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Onlife Mediations

New information and communication technologies, to be short, create radically new relations between human beings and the world around them. Not only the structure of these relations deserves further inquiry, but also its implications for social relations and human existence. What do all of these new information and communication technologies do to us, from the new and unanticipated relations we develop with them? I will limit myself again to the relations of 'immersion' and 'augmentation' that I described above.

In the relation of immersion, the material environment changes from a relatively stable background of our existence into an interactive context that interferes in novel ways with the ways we live our lives. Smart environments with 'ambient intelligence' are changing the character of the spaces in which our lives take shape. When public spaces are equipped with smart cameras that can detect suspicious behavior, new norms will be installed. When the doors in geriatric hospitals will have RFID chip readers, they can automatically determine who should be allowed to go out and who does not. When toilets will have sensors that can detect specific substances in our urine and feces, new norms regarding health and illness, and new regimes for healthcare will emerge.

Moreover, these 'intelligent' technologies can also interact with our decisionmaking processes. Under the name of 'persuasive technologies', products and systems are being developed to persuade people to behave in specific ways. School toilets can detect if children have washed their hands when they leave, and urge them to do so when they forget. Smart mirrors in the waiting room of medical doctors can recognize one's face, and morph it into an image of what you will look like in 10 years if you don't give up smoking, or eating too much, or working too hard. Smart windows in shops can determine the direction of one's gaze and give extra lighting to articles that seem to interest specific people.

In the configuration of augmentation, technologies like Google Glass have the potential to radically change the character of social interactions. The mere look at somebody else can be enough for a face recognition system to look this person up on the Internet. This would result in a drastic reconfiguration of the boundaries between the public and the private. All one's private activities that are on the Internet will be much more easily accessible. And all resulting information will be available in social interaction in a asymmetrical way, because people cannot see if the person they meet is simultaneously checking them on the Internet.

Also, the permanent availability of email, messaging services and Internet information will give us an increasing 'double presence' in the world. Our physical, bodily presence in concrete spaces and situations will increasingly be accompanied by a virtual, but still bodily-sensorial, presence at other places, with other people, and in different situations. Our being-in-the-world, as Heidegger called it, is developing into a being-in-multiple-worlds.

This quick exploration of the new configurations of humans and technologies shows that their implications are enormous. New information technologies will install new norms for human behavior, have a political impact on how we interact in public space, help to shape the quality of interpersonal interactions, and so on and so forth. No realm of human existence will remain unaffected. Our lives will be mediated in radically novel ways.

At the same time it is often hard to see these mediations, because information technologies increasingly challenge the frameworks by which we have come to understand ourselves and the world we live in. Ever since the Enlightenment, we have understood ourselves as relatively autonomous subjects in a world of objects that we can investigate, manipulate, and appreciate. But the self-evidence of this metaphysical framework—in which subjects have intentions and freedom, while objects are passive and mute—is rapidly fading away, now that information and communication technologies have started to challenge it seriously.

On the one hand, the advent of 'social media' has urged us to acknowledge how deeply intertwined our sociality has become with materiality. When Marshall McLuhan claimed that 'the medium is the message' (McLuhan 1994/1964), it was hardly possible to foresee that the mediating power of new media would become so strong that a few decades later people would start to wonder if Google is “making us stupid” (Carr 2008) and if virtual sociality is making us be “alone together” (Turkle 2011). On the other hand, the examples of 'smart environments' with 'ambient intelligence' have shown that our material environment now has unprecedented social capacities, persuading us to behave in specific ways, or reorganizing the character of public spaces.

Information technologies have made the boundaries between the social subject and the material object more porous than ever before. Social relations appear to be thoroughly mediated by technologies, while new technologies appear to have a profound social dimension. This situation is a serious challenge, not only for our metaphysical frameworks, but also for our self-understanding and for our ethical and approaches to technology. How are we going to deal with this new situation?

 
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