Things We Wish We Knew: Technological Mediation

Picture Credit: Wired Brain

With the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics, technologies now permeate and engage with humans in a radically different manner. Technologies actively mediate how people relate to the world. Technological mediation rests on the centrality that objects help shape relations between human beings and the world. This approach of technology does not view material objects as opposed to human subjects, or as mere extensions of humans, instead, it sees them as mediators of human-world relations.

Why do we need to know technological mediation?

Technological mediation is a “post-phenomenological” approach in the philosophy of technology (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, p.vii). Post-phenomenology is partially opposed to the phenomenological tradition (Verbeek 2015, p.26). Although inspired by the phenomenological focus on the experiential, it distances itself from phenomenology’s romanticism toward technology, favouring empirical analyses of actual technologies. Technological mediation is a framework that first, rejects human-centred subjectivity to factor in displacing the human body by non-human others. Next, ontologies are mapped horizontally rather than vertically. Horizontal ontologies assumes humans as embedded in a natural-cultural-technological assemblage (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.xvii). This is similar to the conceptualisation of hyperobjects. Technological mediation offers four ways of human-technology relations:

  • Embodiment relation(I–Technology) > World
    • Refers to a magnification/reduction structure. For example, binoculars enable the user to see further. The repetitive usage of binoculars in a particular setting would gradually embody itself within the user. 
  • Hermeneutic relationI > (Technology–World)
    • Refers to a transforming encounter with the world via the direct experience and interpretation of the technology itself. For example, checking the weather from a smartphone requires the direct interpretation of the user that transforms numbers to weather forecast knowledge. 
  • Alterity relationI > Technology – (– World)
    • Refers to devices or interfaces that are designed specifically to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction. For example, withdrawing cash at ATMs or conversing with Siri.
  • Background relation: Makes up the user’s environmental context and shares an indirect relationship. 
    • For example, central air conditioning that operates on its pre-set settings. (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, pp.14–18)

Still unclear?

Another example,

I feel at ease having Google Maps directing a guided path to my destination and allows me to monitor traffic conditions. Sometimes during peak hours, I just ignore its recommendations when I know the route through the back street is quicker.

I feel in control when Google Maps adapts to my driving even though I may have missed a turn. 

With Google Maps, my family has increased confidence in my driving as they entrust the app to get to our destination.

As shown, navigational app users engage in ongoing discursive practices with the app through negotiating and subverting information (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.23). At times, the navigational app supplements the user by providing traffic information and in turn, the user may choose to use the app supplementally when the information does not correlate to the user’s knowledge.

With this brief illustration, I hope to have convince you why technological mediation is important and to demonstrate what might the future of anthropology look like.


Reference:

Rosenberger, R & Verbeek, P-P (eds) 2015, Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, Lexington Books, Lanham,MD.

Verbeek, P-P 2015, ‘Beyond interaction: a short introduction to mediation theory’, Interactions, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 26–31.

Weiss, DM, Propen, AD & Reid, CE (eds) 2014, Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman, Lexington Books, New York, NY.

See Also:

Zane’s piece on Design Anthropology

Julia’s piece on Job Automation

Rita’s piece on Posthumanism

Lionel’s piece on Surveillance Capitalism

Is Posthumanism The End of Anthropology?

Giovanni Maisto

The prefix “post” denotes after-ness: posthumous, postgraduate, postmodernism.

So what business does anthropology have in investigating the posthuman?

First, a clarification: there are two distinct definitions of posthumanism currently in use, both of which I find intensely interesting.

Cannon, an informant in the linked article, on biohacking.

Nick Bostrom in Why I Want to Be a Posthuman When I Grow Up (2008) defines a posthuman as someone who has transcended the mental and physical limits of the human form, through genetic enhancements and technologies presently available to us, also known as “biohacking” (“DIY biology”). By limiting methods of bio-modification to those in current use, Bostrom distinguishes posthumanism from the abstract and distant imaginings of a sci-fi universe. This notion of posthumanism is related to transhumanism, which can be seen as a movement “in transit” toward the ultimate goal of reaching a posthuman future by attempting to supersede the human condition as we know it (Birnbacher 2008, p. 95).

On the other hand, N. Katherine Hayles’ (1999) definition of posthumanism is situated in critical social theory and is in reaction to liberal humanism, a philosophical movement introduced by Enlightenment thinkers in the late 17th-century that conceived the human subject as a rational, unitary, autonomous, and stable being. These might sound like good characteristics, but the Enlightenment’s conception of liberal humanism was based on a racist and colonialist exclusionary project that precluded “the savage, the animal, the inferior, and the superstitious from the fully human” (Whitehead 2012, p. 225). It’s clear, then, why anthropologists seek a more pluralistic conception of the human subject.

Firstly, Hayles’ posthumanism privileges information over corporeality; it views having a body “as an accident of history, rather than an inevitability of life” (1999, p. 2). Second, contrary to the rational human model purported by Enlightenment thinkers, consciousness isn’t the most important part of being human. Third, all bodies are an original prosthesis, and technology is just a prosthetic extension of ourselves. Fourth, the human body is able to be merged seamlessly with intelligent machines, and “there is no essential difference between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism” (1999, p. 3).

So, you’re thinking: is there really no difference between humans and robots? Is this the end of us?

Not quite. As Hayles asserts, “the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice.” (1999, p. 286, emphasis added)

The post in posthuman therefore refers to the pluralistic conceptions of the human subject that critical social theorists seek to replace the singular, stable humanist model presented by the Enlightenment. Such alternatives include the cyborg, proposed by Donna Haraway (1991), which breaks down the boundaries between animal and human, organism and machine, and physical and non-physical.

So how can posthumanism, in both senses of the word, be studied anthropologically? Can anthropologists employ fieldwork methods like ethnography and participant observation on cyborgs? Where is “the field“, what is “the culture”, and is there a protocol for ethics?

For both Bostrom and Hayles, the subject respectively becomes the no-longer-human and the no-longer-humanist. Posthumanism has not merely expanded the scope of what constitutes humanhood, it has questioned the entire notion of humanhood as a bounded concept, and following this, anthropology should accommodate new notions of “the field”, culture, and ethics.


References:

Birnbacher, D 2008, ‘Posthumanity, Transhumanism and Human Nature’, in B Gordijn & R Chadwick (eds.), Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, Springer, pp. 95-106.

Bostrom, N 2008, ‘Why I Want to be a Posthuman when I Grow Up’, in B Gordijn & R Chadwick (eds.), Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, Springer, pp. 107-136.

Haraway, D 1991, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, pp. 149-182.

Hayles, NK 2008, How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press.

Whitehead, NL and Wesch, M (eds.) 2012, Human No More: digital subjectivities, unhuman subjects, and the end of anthropology. University Press of Colorado.