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Technological Transformation of Human Experience

Ubiquity, Volume 2008 Issue July | BY Arun Kumar Tripathi 


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This article was inspired by Don Ihde's work on the experience of technology in human-machine relations. (See Don Ihde. "The Experience of Technology," Cultural Hermeneutics, Vol. 2, 1974, pp. 267-279.)

My body is wherever there is something to be done (Maurice Merleau-Ponty). [Cited in Andy Clark's Natural-Born Cyborgs, p. 89, in Where Are We?]

The world is... the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions. Truth does not "inhabit" only "the inner man," or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself. Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Phenomenology of Perception, Preface (1945).

For the modern Man it is not so important to feel the Desire (Lust) or Listlessness (Unlust), but to animate themselves; Für den modernen Menschen ist es nicht mehr wichtig, Lust oder Unlust zu empfinden, sondern angeregt zu werden (Friedrich Nietszche, S. 108, Vom Übermenschen zu überreizten Menschen, Paul Virilio, Die Eroberung des Körpers, Hanser Verlag, 1994).

"In myriad ways, human vision is mediated by technological devices. Televisions, camera's, computer screens, spectacles, car windows - in virtually all situations of our daily lives, technological artifacts mediate the ways we perceive reality." (Verbeek 2007 & Rosenberger 2008).

Technological developments in fields such as IT, biotechnology, genomics, and reproductive technologies may well take us into a new and distinct era of human evolution. Consequently, terms such as 'post human' and 'transhuman', have gained a degree of common currency in recent years. The aim of this conference is to generate new interdisciplinary discussion on issues relating to potential reconceptualisations of the 'human' in the light of new technologies. {BETWEEN THE HUMAN AND THE POST-HUMAN-TECHNOLOGY AND HUMANITY (Science Technology Culture Research Group: A one-day conference at the University of Nottingham 19 September 2007)}

The programme of one day conference on BETWEEN THE HUMAN AND THE POST-HUMAN-TECHNOLOGY AND HUMANITY argues that it is widely believed that the mind can be studied in isolation from the details of its physical embodiment and environmental surroundings. This is a form of residual Cartesianism which cognitive science can ill afford. A new model is needed in which inner computational processes are seen to co-operate with external (physical and social) structures to produce the phenomena of natural cognition.

On the human vision in the technologically mediated lifeworld, along with the views of Don Ihde, Peter-Paul Verbeek and Robert Rosenberger, in this paper I am describing the research outcomes of the 2007 Nottingham conference on the HUMAN & the POST-HUMAN-TECHNOLOGY.

As we are increasingly using new technologies to change ourselves beyond therapy and in accordance with our own desires, understanding the challenges of human enhancement has become one of the most urgent topics of the current age. Gordijn and Chadwick volume contributes to such an understanding by critically examining the pros and cons of our growing ability to shape human nature through technological advancements. Human embodiment is presupposed in and by our technologies, particularly those related to the production of knowledge, including scientific instrumentation, communication technologies, and the new forms of virtual reality, simulation and modelling devices, all of which are discussed in greater details in Don Ihde's "Bodies in Technology."

Mind, Andy Clark argues, it is increasingly fashionable to assert, is an intrinsically embodied and environmentally embedded phenomenon. But there is a potential tension between two strands of thought prominent in this recent literature. "One of those strands depicts the body as special, and the fine details of a creature's embodiment as a major constraint on the nature of its mind: a kind of new-wave body-centrism. The other depicts the body as just one element in a kind of equal-partners dance between brain, body and world, with the nature of the mind fixed by the overall balance thus achieved: a kind of extended functionalism (now with an even broader canvas for multiple realizability than ever before)." Clark paper (see Clark 2007 & Clark 2008) displays the tension, scouts the space of possible responses, and ends by attempting to specify what the body actually needs to be, given its complex role in these recent debates.

Don Ihde argues that although many philosophers, not only phenomenologists, have noted that we always experience the world from an unstated but reflexively locatable perspective, this becomes particularly interesting in simulation technologies (Ihde 2004c). Ihde illustrates the example with R.D.Laing's The Divided Self (1965) which describes two points of view often noted when persons describe how they experience an environment: the 'embodied' and the 'disembodied' positions. Don Ihde has developed this distinction more fully in his Bodies in Technology, noting that only in the embodied position does one have the full, multidimensional and multistable perceptual awareness of an experience from_________.

