How Technology Organizes Human-World Relations
Interview with Peter-Paul Verbeek
Peter-Paul Verbeek is professor of philosophy of technology at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. He is renowned for his postphenomenological approach towards technology, which he has coined mediation theory. His research focuses on the relations between humans and technology and, in particular, on how theory can be translated into design and innovation. Among his most famous works are What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design (2005) and Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things (2011). Whenever he is not travelling to conferences or writing papers and books, he is outside running.
On a Monday morning, we meet Peter-Paul Verbeek at the University’s DesignLab. Fields and green forests surround the hightech campus, which is close to the city of Enschede.
fatum: Prof. Verbeek, you are the codirector of the University of Twente’s DesignLab. Looking around, we can see students working on robotics, electronic art installations, 3D printing, and other technologies. What is the purpose of the DesignLab?
Peter-Paul Verbeek: With the DesignLab, we wanted to create a platform that links science to society through design—science taken in the widest sense of the word, including the social and technical sciences. Our goal is to find a connection between the challenges that modern society faces and the innovative potential of science and technology. Therefore, the slogan of the DesignLab is science2-design4society. Taken as a broad term, “design” refers to any interface between science or technology and society. Our work is not restricted to making objects and things, in the DesignLab, we also design policy and curricula. In my work, I try to link theories on the influence of technology for the individual or society to design, which in the end is the main idea of the DesignLab, I believe.
fatum: One central concept of your philosophical work is considered an evolution of phenomenology—a term first applied by philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the twentieth century. You, however, propose a postphenomenological approach for conceptualizing technology. What does postphenomenology mean?
Peter-Paul Verbeek: The idea of postphenomenology is to try and move beyond the romantic ideas that are so dominant in the approaches of phenomenology, for example Heidegger’s technophobic approach. There is a strong nostalgia for a past in which people supposedly had a more authentic way of dealing with nature. For Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology is a way to describe the things as they are in our perception. But science and technology only take us away from them by analysis and abstraction. I believe postphenomenology sees it completely differently: science and technology are a way of interpreting the world, one of the ways in which the world can become meaningful for us. So first, we are past that kind of romanticism of phenomenology and, secondly, we understand what I call technological mediation as part of the humanworld relation. In phenomenology, the claim has always been that we understand the things or phenomena as they appear to us. But what they ended up doing was to study humanworld relations. It was about concepts that help us understand that relation—consciousness, beingintheworld, perception—it is that link between the subject and the object, or the human and the world. In postphenomenology, we conceptualize this relation as being mediated by technology. For me, this is the greatest innovation in philosophy of technology. When you stop seeing technologies as part of the world and start seeing them as part of our relations with the world, then suddenly the whole perspective changes and technology becomes foundational. For Heidegger, for example, technology is primarily a way of interpreting the world. But only in an ontological manner, to explain what ‘being’ means for us, as Heidegger would say. For me, the ontic way is equally important: technologies actively help us to engage with the world and make us specific humans and the world a specific world.
fatum: Aren’t you then running the risk of becoming a strong constructivist? It appears that what you are claiming is that there is no way for human beings to perceive the world in a technologically unmediated way …
Peter-Paul Verbeek: It seems like there is still some kind of romanticism in your question [laughs]. The American philosopher Don Ihde, who has been a great inspiration for me, tackles this question in his book Technology and the Lifeworld: people long for natural experiences. But Ihde does not get much further than, let’s say, jumping into a lake naked. I believe the ways in which we could jump into a lake are totally mediated. We get to the lake in some mediated manner; the lake becomes an attraction somehow. So rather than viewing the situation as a struggle between an authentic human and an alienating technology, the idea of postphenomenology is that technology is the basis for authenticity. That is also how I tried to read Michael Foucault in my book Moralizing Technology. Many people, especially in information ethics, read Foucault as the thinker of the Panopticon. He supposedly is the thinker that shows us all the dangers of the panoptic society, the power struggles and how we must fight against them with subversive action. But if you read his last two books on ethics, the structure is much more subtle. For Foucault there is no way to be a subject without having been produced as a subject. The art of living is to subjectivize yourself, maybe almost to subject yourself to such powers. Not to make yourself powerless by technology, but to become a subject by engaging in a critical way with those powers. Authenticity is the result of dealing with technology rather than trying to escape from it.
fatum: What role does technology play in mediating the self or the relation between the self and the body? It seems that this aspect is missing in the postphenomenological theory.
Peter-Paul Verbeek: Absolutely true. In that sense we have only just started. The next step should be, apart from the political level, also the body and selfrelation. A lot of work has already been done about that implicitly. The meaning of mirrors for our selfimage was illustrated by the documentary Svyato, in which a father kept away mirrors from his son until he was five years old to film how he would react when seeing himself in them for the first time. It shows what it means to have a technologically mediated relation to yourself. Again, Foucault comes to mind. In his The History of Sexuality (1976) he writes about how diaries are a technique for shaping yourself, because you are trying to understand yourself in a better, mediated, way. For the self- tracking of yourself by smartphone apps, you have the dark Nietzschean nihilistic reading of how it is all based on nothing. But ultimately, I think, you can see it as a new way to enter into a meaningful relation with yourself. If you do not believe that we can have a meaningful relation, if you are a real nihilist, then of course everything comes down to nothing, also technology. It says more about nihilism than about technology. But I can experience what my running app is doing to me, how I read and understand my body differently, also how I start to experience my body when the app is not running. A smartphone app is a social network, other people run as well, so you see them improving and compare them to yourself. That is a way of reading yourself in a very social, maybe even political way, because there are also biases, implicit norms, and ideals.
fatum: In Moralizing Technology, you explain that morality, in contrast to Enlightenment theories, is not solely placed in the individual human but also in the material world. If we attempt to understand the moral implications of technology, is there a possibility to formalize a general theory of such a morality or do we have to look at every single humantechnology interaction to understand the morality of such interactions?
