Cybernetic Subjects and the Mediation of Trust and Empathy

This symposium at The Centre for Entangled Media Research (CEMR) in the College of Arts and the School of Film and Media at the University of Lincoln, UK now has a nice website with all the talks…

On 24th and 25th May 2016 The Centre for Entangled Media Research hosted a symposium on the theme of ‘Cybernetic Subjects and the Mediation of Trust and Empathy’. The symposium was supported by a small grant from the EMOTICON Projects Network (EPN) working in collaboration with the Digital Personhood Network (DPN). These two networks were established around two sets of major funding projects, each of them undertaken by consortia of UK Research Councils and various other partners, with the EPN led by the Economic and Social Research Council and the DPN by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Over the last two years the two networks have held combined annual meetings to share ideas, to explore overlapping interests and to discuss findings emerging out their related researches into the technologies and the techno-culture surrounding ‘digital lives’. One key area of overlap and research interest is the contemporary understanding, functioning and nature of trust and empathy in the innumerable contexts of digital interaction at the level of everyday lives and life in digital milieus of all kinds.

The idea for the symposium arose at the September 2015 meeting (held in Leeds), where it became clear in the context of several discussions that the theorization of ‘empathy’ within the digital milieus is perhaps more challenging than apparently is ‘trust’, and that, across the network of projects being carried out under these two schemes, thinking around both empathy and trust frequently rested upon insufficiently examined assumptions as to the essentially psychological nature of both. There was some agreement that a pressing issue to be addressed was that of how these phenomena are either facilitated or disrupted by online communication. The more difficult aspects of conceptualizing empathy in conjunction with the technics of communication is perhaps due to the fact that it is hard to imagine it outside of the framework of modern humanism and its dominant concept of the psyche. Trust on the other hand is conceptually speaking more readily delegated and ascribed to ‘intelligent machines’ (we trust the auto-pilot to fly the plane, we trust the cash machine to count money, and so forth). Machines, and technical processes, including iterative software routines, in general are logically (and by virtue of being purely logical in their functioning) simply neither capable of, nor expressive of empathy – at least not normatively speaking. If machines or technical systems do figure in the facilitation of empathic exchange at all, it is because they are considered to be instrumental to empathic communication. This view is at odds, however, with much contemporary media theory today, which broadly rejects such a simplistic instrumentalist model of the relationship between humans and media technologies and favors reframing the debate, for instance, in terms of ‘assemblages’ – which are inclusive of and conjoined with ‘the human’ (- as discussed at the Leeds network event.) Across the disciplines of anthropology, literature, philosophy, sociology and media studies itself, there is widespread acknowledgement of the co-evolution of the human and technology and a keen interest in exploring the ‘originary technicity’ of the human and in accounts of its ‘technogenesis’.

The EMOTICON/ Digital Personhood Networks and their many researchers could benefit enormously, I believe, if these kinds of theoretical approaches, reflections and ways of thinking could be brought into conjunction with several of their own, shared key concerns. There is every reason to suppose the theoretical parameters of the field of research into of trust, empathy and the digital, with its many disciplinary edges, could be extended in novel directions. This symposium was aimed, in part, to serve that purpose.

The event brought together several leading scholars whose work directly or indirectly has contributed to the wider debate surrounding the human/technology conjuncture, as described above, and has done so from an array of disciplinary locations. In advance of the symposium each of the guest speakers had been invited to make a key contribution to one of its sessions by responding (directly or obliquely, in agreement or disagreement) to the suggestion that their own published work in various ways was pertinent to thinking through the following, very specific, subset of EMOTICON themes:

(1) On rethinking human capacities/qualities in relation to ‘mediated life’ and versions of ‘post-humanism’: how do emergent ‘cybernetic subjectivities’ substantively transform trust and empathy and our sense of the nature of these things?

(2) On the contemporary techno-cultural situation and the modalities of empathic communication and exchange: Who or what speaks as/ through/ in ‘online life’?

(3) What is at stake in the privileging of affect over symbolic and semantic communication? (Is affect, for example, radically impersonal and affect theory de-personalising; and, what are the ethical and political implications such thinking brings with it?)

(4) One of the ‘great narratives’ of the self-understanding and value of humanities education is that it teaches and develops the capacity for empathy: how can this be understood anew in the context of the techno-cultural ‘post-humanities’?

The Centre for Entangled Media Research is delighted to be able to make this part of the material filmed and recorded at the symposium available to EPN and DPN researchers, as well as the wider audience of EPN/DPN stakeholders, and to researchers and students of digital culture more widely.

Dave Boothroyd (17/07/2016)

Full page with talks:



About Virality

Tony D. Sampson is Reader in Digital Culture and Communications at the University of East London. A former musician, he studied computer technology and cultural theory before receiving a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. His publications include The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Affect and Social Media (Rowman and Littlefield, due 2018). He is organizer and host of the Affect and Social Media conferences in the UK, a co-founder of Club Critical Theory and Director of the EmotionUX Lab at UEL. He occasionally blogs at: Full academic profile:
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