Personhood and reciprocity: implications of new digital technologies on second-person interpersonal relationships

Speaker 2023

In this presentation, we aim to try to answer, or at least elucidate, the following question: are second-person relationships, interpersonal par excellence, possible in contexts mediated by communication technologies? As Diana Perez and Antoni Gomila (2001, 2018, 2021) propose, second-person relations include forms of interpersonal communication involving the direct exchange of meaning, which, in a first moment, does not seem to occur in synchronous interactions over the internet (e.g. video calls or through immersive artifacts). For Pérez and Gomila (2001, 2018, 2021), such relations had not been considered until then within the framework of perspectives on how people recognize each other by attributing beliefs, desires, and intentions, whether in first person (more subjective, simulating being in the other’s place) or third person (more objective, based on general cases).

Second-person interactions, in this sense, are characterized by the authors as face-to-face (or body-to-body), context-dependent, here-and-now, dyadic (although they can be triadic, when objects are part of the interaction), established between autonomous agents (not coerced by third parties), composed of a special type of mental attribution, namely, practical, transparent, reciprocally contingent and implicit attributions. Examples of second person cases are certain types of dance and music improvisations, team sports practices, fights, when we hold the door so that someone can pass, offer a comforting look to someone who has just knocked over a glass of water, among countless others. In other words, situations in which none of the agents involved is all the time deliberating the best course of action, but responds to another who reacts in an interpersonal continuum.

It turns out that in many situations where we interact over the Internet, we can immediately grasp the meaning of someone’s conduct, as in the facial expressions of someone who is chatting remotely or in the tone of voice of a person who sends us audios, in the pattern of publications on social networks, and so on, even if without the qualitative richness of face-to-face interactions. At the same time, it is necessary to consider that people are more uninhibited when they are protected and even anonymized by communication technologies in promoting hate speech and making explicit their homophobic beliefs, dark desires, treating each other as objects and not as persons.

Thus, given the properties attributed by Pérez and Gomila (2001, 2018, 2021) to second-person relations, either one or the other: (1) either we expand the understanding of second-person relations to contemplate the cases we assume to be interpersonally mediated, exploring the domain of direct perception in the context of new communication technologies or (2) we assume that one of the reasons why people are rightly more likely to reveal aspects of their personal identity in interactions mediated by new communication technologies is due to the impossibility of integrating the elements typical of cases of direct second-person interactions, such as the refrain of what would be allowed or not as a function of the presence of a known interlocutor in a face-to-face encounter.

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Digital Humanities Tilburg