Have our emotions changed over the century? A recent and entertaining article discusses five new emotions that have come into existence with the rise of computer use in everyday life. Though not exactly a rigorous examination, the article raises an important point: one can’t help but accept the fact that computers, and indeed the internet, are an increasing part of our daily lives – and we are going to have corresponding emotional responses to all sorts of computer-related phenomena. Articulations of affects relating to internet-time-wasting and facebook might not, on this understanding, just be entertaining illustrations of this everyday engagement with computers, but may actually be pointing the creation of new emotional cues and behaviours.
Emotions are historical phenomena. Consider love. To many, this emotion seems an essential part of the human condition. Every human, from the most humble caveman to the most noble Queen has the potential (even if not exercised) to recognize and to experience love. It can come as a shock to this view that our modern understanding of love qua romantic love (viz. the way in which love is not only as an emotional experience, but one with corresponding notions of fidelity, and sacrifice) comes from Trobadours, who expressed this idea of love in their songs and poetry in the Middle Ages. Indeed, the way in which love has been understood has changed dramatically over the centuries: from the kind of love exemplified by Aphrodite shining her light upon Helen, to the agape-love discussed by Augustine, up to the courtly love of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the romantic love of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
This is a familiar point, especially from the existential analyses of Heidegger – though taken up more recently in authors such as Thompson, and Dreyfus and Kelly. The argument of these authors is this: our emotions (moods, affects, imports) are historical entities, even those that seem as self-evident as love: they come and go with the context and character of the times. Further, these moods reflect historical ways of behaviour and interaction with a world of meaning. Courtly love, the kind imitated by Don Quixote, was strange and impractical to readers in the 16th Century, because society had not continued with the practices and behaviours that allowed for, and made sense of, such a form of affect meaningful.
So we should think hard about how we as a culture are responding and engaging with computers and the internet. Perhaps our mindless scrolling on social websites, and impatience at the slightest delay in internet service, reflects not only new computer-centric affects, but also an emerging paradigm of behaviour and interaction.