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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. In 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 tended to reduce technologies to what lies behind them. They were thinking backwards, as it were, from the concrete technological artifacts to their conditions. Thinking away from the concrete devices, as it were, they were based on where they come from. This week, we will reverse that perspective. We will start to think from the technologies themselves. We will start from the concrete devices in our everyday lives, asking ourselves what they do, how they influence our society, our existence, our ways of understanding and interpreting the world around us?
But then again, asking ourselves ‘What things do?’ seems quite an impossible task, right? Doing things is normally, typically, something that humans can do, not things. So how to understand the role of things in society? The key concept that we will use this week to understand ‘What things do?’ is mediation. So what does that mean? The concept of mediation tries to find an alternative for the opposition between technology as an object on the one hand and the human being as a subject on the other hand. Technologies are media, channels between humans and the world around them. When we use technologies, they shape all kinds of interactions, all kinds of relations between us and the world in which we live.
But of course, that raises then the question how is this mediation possible? How can technology not just be the end point of your experience? To understand that, we have to go back to Martin Heidegger, actually, in an earlier stage of his work, who gave the example of the hammer as a technology that can somehow withdraw from your attention. Heidegger asked himself in ‘Being and time’ one of his earlier books, how a hammer is there for people who use the hammer? And typically, when you use a hammer, it’s not an object opposed to you as a subject. When you use it to get a nail to the wall, your focus is with the nail, not with a hammer.
If you focus on the hammer, you will hit your thumb, right? So somehow, the hammer can withdraw from your experience and organize a relation between you and the world around you. And that is the key idea of mediation. When we use a technology, that technology shapes the relation between us and the world, while the technology itself moves to the background, as it were. Cell phones are a good example of this, of course. We interact with the cell phone. But that’s not the only thing that happens when you use a cell phone. They also organize how attentive we are.
If you listen to an online lecture, for instance, and we get distracted by the notifications, they organize how we maintain social relations, how we find a place to eat if we are in a city that we don’t know so well. They have also reorganized how reachable we are supposed to be for each other. Mediation is a better way to understand what takes place between humans and a cell phone than the cell phone as an object opposed to the user, the human as a subject. Actually, this technological mediation can be seen as part of the human condition. When the 2017 model of the iPhone was introduced, it happened with this picture trying to show something like…
Let’s see how far we got, right? And at some point, we only had a hand, actually, now we have an iPhone. But actually, this picture nicely illustrates the technological condition of human existence. The interesting thing is, if we look at technologies of the future, we tend to get a bit anxious, a bit afraid of what that might bring. But if we try to understand how people used to live a long time ago, we do that by digging up old artifacts and reading from those artifacts how they lived. Technologies have always shaped how human beings live their lives. And that’s a central idea in the philosophy of technology. Technological mediation is part of what it means to be human.
Robots are also a good example of this and maybe an example of the times in which we live now. Very often we oppose robots to humans or we compare humans to robots. Will the robot not do what humans used to do? But in fact, we can also see robots as a mediator. When we use them in teaching or in health care, for instance, they organize also how humans do teaching, how humans give care. Robots are not just, well, a quasi autonomous object opposed to human subjects, but they also affect how we live our lives, how we organize our society. Technologies are media. They shape all kinds of relations between humans in the world.
And in doing so, they influence the 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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