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Interpreting technology as a medium

In this video professor Peter-Paul Verbeek explains how to understand what things do by means of the concept of mediation.
Hello, everybody. This second week of our course we will focus on understanding the interactions between humans and technologies. Last week, we ended with the observation that the older views of technology reduce technologies, in fact, to what lies behind it. They were thinking “backward,” as we called it, from artifacts to the conditions of the artifacts. What we will do this week is actually to reverse the perspective. We will start to think from the technology, as it were. Thinking forward from the concrete devices in our everyday lives, asking ourselves what they do, how do they influence our existence and our society? But then asking ourselves what things do seems quite an impossible task, right?
Because doing things is normally typically something that only humans can do, not things. So how to understand then that role of things in society. The key concept that we will use this week to understand what things do is mediation. Technology should not be seen as “objects,” opposed to human “subjects.” They are rather media, channels between humans and the world around them. When we use technologies, they shape all kinds of interactions, all kinds of relations between users and their environment. Well then, of course, the question is how is this mediation possible? Well the answer was actually given with a very nice example by Martin Heidegger himself– the example of the hammer.
Heidegger asks himself how a hammer is there for people who use the hammer. And typically when you use a hammer, it’s not just an object that’s opposed to you as a subject. When you use it to get a nail into the wall, actually your focus is with the nail on the wall and not with a hammer. When you focus on the hammer, you hit your thumb. So somehow the hammer withdraws from your experience, organizes a relation between you and the world around you. And that is actually the key idea of mediation. When we use a technology, the technology shapes all kinds of relations between us and the world. Like cell phones that organize all kinds of social relations between people.
They also organize how we deal with our attention, focusing sometimes on our cell phone, sometimes on the world around us. And they also organize how we are supposed to be somehow reachable for other people around us. Also, robots are maybe a good example of mediation, even though this seems complicated because they really seem to be some kind of quasi-living “objects,” opposed to human “subjects.” But when we use robots in teaching and health care, they also mediate. The organize how we do teaching, how we give care. So in summary, to understand human-technology relations we need to analyze what technologies do, and what they do can be understood as mediation.
They shape all kinds of relations between humans and the world, and in doing so, they influence practices and the ways in which we perceive the world.
In this video we explain the difference between “thinking backward” and “thinking forward”. The classical analyses of technology are too remote from actual technological developments and therefore not always adequate to understand what things do. Before we move on to the theory of mediation, it is helpful to understand some basic ideas of the phenomenological tradition.

What is phenomenology?

Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that attempts to overcome the dichotomy between subject and object, that plays a profound role in much of our thinking. Typically, we make separate human subjects from material objects. Subjects have intentions and freedom and can act responsibly, while objects are mute and lifeless. Contrary to this separation, phenomenology focuses on the relations between subjects and objects, or humans and their world. Human beings are always directed at the world: we are experiencing it, and act in it. At the same time, this world is only given to human beings on the basis of the relations they have with them, within which it becomes meaningful for them. This human-world relation, then, has two dimensions: the ‘hermeneutic’ dimension of how the world can be there for human beings and the ‘existential’ dimension of how human beings can be there, in their world. In the hermeneutic dimension, the focus is on the way in which reality is interpreted and thus present for human beings (you have seen an example of this approach in The technological view of the world of Martin Heidegger – STEP 1.10 last week). In the existential dimension, the focus is on how human beings are present in the world and live their lives as existential beings (you have seen an example of this approach in The existential philosophy of Karl Jaspers – STEP 1.8 last week).

What is post-phenomenology?

Whereas phenomenology describes the mutual relation between human beings and the world in order to replace the subject-object dichotomy, post-phenomenology maintains that human beings and the world even constitute, co-shape each other. According to post-phenomenology reality arises in relations, as do humans who encounter it. Moreover, it considers these relations as mediated. Technologies help to shape relations between humans and world, and in doing so they also help to shape how we are human beings and what the world means to us. Also in post-phenomenology, then, we can make the distinction between a focus on human existence and a focus on experience and interpretation of the world. However, instead of addressing the conditions of possibility and effects of technology, one can examine how technological artefact shape the character of the relations. How do concrete artefacts mediate existence and experience?

Mediation theory

Mediation theory approaches technologies as mediators of human-world relations. When used, technologies establish relations between humans beings and their environment. These relations have a hermeneutic and an existential dimension: ‘through’ technologies, human beings are present in the world, and the world is present for human beings. Technologies, in other words, help to shape human experiences and practices. Cell phones help to shape how human beings experience each other, while intelligent speed adaptation technologies help to shape people’s driving behavior in cars.
The central idea in mediation theory is that technologies do not simply create connections between users and their environment, but that they actively help to constitute them. Cell phones are no neutral intermediaries between human beings, but help to shape how humans are ‘real’ for each other. And likewise, sonograms are not simply ‘pictures’ of a fetus, but help to shape what the unborn child is for its parents, and what these parents are in relation to their unborn. Mediation does not take place between pre-given entities, but helps to constitute the reality of these entities.
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Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

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