Robert Pepperell of Cardiff School of Art & Design in "The Human and the Posthuman" reflects on the fortunes of the term 'posthuman' since it first came to prominence in the 1990s, and what it might mean to us now. From computer science and science fiction arouse the ideas about the enhancement, and even replacement, of humans with technology-based systems. Looking at the intellectual landscape today, Robert Pepperell says, we can see where some of those ideas remain influential and where some now appear misjudged. Pepperell argues that in fact two quite distinct conceptions of posthumanism emerged in this period. One conception held that technology offered a way of overcoming human frailties and eventually supplanting us with a superior species. Another, which Pepperell defends, sees posthumanism as symptomatic of a radical shift in our understanding about what it is to be human in the first place (Pepperell 2007).

Lenny Moss of Exeter University in "Detachment and Compensation: Toward an Anthropology of Human Transformation" argues that by far the biggest concerted enterprise in the history of biology, the Human Genome Project was surely of a magnitude such as to be able to influence human self-understanding-but only if we are willing to countenance its implications. Recovering some conceptual cues from a tradition known as 'philosophical anthropology' and bringing these to bear on the findings of comparative genomics along with results from work in a variety of areas in the human and cognitive sciences (especially those new trends oriented towards the 'embedded, embodied, enactive, distributed standpoints'), Lenny Moss suggests an understanding of the 'human trajectory' structured around a concept of 'progressive detachment' and its correlative needs for 'compensation.' (Moss 2007)

On the other hand, Bronwyn Parry of Queen Mary London in "Interrogating Posthumanism: Historical and contemporary adventures in the enhancement, legibility, and knowability of human bodies" adopts a sceptical approach to some dominant theorisations of the post-human (such as Fukuyama's) which posit that current technoscientific developments have generated an ontological and temporal breach between an apparently, pre-existing historically consistent 'natural' humanity and humanism and a new 'unnatural', indeed 'uncanny' - and some would argue, superior - form of constructed humanity.

Bronwyn Parry paper aims to reveal the entirely un-nuanced nature of this kind of thinking through a critical evaluation of three developments that are said to be key signifiers of posthumanism: a) 'Enhancement of the body through technology'; b) Increased use of technology (such as gene sequencing) to make bodies more 'legible'; c) the use of other forms of technology (such as computers and information processing) to make this information available in ways that allow the body to become ever more 'intelligible' thus allowing us to 'know' ourselves. Parry argues in this paper that there is in fact very little 'new' or 'post' about these developments: that they have, in fact, many historical antecedents. Parry aim (and some humanist scholars) is to complicate the idea that we have only just arrived at some sort of epochal post-human moment, after which everything about our relationships with our bodies is somehow qualitatively different from anything it had previously been (Parry 2007).

Sean Kelly in his review of Andy Clark's Being There comments that the central claim is that mainstream cognitive scientists should, like their more revolutionary colleagues, learn to substitute for the "the disembodied, atemporal intellectualist vision of mind…the image of mind as a controller of embodied action (p. 7).

Andy Clark perceptively argues that recent years have seen an explosion of work, both in philosophy and across the many sub-disciplines of Cognitive Science that is now typically glossed as belonging to the investigation of the mind as 'embodied and environmentally embedded' (Clark 2008). The phrase 'mind as embodied and Embedded' seems to have been coined by John Haugeland in a similarly titled paper that was circulating widely in the early 1990's and that later appeared as Haugeland's Having Thought (1998). There, Haugeland writes that:

If we are to understand mind as the locus of intelligence, we cannot follow Descartes in regarding it as separable in principle from the body and the world…Broader approaches, freed of that prejudicial commitment, can look again at perception and action, at skillful involvement with public equipment and social organization, and see not principled separation but all sorts of close coupling and functional unity…Mind, therefore, is not incidentally but intimately embodied And intimately embedded in its world. Haugeland (1998) (p. 236-237) (Clark paper displays the tension between the role of body, embodiment and embodied cognitive sciences.)

Don Ihde in his talk "Of which human are we post?" argues that Francis Bacon, at the onset of modernity, in his Novum Oraganum, worried about the onset of a new era and expressed his concerns with his four idols. Ihde wants to express philosophical concerns about the now postmodern era with four new idols, each one relating to 'posthuman' imaginings. Ihde new idols are: the idol of Paradise; the idol of Intelligent Design; the idol of the Cyborg; and the idol of Prediction. In each case, Ihde examines the technofantasies and existentiality related to the new idols (Ihde 2007, 2008).

Don Ihde in his very fascinating paper on "Technofantasies and embodiment" argues that movies like the Matrix trilogy play upon fantasy in a technological context and relate to the human sense of embodiment. Ihde argues that contemporary technologies are use to explain some of effects and implications for "mind" and embodiment in the film Matrix. Ihde points out to an important fact that we have to experience the embodiment where we live, rather to "plug-in" into a technofantasies world. "We do not need technofantasy to be technologically embodied." (p. 166) As Merleau-Ponty argues, "The world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible..." (pp. Xvi-xvii, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. from French by Colin Smith, Routledge, 1962). Ihde is pleading for developing new skills and imaginations to be creative through new technologies.

