Cybernetic Subjects and the Mediation of Trust and Empathy

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)


Patrick Crogan

Trust, empathy, technics and affiliation: Comments on the nature and stakes of entangled media culture from the perspective of Stiegler’s ‘activist’ media philosophy.

This collection of propositions will propose points of connection between the project of the CEMR (as articulated in the symposium launch themes) and Stiegler’s programmatic application of his philosophy of technicity to the contemporary situation. Along with several other prominent cultural theorists (Zizek and Crary, to name but two), Stiegler reads the current state of affairs of technoculture as ‘in crisis’ on a number of related fronts (ecological, socio-political, geo-strategic, economic). He puts the role of mediation right at the centre of his analysis because of the importance of the media in shaping the milieu of the ‘individuation’ of individuals and social groups, or what he prefers to call ‘psychic and collective individuals’. I will sketch out the key features of Stiegler’s critique of the commercial rollout of digital mediation and will explain their potential pertinence for an investigation of the entanglement of individual and cultural existences within mediation generally, and for a consideration of trust and empathy across digital platforms in particular.

Stiegler’s critique of the predominant form of digital social mediation rests on a claim that it tends to erode and ‘short-circuit’ the processes through which filiation is developed socially and culturally, replacing them with commercially-oriented engagements and exchanges, and in the process undermining the sustainability of the very dynamic of exchange and differentiation through which individuals and collectives mutually become. Without ‘affiliation’, trust is only a question of security, and a very short term question at that. And empathy cannot escape the event horizon of collapsing ‘values’ such as brand identification, lifestyle, and the personal liberty of the consumer.

Patrick is Associate Professor of Digital Cultures at the University of the West of England, Bristol. A founding member of its Digital Cultures Research Centre, Patrick works on a range of digitalmedia and technology-related topics including video games, animation and automation. He is the author of Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation and Technoculture (2011) and of numerous journal articles and book chapters. He is an expert on the work of philosopher and cultural activist, Bernard Stiegler, with whom he has collaborated and whose texts he has translated.

Tony D. Sampson

The Assemblage Brain: Monads versus Megabrain

This talk endeavours to present a counter theory of digital collectivity to that personified in cyberculture by the Megabrain. The Megabrain is an emergent form of collective consciousness influenced by Durkheim’s consciousness of consciousness and latterly underpinned by a ubiquitous cognitive model of the brain; scaled up to encompass an extended digital mind and global distribution of intelligence.  The discussion will primarily focus on Tarde’s hitherto marginal ideas concerning social emergence in Monadology and Sociology (1893), while also bringing in notions of empathy, affect, imitation, desire and belief, and concepts and sensations. The intention is to intervene in the ever-prevalent information metaphors of the cognitive paradigm by pushing to the limit an alternative, yet uncanny panpsychic theory of sense making.

Tony is Reader in Digital Media and Communication, at the University of East London. He is the author of The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuro-culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Virality: Contagion Theory in the age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) an is coeditor (with Jussi Parikka) of The Spam Book: Viruses, Porn and other Anomolies of the Dark Side of Digital Culture, Hampton Press, 2009).

Anders Johannson

On the Mediation of Love

As a way of engaging with the proposed symposium themes, I reflect on the phenomenon of net-dating. In particular I address what I call the dialectics of subjectivation at work in net-dating. As a means for finding a partner, dating sites or dating apps obviously work. However, this “working” implies that the users become functions of the apparatus. Hence, such daters are subjects in several senses: they are actors, users, agents, consumers, supposedly freely choosing their objects. But surely they are also subjected, in some sense, to the agency of the apparatus. This dialectical process, however, is not really ever felt, or experienced as such, by the users themselves – in their own understanding they are simply the users, and the technologies of their connection (phones, computers and websites, and so forth) are just tools to facilitate their dating and pairing activities. That there is dialectic at work here is evident in the fact that net-dating seems to be addictive and compulsive, and in the way that such mediation has a tendency to become an end in itself.

Net-dating thus provokes and amplifies an historical shift in both the notion, or perhaps better to say, the very nature, of love, and in the constitution of the subjectivity produced in conjunction with love. For instance Eva Illouz has argued that net-dating may actually signal the end of ‘romantic love’. However, in making this argument she neglects to consider the way in which the question of rethinking subjectivity is bound up with this change, and she tends also to presuppose an essentially Cartesian subject positioned behind the screen.

