology, linguistics, philosophy and artificial intelligence in a very electric, interdisciplinary atmosphere, being taught by some of the leaders in the field, such as George Butterworth, Alan Parkin, Maggie Boden and Graham Davey. I met Daniel Dennett and Stephen Pinker among others. I think it was an advantage to be taught by people from such different disciplines… That sort of variety is important to opening your thinking. When a study buddy offered me a job working at Open University Summer schools as an academic assistant at Sussex it equally gave the chance to meet many different psychologists. For the next eight years I offered academic and tech support to a wide variety of psychologists, and often coached them over a beer. I must have spent a year of my life at these Summer schools and they opened up the real world of psychology for me. Many of those psychologists have become lifelong friends.’

Simon taught and was a senior research officer at Essex University, then taught at South Bank and the Open University before becoming a lecturer at Derby while he was engaged in his decade long project to finish his PhD. Simon’s role at Derby is well-described in his professional biography (https://www.derby.ac.uk/staff/simon-bignell/).

Last year Simon self-published Autism, Asperger’s & ADHD: What You need to Know: A Guide for Parents, Students and Other Professionals. It struck me as a real attempt at public education, explaining how these conditions are related to each other and focusing on real-world issues – not just those of people living with the conditions, but their family and friends. ‘It’s a very important issue in society. The language of autism and Asperger’s is everywhere and it’s easier to get a diagnosis of autism now. There’s a real interest in what I call modern autism: it used to be called high functioning autism and was denoted by terms like “nerd”. It’s critical to understand that each individual’s needs are different; also that autism can create positive behaviours for an individual as well as negative ones.’

Inner and outer space
Simon was also one of the four people involved in forming the British Psychological Society’s new Cyberpsychology Section. Simon talks enthusiastically about this development. ‘The UK is leading the way in the field. We’re facing innovative digital technologies all the time. We’re talking via Skype. Our phones are not phones but mobile computers. I do a lot of my work by e-mail. So the change is unparalleled: it’s not just inter-generational it’s intra-generational – think about the way in which different social media platforms have come into, then fallen out of popularity. Cyberpsychology is pervasive and invisible. We need to address a lot of questions. How do people interface with technologies? How does technology sculpt us? How do people become addicted to technology and what can we do about this? How does technology change us as a species? What effect will self-conscious machines have on human self-esteem and identity?’

Simon is particularly interested in virtual worlds. ‘The technology to create totally immersive virtual worlds is becoming cheaper and more easily available. These worlds raise huge philosophical issues and will have psychological effects. The issue of perception becomes critical. In my view, it’s much more interesting and important to explore inner rather than outer space.’ That rang bells with me: it sounded like something I might have heard in the 1960s. And in a sense we are going back to the 60s but with less ego and with a more scientific, less artistic bias.’

‘Cyberpsychology is such a diverse place. It’s about the relationship between human beings, information and machines. The area is multidisciplinary of course and we need to invite non-psychologists into the dialogue: people with a business or technology background, among others. We’re aware that, as yet, there are probably too many academics involved in the Section. Greater diversity of experience and skills will help us in activities we need to undertake: lobbying and advising policy-makers for instance. But psychologists must have a central role. There have been no new big theories in psychology for the last 20 years; technology can help us apply and operationalise underused theories.’

This interest links with Simon’s nomination for The Times ‘Most Innovative Teacher of the Year Award’. As he explains, when Second Life, the virtual world was launched, universities started getting involved but in a very basic way. Simon has authored a white paper on Best Practice in Virtual World Teaching and authored and led a free online course Understanding Autism, Asperger’s and ADHD at Derby University. ‘In the end the funding dried up for much of the virtual worlds research but, in any case, people (and academics are no different) are resistant to learning a new platform, let alone a new way of teaching.’

Things are moving fast…
Simon is optimistic about technology possibilities, less so about some aspects of HE. ‘I think the last five years have made innovation more difficult in universities and, at times, research can become constrained. Students have become more strategic. Of course, there are early adopters and creatives and, in the area of cyberpsychology and virtual world applications, students who have gaming experience are open to ideas. But many students are concerned about pay, the certainty of outcomes. They do jobs in parallel with their work. HE is becoming more open and monetised, more an exercise in getting qualifications.’

Simon mentions that he’s becoming more self-aware and more balanced in his lifestyle. ‘I’m a committed vegan for ethical reasons and I go to the gym a lot and do weightlifting. I suppose a lot of my interests, particularly in cyberpsychology, are about the future and about making good decisions. Ever since my work with the Samaritans I’ve been interested in why people carry on with destructive behaviours. I believe psychologists can affect public arguments and policy, but I believe that if you’re going to “preach” you’d ought to walk the talk. So, I can’t argue for the ethical treatment of animals, and then eat meat. Experience defines what you can talk about.’

Since he’s raised the point about public debates, I asked Simon if he thought his recent book was the best way of joining such debates. ‘Good point. We need a better way to get information out there. I find Twitter a good, quick and democratic way to communicate research findings. Things are moving fast, and we need to get our ideas out equally fast otherwise we’re always addressing last year’s problems. This is particularly important when free speech is under attack.’

Astonishingly Simon has a huge range of interests outside the ones mentioned here. He used to be the singer and play bass guitar in an indie band. He is building his own recording studio. He paints. He works in virtual worlds. And, at one time he was President of University of Essex Fencing Club. ‘My wife is an Educational Psychologist interested in autism. We run a business together. And we have two kids of six and seven.’ I’m exhausted just listening to these interests.

After a long interview, Simon ends on a positive note. ‘Central to my Cyber interests is the idea of the digital evolution of the species: transhumanism is the key concept. We face a lot of problems and challenges, but technology will, in the end, be the saving grace. But you mustn’t lose track of humanity and ethical concerns in all that. Psychology has a huge role to play and it’s good that we’ve started to face the challenges because this is the moment where everything is changing.’

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