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


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.

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  1. See e.g., Jensen (2003).

  2. That these identities are invariant is taken as an ‘axiom’ of ontological research.

  3. For details and applications of this model, see Seibit (2011), where it is used to reconstruct the changes in our self-understanding in value conflicts.

  4. In the context of this paper, we use the term “capacity” in a wide sense, denoting actual interaction potentials of all sorts: natural or acquired, active or passive, cognitive or emotional or practical, intended or unintended, unrealized (such as my capacity of speaking English when I am silent) or realized capacities. In particular, our usage of “capacities” includes ‘practices,’ which are here subsumed as a species of realized capacities. Most importantly, note that on this wide notion of capacity, an experience also counts as a sort of cognitive capacity, next to beliefs and emotions, namely, as a capacity the realization of which is partly active and partly passive. Thus, the conjunction ‘experiences and capacities’ should (here and thereafter) be read as “experiences and other capacities,” and it is only for rhetorical reasons that we—in line with the historical debate about personal identity—highlight experiences to emphasize a passive element in the construction of personal identities. For the wider theoretical context of this interactivist view of cognition, see Bickhard (2003, 2010).

  5. For example, individual experiences of ethnic conflict may become part of the ethnic identificatory narrative and thus passed on to personal identificatory narratives of the next generation; see Mahmoud (2011).

  6. For example, social media have been said to blur ethnic identities (Jensen 2003), but create new social identities.

  7. Turkle (2011) contains an impressive collection of concrete cases documenting how social media have come to change social practices and social etiquette pertaining to the introduction, dissolution, and maintenance of social relationships, and thus also affects our personal narratives on how we perform relative to these norms, whether we take ourselves to be reserved or outgoing, sensitive or pragmatic, compliant or wild, etc.

  8. Back et al. (2010: 372) report that “more than 700 million people worldwide now have profiles on on-line social networking sites”; currently there are 800 million users on Facebook alone and about 4 billion users on listed social networks, (accessed 5 Dec 2011). The proportion of global internet users to users of social networks seems to be about 1: 4,, accessed 5 Dec 2011.

  9. The specific link between multiple online identities and “Ego State Theory” (developed by Paul Federn in 1952, extended by John and Helen Watkins (1992)) is not, to our knowledge, to be found in the literature yet, but would seem to be empirically significant for the latter.

  10. These transformations may be classified more finely; cf. for example (Stutzman and Hartzog 2009), who sort a “continuum of boundary regulation behaviors emerging from multiple profile maintenance” according to main underlying motives.

  11. Here, we omit a precise definition of the variability of the order of the sequence.

  12. See, e.g., Watkins and Watkins (1992).

  13. In the nonpathological case, the relationship between the different empirical egos as defined by the different personal narratives selected for an interval is one of fore-grounding and back-grounding at different degrees (Watkins and Watkins 1992). Sicart’s (2009:70ff) phenomenological description of the relationship between player subject and game subject in online games displays striking similarities.

  14. Ling and McEwen (2010) similarly describe decisions about the “parking” of personal conversations as involving “two levels of reflexivity,” i.e., as the embedding of social etiquette in an ethical frame.

  15. The three modifications considered are those currently highlighted in the literature; we do not exclude that there may be some other structural modification of our sense of self that would by itself imply ethical degradation. To restate, we merely wish to point out that—in so far as it turns on these three modifications—the debate about whether the disembodied internet affects our capacity of moral agency is based on c implicit assumptions about the role of embodied communication for moral motivation, and that the explication of these assumptions can be theoretically and technologically fruitful.

  16. See Calvo and Gomila (2008).

  17. See, e.g., O’Regan and Noë (2001), Bickhard (2003); Meteyard et al (in press); on social cognition see the extensive literature cited in Gallagher (2008) and Reddy (2008).

  18. Cf., e.g., Varela et al. (1991), Clark (1997), Petitot et al. (1999), Dreyfus (2001), Gallagher (2003), and Noë (2004).

