One of the features of postphenomenology most potentially useful to design practice is its taxonomy of relations between users, technologies and the world. The information presented here comes from Robert Rosenberger’s and Peter-Paul Verbeek’s “Field Guide to Postphenomenology”, from Postphenomenological Investigations.
- Embodied relationship. According to the Field Guide when a technology is embodied, “a user’s experience is reshaped through the device, with the device itself in some ways taken into the user’s bodily awareness.” Heidegger’s “ready-to-hand” mode of encounter is a concept very close to embodied relationship, where a tool becomes transparent in use, leaving the activity’s object as the primary or exclusive focus. When we use a hammer, the focus of the activity is on the nail. When we use a pen, the pen disappears in the writing. (Interestingly/annoyingly, the paradigmatic example of this relation offered in the Field Guide is eyeglasses, which to me seems a distinctly different relation than that of a tool. Something that intercepts and modifies a sensory signal seems radically different from an implement that can, with sufficient skill and habit, become a transparent extension of one’s body. I assume this apparent conflation of unlike cases is meant to call attention to a less obvious but deeper and important similarity. I can tell this problem is going to bother me.
- Hermeneutic relationship. These are “technologies which are used through an act of perceiving and interpreting the device’s readout.” Where with embodied relationships, the user focuses on some aspect of the world through the device, with hermeneutic relationships the user focuses on the device itself. The example given here is a wristwatch, where the user reads the time from the watch face.
- Alterity relationship. Here the technology is interacted with in a manner similar to how we interact with a person. “The idea is that some forms of interface are devised speci?cally to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction, and that sometimes we encounter a device as itself a presence with which we must interrelate.” The example is a dialogue box in an interaction with a computer application.
- Background relationship. These are technologies that are not directly used like tools but which function to modify the user’s environment. Air conditioning is the example given. Utilities like electricity, water and internet are other examples (or at least, I think they are).
I am thinking about these relationships today, not only because they present some basic questions designers should think about when they are getting ready to design something, but also because these questions are relevant to my design instrumentalist project. If we (re)understand ideas to be essentially things we use to make sense of the world and interact with it and live within it effectively, what relationships with users, ideas and the world are possible, and how do we determine which relationship is best for specific ideas used for specific purposes in specific use contexts?
I believe that most of us, if we don’t think about it carefully, assume our we are in a hermeneutic relationship with ideas, where we look directly at the ideas and get a “readout” of the author’s meaning. But the books I most love to read also offer an ideas engaged in an embodied relationship of sorts. When we use these ideas we conceive the world through them in a way that reshapes our experience. And somewhere along the way I adopted a habit of expecting that reshaped experience to be useful, usable and desirable.