In broad terms, romantic love has traditionally been understood in two ways: either as something objective (a miracle, a force of nature, something beyond human control), or as something subjective (a performative act that originates within the corporeal human subject). Neither of these perspectives is adequate, however, if we are to understand the agency involved in a techno-cultural practice such as net-dating as a phenomenon of the medium itself, rather than as, say, a relation between subjects and objects. To argue that love is something in itself and unaffected by the mediation of such vulgar devices as dating apps is, I believe, naively idealist. Niklas Luhmann is someone who offers an alternative to this way of thinking. He argues that love is nothing but a medium, a code. Hence love today, I can be argued, is produced and reproduced in conjunction with technical apparatuses such as dating sites. In this talk I discuss this development and what is at stake in the alternatives characterised by the different approaches of Illouz and Luhman, and I argue for a more dialectical approach, a greater focus on the medium, on materiality, and on on the economy.

It is against this background that I pose the question of the fate of empathy and trust in such a setting? Since there is always the option of logging out of love, trust becomes very fragile. And since there is always the option of logging back into love, empathy becomes addictive – this is, at least, a hypothesis I explore.

Anders is Professor of Comparative Literature at Mid Sweden University, Sundvall. He is the author of six monographs in Swedish most recently Självskrivna män (Self-written Men) and Kärleksförklaring (Love Declaration), with the common subtitle Subjektiveringens dialectic (Dialectics of Subjectivation), Glänta Press. He has published articles on Adorno, Deleuze, evil, subjectivity – in both Swedish and English.

Gary Hall


My presentation explores what neoliberalism’s ongoing weakening of the social is likely to mean for the future organization of labor. It will focus on the sharing economy because it is here that the implications for workers of a transformation to an ‘ubercapitalist’ society are today most apparent. It is a society in which we are encouraged to become not just what Michel Foucault calls entrepreneurs of the self (which is how he describes the neoliberal ‘homo oeconomicus’), but microentrepreneurs of the self, acting as if we are our own, precarious, freelance microenterprises in a context in which we are being steadily deprived of employment rights, public services and welfare support.

Our society can be understood as ubercapitalist then in a double sense: in that this form of neoliberal capitalism is seemingly ever more powerful and irresistible (the prefix ‘uber’ actually means ‘advanced’,  ‘irresistible’, ‘higher’, ‘superior’, ‘more powerful’); and that the San Francisco-based sharing economy firm Uber provides one of its most characteristic and often referred to examples. Indeed, having become a ‘global brand largely on the strength of its intellectual property and without a need to manufacture anything’, Fortune magazine predicts Uber is ‘destined to be one of the world’s most important companies’.

This talk analyses the implications of such a transformation to an ubercapitalist society for the organization of labor largely through the prism of those who work and study in the university. It will do so partly because, in the era of Facebook, LinkedIn and, academics are now being encouraged to become microentrepreneurs of themselves and of their own subjectivities; but mainly because the university provides one of the few spaces in post-industrial society where the forces of contemporary neoliberalism’s anti-public sector regime are still being overtly opposed. It follows that such changes in the way labor is organized will be all the more powerfully and visibly marked in the case of the publically funded university system. Indeed if, as recent research reveals, being an academic is one of the most desired jobs in Britain today, it may be because this occupation is seen as offering a way of living, of being, that is not just about consuming and working and very little else. In this way, Ubercapitalism will provide a sense of what is lying in store for many us over the course of the next few years – and what we can do about it.

Gary Hall is a theorist, writer and experimental publisher, working in the areas of new media, philosophy, art and politics. He is Professor of Media and Performing Arts in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, and Director of the Centre for Disruptive Media, at Coventry University, UK. He is author of Culture in Bits (Continuum, 2002), Digitize This Book! (Minnesota UP, 2008), Pirate Philosophy (MIT Press, 2016), and The Uberfication of the University (Minnesota UP, 2016), co-author of Open Education (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2014), and co-editor of New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory (Edinburgh UP, 2006) and Experimenting (Fordham UP, 2007). In 1999 with Dave Boothroyd he founded the critical theory journal Culture Machine, a pioneer of open access in the humanities.


