What has Don Ihde said?

Don Ihde is one of today’s most influential philosophers of technology. As a (post-)phenomenologist, Ihde seeks to understand the ways in which technology mediates our experience and understanding of the world around us. In his seminal book, Technology and the Lifeworld (1990), he developed a typology of four kinds of human-technology relations; embodiment (we are “one” with technology and experience the world through it, e.g. glasses), hermeneutic (technology provides a specific representation of the world, e.g. an MRI scan), alterity (we relate to the technology itself, e.g. a personal computer) and background (technology disappears in the background of our lifeworld, e.g. an air conditioner). These relations, however, are not static and the use of a technology may result in different relations, depending on the context of use and the actual user. To illustrate, when an air conditioner breaks down, we have to relate to the technology itself and an experienced doctor will relate differently to an MRI scanner (i.e. more like he would to a pair of glasses) than a patient.

What can we learn from this?

Ihde’s typology may help us to understand the different ways in which current generations of users experience and use digital technology. The generations of “digital natives” (i.e. Gen Z and younger millennials) have grown up with (more or less fully developed) smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity and they have developed a relation of embodiment with these technologies (i.e. they “look through” the technology). For them, digital technology is a self-evident and “natural” component of meaningful practices (e.g. socializing with friends in Fortnite and other virtual environments). Previous generations (Gen X and older millennials), by contrast, experienced these technologies as they emerged, rather underdeveloped and requiring skilled users (e.g. typing MS-DOS commands instead of clicking and swiping). As a result, these older generations have had a look “under the hood” of digital technology and, in that sense, they have a better understanding of the actual technology than “digital natives”. At the same time, they continue to have more of an alterity relation with digital technology (i.e. they “look at” the technology) and, to them, digital technology is much more at odds with ideas about meaningful practices (i.e. only a face-to-face conversation is “real”).

How does this inform us about the future?

Comparable generational shifts took place in past technological revolutions and each generation has set its own requirements for technology. The first automobiles could only be operated by skilled mechanics who developed a relation of alterity with their cars. It was only after the introduction of the self-starter (the so-called “ladies’ aid”) in the 1910s that cars became easy to operate (cf. graphical user interfaces for computers) and that users could develop a relation of embodiment. It was also then that the public started to question the negative side-effects of the automobile, such as traffic fatalities and air pollution. The automotive pioneers, the ones with the “under the hood” understanding of cars, had largely ignored these problems as they were mostly concerned with making the technology work. Similar dynamics are visible in today’s debate over the detrimental side-effects of digital technology. Only now is early enthusiasm giving way to much more critical reflection and are societies considering regulation to mitigate these effects (e.g. the dominance of big tech, fake news or smartphone addiction). Interestingly, many digital pioneers are actively involved in (technological) efforts to “fix the internet”, in an “under the hood”-attempt to recreate the internet they once imagined. Digital natives, it seems, are much more concerned with “fixing” their online practices and hence with the ways in which technology is used and abused (e.g. bullying in Fortnite). The very fact that they have developed a relation of embodiment with their smartphones, implies that they no longer question the technology as such, but instead question the world and the kind of human behavior they experience through their digital interface.