Theorizing Technological Mediation @ U Twente

Thanks to hyperactive activity of Peter Paul Verbeek and his team, University of Twente in the Dutch city Enschede has become one of the world-leading institutions in the domain of philosophy of technology. The subject of human-technology mediation is way more complex that your typical HCI or even UX, and requires a more in-depth, multi-disciplinary approach, and indeed more philosophical take.

At Summ()n we follow the work of this team already for years, and were happy to learn that they are going to organise a large international conference called Theorizing Technological Mediation. The four-day program of the symposium was very extensive, and covered such topics as Technology and Morality, Technology and Scientific Knowledge, Technology and Philosophy (of Technology), and even such fascinating subject as Technology and Transcendence.

These are all great themes, and in some alternative realities I would love to visit all of them. In a more practical world of our business I decided to attend only the third day, about Philosophy of Technology (the subject I actually studied in my youth). To make sure I won’t cancel the attendance in a last moment, I even submitted my own paper – and to my surprise it was even accepted by the committee.

This is Peter Paul Verbeek himself, proudly opening the third day of the conference:

The title of my talk was “Gameplay as Technology: (Serious) Games and Axiological Transformation”, and I will have to write a separate posting to explain what it was about. But for now I would like to briefly write about what I’ve learned from other speakers of the day.

The first talk was by Maarten van Veen, from the Dutch Defense Academy. He presented an interesting case, of numerous (re)designs of combat training stimulators.

The official title of the talk was ‘Validating the Virtual: Case Study of a Military Training Stimulator’, although it was not about an entire simulator, but rather about its specific component, a combat injury model. As often happens with ‘military’ presentations there was this flavour of ‘secrecy’ (not so much from the speaker, bur rather generally present in the air.

But in reality the issue were the same as with any other technological systems, that they are designed based on a very strange set of assumptions, for instance, that the simulator should be perceived ‘real as real life’ (rather than a particular model, or representation). Or that people appropriate these technologies in very peculiar ways, often very different from intended.

The second speaker also talked on somewhat ‘militaristic’ theme: Tom Fischer from the Nottingham Trent University presented a case of De/Offensive Designs (‘Silent, Invisible, Closed: A Naked Eye on De/Offensive Designs).

This was an interesting talk, perhaps less about ‘philosophy’ and more on semiotics, but still revealing interesting developments in how hard-core military technology attempts to present itself in a more ‘human-friendly’ manner, while civic design start mimicking martial look & feel.

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After my presentation it was time for Johnny Hartz Søraker from Norway (who is currently with U Twente) to present his case of “Intravirtual vs. Extravirtual Technology Relations and their (In)Applicability to Virtual Worlds”.

Yet another complex title (I’d even say, complicated), but the story was very rich, dealing with how we understand and describe our In-World and Out-World experiences (‘world’ here stands for ‘virtual world’), and why we need to have a more complex framework to approach these situations.

All three talks in our session after lunch were dealing with design, in one way or another.

Stella Boess from the Delft University of Technology talked about peculiarities of participatory design processes, and specifically of teaching this process to students:

Sam Edens from the Free University of Amsterdam spoke about ‘Tangible Interactions: Material Aesthetics in Interaction Design’, using the case of two smart phones that are currently offered to the market, and that are quite different from a common mainstream models, both in terms of their design and value systems (the two are Fairphone and Runcible).

The next presentation was of a fairly unique project (and also the one that is interestingly close to me). Entitled ‘Radical Visions of the Future’s Smart Environments’, it was a story about a triplet of some sort, three different PhD projects that are co-produced by the three researchers from Vienna (only two managed to come to the conference, though).

My personal affinity was due to the fact that it was (or ‘is’) about Ambient Intelligence, the concepts that we’ve been busy with at Philips Design (and in Philips in general) for decade or so (and also about a decade or so ago).

 

 

The trip has already done a lot of interesting work in (de)constructing the concept of these ‘smart environments’, from three different positions: philosophical, comparative literature studies, and urban sociology. I really look forward to read all these three works/positions interplaying with each other.

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