Steve Brown and Paula Reavey

Mediated Experience and Life Space

Subjectivity is a dangerous term for a recovering psychologist. ‘Experience’ works better because, echoing Whitehead, it requires us to qualify what kind of experience is at stake and the modalities through which it achieves concrescence. Any effort at doing so will rapidly confirm that all experience is mediated, inasmuch as it assembled through a diverse of elements (what Whitehead calls ‘feelings’). The specific forms of mediation at work in digital media suggest that notions of proximity, contact, connection and entanglement need to be thought in topological terms. Kurt Lewin’s notion of life space is, I would argue, a useful conceptual device to doing this kind of thinking. I will offer some examples from mental health care to develop this, including the app Mental Snapp and the CoWall/CoWin room technology.

Steve is Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at the University of Leicester. His research interests are around ‘difficult’ or ‘problematic’ autobiographical memories; mental health service users experience of secure forensic psychiatric care and the application of process philosophy to Psychology. He is author of Vital Memory and Affect: Living with a difficult past (2015; with Paula Reavey, Routledge); Psychology Without Foundations: History, philosophy and psychosocial theory (2009; with Paul Stenner, Sage) and The Social Psychology of Experience: Studies in remembering and forgetting (2005; with David Middleton, Sage).

Paula is Professor of Psychology at London South Bank University. As well as co-authoring the above mentioned work with Steve, she has co-edited two volumes, New Feminist Stories of Child Sexual Abuse: Sexual Scripts and Dangerous Dialogues (with Sam Warner, Routledge, 2003) and Memory Matters: Contexts for Understanding Sexual Abuse Recollections (with Janice Haaken, Psychology Press, 2009), and edited, Visual Psychologies: Using and Interpreting Images in Qualitative Research (Routledge, 2011).

Joanna Zylinska

The Subjectivation of the I/eye: Non-human Vision

The term ‘nonhuman vision’ may evoke images of cybernetic perception via CCTV cameras, Google Street View, satellites and drones – that is, processes of perception in which the very act of seeing is performed by a nonhuman, networked, software-driven agent. The term may also bring up visual acts where the human is still entangled in the sighting process: endoscopy, microphotography or even live webcam streaming, but where a cybernetic apparatus is needed to access realms that remain hidden from human sight. Yet it is not my aim in this talk to celebrate uncritically any such technological enhancements to, or even replacements for, human subjectivity and vision, because, as Donna Haraway bluntly highlights with reference to examples such as office video display terminals and satellite surveillance systems, ‘vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony’. Technologically enhanced vision is therefore still premised on a human, and most definitely humanist, subjectivity in that it only reinforces the visual mastery and material dominance of the observer: it is like the eye of a general scanning the battlefield, only better.

However, just as it is not my intention to gush over technological enhancements to human vision, neither is it to promote any kind of visual luddism as yet another instalment in man’s (or woman’s) struggle against technology. So, even though this talk starts out from the cybernetic aspects of vision that challenge the limitations of the human senses and that produce images which defy human perception, it proposes the concept of ‘nonhuman vision’ as a mediated politico-ethical response to what Haraway calls the god-trick of infinite vision, a masculinist gaze of domination and occupation ‘seeing everything from nowhere’. Importantly, nonhuman vision is not directly opposed to its human counterpart: rather, the human will be seen throughout my talk as part of a complex assemblage of perception in which various organic and machinic agents come together, as well as apart, for functional, political or aesthetic reasons.

As well as considering perception and vision, I also dew attention to viewpoints; the actual points and positions from which what we humans refer to as ‘the world’, or ‘the environment’, is apprehended and from which stories about this world (and about our entanglements with this world) are narrated. The embracing of nonhuman vision will allow the human to see beyond the humanist limitations of its (our) current philosophies, subjectivities and world views; to unsee the God-trick positioning of both everywhere and nowhere, and to become re-anchored and re-attached again. Nonhuman vision is thus about introducing empathy and care for ‘our’ point of view into our conceptual and visual framework, while removing the privileging and stability of the humanist standpoint from it. It is about inviting the view of another to one’s spectrum of visuality.

Joanna is Professor of New Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. The author of five books – including Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2014), Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process (with Sarah Kember; MIT Press, 2012) and Bioethics in the Age of New Media (MIT Press, 2009) – she is also a co-editor of the JISC-funded project Living Books about Life, which publishes online books at the crossroads of the humanities and the sciences. Her translation of Stanislaw Lem’s major philosophical treatise, Summa Technologiae, came out from the University of Minnesota’s Electronic Mediations series in 2013. Joanna is a co-editor of Culture Machine, an open-access journal of culture and theory and a curator of its sister project, Photomediations Machine. She combines her philosophical writings and curatorial work with photographic art practice.