Review: What Things Do (Part 2)

This is part two of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.

Chapter 2, “The Thing About Technology” takes a look at technology and objects from the point of view of philosopher Martin Heidegger. This is a meaty chapter that is nearly a quarter of the book, so my summary is going to be inadequate and, for you philosophy-scholars out there, probably wrong. I’m a designer, not a philosopher! But bear with me, since I think there’s a lot interaction designers can get from Heidegger, despite his Nazi leanings. (It’s almost obligatory to mention that when discussing Heidegger.)

According to Peter-Paul Verbeek, the author, Heidegger believed that what a thing does can only be understood by examining the thing itself, as a physical object that plays a role in the world. For Heidegger and unlike Karl Jaspers, technology is not a means to an end, nor is it a human activity. Instead, it is a “way of revealing” the world. “Revealing” is how all reality presents itself to human beings, in a specific way and always related to human beings. What gets revealed is what is available to be controlled by humans. Technology reveals the “standing-reserve” of reality: the “storehouse of available raw materials.”

I have to note at this point that there is much about this philosophy that makes my skin crawl. Heidegger is the kind of guy who looks at a tree and sees firewood. But moving on.

Heidegger on things is much less creepy. For Heidegger, things in the form of tools are how human beings relate to the world. Thus, tools can only be understood in their relationship to human beings. And what makes a tool a tool? It has to be something useful

From the perspective of praxis, a useful thing is “something in order to…”; it is useful, helpful, serviceable…tools and equipment never exist simply in themselves, but always refer to that which is done with them. What makes a tool or piece of equipment what it is, is that it makes possible a practice. But a remarkable feature of the ways tools are present is that they withdraw from, or hide in, as it were, the relation between human beings and their world. Generally, human beings do not focus on the tool or piece of equipment they are using, but on the work in which they are engaged.

Verbeek goes on to say that, “The more attention that a tool or piece of equipment requires, the more difficult it is to do something with it.” How true this is, and we see this all the time in interaction design. The more users fumble around with a lousy piece of software, looking for a hidden feature that shouldn’t be hidden, say, the more their task is disrupted.

When a tool is being used, Heidegger refers to it as “readiness-to-hand.” But when the tool itself becomes apparent and users have to focus on it, Heidegger calls this “present-at-hand.” When a tool becomes present-at-hand, the relationship between its user and the world revealed “through” it is disrupted.

The “in order to…” of tools shapes the world. Tools call for a particular way of working, which discloses the world in a particular way. Thus, tools are decidedly not neutral (as Jaspers claimed), but instead suggest ways of making the raw material of the world useful. Tools refer to not only what is made with them, but also to their future user.

What makes a useful object useful? Heidegger observes that

a useful object is present as such when it withdraws from our attention in favor of the work being accomplished. To this, Heidegger now adds that a useful object can only be useful when it is reliable. When it wears out–when, for instance the sole of a shoe wears away–the useful object loses its reliability, and therefore its usefulness. It changes over time into a mere thing. According to Heidegger, therefore, reliability is the way of being for equipment.

In part 3: Do technologies have an agenda?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *