I came across this brief set of notes about Don Ihde’s “Phenomenology of Technics” from a philosophy of technology course a few years ago, and thought it was worth preserving. I would like to read more from Ihde at some point, including his Technology and the Lifeworld.

Reflection on Ihde

We read an interesting piece for class this week by Don Ihde who classifies himself as a “post-phenomenologist” (apparently to distinguish from antecedents like Heidegger), though he is very much working in a phenomenological vein: taking seriously subjective experience as an object of philosophical study. The Ihde piece is called “The Phenomenology of Technics”. It is basically an attempt to classify the primary ways of being in subjective relation to technological objects and the world. Ihde identifies four main relations (which I here summarize from memory in my own words to help with integration):

  1. Embodiment relations: in these relations, the idea is that the technological object is integrated with bodily experience / becomes an extension of the body, so that — at least when the object is working / is effective / is well-designed — the technological object withdraws from perception or is “seen through”. Quintessential examples of this class are objects like eyeglasses, or certain types of tools (especially in the hands of a skilled craftsman). I believe Ihde even puts objects like cars & other vehicles in this class, noting how perceptual experience of the body expands to include that of the technological object e.g. when driving.
  2. Hermeneutical relations: in these relations, technology is again mediating between human and world; however, the key distinction is that in hermeneutical relations, the artifact is not literally transparent and does not “withdraw”; perception of the world is achieved through some hermeneutical/interpretive understanding by looking at the technological artifact. Quintessential examples of this class are things like dashboards/sensor readings or thermometers or clocks — these things allow us to perceive something about the world (e.g. the temperature outside) but via a hermeneutical understanding of numbers/symbols (rather than in a more direct embodied way). Ihde puts the technology of writing in this class as well.
  3. Alterity relations: in these relations, the technology is not mediator so much as direct object of perception, related to as a technological “other”. An example of this is a child’s favorite stuffed animal/toy or an AI assistant; here, the technology is related to as distinct entity in the world & direct object of engagement on its own terms.
  4. Background relations: basically everything else that’s not in one of the previous classes.

I am not sure if I have any deep thoughts on this taxonomy, though I think it’s an interesting lens to consider. Aside this taxonomy, two other ideas from the readings & class discussion were worth noting to me:

  1. Multistability and the “designer fallacy”: Basically just a theoretical term for the (intuitive) idea that, after creation, technological objects can be integrated / used by individuals/societies in myriad different ways that may or may not have been intended by the designer (i.e. tech objects are “multistable”). The “designer fallacy” part is debunking the idea that a technology will only be used in the way the designer intends.
    • This is related to the prevalent STS warning against the “unintended consequences” lens on tech outcomes.
  2. Tension between extension/power and authenticity/unmediated-ness (in embodiment relations): this is an idea that Ihde talks about in discussing embodiment relations to tech. Basically he argues that in a lot of discourse about technology, there is this tension between on the one hand, desiring the power/bodily extension that the technology offers and on the other hand, the desire to experience the world in an “authentic”/un-mediated/purely human way. This tension leads to this ideal discussed above for “embodied” technology that at once extends human capability while also wholly “disappearing” perceptually so that the experience feels un-mediated.

Incidentally, as someone who rides a fixed gear bicycle lately, Ihde’s ideas about “embodiment relations” resonate a lot with how I think about the appeal of fixed gear. Compared to a freewheel bicycle, the main appeal of fixed gear is the heightened “embodiment relation” that comes from having the pedals directly connected with the drivetrain and wheel rotation. In this way, fixed gear provides a satisfying improvement on Ihde’s tension (2) above: it combines the speed and power of a bicycle with a heightened sense of authenticity and un-mediatedness. This really does resonate phenomenologically for me – riding fixed gear does feel more embodied, more expressive: more like running down the street than powering a tool that is driving me forward.