Technologies do become embodied, but never totally nor in fully transparent ways. That is how they give us the powers and possibilities we would not otherwise have. But the price of this power entails a subtle and graded sense that while we use and even partially embody our technologies, we also ultimately remain the contingent humans we are. The very ability to step into a multiplicity of our technologies-and thus to also step out of them-is the existential indicator of this constraint for even the best simulation. It is also the point which calls for our constant need for critique (Ihde 2004a & Ihde 2003).

Don Ihde in (Ihde 2008) by taking neither utopian nor dystopian views on technology writes "I must forewarn you that, as a philosopher, I am highly skeptical of slippery slope arguments of any kind. At the same time, I am not unfriendly to the notion of 'posts' since I have described, and others have described, my style of analysis as postphenomenological."

Postphenomenology, as Ihde contends, substitutes embodiment for subjectivity (my version of postphenomenology as postsubjectivist phenomenology, which is based in materiality of technologies. Postphenomenology is an attempt to overcome modernist epistemology with its Cartesian "subject/object" and "internal/external" splits. But, as a point of departure from the phenomenological tradition, it draws explicit inspiration from early strands of American pragmatism). Bodies cannot be transcendental; they are existential (Merleau-Ponty). Ihde argues that with Merleau-Ponty one could see that subjectivity is not something limited to being inside the box, "Truth does not 'inhabit' only 'the inner man', or more accurately, there is no inner man, and in the world, and only in the world does he know himself." (PP xi) More radically, "…even the phantoms of 'internal experience' are possible only as things borrowed from external experience. Therefore consciousness has no private life..." (PP. 27) Yet, "consciousness" remains in Merleau-Ponty's vocabulary and thus carries with it the echo of 'subjectivity.'

I think Peter-Paul Verbeek in his critical essay on "Beyond the Human Eye. Technological Mediation and Posthuman Visions" best described the human vision of technologically mediated lifeworld by elaborating three approaches 'modern', 'postmodern' and 'posthuman' to the questions as What does this imply for 'the human condition' - the state of being of people living in this technological culture? What kind of subject emerges from these technological mediations? And how do the visual arts help to produce and understand these subjects? These approaches have strongly differing, Verbeek says, analyses of the relations between human beings, mediating technologies, and reality. Indeed Verbeek argues that contemporary forms of art take us to the limits of what can be called 'human'. After having helped us to exercise mediated visions, we might be entering a period in which art helps us to exercise posthuman vision (Verbeek 2007).

On the question of how to analyze the phenomenon of technological mediation? Verbeek radicalizes Don Ihde's phenomenological approach of technology and offers a valuable framework in his work. In their analysis, Ihde and Verbeek understand technological mediation as the role technology plays in the relation between human beings and their world. Verbeek writes that "Ihde discerns several relationships human beings can have with technological artifacts." I agree with Ihde and Verbeek that technologies can be 'embodied' by their users, making it possible that a relationship comes about between humans and their world, and also technological artifacts are 'incorporated' here, as it were: they become extensions of the human body.

The primary research objective of the Extension of the Human Senses group is to research and develop novel algorithms for modeling and pattern recognition in dynamic non-stationary environments. The work encompasses all stages of using neuro-electric signals for augmentation including: data acquisition, sensor development, signals processing, modeling, pattern recognition, interface development, and experimentation.

Courtesy: Image above: Flight demonstration using EMG Bio-sleeve. Extension of the Human Senses (Courtesy: NASA Ames Research Center)

This research group specializes in developing alternative methods for human-machine interaction as applied to device control and human performance augmentation. Signal processing environment - EHS has developed a distributed data flow based Signal Processing Environment for Algorithm Development (SPEAD) which is used for all of our studies and is available to our partners. This environment allows for someone to program sophisticated machine learning algorithms by wiring blocks together. These blocks run in parallel on standard PCs and Macs and allow for distributed machines to be used. The Extension of the Human Senses group (EHS) focuses on developing alternative human-machine interfaces by replacing traditional interfaces (keyboards, mice, joysticks, microphones) with bio-electric control and augmentation technologies.

