Is the internet changing the emotional landscape?

Internet-based emotions?Have our emotions changed over the century?  A recent and entertaining article discusses five new emotions that have come into existence with the rise of computer use in everyday life.  Though not exactly a rigorous examination, the article raises an important point: one can’t help but accept the fact that computers, and indeed the internet, are an increasing part of our daily lives – and we are going to have corresponding emotional responses to all sorts of computer-related phenomena.  Articulations of affects relating to internet-time-wasting and facebook might not, on this understanding, just be entertaining illustrations of this everyday engagement with computers, but may actually be pointing the creation of new emotional cues and behaviours.

Emotions are historical phenomena. Consider love.  To many, this emotion seems an essential part of the human condition.  Every human, from the most humble caveman to the most noble Queen has the potential (even if not exercised) to recognize and to experience love.  It can come as a shock to this view that our modern understanding of love qua romantic love (viz. the way in which love is not only as an emotional experience, but one with corresponding notions of fidelity, and sacrifice) comes from Trobadours, who expressed this idea of love in their songs and poetry in the Middle Ages.  Indeed, the way in which love has been understood has changed dramatically over the centuries: from the kind of love exemplified by Aphrodite shining her light upon Helen, to the agape-love discussed by Augustine, up to the courtly love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the romantic love of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

This is a familiar point, especially from the existential analyses of Heidegger – though taken up more recently in authors such as Thompson, and Dreyfus and Kelly. The argument of these authors is this: our emotions (moods, affects, imports) are historical entities, even those that seem as self-evident as love: they come and go with the context and character of the times. Further, these moods reflect historical ways of behaviour and interaction with a world of meaning. Courtly love, the kind imitated by Don Quixote, was strange and impractical to readers in the 16th Century, because society had not continued with the practices and behaviours that allowed for, and made sense of, such a form of affect meaningful.

So we should think hard about how we as a culture are responding and engaging with computers and the internet.  Perhaps our mindless scrolling on social websites, and impatience at the slightest delay in internet service, reflects not only new computer-centric affects, but also an emerging paradigm of behaviour and interaction.

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3 thoughts on “Is the internet changing the emotional landscape?”

  1. Room must be made for recurrence of every sort, including atavism. There is so much romantic love in folklore across cultures and time that, unlike computers, romance cannot be isolated as a relatively ‘modern’ phenomenon.

  2. Hi Taimur and thank you for your post.

    Well, it’s an interesting point you raise. I don’t think that the claim that these emotions are ‘invented out of thin air’ is a defensible one, and probably not what you’re targeting. But in anycase, just as a point of interest, from my understanding of work on creativity and imagination, complete and radical invention is philosophically untenable. So what’s the alternative?

    Well, let’s consider the wider picture. Our emotions are an aspect of our body (in a way that is not without contention). Whatever role the body plays it has a role in constraining the scope of emotions that we can have as biological beings. Within these constraints, all emotions will likely have some sort of family resemblance (this is an assumption, but I don’t think an unwarranted one – all theories want to find out what is common to emotions). Thus when looked at historically, for any particular ’emotion’ (I use scare quotes, because I don’t believe that it is exactly the same emotion when seen historically), there will be similarities in the underlying biologic picture. In this way, certainly, there is something of a claim to atavism. The same biological resources will be recycled over time.

    But does the sharing of a biological substrate mean that emotions are understood in the same way? Well, this is a different claim entirely, but I think the answer will be almost parallel. We recycle our understandings of emotions in a similar sort of way, building up and changing the practices and problems of yesteryears. But whereas the biological basis of emotions recycles the same resources (perhaps changing ever so slightly with genetic variation), this personal-level understanding of emotions is operating over the shifting ground of semantics. And with this comes the idea that our understandings of emotions can be qualitatively distinct over time. So… there might be a claim to atavism, but I think the metaphor of ‘descent with modification’ is a much more powerful one when it comes to love, and emotions more generally.

    Now what is the relationship between the personal level understanding and the biological substrate? This is what a lot of emotion-theorists are battling over today. I tend to sympathize with Heidegger and his phenomenological way of understanding emotions, but Jesse Prinz has a compelling Humean (slash Jamesian) approach, and Giovanna Colombetti has a very interesting framework shaping up around the work of the enactivists, so watch this space, because things are getting very interesting.

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