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.
Review: What Things Do (Part 6)
This is part six of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.
In Chapter 6, "Devices and the Good Life," Peter-Paul Verbeek examines the work of Albert Borgmann to answer the question, "How do artifacts coshape human existence?" Borgmann has looked at how technology affects what he calls "the good life" and how it shapes the interactions people have with the world.
Technology for Borgmann isn't a monolithic force, but should rather be thought of in discreet bits--as devices. Devices create "a characteristic and constraining pattern to the entire fabric of our lives." This device pattern "inheres in the dominant way in which we in the modern era have been taking up with the world."
Devices deliver availability, which is to say that they make things available to humans that are difficult to acquire without their help. Something is available, according to Borgmann, if it is "instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy." Devices obtain what previously humans had to obtain with things. A device isn't a thing. A thing, says Verbeek,
cannot be separated from its context or its world nor can it be divorced from our involvement with it; dealing with a thing requires us to engage with it and its environment. A device, on the other hand, puts out of play its context and does not require engagement; it does the work for us and without our involvement.
Devices, via their machinery make available commodities. Machinery makes up "the background of technology" and remains hidden as much as possible. Machinery is "pure means": means that are "independent of the goal, divorced as much as possible from the commodities it delivers." The reason the machinery is hidden is so that "we can enjoy commodities without having to engage ourselves with their production."
This, however, leads to a style of life that could be labeled "consumption." Technology allows us to be disengaged from the social and physical production of commodities, and because the machinery that makes this possible is in the background, this pattern of consumption remains mostly hidden. The irony of technology is that "it promises enrichment but delivers impoverishment...Though the great technological breakthroughs of the past have liberated human beings from misery, most technological innovation nowadays only serves to diminish our engagement with the world."
Borgmann takes this bleak view one step further, noting that Western societies are mostly built upon this background of technology and consumption.
Technology hooks up seamlessly with [a] specific constellation of ideas about freedom, equality, and self-realization. By making ever more goods available, technology makes it possible for human beings to realize their desires without imposing a content on how they go about it.
"Liberal democracy," Borgmann writes, "is enacted as technology...[We need to] consider democracy not just as a political system, but as a set of institutions which do aim to make everything available to everybody." Technology, while making it seemingly possible for everyone to have "the good life" also radically shapes the world to make that goal possible, in order to make the device paradigm work. "The liberal ideal of free self-realization appears in practice to involve mass consumption and work in order to make more consumption possible." In fact, Borgmann claims, liberal democracies rely on technology to keep them stable. The promise that technology will bring prosperity to all through availability has prevented social unrest because the lower and middle classes "acquire the perspective that tomorrow they will wake up to what the rich have today."
To obtain a true "good life," Borgmann feels we need an alternative to to technological consumerism, yet one that still exists within the device paradigm. To which he offers focal things and focal practices. Focal things "draw together human involvements, things that invite engagement with themselves and what they make possible" and that concern things greater than just ourselves. These focal things create focal practices "[sponsor] discipline and skill which are exercised in a unity of achievement and enjoyment, of mind, body, and the world, of myself and others, and in a social union." Focal things and practices are meaningful and not necessarily efficient like a machine would be. Verbeek uses the example of a marathon: no one runs one because it is more efficient than a car. Focal practices aren't the most convenient path to reach a goal, but are more about the realization of a goal.
Verbeek (justifiably) takes Borgmann to task for his stark view of technology. He notes that
Borgmann does not see that technology can not only reduce engagment but also amplify it. Technology not only gives rise to disengaged consumption, but also to new possibilities for engagement...Technology indeed makes things available, but the lack of human involvement in the process does not mean that humans are not involved in the product. Reduction of one form of involvement usually goes hand-in-hand with the amplification of other forms.
Looking at involvement, Verbeek contrasts Borgmann's views then with Latour's from the previous chapter. Involvement can be direct or indirect. "By encouraging particular actions (invitation) and discouraging others (inhibition), some forms of involvement are called forth and others are suppressed or excluded." Verbeek rightly notes that devices themselves, instead of being simply machinery for delivery of commodities, can also invite involvement both with themselves (a video game) and with what they make available (the music my iPod plays). Verbeek calls these "engaging devices" and rightly notes that
Some artifacts such as a piano indeed create involvement with their functioning and thus give rise to the intriguing situation of both withdrawing from people's attention and calling attention to themselves at the same time...A piano is never entirely ready-at-hand, but neither is is exclusively present-at-hand--its machinery is not completely in the background but not entirely in the foreground either...Heidegger's binary opposition...needs to be challenged, but also the idea that artifacts need to be ready-at-hand to be useful.
Next: the final installment: A Philosophy for Things.
Review: What Things Do (Part 5)
This is part five of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.
Chapter 5, "The Acts of Artifacts," asks, What role do things play in human life and action? To answer this, the author Peter-Paul Verbeek looks closely at the philosophy of Bruno Latour, particularly his actor-network theory. Verbeek writes,
For Latour, reality cannot be adequately understood if humans and non-humans are treated "asymmetrically." The two cannot be had separately, but are always bound up with each other in a network of relations. Only by virtue of this network are they what they are, and can they do what they do.
The actor-network theory basically states that agency, the ability to act, isn't limited to humans alone. Objects can also act when in relationship--a network--with other actors (or "actants"). Things don't have an "essence" until they are part of a network, although they do have "existence." In a network, there is no real difference between things and humans. Both only are present and have meaning from their relationship with other nodes, human and non-human, on the network. "Actors can be as much human as non-human, and networks are not structures but relations in which translations take place of entities that assume relations with each other," Verbeek writes.
The separation of things and humans ("subjects" and "objects" in Enlightenment thinking), is becoming "less and less believable." We're now surrounded by things that straddle the boundary between human and non-human: "embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers, and so on." That is, many of the things that interaction designers have to create and work with every day.
In Latour's view, humans and objects are deeply intertwined. Objects aren't simply neutral objects, but mediators that actively contribute to the ways in which ends are realized. Latour calls this technical mediation and it has several facets:
In the next installment: what role does technology have in obtaining "the good life?"
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:
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?
Review: What Things Do (Part 3)
This is part three of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.
Chapter 3, "Postphenomenology" has a lot that isn't of particular interest for designers, although it does help set the stage for the author's reflections in later chapters. Like in most of the book, the author, Peter-Paul Verbeek, focuses on a single philosopher, in this case Don Ihde. Ihde is a postphenomenologist, which means he refutes the ideas laid out in chapters one and two by Jaspers and Heidegger respectively with regard to technology. Which is to say that technology does not alienate people from themselves, nor deny them a meaningful place to exist.
In postphenomenological thinking, "Human beings can only experience the world by relating to it." There is no "subject" and "object" (human and thing) as there is in classical thinking, but instead "subject and object, or human beings and world, constitute each other...Reality arises in relations, as do the human beings who encounter it."
For Ihde, "Things...are not neutral intermediaries between humans and the world, but rather mediators: they actively mediate this relation." Ihde has a term for this: technological intentionality by which he means that "technologies have a certain directionality, an inclination or trajectory that shapes the ways in which they are used." The example is writing. People write differently with a quill, pen, typewriter, or word processor. "[T]he technologies in question promote or evoke a distinct way of writing," Verbeek notes. Technologies, have their own "implicit user's manual."
Things can only be understood through the relationship that people have to them. Technologies have no identity outside of their use and can only be understood in this context. The same technology can be put to different uses in different contexts. Ihde calls this multistability. A single technology can be stable in multiple ways, in multiple contexts.
In part 4: What role does technology play in how people interpret reality?
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?
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?"