Peter-Paul Verbeek: What a beautiful question! I think technology organizes specific humanworld relations and thus organizes moral experiences, embodies values, norms, and ideals. For every technology you can study the details, but I think the general idea that there is a mediating role of technology in morality and that a moral decision rests upon moral engagement and moral interpretations which are always mediated by the relation which you have with the thing—that is a general theory. We just did a case study on Google Glass. In this project, we analyzed online discussions on Youtube in which explorers who used the test version of the Google Glass posted videos online of how they used them. You see people engaging in discussion: they get worried and freak out about what you can do with Google Glass. We investigated how they implicitly define privacy. That points towards a very specific way in which Google Glass organize relations between people that, in turn, gives rise to new ideas about privacy. We actually came up with concepts that were not elaborated yet in theory, but that still pop up somehow in those discussions. So there is that word privacy. We should not think that every technology gives rise to a complete new ethical framework for privacy, right? But what the word means changes through the technology and we evaluate the technology with the new definition of it, which was the result of the mediation.
fatum: Another example you make in Materializing Morality is a couch that is made from a textile that reveals a different pattern when it gets worn off. Thus, the couch ages in an attractive way, the owner might keep it longer, produces less waste, and buys less furniture. The couch inspires the owner to act in a more moral way. Is there not a subtle paternalism in this relation? Here, the question of “what is good” is already answered. But where is the discussion about the perception of what the good entails?
Peter-Paul Verbeek: Indeed, the topic of autonomy versus paternalism is one of the major topics in philosophy of technology. I think I got engaged in this kind of thinking through my Dutch teacher Hans Achterhuis. He came up with the idea of the moralization of devices in the early 90’s. He said what we should do is not to moralize each other but rather put morality in things. People were unsettled by this idea. He was engaged with Maoism in the early 1960’s and he had been a radical communist. So people were saying: “You see! That is what you get! He wants to steer people! He wants give up on democracy! He wants a technocracy, no freedom, a totalitarian state!” The problem behind such an understanding is the presumption of an autonomous individual versus an alienating technology. When you accept that the way in which we lead our modern lives rests upon technological mediations, it rather becomes a matter of responsibility to give these mediations a good shape. The question of course remains how you can do that on a societal level without one group taking power over the other. But this is the central issue we have always been facing in politics. If you make laws you do the same. This, I think, shows the limitations of our liberal democracy. There is a false dichotomy, in my opinion, between the political sphere, in which we organize how we live together and the private sphere where we try to answer the question of the good life. Technologies are about the good life. Sustainability is about how we live in a good way with nature. You cannot do that on your own. So that old question of what the good life is, or could be, has to regain a place in the public sphere.It cannot be reduced to the private sphere. Exit John Rawls, exit Jürgen Habermas, exit all those liberals. We can no longer afford to reduce the good life to a private question, in the name of autonomy. This exclusive focus on privacy and autonomy strikes me as an individualistic luxury product of the affluent postindustrial society, blinding us for how technologies are in fact profoundly reshaping society. But then the question arises how to avoid a form of paternalism that is disrespectful. The notion implies care rather than autonomy. An ethics of care is about interpersonal relations; it is about interdependencies, about vulnerabilities and not about autonomy and the “I can do whatever I want.” This framework can have a very important place in ethics and the sensitivities for those technologies deserve a central place in our moralizations of technologies. The reason is that technologies are always moral. There is no way to have an amoral device, they always do something to us. So being an ostrich and putting your head in the sand and saying “I am against that” does not help. It is like being against gravity or against language.
fatum: Finally, what advice would you give to students entering the field of philosophy of technology?
Peter-Paul Verbeek: I think to be a good philosopher of technology you need to do at least two things: Of course, you should engage with the tradition. But I think, more importantly, you should engage with technologies themselves. Read technological journals and websites—and always try to think about how they challenge philosophy. That is one of the major achievements of philosophy of technology. When I was a student, I hated that word empirical philosophy, because philosophy is not an empirical science. But that is not what ‘empirical philosophy’ means. It means: doing philosophy ‘from’ technology, rather than ‘of’ technology. Not applying pregiven theories to technologies, but letting new technologies challenge philosophical frameworks. When you think: I cannot make sense of it anymore with all the frameworks we have developed in the past, it is time to come up with something new. That is the challenge of philosophy of technology, which is what makes it so extremely exciting. That you encounter new kinds of realities, humanmade, that have implications way beyond what their designers would expect and that urge us to rethink all the frameworks that we have been developing so far.