‘Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations’ edited by Robert Rosenberger & Peter-Paul Verbeek (Lexington Books, 2015).
Postphenomenology is a philosophical approach, consisting of a set of ‘tools’ and theories for thinking about human-technology relations. It represents an intermeshing of phenomenology and American pragmatism. First developed by philosopher Don Ihde, it is now a well-established approach and Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations is testament to its growing popularity. The edited volume is a contribution to philosophy, and sits within a series entitled Postphenomenology and the Philosophy of Technology. The majority of chapters are written by philosophers with a minority written by scholars in media studies, medical and healthcare ethics, and design. The short Introduction by the editors, Robert Rosenberger and Peter-Paul Verbeek, gives a good overview of the contributions and therefore need not be repeated here. Instead, I review the edited volume as a whole from the perspective of a medical anthropologist, new to postphenomenology, interested in how its theoretical lens and ‘toolkit’ could help me in my own work on medical technologies.
Although similar to actor-network theory (ANT) in its emphasis on empirical case study, the approach differs from ANT in important ways, which Ihde usefully outlines in the Preface. Generally speaking, ANT takes as a starting point that humans and things are ‘actants’ in the world on equal footing, and the methodology for studying this shared agency is to ‘follow the thing’. Postphenomenology on the other hand is less interested in the agency things have themselves, and rather emphasizes the relations between technology and humans, the variable ways in which technologies can shape lifeworlds, and the way technology mediates humans’ experiences of being in the world.
The approach addresses phenomenology’s neglect of the reality that individual experience is almost always mediated by some kind of technology, material artefact, or thing beyond, or in addition to, the body. For postphenomenologists, humans’ relationship to technology is nothing new. Rather, even earliest humans’ experiences of being in the world – their embodiment and perception of the world around them – was shaped by technologies (e.g. tools). Another core perspective of the approach is that technologies do not in their essence distance us or alienate ourselves from the world, but simply mediate how we experience the world. For example, Asle H. Kiran’s chapter makes a case for avoiding framing technologies as good or bad or assuming that the magnification/reduction structure of technological mediations is ‘negative’.
My own experience of reading the volume can be described in the following way: First I went through a preliminary phase of ‘getting-it’, followed by a phase of realizing I was losing hold and entering a phase of confusion, and then finally ending-off with a re-ordering and sense-making. This generally followed the four sections of the volume: the field guide overview of postphenomenology, the key philosophical foundations of Postphenomenology, case studies of postphenomenological research, and constructive feedback on the body of work and key constructs from interlocutors. The more philosophical chapters are dense and assume a certain amount of a-priori knowledge of Ihde’s work and foundation texts in phenomenology, especially Husserl.
In this sense, the edited volume is not a collection for ‘beginners’. However, it is well referenced, and key texts are well signposting, meaning that a lateral rather than linear read may be more productive for newcomers to postphenomenology. For social science researchers the approach comes to life in the case study chapters, and therefore it may be useful to begin with Chapter 1 “A field guide to postphenomenology” and thereafter move back and forth between the case studies in section 3, and the theories in section 2. Confusion largely arose over an overload of concepts to remember and the book would have benefitted from a glossary of key terms (ex: multistability, sedimentation, Body 1, Body 2, etc.). I suspect that the difficulty with this would be that the approach itself is fluid, malleable and forever changing as is made obvious in the many interpretations and re-interpretations of Ihde’s arguments and even the key concepts.
Readers will find Ihde’s framework for breaking-down human-technology relations into four different forms (Embodiment Relations, Hermeneutic Relations, Alterity Relations and Background Relations), is well illustrated throughout the chapters. For example, Yoni Van Den Eede’s case study of self-tracking technologies shows how the relations developed between humans and their tracking can embody all four forms of relation. The technology (normally a watch) can be embodied like glasses. It can also be hermeneutic as the individual has to read and interpret the ‘text’ produced by the technology as a representation of some aspect of self. It can become an alterity as the watch and what it does becomes a kind of personal trainer to us. Finally, it can just as easily fall into the background and become invisible, especially the online side of the technology.
The core concept of postphenomenology – multistability – emerges in all the book’s chapters. Multistability is surprisingly simple. It ‘refers to the idea that technology can be put to multiple purposes and can be meaningful in different ways to different users’ (Rosenberger and Verbeek, p. 9). If some, like myself find that the term is not an intuitive representation of its underlying meaning, Rosenberger and Verbeek explain ‘stabilities’ and ‘variations’ are used interchangeably in this literature and I found it more intuitive to replace ‘multiple stabilities’ with ‘multiple variations’ when reading the volume. Adam M. Rosenfeld’s case study on brain death and organ transplant nicely illustrates how the brain dead body is multistable – there are many variations possible for its conceptualization.
The methodological approach of postphenomenology is the least developed aspect of the book. While it is reasonable to say that there is no strict postphenomenological methodology to follow (p. 10), speaking from both a pragmatic and philosophical standpoint, how does one know they have ‘done’ postphenomenology work? Is it as simple as interpreting some data through such concepts as multistability? Or, is there a particular approach to fieldwork which can facilitate the uncovering of particular technologies’ multi-stable properties, for example? Could there not be a certain approach to ‘field work’ or study design that would maximise the ‘seeing of’ and ‘paying attention to’ the human-technology relations that is the core of postphenomenology?
While the case studies are fascinating and excellent examples of what the postphenomenological toolkit has to offer, data-gathering methodology was also de-emphasized in these chapters. Did the postphenomenology theory shape how the authors planned their studies, or did their fieldwork look exactly the way it would have, if they were carrying-out an ANT study or an ethnography? I believe further development of the methodological approach of postphenomenology, without being prescriptive, will be tremendously useful and I hope to see such a volume in the series Postphenomenology and the Philosophy of Technology.
Reviewed by Dr Megan Wainwright, a medical anthropologist and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences, School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town. She is currently working on the experience of long-term oxygen therapy and the macro-politics of the medicinal gas industry. Megan is also an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Durham University and a collaborator on the Life of Breath project in the Centre for Medical Humanities.
Correspondence to Dr Megan Wainwright.