ICTs and the Ethics of Emotional Design

James Besse (Graduate School for Social Research, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences)


As Luciano Floridi has compellingly argued, starting in the middle of the 20th Century, with the advent of computing, people in many societies have begun to understand, and live, our lives informationally. The role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in reshaping human social affairs cannot be understated, and Floridi will boldly use the term “re-ontologizing” to describe this process. What does this mean for the “softer” side of sociality, such as caring, intimacy, and emotion? Sociologists and neuroscientists have long ago realized that emotions, like many mental processes, operate at the intersection of cultural and natural phenomena. Feeling an emotion, therefore, is no less subject to re-ontologization than driving a car, washing dishes, or scheduling a meeting. This paper examines the role of ICTs in emotions, and the way, as Illouz shows in her examination of the beauty industry’s advertising campaigns, in which the role of technology in a given emotion changes (we might say “re-ontologizes”) the emotion itself.  Rather than aligning this observation with the work of technological determinists (such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Karl Jaspers, Robert Heilbroner, and Jürgen Habermas), I examine the role of ICTs in emotions through the “postphenomenological ethics of things” formulated by Peter-Paul Verbeek (2005). Postphenomenology (a term which may irk many traditional philosophers) was initially developed by the American philosopher of technology Don Ihde, in what he calls “nonfoundational and nontranscentdental phenomenology which makes variational theory its most important methodological strategy.” (Ihde, 1993) Verbeek, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken advocates of postphenomenology, is presently focused on developing a theory which brings ethical considerations to Ihde’s perspective. After introducing the problems of emotional expression and reception in a digital age, the paper examines Verbeek’s “ethics of things,” tracing its development through Ihde’s abandoned Heideggerianism, Foucault’s “technologies of the self,” and Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT). The paper then defends the relevance of Verbeek’s perspective and the application of ethics to emotions in general. Because of the significant impacts of ICTs upon our emotional lives, I argue that ethicists have a role to play in this issue. Following its theoretical explication, the paper will go through each of Verbeek’s “types of relation” in application to a specific instance of technological mediation of emotions. In each case, questions will be asked about the ethical implications of such mediation. This paper concludes by looking at the political implications of this phenomenon. It asks the following questions: Is it possible to design our emotions in more ethical ways? If so, what starting principles and ideas can guide this design, and what is the role of philosophers, sociologists, and ethicists in engineering? Moreover, is the recognition that we can design our own emotions an invitation to fascism, or is the recognition of this ability important to mitigate the damage of unethical design (and to liberate, as Critical Theory scholars might suggest, us from the sway of this design?)


E-mail: besse.jw@gmail.com