Review: What Things Do (Part 4)

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

Chapter 4, “A Material Hermeneutic” continues where chapter 3 left off, examining the work of philosopher Don Ihde. This chapter’s central question is “What role do technological artifacts play in the manner in which human beings interpret reality?”

Ihde, according to Peter-Paul Verbeek (the author), takes as his basis this premise: “Technologies help shape the way in which reality is present to human beings; not only how they perceive the world, but also the frameworks in which they interpret it.” Ihde outlines three ways that human beings relate to technological artifacts:

  • Relation of Mediation. The human isn’t directly relating to the world, but only through the artifact. For example, when we wear glasses or watch television. There are two types of mediated relations. The first is embodiment relations in which technology is part of the experience and thus broadens our physical senses (such as the wearing of eyeglasses). The second is hermeneutic relations in which the artifact isn’t transparent. The example of this is a thermometer, which presents a representation of something humans can’t otherwise perceive: the temperature.
  • Alterity Relation. A relationship not to the world, but to the artifact itself; for instance, when we play a video game or operate a machine.
  • Background Relation. When technology “shapes our relation to reality” but remains hidden. For instance, the heating system in our houses.

Technology has two roles to play in how humans interpret reality: a direct role and an indirect role. The direct role is about the mediation of sensory perception–being able to experience more and thus have more ways for reality to be interpreted. The indirect way is about the “frameworks of interpretation” that technology provides. Verbeek writes,

Humans and the world they live in are the products of technological mediation, and not just the poles between which the mediation plays itself out…Mediation, for Ihde, is indissolubly linked with a transformation of perception. Naked perception and perception via artifacts are never completely identical…Mediation always strengthens specific aspects of the reality perceived and weakens others.

Verbeek calls this amplification and reduction. He writes, “Mediation always strengthens specific aspects of the reality perceived and weakens others.”

Ihde has a much more ambivalent attitude towards technology than does Jaspers or Heidegger discussed earlier. Our technologies don’t control us, nor do we control them. Instead, humans are intertwined with them, and visa versa. Technologies can be extremely transformative, but this is because of their position within the culture already, not from any imposition from the outside.

As mentioned in chapter 3, artifacts are always related to the humans who use them. This is what gives them stability and what Ihde calls multistability. Artifacts can have different meanings in different contexts, and in deed, different cultures can lead to the development of radically different technologies.

Technology has turned much of human culture into pluriculture, Ihde argues. “Thanks to the media, we are confronted with many other cultures than our own…it effects an exchange of cultures on a daily basis.” This isn’t multiculturalism; instead, it’s about being able to pick and choose from the fragments of cultures all around us and, using our “compound eye” place them into a mosaic-like framework in which we are able to see several different ways at one time.

But it’s not all positive. Verbeek writes

technologies also create a “decision burden” because of the many new choices they make possible. It is less and less obvious that events or occurrences unfolding now will forever remain what they are because ever more things that hitherto seemed inescapable are now falling under human control, or at least influence, through technological developments. Having children, for instance, is no longer something that simply befalls us but has become a conscious decision.

Technology creates more instances and kinds of choices people have to make.

In part 5: Bruno Latour on agency. Can things act on their own?

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