Interview Peter Paul Verbeek

Designers do not determine what a thing does

Design for the Good Society,
NAI010, 2015


Peter-Paul Verbeek is professor of philosophy of technology at the University of Twente in Enschede (NL), which means that he studies the impact of technology on human culture, behavior and world views. But he doesn’t stop there; he also analyzes how humans and technology develop in interaction. One of his main findings is that humans don’t just make technology, technology alters humans. And the relationship between humans and technology is not just a reciprocal, binary one, but results in a hybridization of the two. Humans and technologies merge, shaping each other in the process. One major philosophical question which arises from this insight is that of morality. If humans and technology develop in thorough interaction, it is hard to maintain that only one side of this process monopolizes ethics. In this interview, Verbeek demonstrates how such philosophical pondering has very practical consequences for design, and social design in particular. 

Max Bruinsma: You frequently say that moral standards change through technology: technology and morality are not separate affairs, they influence each other. Can you design that? Not just the interaction between moral standards and technology, but the moral standards themselves?

Peter-Paul Verbeek: Ehm, no. You can design for moral standards and co-design step by step, piecemeal, how technology and morals influence each other in mutual interaction. You often see unexpected vicissitudes provoked by technological innovation. The purpose for which a technology was originally designed may, for instance, not be achieved because people’s objectives for it have fundamentally changed in the meantime. This dynamic is unpredictable, unless you assume a kind of determinism in culture, which I don’t. If we could do that – determine how technology influences morals – it would be an open invitation to totalitarianism, fascism and the like.

MB: This is an often heard association in the context of social design; pessimists or dystopists bring up the notion of social engineering and before you know it you’re in the midst of a debate about Big Brother...

PPV: But that’s exactly the nice thing about the term ‘social design’! ‘Engineering’ sounds like you’re designing a kind of machine, which should be well-tuned and oiled every once in a while to make it run smoothly. It sounds as if the mechanism is more important than the human fabric it should serve. With ‘design,’ in combination with ‘social,’ you rather think of the interaction between people and products. ‘Social design,’ then, is design for the betterment of society. The problem remains that this ‘better society’ is not that easy to define. Maybe you can describe it in the short term, but our conceptions of what is a good society develop pretty fast in interaction with technology. Our concept of a good society is based on a set of normative frameworks, on moral standards and values. These values develop in interaction with technology, because technology opens up windows of opportunity for tackling problems which seemed insurmountable before. Things you accepted as fate turn into problems you can do something about. So what we hold valuable and important is co-defined by technology.

MB: Which is in part invented or developed because we want to fulfill a certain desire...

PPV: This you could call the dialectic of technology: we make the technology, but the technology forms us in return. It is a constant leapfrog. What I do find interesting about the idea of ‘social engineering’ is that it suggests that there is a kind of autonomy in the development of technology. Not in the sense that technology defines man, but the relative autonomy of an ongoing process. If this process would stop, humanity would stop developing.

MB: The idea of social design, and the developing discourse around it, forces us to rethink what design is. Design in its current meaning, we should not forget, is a deeply modernist concept, a rather teleological affair, which directly connects the formulation of a problem to a detailed strategy for obliterating it. How do you see the dynamics between technology and humans today, the hybridization of subjects and objects, which is much more volatile than the linear concepts of modernism? How do you see this dynamic affecting our notion of design?

PPV: Design is a peculiar activity; it feels like you take matters into your own hands – you make something. At the same time, you can only do this by taking part in something that surpasses your powers of control. You have to consider the state of the art in science and technology, the dynamics of human desires and cultural development... all things a designer does not design. So, as a designer, you always take part in something that is bigger than anything you can design. I’m reminded of Heidegger, when he says that in our technical era, we have come to consider ourselves as the primary source of what we make, whereas the ancient Greeks rather saw human making as ‘taking part’ in the coming into being of an entity. In that Aristotelian view, the designer or technician is only one of the causes that engender a product, next to the material out of which it is made, its shape and its purpose. To me, this is a beautifully modest way of thinking. There is indeed this modernist fantasy, which holds that “I have the power, or I seize power,” but of course as soon as your products enter society, you immediately discover that they are being redefined, that they can become something completely different to what you thought they were when you designed them. So even Aristotle’s causality should not be overestimated in this context. It’s more important to try and anticipate your product becoming embedded in the social fabric, even if you can never entirely direct that. And often you cannot even predict how people will use a product. The mobile phone is a case in point. It has developed into something that is hardly a telephone anymore in the way this technology was originally intended. The ability to make calls is a marginal feature of your smartphone.

This kind of impact is very hard to predict. So what social design should try is not make a kind of Grand Design for society, but aim at a more piecemeal engineering, à la Popper: make contact with possible future practices on a manageable scale and deal with those responsibly. Popper was suspicious of grand designs for radical revolutions because they lack an openness for critique; in his evolutionary approach to science and to society, development stops when there is no selection, no falsification, no opposition. For our views on technology, this ‘modesty’ implies that we should not think in terms of determination but of mediation. When we use a technology, or a product, this always creates a relation between our environment and ourselves. And on the basis of these relations, technologies mediate human practices and experiences. MRI scanners, for instance, help to shape the ways in which neuroscientists understand the brain, and its relations to human behavior. Wearable ICT like Apple’s iWatch will alter the way we experience our bodies and our health, and will impact our lifestyle. But these mediations are never deterministic: they come about in a close interplay between users and technologies.

