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Onlife Relations

Understanding the relations between humans and technologies has been one of the central activities of the philosophy of technology in the past decades. In mediation theory, the central idea has developed that we need to blur the boundaries between human and technology to understand the social role of technologies. Humans and technologies cannot be located in two separate realms, but need to be understood in their interrelations. At the basis of the theory of technological mediation is the work of the North-American philosopher Don Ihde. Ihde analyzes the various shapes that the relations between humans and technologies can take (Ihde 1990). His central thought is that technologies help to shape the relations between humans and world. Whenever a technology is used, it becomes a mediator between its users and their environment, helping to shape the character of the relations between both.

Ihde distinguishes four forms the relations between humans and technologies can take on. New information technologies like Google Glass, though, urge us to expand his framework. First, there is the 'embodiment relation', schematically indicated as ( human—technology) → world. In this relation, technologies are extensions of the body, as it were. Humans experience the world 'through' the technologies here, as when wearing glasses, or using hearing aids. A relation with the world is also possible from the 'hermeneutic relation', though, schematically indicated as human → (technology—world). Some technologies give us access to the world by giving a representation of it, that requires human interpretation in order to be meaningful—hence the name 'hermeneutic'—like a thermometer that gives a number rather than a sensation of temperature, or a sonogram that gives a visual representation of an unborn child on the basis of reflected ultrasonic soundwaves. A third relation is the so-called 'alterity relation', schematically indicated as human

→ technology (world). In this relation there is a direct interaction between humans and technologies, like when someone operates a copying machine, or repairs a car. The fourth and last relation Ihde distinguishes is the background relation, indicated as human (technology/world). From this relation, technologies have an impact on our relation with the world, without being explicitly experienced themselves. An air conditioning that automatically switches on and off, for instance, creates a context for the experience of human beings by producing noise or creating a specific temperature of the room.

In all these four human-technology relations, technologies moves ever further aay from the human being, as it were: from an extension of our senses to a context for our experiences. Ihde's analysis has made possible an entirely new direction in the philosophy of technology. Rather than investigating what 'Technology' does to 'Humanity' and 'Society', Ihde's approach made it possible to investigate how specific technologies mediate human actions, experiences, and interpretations. Against the gloomy theories of alienation that have been fashionable for a long time, it now becomes possible to investigate in more detail how technologies actually help to shape new relations between humans and world. Scientific instruments help scientists to understand reality; medical-diagnostic technologies help to shape interpretations of health and illness; social media reshape social relations and friendships.

New information technologies like Ambient Intelligence and Google Glass, though, urge us to expand this framework (Verbeek 2011). One more step 'further away' from the human being than the background relation—but 'closer to us' in another sense—is made by technologies that create an environment in which we are immersed, like the smart environments with ambient intelligence that I mentioned above. The relations we have with such environments can be indicated as 'immersion'. Schematically these relations look like human ↔ technology/world: the technologies merge with the environment, and interact with their users.

Google Glass adds a new type of relation at the other end of the spectrum. Rather than merely being 'embodied', it adds a second layer to our world, which is often called an 'augmented reality'. In addition to the sensory relation with the world 'through' the glasses, it also offers a representation of the world. Technologies like this offer not one, but two, parallel relations with the world. We could call this a relation of augmentation. This relation consists of two parallel circuits: (human— technology) → world and human → (technology—world). And this is quite a revolutionary step in the relations between humans and their world. Human intentionality, as phenomenologists call the human directedness at the world around them, is developing a bifurcation. Our attention is increasingly divided between two parallel tracks.

 
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