Rafael Capurro

Published in: Richard Keeble (ed.): Communication Ethics Today. Leicester: Troubadour Publishing Ltd., 2005, 187-196. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Institute of Communication Ethics annual conference: "The Age of Information: New Anxieties - New Opportunities" Lincoln, UK, 2004. Also published in: ethical space. The International Journal of Communication Ethics, Vol.1 No.4, 2004, 18-21.
German translation: Zwischen Vertrauen und Angst. Über Stimmungen der Informationsgesellschaft. In: D. Klumpp, H. Kubicek, A. Roßnagel, W. Schulz (Hrsg.): Informationelles Vertrauen für die Informationsgesellschaft. Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer, 2008, 53-62 (aus dem Englischen übersetzt von Susanne Ertelt und Klaus Kamps).


On Information Anxiety
Information Overload
Fear of Surveillance, Control and Exclusion
Growing Commercialisation of the Internet
On Moods
On the Moods of Information Society


On Information Anxiety

We live in an information society. To be well informed means, if we trust our everyday experience, anxiety reduction. But today we are paradoxically plagued with information anxiety. According to Richard Wurman information anxiety has (at least) two sources, the first one concerns our relation to information, the second one our relation to each other. He writes:

“Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. It happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want to know.” (Wurman 2001: 14).

Following this logic, the more the information the greater the hermeneutic challenge of making sense and, consequently, of anxiety reduction. As John Seely Brown und Paul Duguid rightly state

“For it is not shared stories or shared information so much as shared interpretation that binds people together. […] To collaborate around shared information you first have to develop a shared framework for interpretation. “Each of us thinks his own thoughts,” the philosopher Stephen Toulmin argues. “Our concepts we share.”” (Brown/Duguid 2000: 107)

Information technology and information hermeneutics are two sides of the same coin. But as far as no human society can survive without information it can also be said that every human society is an information society. This historical perspective of former information societies has, as Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman state, a liberating effect. They write:

“The fundamental fact of information’s historicity liberates us from the conceit that ours is the information age […] It allows us to stand outside our contemporary information idiom, to see where it comes from, what it does, and how it shapes our thought.”  (Hobart/Schiffman 1998)

Our present economy, policy, scientific research, technological innovation, and, last but not least, our everyday life are largely dependent on digital information. In this sense we can state that information anxiety and its counterpart, information trust, are the basic moods of today’s digitally networked information society.


Information Overload

The Internet is, following Wurman, the “black hole” between data and knowledge. It does not tell us what we want to know. What we want to know depends on our situation, i.e., on our existential conditions, on our history and commitments, on our beliefs and desires. What we want to know is partly explicit but it remains implicit on a great extent. It emerges in the moment in which we become aware of the relevance of the gap between “what we understand” und “what we think we should understand.” This awareness arises, for instance, when our critical spirit does not trust the present knowledge as a secure basis for the future. In our digital-based economy this attitude is being reflected globally and 24 hours a day in our finance markets, being constantly driven between the moods of trust and anxiety. Any kind of foreknowledge rests on assumptions that cannot be completely made explicit because this would imply an absolute knowledge that is unattainable for a finite being. There is no complete information for a human knower.

This trivial but basic assumption has been forgotten or was just ignored by some of our modern economic theories as they invented the homo oeconomicus rationalis. But, hélas!, there is no possibility for us to fill the gap between information and knowledge and, consequently, between trust and anxiety. There is no mood-free rational economy. Even more, moods are not the opposite to rationality but rationality itself is already in a mood of a knower who trusts (or not) sense data and his/her (imperfect) predicting capacity. According to David Hume: “Our actions have a constant union with our motives, tempers, and circumstances.” (Hume 1962: 272).

Herbert Simon coined the concept of “bounded rationality,” following the hints by Friedrich von Hayek in his 1945 paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” making plausible that it is the “pragmatic mechanism” with no promises of optimization, and not the “ideal market mechanism”, that fits the real world (Simon 1982: 41-43). Uncertainty and expectations are the basic moods of the pragmatic market mechanism. According to Simon, we should remain sceptical assuming that people form their expectations about the future rationally and that firms and investors can thus predict the future of their business based on the permanent prevalence of such an assumption as in the case of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and Hegel’s “List der Vernunft”.

Richard Wurman mentions another source of information anxiety that concerns our relation to each other in a network society:

“Our relationship to information isn’t the only source of information anxiety. We are also made anxious by the fact that other people often control our access to information. We are dependent on those who design information, on the news editors and producers who decide what news we will receive, and by decision-makers in the public and private sector who can restrict the flow of information. We are also made anxious by other people’s expectations of what we should know, be they company, presidents, or even parents.” (Wurman 2001: 14

Fear of Surveillance, Control and Exclusion

While the first source of information anxiety has to do with information overload, the second one is related to the fear of surveillance, control, and exclusion. While creating a global medium like the Internet we are confronted with exclusion or what we use to call the digital divide. Since 11 September 2001, but also since 11 March 2004 (when terrorist bombers struck Madrid), we are facing the reality of a web of trust becoming a web of surveillance. After the shock of March 11, Spanish voters send each other text messages. Within a few hours several thousand of them met apparently spontaneously in order to protest against the official information policy. This makes clear the kind of synergy made possible by the mobile web, while at the same time the collective fear of, say, viruses attacks, privacy infringements, theft and pornography, make the idea of a net of control not only plausible but even desirable, at least from the viewpoint of some governments and pressure groups as stated by Lawrence Lessig (1999) and newly also by liberal philosopher Richard Rorty (2004).

