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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.

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.

Let’s try 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, which 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.

The hermeneutic dimension

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.

The existential dimension

In the existential dimension, the focus is on how human beings are present in the world and live their lives as existential beings.

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 the 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 artefacts 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 human 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 shape human experiences and practices

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 behaviour 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.

If you’d like to learn more about the philosophy of technology and design, check out the full online course from The University of Twente, below.

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Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

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