Article Comments: “Humanity in Design”


Verbeek, P. 2012. “Introduction: Humanity in Design” in Gunn W, Donovan J, eds. 2012. Design and Anthropology. London: Ashgate

This is the first of three articles taken from the third section of Gunn and Donovan’s edited volume on design anthropology. While the overall purpose of the volume is to push design anthropology towards are more critical reflection upon anthropology’s relationship with design, this third section is more narrowly target to one specific aspect of that relationship – namely in exploring the relationship that people have with things.

Verbeek sets the stage for this third section by building on a Heideggerean phenomenology wherein human beings not only give shape to their material world but also their own existence (Verbeek in Gunn 2012: 157). While I will approach this Heideggerean basis in its own right at a later date, the important note from this chapter is his three models for the human object relationship:

  1. Dialectics: defined by a productive tension between the self and the technological non-human other. Humans are incredibly adaptable animals, but that is mostly because we are incredibly generalized animals; without any specialized organs, human existence is supplemented by technology – humans subsume the capabilities of technology. For this reason, the technological is integral to understanding the human. Yet this paradigm, seeing technology as the externalization of human capability and capacity, the human relationship to those externalizations tend to be either dystopic or utopic (2012: 162).
  2. Hybridity: the merger of the human and technological, this perspective uses the metaphorical image of the cyborg (particularly following Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. The cyborg is a manifestation of the fusion of humanity and technology in a physical way: half-human, half-technological: “it does not have a nature because it was made. It does not have an essence because it can be reconstructed” (2012: 162). Hybridity contrasts with dialectics in that, the human and technology are not in productive opposition, but are rather imagined to have never been truly separate in the first instance.
  3. Mediation: neither struggle nor fusion, but mediation – technologies are part of the relations humans have with their world; “they are the media through which human beings experience the world and give shape to their existence” (2012: 163). We can classify the ways by which that experience is mediated, according to Verbeek, along the lines of philosopher Don Ihde:
    1. Embodiment: technologies are integrated in the bodily experience. They are the things one experiences the world through (e.g. glasses, walking stick, etc.).
    2. Hermeneutic: technologies we must read and interpret (e.g. a thermometer, a map, etc.). These are not direct experiences of the world, but representations of it that we must interpret.
    3. Alterity: technologies we must interact with (e.g. operating a coffee machine, repairing a car, etc.)
    4. Background: technologies that constitute the environment in which our actions take place (e.g. noise from a ceiling fan, a room illuminated by artificial lighting, etc.).

It is this final approach which defines the third section of the edited volume. As Verbeek puts it, “This mediation approach has profound implications for our understanding of the human being, and for what it means to be human. It urges us to give up the idea that we are autonomous and sovereign beings, who have authority over technology and its implications” (2012: 164). In trying to conceive of this relationship between humans and technology in this way, however, the foundation of modern thought is shaken; the notion of the autonomous human subject is threatened by the a conceptualization of metaphysics that gives objects some loose form of agency by which to intervene or moderate our relationship with reality. This is more-true than ever today by virtue of technologies which directly moderate human existence, beyond pacemakers and brain implants to augmented environments and full-fledged virtual realities – modern technologies constitute reactive and sometimes interfering entities in human activities.

The significance of this perspective regarding the relationship between humans and technology is significant: As Verbeek argues, “Design Anthropology needs to include a thorough conceptualization of the relations between humans and things because designing objects implies designing human beings as well. An intervention in the material world is always an intervention in the human world” (2012: 165).

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