Net control is becoming a legitimate part of the "war against terrorism". But this "war" is an asymmetric war and cannot be won with a top-down strategy based on the mood of anxiety. This is exactly what terrorists want. The "war against terrorism" becomes, according to Rorty, a greater threat to Western democracies than terrorism itself. The alternative seems to be between slavery within a “goodwill despotism” (Rorty op.cit.) and liberty under the threat of terrorism. In today’s information society the price of trust is liberty and the price of liberty is anxiety. Tertium non datur.

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist, reports of a wood-paneled room in Bangalore where the Indian software giant Infosys can hold a simultaneous global teleconference  with its U.S. innovators. Mr. Nilekani, CEO of Infosys explains: “We can have our whole global supply chain on the screen at the same time.” The journalist comments:

“Who else has such a global supply chain today? Of course: Al Qaeda. Indeed, these are the two basic responses to globalization: Infosys and Al Qaeda.” (Friedman 2004)


Growing Commercialisation of the Internet

Close to this anxiety in face of a net of control and/or of terrorism is the anxiety related to the growing commercialisation of the Internet. It leads to what John Walker calls “the digital imprimatur.” (Walker 2003). This means no more and no less than the end of the Internet as we know it today when Big Brother and big media put “the Internet genie back in the bottle” through Trusted Computing, Digital Rights Management, and the Secure Internet on the basis of "micropayment" and "document certificates." This is, from a historical perspective, a victory of the hierarchic 20th century mass media. It is devoted to guaranteeing trust through control by equating freedom with anxiety on the basis of digital Leviathans. The principles stated and the actions started by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as well as by several civil society initiatives in favour of freedom of communication (Internet Commons Congress 2004) are at the opposite of this vision.

On Moods

Anxiety is a mood. According to ordinary understanding moods happen inside our minds. In his famous dictionary of the English language Samuel Johnson defines anxiety as:

“1. Trouble of mind about some future event; suspense with uneasiness; perplexity; solicitude.[…] 2. In the medical language, depression; lowness of spirits.” (Johnson 1755/1968)

The "Oxford English Dictionary" puts it like this:

“The quality or state of being anxious; uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event; solicitude, concern.” (OED 1989)

Compare these definitions with Friedman’s description of the intersection between Al Qaeda and information technology in Madrid on 11 March 2004:

“Ever once in a while the technology and terrorist supply chains intersect – like last week. Reuters quoted a Spanish official saying after the Madrid train bombings: “The hardest thing [for the rescue workers] was hearing mobile phones ringing in the pockets of the bodies. They couldn’t get that our of their heads.” (Friedman op.cit.)

If we use the word anxiety for describing the mood of the Spanish officials in face of the unbelievable terrorist threat, we would prima facie agree with the conception of moods as something happening within their heads. But it is also evident that this interpretation of moods is one-sided since what is going on in the heads of the rescue workers cannot be dissociated from the whole situation in which they are embedded. In other words, we can speak of a terrible situation as a mood concerning only the heads of the rescue workers but, in fact, it concerns the whole situation within a train station, a city, a country and even the whole European continent. Moods are then related not just to private feelings but they pervade the situation in which subjects are inserted. Our states-of-mind cannot be dissociated from their circumstances.

This view is also the one developed by Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological approach (Heidegger 1976: 134). According to Heidegger, moods are not primarily private feelings but they disclose a public experience, i.e. they concern the way(s) we are in a given situation with others in a common world. Being originally social our feelings do not separate us from each other but even in the case in which we speak of mood as a subjective state, this belongs already to the situation in which I am embedded implicitly or explicitly together with others. In his commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time Hubert Dreyfus writes:

“For example, when one is afraid, one does not merely feel fearful, nor is fear merely the movement of cringing; fear is cringing in an appropriate context.” (Dreyfus 1991: 172)

The psychologist, Eugene Gendlin remarks that Heidegger’s conception of mood is more “interactional” than “intrapsychic” (Gendlin 1978). In his article on Heidegger’s concept of “Befindlichkeit” he writes:

“'Sich befinden' (finding oneself) thus has three allusions: The reflexivity of finding oneself; feeling; and being situated. All three are caught in the ordinary phrase, “How are you?” That refers to how you feel but also to how things are going for you and what sort of situation you find yourself in. To answer the question you must find yourself, find how you already are. And when you do, you find yourself amidst the circumstances of your living."

