How to understand the relations between humans and technologies– it seems obvious to make a radical split between human subjects, on the one hand, and technological objects, on the other. Humans have freedom, intentions, and try to understand the world, while things are mute and passive– objects to be used or studied. But this separation of humans and technologies leads us astray if we want to understand the role of technologies in society and our everyday lives. Typically, technologies are not our world, but rather connect us to the world. When we use them, they help to shape our relations to our environment. A smartphone, for instance, is not just an object that we interact with.
It connects us to other people, to the news, to theaters and restaurants, to our work. It is not a neutral tool, but it organizes how we perceive and experience things and how we behave. It distracts us and unites us. It brings new norms and etiquette. And it changes friendships and love relationships.
In doing so, technologies are not even just in the middle, between humans and the world. In fact, they help to shape who we are and what the world is for us. Smartphones change how attentive we are as discussion partners. And sonograms change the fetus into a potential patient. This is what can be called technological mediation.
How do technologies do this? The North American philosopher Don Ihde has investigated how technologies play a role in human world relations, ranging from being embodied– we do not look at our glasses, but rather through them– and being [? read– ?] a thermal meter indicates a temperature by showing you a number that you have to interpret– and being interacted with– you interact with an ATM to get money– to being at the background– the lights and heating systems in a house, which you are typically not aware of when they function properly. Many recent technologies, however, do not fit completely in one of these four categories.
There are configurations of humans and technologies that are more intimate than embodiment, while others have a more powerful contextual influence than being just a background. A brain implant, for instance, that’s used for deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s patients is not merely embodied. Rather, it merges with the human body into a new hybrid being. Other technologies merge with our environment into smart environments with ambient intelligence, like a fridge that knows what is inside of it and that can give cooking advice or order new products. Here, technologies are not just a background, but are immersive. They form an interactive context.
By merging with our bodies and our material environment, then, modern technologies, more than ever before, challenge the character of human existence. What is the implication of technological mediation? The mediation of human world relations has two dimensions. Technologies, on the one hand, help to shape how human beings are in their world and, on the other hand, how the world is there for them. In the first case, technologies help to shape human actions, practices. Cars have made us live further away from our work. Medical robots change the way in which we take care of patients and elderly people. Such technologies change our actions and the way we organize our lives.
In the second case, technologies help to shape how the world becomes meaningful to us. Sonograms reveal the fetus as a potential patient. Digital technologies change how we understand all kinds of political issues and form our opinions. This technological mediation of practices and perceptions has many implications. It means that our technologies are involved in virtually any dimension of society and human existence. Technologies mediate our knowledge of the world, the ethical questions we ask ourselves, and our answers to them. And they even challenge the most basic categories in our thinking, like how we distinguish the natural from the artificial.
This profound impact of technologies on society and human existence charges users, designers, and policy makers with the responsibility to get actively engaged in shaping this impact. The approach of technological mediation does not only help us understand the moral dimensions in technology, but also makes visible the ethical questions to be asked when designing technologies. Seen from the perspective of technological mediation, the design of technology is, in fact, doing ethics, by other means.