Don Ihde is truly claiming that with the replacement of the 'subject' by embodiment, one changes the body/mind problem in early modern philosophy into a body/body problem. Merleau-Ponty in his works drew his distinction between the 'objectively' constituted body, the mechanical and third-person constituted body of the Cartesian sciences and the corps vecu or lived body as experiencing body. This is the body-in-action, outside itself already in a world. What to my mind is important here is that this move undercuts the inside/outside of the camera metaphor. Living my body is simultaneously and yet experientially being both inside and outside (Ihde 2003).

Bodies, while not transcendental, are both gendered and cultured. This insight, I would claim, is fully phenomenological. Ihde comments that for Foucault, the body is the social body, the body politic, the malleable, disciplined body. I agree with Don Ihde that embodiments (Being bodies) suggest many of the states which concern those worried about subjects and being centered. Bodies cannot help but be 'centered' in some deep sense-so long as they are living. The very materiality of situated embodiment carries with it many such significations. But Foucault's body, Ihde says, also assumes a perspective which is quite different from the Merleau-Pontian one (One clue to this de-perspectival shift occurs with the body of the condemned in Discipline and Punish). Ihde comments that the condemned victim is dismemembered and the perspective from which this is described is that of a 'third person'-we are back to another side of Descartes' camera. Bodily, actional, being directed into a world retains a locus. But this locus is inter-relational, both with an environing material world and is situated within the world of cultural-social meanings (Ihde 2003).

In his latest book, Bodies in Technology Ihde addresses this theme and shift, where Ihde uses a terminology of "body one" and "body two," the lived body under the sign of Merleau-Ponty and the cultural body under the sign of Foucault. Postphenomenologically (or through postsubjectivist phenomenology), both must be united. The strategy of structuralism, post-structuralism and semiotics is to attempt to dissolve body one into body two. "Everything is socially constructed." There are two problems with this: first, I deny that body one can ever be absorbed into the cultural, it is the necessary condition for being a body and is describable along the lines of corps vecu. But, equally, body one is situated within and permeated with body two, the cultural significations which we all experience. Embodiment is both actional-perceptual and culturally endowed (Ihde 2003).

The body is not only cultured, it is gendered, Ihde says. We can see that several phenomenologically trained feminists have been particularly good at dealing with the gendered body-Iris Young, Susan Bordo, Carol Bigwood (Ihde 2003). Besides going beyond Merleau-Ponty regarding gendered embodiment, phenomenologically trained feminists have also been able to capture the double sense of sensory and social dimensions of embodiment. They locate the experience of being embodied with the motile, actional embodiment of the Merleau-Pontian notion, with the cultural-social experience of being seen by another as experienced also by oneself.

Whereas German phenomenologist philosopher of technology Bernhard Irrgang in his fascinating book Posthumanes Menschsein? Künstliche Intelligenz, Cyberspace, Roboter, Cyborgs und Designer-Menschen: Anthropologie des künstlichen Menschen im 21. Jahrhundert (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005) argues for a new ethics of posthumanity. Irrgang Posthumanes Menschsein is a thorough anthropological investigation of posthumanism. Irrgang discusses all technological developments which take us "beyond humanity, like technological simulations of experience, expert systems, artificial intelligence, robots, implants and prostheses, designer-babies and cyborgs. Verbeek (2008, 2007) and Irrgang investigate the boundaries between the human and the technological, and between the human and the posthuman. For this, Irrgang draws from a variety of philosophical traditions, both continental and analytical, and also connects to the literary tradition. Irrgang and Verbeek move away from science-fiction-style utopias of a world inhabited by transhuman beings, and elaborates the thesis that rather than trying to replace humanity, we should try to cooperate with the posthuman entities we are to create.

But before Posthumanes Menschsein Bernhard Irrgang in his 1997 book "Forschungsethik, Gentechnik und neue Biotechnologie" cautioned us about the ethical perspectives of such technologically oriented research. In this book, Irrgang unfolds his project of developing an ethics of science and [technology studies] which pays special attention to the issues involved in applied ethics. Irrgang explores in great detail the ramifications of genetic engineering in its application to plants, animals and micro organisms. The main goal of his work is to interpret the ethics of science from an act-theoretic perspective and, beyond the extensive look at the issue of ethical application, to lay stress on the central importance of empirical knowledge (See Hildt's review of Irrgang's Forschungsethik in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, pp. 210 - 211, 1999)

Nagataki and Hirose in their paper argues that Andy Clark points out, there are two different methods within the trend to set importance on the body in cognitive science. The first is called "simple embodiment," which treats features of the body and its interaction with the environment as constraints upon a theory of inner organization and processing. The second, which is called "radical embodiment," goes much further and treats such facts as profoundly altering the subject matter and theoretical framework of cognitive science. They comment that Clark (1999) writes; "the distinction between the simple and the radical forms is, however, not absolute, and many (perhaps most) good research programs end up containing elements of both" (p. 348). But most researchers who apparently take the radical form criticize the view which appoints inner organization and processing made by explicit inner representations as the leading part of cognition.

