Review: What Things Do (Part 1)

This is part one of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Because this is a book steeped in philosophy, reading it isn’t going to be for everyone. (In truth, parts were tough going for me.) But it contains a lot of juicy insights as to what the relationship of people to objects and people to technology is, and I think it has a lot to offer interaction and industrial designers in particular. So I’ll be reviewing the book and explaining its ideas over a series of blog posts, this being the first.

What Things Do sets out to establish a new way of thinking about the role objects play in human life and activities, and what effect objects have on human existence. To do this, the author Peter-Paul Verbeek, begins by looking at how several philosophers have thought about this issue in the past. He starts with Karl Jaspers‘ existential approach to technology.

Jaspers take on technology can be boiled down to this: technology alienates people from their “authentically human” selves, turning them (us) into accessories of mass culture. As Verbeek describes it: “technology suffocates human existence.” Although technology for Jaspers is seen as neutral (more on this in a second), the byproduct of technology plus population growth, is to turn human beings into cogs in a vast machine. The human race is utterly dependent on technology now to survive, and to maintain that technology is a tremendous burden. Technology creates more needs than it fulfills, and simply the operation and maintenance of the machines that keep us alive requires huge organizations and extensive bureaucracies. “Everything must be planned and coordinated with everything else,” Verbeek writes. “The tightly organized society that results, according to Jaspers, itself has the character of a machine.” Jaspers calls this technological society (that is, the world we live in now) “The Apparatus” and it “increasingly determines how human beings carry out their daily lives.” Human beings stop becoming individuals, but are instead interchangeable parts in The Apparatus.

With this bleak picture of technology, it’s hard to grasp that Jaspers although thinks of technology as essentially neutral.

[Technology] follows no particular direction…only human beings can give it direction; it is in itself neutral, and requires guidance. It is in no position to give itself ends and is only a means for realizing ends provided by human beings.

While Jaspers claims that technology is not an end unto itself, he knows that people often view it as such, allowing it to “function as an independent and menacing power while not being so itself.” Human beings need to reassert control over technology and not make it the goal, lest “everything that can be done technologically, is.”

Another interesting note for designers is that Jaspers says that the only way to really control technology is not think about the problem in a purely intellectual way, because that will only lead to solving technical problems and not the real problem. The only way to solve human problems to turn general situations into personal situations, to make the problem ours and to take on personal responsibility. We need to “recover a sense of responsibility for technology.” When we are responsible for technology, failure to act becomes a choice we make.

Verbeek notes that the idea that technology is neutral is an unusual one in philosophy. Most philosophies of technology claim the opposite, that technology is decidedly not neutral and does much more than simply achieve the goals for which they were designed. Indeed, says Verbeek,

[T]echnologies reshape the very ends that we use them to reach…a technology does much more than realize the goal towards which it has been put; it always helps to shape the context in which it functions, altering the actions of human beings and the relation between them and their environment.

Verbeek goes on to say that a serious flaw in Jaspers’ thinking is the separation of technology from culture. As he gets into later in the book, technology and culture are deeply entwined. “Human beings aren’t sovereign with respect to technology, but are, rather, inextricably interwoven with it.”

In part two: Heidegger answers the question, “What makes a thing useful?”

Jump ahead to parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7

2 thoughts on “Review: What Things Do (Part 1)

  1. One of the key points I got from Verbeek’s use of Jaspers, and a point that becomes crucial toward the end of Verbeek’s argument, is that functionalism makes users appreciate the outcome of a device and not necessarily the device that delivers that outcome. There are some people in sustainable design who think that a design that is completely user-centred will tend to be one that the user will value and therefore sustain, whereas Jaspers argues that this ‘use-value’ will commodify the design, ie encourage the user to replace it with a better functioning model as soon as one is innovated. As the answer is also not just making the object fetishistically beautiful (the ‘classic’ design approach which afford collections of unused mantle-pieces), Verbeek struggles at the end of the book to work out how to connect usefulness with the materiality of some particular thing. This thingly approach to user-centred design is a bit of a revolution when compared to the current dominance of immaterial approaches (whether digital or style design). I will be very interested to see what you make of it.

  2. I’m glad to see you’re reviewing this. It’s one of the core texts for my thesis essay which I’ll be finishing soon. I’ve only talked to a couple of people who have read it so I’m interested in your take.

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