Conatus: depth in relation, data-identities and moral distance

Riva, Waterworth & Waterworth argue from a bio-cultural approach, that presence manifests in the strive for well-being and survival (Riva, Waterworth & Waterworth 2004). From this perspective the notion of witnessed presence can be considered to have agency and performativity as well.

The witness chooses to take the stand, the sense of presence makes her or him be aware and act. The perception and awareness of ‘something is happening’ has impact in natural presence because the conatus, first introduced by Spinoza as the quest for well-being and survival, operates on all levels of the organism of the human being, who is trying to regulate constantly towards homeostasis (Damasio 2004). From a neurological perspective Antonio Damasio states that the brain constantly distinguishes between what is beneficial for life and what is detrimental to life. Damasio argues that in the perception of something happening emotions and feelings are crucial indicators of where well–being and survival are to be found. People steer away from pain, trying to restore the homeostasis. People steer away from unhappiness, trying to make things better. The ‘conatus’ triggers a human being to take care of him or herself, and it also triggers the human being to take care of ‘other selves’ to keep the environment healthy and safe. Social conventions and ethical rules may be seen as extensions of the basic homeostatic arrangements at the level of society and culture. An individual’s drive for survival can also be considered to be the fundament for ethical behaviour towards others (Damasio 2004).
Mediated presences contribute to daily lives, knowledge and experience significantly. However, the natural presence of the actors involved remains to be distinct because natural presence has to physically survive with or without the use of technology. From this perspective it seems reasonable to argue that mediated presences should only have impact as far as that they do not harm nor confuse the sense of natural presence that helps human beings to steer away from pain towards well-being and survival.
When ‘enacting being’ the depth in relation between human beings sets the context for how communication is understood (Nevejan 2007). Strangers, people with whom a human being has no relation, are merely perceived as information (Buber 1937). This resonates with the experience that in the midst of all the data streams that human kind produces today, it seems that to be able to hear the voices of suffering has become more problematic than ever (Baxi 1999). To be able to hear a voice of suffering requires the capacity to have complex feelings like compassion and solidarity which do not evolve from the perception of information only. To develop these feelings human beings have to be part of social structures and engaged in human relationships over time (Damasio 2004).
Because mediated presences offer limited sensorial input, limited mediation of context, and limited possibilities to act, a moral distance is easily adopted towards people a human being does not know (Hamelink 2000). Current technology facilitates not only a mediation of presence, they also collect, match, duplicate, distribute and produce ‘data-identities’ (Nevejan 2007). Human beings have little control over their ‘data-identity’ in current technological systems while the data-identity of a human being has acquired great agency in the social structures in which human beings live. There is little control on how data are created, there is hardly any control on how data are matched, travel or even on how long they exist. One can argue that the systems themselves have become participants in communities and are executing their own specific ways of witnessed presence (Brazier & van der Veer 2009). The confrontation between a human being and his/her data-identity and the effect of being witnessed by technological systems, which imperceptibly invade the personal sphere all the time, has hardly been studied. However, having agency is a requirement for being a witness and to participate in the negotiation of trust and truth. Because human beings have so little influence over their data-identities in the social structures upon which they depend, they adopt a moral distance towards the own self as well (Nevejan 2007). One of the possible implications of adopting a moral distance towards one’s self is that feelings and emotions will not evolve as they should, which leads to the ultimate consequence that a human being is less capable of steering towards one’s own well-being and survival. Also the sense for a safe social environment diminishes because as a result of the moral distance to the self, also the moral distance to other human beings increases.
Although related to mediated presence, concepts like homeostasis and conatus are different: there is a different sense of causality, limited sensorial input, local and implicit knowledge can hardly be mediated and the connection most often provides context. Context as reference, that a place with an embedded culture offers, has disappeared (Nevejan 2007). Also, consistency in identity, through actions and feedback to these actions, requires special attention when being involved in mediated presence. The way emotions and feelings are triggered in mediated presence, and the process of attribution, synchronization and adaptation happen, can be significantly different from a natural presence context. When being a witness in mediated environments the steering capacity of emotions and feelings towards well-being and survival has to be understood and analyzed in different ways. The agency of witnessed presence is different in natural presence from the agency a witness has in mediated environments.