Maarten Coolen in his interesting conference paper "Becoming a Cyborg as one of the ends of Disembodied Man" (published in the Ruth Chadwick, Lucas Introna & A.M. Arturano, Proceedings of the 2001 Conference on Computer Ethics, Philosophical Enquiries: IT & the Body, Lancaster University, 2001, p. 49-60) comments that the cyborg serves already for some time as a metaphor for a new self-concept of man. Not only is the word itself a contamination of "cybernetic" and "organism", what is designated by it is a contamination too in a different sense: a cyborg is a bastard originating from nature and technology. To put it more precisely: the cyborg is the actual technological realization of man as an autonomous subject, by struggling out of the grasp of any form of a given naturalness in life, be it with respect to the external things around him or the qualities he has himself. The postmodern assertion that people have narrative identities is matched by the posthuman claim that these identities are very well able to lead their ›lives‹ in non-natural constructs. Coolen is critical of posthumanism and its vision, as he writes: Within that framework the technology of implanting devices into the body is just a next step in the further self-realization of man as an eccentric living being. It is a line of thought I find attractive and would like to go on exploring. But, of course, this will never lead to a standpoint from which one in the future can look back upon us as beings which have been outstripped by our technical artefacts. But maybe scientists and philosophers should better refrain from wanting to take a posthuman or superhuman point of view.

It is important to note that from Technics and Praxis (1979) through Technology and the Lifeworld (1990) Don Ihde version of an embodied intentionality was one which examined the placement and role of our use of, interaction with, and subsequent mutual constitution of our technologically textured world and embodied being. I agree with Ihde that what remains phenomenological is the inter-relationality of embodied being in a concrete and material world. If I 'make' technologies; they, in turn, make me (Ihde 2003). What is different about this postphenomenology or postsubjectivist phenomenology, in a nuanced change from classical phenomenology, is the thematizing of materiality, particularly in the form of instruments and devices by which we make 'worlds' available to us which were previously unexperienced and unperceived. Instruments are the means by which unspoken things 'speak' and unseen things become 'visible.'

Embodiment, being a body, is also a constant within postphenomenology or postsubjectivist phenomenology. But since bodies are actively perceptual and culturally-historically constituted, postphenomenology must take account of the variations and possibilities of diverse embodiment. Thus, issues of different cultures, gender, politics and ethics are included in postphenomenological analyses. Variational analyses provide the methodological style of this approach. With technologies, there are multiple ways in which any single technology may be related to users and multiple ways in which each technology is culturally embedded.

Elsewhere Don Ihde in "Imaging Technologies: A Technoscience Revolution (forthcoming) is critical of "posthuman fantasies" argues that "instruments, technologies, are essential and necessary for the production of the scientific knowledge now emerging from the 'new astronomy'-but Ihde is correct, in doing that we are nor leaving the "human embodiment" behind. "Are we now in the realm of the 'posthuman' as some have proclaimed" Ihde says "strong no." Rather, Ihde says, we now have, with the new imaging technologies, a different kind of human-technology knowledge relation, a relation which Ihde is calling as hermeneutic. There remains a reflexive reference to human embodiment and perception, but it is differently located. Ihde is calling for a technological transformation of a phenomenon of 'readable image.' Ihde concludes (by focussing the phenomenological-hermeneutic perspective of body) in the paper that far from leaving embodiment, "what the new imaging technologies does is to produce for embodied observers, a new way of bringing close something that is both spatially and perceptually distant." In this article I have tried to describe the phenomenological experience in human-technology relations, to discover various structural features of human vision in the technologically mediated lifeworld, which is centered upon the ways we are bodily engaged with technologies in the concrete praxis.

(*) This article is originally inspired by Don Ihde's work on the experience of technology in human-machine relations. (See Don Ihde. "The Experience of Technology," Cultural Hermeneutics, Vol. 2, 1974, pp. 267-279).

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Verbeek, P.P. (forthcoming 2008) Cultivating Humanity: Toward a Non-Humanist Ethics of Technology. In: New Waves in Philosophy of Technology, eds. Jan-Kyrre Berg Olsen, Evan Selinger, Søren Riis. Palgrave.

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. Beyond the Human Eye. Technological Mediation and Posthuman Visions in Mediated Vision, Petran Kockelkoren (ed.), Rotterdam: Veenman Publishers and ArtEZ Press, 2007. Online:

Source: Ubiquity Volume 9, Issue 29 (July 22 - 28, 2008)


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