Article Comments:“Theories and Figures of Technical Mediation”

Dorrestijn, S. 2012. “Theories and Figures of Technical Mediation” in Gunn W, Donovan J, eds. 2012. Design and Anthropology. London: Ashgate

Derrestijn’s article contributes significantly to what Verbeek coined as “technical mediation”. In other words, how human existence is transformed by technology. His brief article provides a survey of research on the subject, what he calls “a repertoire of exemplary mediation effects ordered in a model of interaction modes” (Dorrestijn in Gunn & Donovan 2012: 204).

Derrestijn’s approach is characterized by a critique of the search for the essence of technology – what he calls a backwards, or transcendentalist approach. His focus is on developing a repertoire of ways that technical mediation has so far been understood rather than a synthesized and definitive theory of technical mediation (2012: 210). One question is developed specifically for this pursuit: where does the mediating technology make contact with the human, and what is the effect? To answer, Derrestijn provides a number of corporeally-metaphoric approaches by which to conceive of a point of interaction meant to explore not a single point of intervention, but many points of both concrete and abstract interaction:

  • Above the head: technology drives history on a transcendental level
    • The “above the head” conceptualization of technology is concerned with the “essence” of technology. An abstraction of the contact between people and technology. In a way, technology as an abstract concept has a kind of character – either benevolent or malevolent:
      • Utopian: technology is conceived of as a panacea, the thing waiting to be discovered or created to solve the ailing of humans. This approach includes the notion of transhumanism, and of the cyborg being.
      • Dystopian: technological progress comes at a price; technology does not necessarily liberate, but makes people dependent. Technology is simply another forms of control, a domination of the human by the technological and technical.
  • Behind the back: technology and the technological environment indirectly configures subjectivity
    • This approach constitutes a framework for understanding how things like privacy and freedom have become constituted in interaction with the technological environment.
      • Socio-technical evolution: different technologies in an environmental arrangement can constitute converging or conflicting trends. For example, glasses and the printing press (converging), while the car and the traffic jam or jogging-as-leisure are conflicting co-developments.
      • Configuring subjectivity: the autonomous subject is not a universal. For example, scholars like Mcluhan have explored sense-ratios: how writing as a practice reconfigured subjectivity as vision arguably came to dominate the senses of hearing and touch. We can draw similar parallels with Haraway’s critique of modern objectivism. Similarly goes the argument for moral consciousness, surveillance and control technologies as being key to reinforcing the morality of a modern society.
  • Before the eye: technology makes contact with the mind and influences decisions
    • This approach looks for technology’s mediation effect on human decision making. Things like perceived affordances of use can be included here. It also incorporates other aspects of behaviour influence:
      • Suggestion: products may suggest their uses (affordances, cultural or cognitive constraints, etc.)
      • Persuasion: products can persuade users to change their behaviour (nudging, persuading, etc.)
  • To the hand: the influence of technology operates through contact with the body and direct gestures
    • This approach looks for physical behaviour steering; physical constraints or facilitations. It is defined by a number of possible characteristics:
      • Coercion: technology that enforces behaviour through a kind of strong suggestion towards physical courses of action. Speedbumps, for example, do not actively constrain, but coerce. These are technologies that carry a script and guides users to action.
      • Mediated gestures: this operates stronger than coercion and includes objects that provide strict constraints on use, and modify the physical gesture of the user to suit its use. For example, a pencil necessitates a strictly limited number of possible interactions with the hand that uses it.


Derrestijn’s article provides a framework for understanding the influence of technology on human beings by illustrating the points by which it contacts our own physical experiences in the world – our bodies. It is clear that there is not a single locus of the influence of technology, but many, all of which affect our behaviour in significant, but varied, ways.

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