Gendlin underlines another important difference of the Heideggerian conception of mood with regard to the traditional subjectivist view, namely the relation of mood and understanding, or, more precisely, the conception of mood as a specific way of understanding. Moods are not just affections colouring a situation, but are an active although mostly implicit way of understanding a situation independently of what we actually say or not with explicit words. There is then, according to Heidegger, a difference as well as an intimate relation between mood, understanding and speech as the three basic parameters of human existence.

In "Being and Time", Heidegger gives a famous analysis of two moods, namely fear (“Furcht”) and anxiety (“Angst”), borrowing basic insights from Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety. The key difference between these moods is that while fear is a mood in which one is afraid about something fearsome, anxiety, in contrast, faces us with our being-in-the-world itself in such a way that no intra-worldly entity is at its origin. But we are confronted with the very fact of the being there, with our existence in the world, and of the being of the world itself, without the possibility of giving an intrinsic reason for them. Dreyfus remarks:

“In anxiety Dasein discovers that it has no meaning or content of its own; nothing individualizes it but its empty thrownness.” (Dreyfus 1991: 180)

Such an experience is not necessarily accompanied by sweating and crying, but it is rather more near to what we could call today a "cool" experience of the gratuity of existence. Ludwig Wittgenstein describes such a “key experience” (“mein Erlebnis par excellence”) in his "Lecture on Ethics" with the following words:

“This experience, in case I have it, can be described most properly, I believe, with the words I am amazed about the existence of the world. Then I tend to use formulations like these ones: 'How strange that something exists at all' or 'How strange that the world exists'" (Wittgenstein 1989: 14, my translation)

But according to Wittgenstein we have really no appropriate expression for this experience – other than the existence of language itself. On 30 December 1929 Wittgenstein remarked:

“I can imagine what Heidegger means with being and anxiety. Human beings have the tendency to run against the boundaries of language. Think for instance about the astonishment that something at all exists. […] Ethics is this run against the boundaries of language.” (Wittgenstein 1984: 68, my translation)

On the Moods of Information Society 

How are we doing in today’s information society? What is our mood? In view of the difference between fear and anxiety we can answer that within the situation of being-in-the-network we are in the mood of fear and trust. We use the Internet in everyday life in such a way that not only the Gnostic perspective of cyberspace as something separated from the real world – as promulgated, for instance, by John Perry Barlow  (1996) – has become outdated as mobile and miniaturized computing – we could call this the Vodafone effect – but is now everywhere embedded in our everyday material life. Just the opposite of cyberspace mythology happened. This creates indeed a mood of (implicit) trust. But at the same time it gives rise to new types of fear as the pervasive connection of all things can also lead to disastrous outcomes.

And what about anxiety? It seems as if the network does create a kind of digital veil that conceals the type of experience addressed by Wittgenstein and Heidegger with the concept of anxiety. The network is more of the kind of instrumental grid called by later Heidegger “Gestell” (literally "enframing") i.e. of a collection of all kinds of positioning (“stellen”) or manipulation of things. We could use this term with regard to information society by calling information Gestell all forms of language production and manipulation (Capurro 2000).

But is today’s experience of, say, ubiquitous computing, multifunctional cellular phones, and permanent online accessibility, really at the opposite of the kind of affective understanding arising from our confrontation with the abyss of human existence as manifest in the mood of anxiety? Does the information Gestell create a kind of super human subject with all kinds of enhanced capabilities, as described for instance by MIT designer William J. Mitchell in his book "ME++"  (Mitchell 2003)? David Hume writes:

“When I turn my reflection on myself, I never can perceive this self without some or more perceptions; nor can I ever perceive anything but the perceptions. It is the composition of these, therefore, which forms the self.” (Hume 1962: 283) 

In today’s information society we form ourselves and our selves through digitally mediated perceptions of all kinds. Interconnectivity does not mean the death of the modern subject as proclaimed by some popular postmodernists but its transformation into a “nodular subject” (Mitchell) which means, paradoxically, a weakening of its manipulating ambitions. The power of networks does not lead necessarily to slavery and oppression but also to reciprocity and mutual obligation. Globalisation gives rise to the question of what does locally matter. Cyberspace vanishes into the diversity of complex real/virtual space-time connections of all kinds which are not any more separable form everyday life and its materiality. The boundaries of language against which we are driven appear now as the boundaries of digital networks which not only pervade but accelerate all relationships between humans as well as between all kinds of natural phenomena and artificial things. But, indeed, the subject of the digital network is at the same time its creator and its object.

From a more radical perspective, if we follow the tendency not only to drive against the boundaries of language but also against the boundaries of the digital, we may be able to experience life in a networked world in a mood of anxiety. And we might then make a trivial statement like: "I am amazed about the existence of a digital networked world" switching for a while from fear, as the everyday mood of information society, into anxiety and calmness, giving ourselves an opportunity to perceive what Buddhists call "nothingness".


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Last update: August 19, 2017

Copyright © 2004 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

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