Review: What Things Do (Part 7)

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

Most of What Things Do is prologue for Chapter 7, “Artifacts in Design,” in which Peter-Paul Verbeek outlines his philosophy for the relationship between humans and things. It can be summarized thusly: “Technology mediates our behavior and our perception, and thereby actively shapes subjectivity and objectivity: the ways in which we are present in our world and the world is present to us.”

Verbeek turns his attention specifically to design in this chapter, albeit limited to industrial design, but I think much of what he claims is also applicable to interaction designers as well. He writes,

Industrial design generally treats products from one or two perspectives: their functionality and their sign-value. A product must first of all be functional; it must do what it was designed and manufactured to do. Besides this, it has meaning or sign-value: human beings are drawn to particular product styles and not to others, and to use a product to express a lifestyle to which they (want to) belong.

Products have two of these sign-value or semiotic functions: denotative functions (which designers know of as affordances) that tell how the product can be used, and connotative functions that represent “the lifestyle with which its users identify, or want to identify,” such as “sturdy,” “traditional,” “cutting-edge,” etc. (It’s not by accident all those Web 2.0 sites look somewhat alike.) Products, therefore, are bearers of meaning. A car, for instance, isn’t only for transportation, but also for showing one’s status and taste.

Verbeek, however, is less interested in this semiotic reading of products than he is in the role of artifacts as mediators between human beings and the world. This mediation, he writes, “is not a product’s function but rather a byproduct of its functionality.”

What things “do” encompasses more than merely “referring” or “functioning.” Things mediate the relation between human beings and their world not in a linguistic but in a material way. They fulfill their functions as material objects, and by this functioning they shape human actions and experiences. Such “material mediation” does not take place on an interpretive level, but on a sensorial level.

One aspect of this materiality is how an object looks. Design has “grown increasingly concerned with the visual appearance of things,” Verbeek claims. But the aesthetics of things goes beyond the visual, and, I would argue, into interaction design.

The sensory relations that are possible in the case of useful objects reach beyond the visual, for such things are meant to be used rather than looked at. The aesthetics of products concerns the practical dealings with them and involves their bodily presence, rather than just what they look like or signify, or how they are interpreted or read.

And here is the crux of the argument, where Verbeek’s thoughts touch fully upon interaction design:

Mediation occurs on the basis of practical dealings with things. When things are used, people take up a relation to the world that these things, thanks to their “hanidness,” coshape. In this coshaping, not only does the human interaction with products have a sensory character, so does the human-world relation that is mediated by the products. Human experience and existence can only acquire a specific shape on the basis of sensory perception and sensory dealings with with world…By extending the domain of aesthetics to include the sensorial in the broadest sense, therefore, it becomes possible to give the notion of mediation an explicit place in the industrial design process…The meaning of aesthetics in design then comes to include not just style and beauty, but also the relations between people and products, and the ways in which products coshape the relation between humans and the world.

This is what interaction design, in the broadest and deepest sense, already (at least partially) does. This “relation between people and products” and between people and the world is at the heart of interaction design. The “aesthetics” of interaction design are more far-reaching than only the visual (although of course the visual is still intensely important).

Naturally, one cannot define design this way without touching upon ethics, and this is what Verbeek addresses next.

Designers engage in “ethics by other means”; that is, their products codetermine the outcome of moral considerations, which in turn determine human action and their definition of “the good life.”

Things help shape the answer of how to act in any given situation. With a gun in my hand, I may react differently when angered. Gerard De Vries says, “Our existence is furnished with many different kinds of devices and technological systems. These are what instruct people in contemporary societies ‘how to live’.” Thus, for Verbeek,

Design ethics requires that artifacts be treated as members of the moral community, conceived as the community in which morality assumes a shape. Things carry morality because they shape the way people experience their world and organize their existence, regardless of whether this is done consciously and intentionally or not. The very fact that they do this shaping charges designers with the responsibility to make sure that things do this in a desirable way.

Verbeek offers some advice as to the type and character of the types of products designers should be designing. The first is for designers not to try to aim for products that people are “devoted” to, but rather to those people are attached to. “Products to which people develop an attachment are not generally as emotionally charged and irreplaceably present as heirlooms, but neither are they as anonymous as a throw-away item…what distinguishes these goods from our most loved possessions is that they are used rather than cherished.” Transparency helps to form those attachments. Products’ functionality should be “understandable and accessible.” This allows people to fix them (instead of discard them) when they break, but also it “makes it possible for people to become involved with products as material entities. For when a product is transparent, it is not only functionally present but it exhibits how it is functioning.” Users have to be connected to both the commodity and machinery, in Borgmann’s terms.

To this end, Verbeek implores designers to create “engaging products”–products that involve people in their functioning. A cello, for instance, only produces music when a human plays it. Products should become more dependent on human operation, not less. Products should also integrate into everyday practices in a more engaging manner. Computers as they are designed now are for human-to-computer, isolated engagement, for example, but they need not be so. Humans need, in Verbeek’s words, “to deal with the products themselves, and not only with what they do or signify. When only the functionality of products takes center stage, we are merely involved with what products do and not with how they do it.”

In conclusion to this long review, let me note that I certainly haven’t encapsulated all the ideas in this thought-provoking book, which provides a great walkthrough of major points in the philosophy of technology. How this theory can be put into practice is a challenge for us all.

Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6

One thought on “Review: What Things Do (Part 7)

  1. Dan – You did a great job reviewing this book. I am glad to see interaction designers outside of my design theory class are reading books like this one.
    If you liked this book, I suggest you check out ‘The Nature and Aesthetics of Design’ by David Pye.

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