, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 285-307
Date: 19 Feb 2012

“Embodying” the Internet: Towards the Moral Self via Communication Robots?

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Abstract

Internet communication technology has been said to affect our sense of self by altering the way we construct “personal identity,” understood as identificatory valuative narratives about the self; in addition, some authors have warned that internet communication creates special conditions for moral agency that might gradually change our moral intuitions. Both of these effects are attributed to the fact that internet communication is “disembodied.” Our aim in this paper is to establish a link between this complex of claims and past and ongoing research in phenomenology, empirical psychology and cognitive science, in order to formulate an empirical hypothesis that can assist development and evaluation of recent technology for embodied telecommunication. We first suggest that for the purposes of interdisciplinary exchange, personal identity is formally best represented by a selection function that (for temporal intervals of variable length) “bundles” capacity ascriptions into identificatory narratives. Based on this model, we discuss which cultural changes engendered by the internet affect the construction of personal identity in ways that diminish our ethical sensitivies. In a second step, working from phenomenological claims by Martin Buber, we argue that disembodied communication severs two modes of cognitive function, preconceptual and conceptual, which tie together moral motivation, self-experience, and identity construction. We translate Buber’s claims into the theoretical idiom of the “theory of cognitive orientation,” a psychological theory of motivation that links up with recent research in embodied cognition. In a third step, we investigate whether the embodiment of the internet with communication robots (e.g., telenoids) holds out the prospect of reverting this structural change at least partially. We conclude by formulating an empirical hypothesis (for researchers in cognitive science) that has direct import, we submit, on the question whether embodied telecommunication promises a new form of ethically sensitive self-constituting encounter.