The Graduate Forum

an interdisciplinary forum at New York University 

December 12, 2012
Presenter: Luke Stark
Respondent: Mairin Odle
On Anxiety and Digital Media

"When and how is anxiety triggered in your personal and daily use of digital media (your computer, tablet, smartphone or similar device)? What do you think this anxiety suggests about your experience of, and subjective relationship with, these technologies?"


Finding Clues in the Fearful Brain, Joseph LeDoux
Counting the Affects: Discoursing in Numbers, Otniel E. Dror
Postscript on the Societies of Control, Gilles Deleuze


Luke's research got me thinking a lot about embodiment. It seems there is a tension, or at least a complex relationship, between emotion and technology. Emotion is a physical state as much as a mental state--and yet the physiological characteristics of emotion are what a lot of digital devices purport to mediate, or distance...and can emotion exist without embodiment? This seems to extend from Asya's question about if machines can have emotion, and how that would be defined--a machine has materiality, but not physiology. Does that mean it can only imitate emotion, and not *have* emotion of its own?

Connected to this, perhaps, is the use of emotion--specifically anxiety--in marketing digital devices (or products, like vacations, which are supposedly going to cure one's tech-related anxiety), which I was a little surprised no one brought up. It strikes me that as computers and related digital technologies have taken up more of the work of personal life--not just as data-managing devices or word processors, but as the concrete means of making social connections--emotions become not an unintended side-effect but a primary goal (and maybe Luke will tell me that emotions have been a goal of computer scientists and technology designers from the start. Now that I'm considering it, that seems more likely). I'm thinking of ads I've seen for tablet computers that entirely emphasize emotional connection as the point of having a computer: rather than making claims about how much memory the computer has, the ads show children skyping with grandparents or a man drawing a picture of a rose with a stylus and sending it to his girlfriend. Ads like that may be both attempting to undercut lingering associations of tech-assisted human connections as 'cold' or 'distant' and at the same time playing on some of the fear of missing out that we talked about as one of the main anxieties we associate with devices.

The role of embodiment also had me thinking a lot about actual body language and use of technological objects (beyond the whole 'sitting will kill you!' claim that we hear so frequently...more anxiety!). I would imagine there is an effect on one's emotional state, one's self-conception, one's inter-personal relations, in the hunched postures and down-turned faces that users of smartphones and laptops frequently assume. I'd be curious to know if there are ways of actually evaluating that.

Another area of thought this presentation and discussion prompted for me was whether technologies can be said to create new types of emotion (which reminded me of Kathy and Luke's exchange about whether devices were turning irony from a feeling into an emotion). This gets at a fundamental debate in work on history of the body and history of emotions: whether such objects of study undergo meaningful historical change on a time scale useful for history (rather than evolution) and what any sort of reported change--change in described experience, change in archival frequency--what any of that means. I was thinking about Barbara Duden's The Woman Beneath the Skin, which suggests that women in early c18 Germany reported experiences of pregnancy and childbirth and illness very differently from contemporary women, and those claims should be understood as reflective not only of a different worldview but of an actually physically different experience. Trying to report on past embodiments (or emotions) means taking historical actors seriously and not immediately analogize them to a contemporary framework--but when the topic is something that only comes to us through analogy and self-reporting, I wonder what a thoughtful response is that balances taking people at their word and evaluating their sometimes-contradictory behavior. This occurred to me when Kartik asked what to do with anxiety if it wasn't named as such. No one knows what others feel except through what they report--unless we attempt to measure and group those sensations, as in the Dror piece we read.

Dror describes emotions in late c19 discourse as being treated as disruptions in the machine, in a model of body-as-machine. Where are we at now, then, if we turn our focus away from the body/machine metaphor and toward the actual body/machine interface: what is the place for emotions there? Do they disrupt the experience or further it?

I also did a Google NGram of words like 'anxious' and 'anxiety' to see their prevalence in English-language texts that Google has scanned. Results are entirely un-rigorous! But I was interested to see that 'anxious' was more common than 'anxiety' until 1950, when their lines cross--I wondered what that meant, if it was a matter of describing an individual as 'anxious' versus a growing description of a free-floating or communal state of 'anxiety.' Anyhow, you can see the chart here.











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