  19. Cf. Buber (1923/1979 (10th ed.): 18) and Lang (1963). Besides observing that we feel “called upon” by norms, Buber laconically elucidates the remaining aspects as follows: “Die Beziehung zum Du ist unmittelbar”; “Was weiss man vom Du?—Nur alles. Denn man weiss von ihm nichts Einzelnes mehr”; “Ich werde am Du; Ich werdend spreche ich Du.”—The first two elements of Buber’s distinction between two modes of cognition seem to link up with (Dreyfus 2001) observations that the ‘disembodied internet’ serves well to teach declarative knowledge but is ill-suited for the imparting of skills, which apparently requires that the learner is in the embodied co-presence with someone who is exercizing these skills.

  20. Buber (1932) contrasts “beobachten” (observing) with “innewerden” (getting-changed-by-taking-in).

  21. Essentially, Buber introduces the “I-it” mode and the “I-thou” mode essentially as two forms of intentionality: two ways of being-there as a human being in interaction with the world.

  22. Recent empirical support for Buber’s claim that the ‘I-thou’ mode involves a relational self comes, for example, from cognitive science and developmental psychology (Nagy 2009) documenting the capacities of neonates and young infants (less than 2 years old) to engage in social relations and have self-conscious experiences; this has been taken to suggest that besides our conceptualized self there is an experienced self that is “innately relational,” cf. (Reddy 2008), (Schilbach et al. 2006).

  23. In the course of discussing the problem of the difference between left and right, Kant came to identify orientation as a type of cognitive processing sui generis, especially in the short piece (Kant 1786) on “What does it mean to orientate oneself in thought?”. For recent work on the systematic significance of “orientation” for epistemology, philosophy of mind, action theory, and ethics compare in particular the essays collected in Stegmaier (2005).

  24. The notion of structural coupling (see e.g., Maturana and Varela (1987):75) was introduced by Maturana and Varela in the late 1970s; within the contemporary discussion about embodied cognition the three components of the notion: coordination, coevolution, and coupling (in the sense of the dynamic entanglement of two systems due to interlocking processes) have received different emphasis by different authors.

  25. Cf.: “The placement of meaning action at the core of perception implies that there is no one particular stage or fixed point […] at which the selection of what to attend to is established” (Kreitler and Kreitler 1976: 61). Kreitler and Kreitler also promote the radical thesis of embodied cognition that this interactivity is all there is to cognition, with semantic ‘units’ being formed as the emergent quasi-objects. See (Seibt 2005). Thus—and this seems to have gone unnoticed by proponents of embodied cognition—the theory of cognitive orientation is the place where a so-called “pure theory of embodied cognition” (Calvo and Gomila 2008: 17) has been formulated for the first time.

  26. The theory has been empirically investigated in over 60 studies in social and educational psychology; therapeutic applications pertain to motivational ‘reprogramming’ in cases of substance abuse. See, e.g., Kreitler and Kreitler (1986a, b, 1987, 1990, 2004) and Kreitler (2001, 2002).

  27. We distinguish, at the phenomenological level, three forms in which we are aware of being in the “I-thou” mode of cognition. First, and that is the default, the “I-thou” mode or the preconceptual phase of cognition is in the background; second, it may be “intensified,” i.e., in the foreground and something we are aware of; third, it may be “pronounced”, i.e., something we are reflectively aware of. Orientation in physical or figurative space is always intensified and frequently also pronounced, especially when we know we have lost our way, while dialogical orientation is typically merely intensified and becomes pronounced only when we try to “figure someone out.”

  28. See Information, March 25, 2011 and Ethical Council (2010).


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Correspondence to Johanna Seibt.

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Seibt, J., Nørskov, M. “Embodying” the Internet: Towards the Moral Self via Communication Robots?. Philos. Technol. 25, 285–307 (2012).

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  • Personal identity
  • Embodied internet communication
  • Teleoperated communication robots
  • Cognitive orientation
  • Embodied cognition
  • Philosophy of dialogue
  • Second person cognitive science
  • Moral cognition