For design this means that, on the one hand, you anticipate the desired impact of your designs – what I call the design of the ‘mediation’ of technology – and on the other observe how people attach meaning to these mediations – how they are interpreted. This is something I will work on the coming years: these mediations are not received by the user in a direct way, in an ‘unfiltered’ way. People interpret a product, project meaning onto it, rewrite the technology’s script, so to speak. If you better understand how this works, then you will be better able to assist this process of ‘re-writing.’ So designers should get rid of the fantasy that they determine what a thing does. Social design is also emancipatory design in the sense that the designer can design his product in such a way that it gives its users a point of departure for shaping the interaction with it themselves instead of just being pushed in a certain direction.

MB: We desperately want to be able to predict this interaction between humans and technology, even if we realize how extremely complex and unpredictable it actually is. You are also looking for this philosopher’s stone in your research into ‘scenarios’... The Modernists solved this puzzle by conceiving a product as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. I think we’re past that, but how can designers certify that their designs make sense when they reach their users, years after they have been conceived?

PPV: There are techniques to do that. The ‘mediation’ approach that I am working on can serve as a ‘heuristic tool,’ a ‘search light’ to anticipate how technologies will affect the experiences and practices of users. It can be combined with a scenario approach, in order to envision potential future use practices and social and cultural implications of a technology. But here also, a certain modesty is in order; such techniques help to delineate a playing field, but you never have the certainty that they are completely adequate. It’s as good as it gets. So these scenario methods and their theoretical frameworks help stimulate the imagination about the impact products have on society. But more importantly, when you have done that, when you have oriented yourself with the aid of such scenarios, you should design your products in such a way that they can serve as starting points for processes of appropriation. You can to a large extent design the space people have to fit the product into their lives in a creative, critical manner. And that’s not just a task for designers, but also for teachers, educators, journalists: to help people enter into a critical relationship with technology, beyond the disjuncture of man and technology, of man and product.

MB: Which would make all of these people effectively co-designers of whatever the product will become: a thing, a service, a process...

PPV: Well, to co-design a thing, a product, is pretty hard to begin with. But co-designing its impact is certainly possible. You could say that in a sense we have been, as society, co-designer of the atom bomb, or at least of its impact on the balance of power. Eventually, that thing has done something else than what it was designed for, because of the way people have interpreted its meaning. The bomb’s main function turned out to be its devastating potential, not its actual use. The threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ – MAD was the terribly apt acronym – has proven to be a quite effective mediation of this potential, which in practice turned it into a diplomatic rather than a military device. In that sense we are all co-designers of what technology does with us. I think that this should be a central notion of social design: to be conscious as a designer of the nature of a product’s impact on people and society. That’s the idea of Open Design: to offer designs with an open script, which provides the opportunity to users to re-write the script, to remediate the mediation.

MB: This reminds me of the difference which is generally constructed between design and art: the first focuses on performing a function, the second on generating meaning. I like to merge the two in the sense that a design not only provides functional objects but also generates cultural meaning. Your work also stresses the fact that all design carries cultural and ethical scripts. It sensitizes designers to the fact they are also designing culture...

PPV: And it implies that designers should force themselves to be more explicit in their methodology about the implicit, hidden values they project onto future users of their products. These should become readable in the design, just as its function should be. Each product inevitably mediates how people perceive the world, how they behave – and each product inevitably adds bias to this perception. Designers who are ignorant of this fact, or disregard it, are operating in an immoral manner.
In line with your remark about art, you can say that living with technology is a kind of artwork. Dealing with all of these technological mediations around you is taking part in the process of establishing yourself as a subject interactively – of entering into a meaningful relationship with the world. It is a process in which ethics and aesthetics merge, as they do in the old Platonic trias of the True, the Beautiful and the Good.

MB: Your are advocating a new ‘material aesthetics,’ which I assume means something else than making things look good...

PPV: Yes, I am talking about designing ‘sensoriness.’ Aesthetics literally also means the science of sensoriness. I feel that in a lot of esthetical theory the materiality of things is underestimated. Things are seen as performers of a function or carriers of meaning and that’s it. Meanwhile when you design a thing, you also design the physical contact between that thing and its users. For fifteen years now, there is a growing discourse in the humanities about this ‘new materialism,’ which revalues this dimension we have gradually come to disregard. Interestingly, the humanities are discovering that we cannot understand the human being without taking nonhuman entities very seriously. We are losing our exclusively humanistic interpretation of the humanities, by increasingly recognizing the material dimension of culture, of ethics, of knowledge. Even in design thinking, for a long time the emphasis has been merely on functionality and meaning, not on materiality and bodily-sensorial interactions. This material dimension is not only present on an individual level, but also on the level of a product’s physical context, how it fits into the physical world, how it can be connected to it... The mediation approach can be helpful here, because it can enable designers to get in touch with the implicit impacts of this materiality. Counterintuitive as it may be, design is far more material than people often think.

MB: Material form and functional content have grown apart, especially in our electronic environment. The materiality of electronic objects, and the way it mediates meaning, has become less important it seems; I’m sure that someone confronted with an iPhone twenty-five years ago would have had no idea what it was...

PPV: You’re right, but at the same time the iPhone is a very sensory thing! The nature of the way it facilitates our contact with the world is very different from our dealings with the world twenty-five years ago. Also the literal physical contact with the object is rather different: the way we write and manipulate the interface addresses our fine motorics in a quirky way compared to the typewriters and books and dials we had before. I have no moral judgment about this, I just want to understand what’s going on. And I have a strong desire to nourish the ethical discussion about such changes and their impact on design and its mediations of technology with insights into the hybridization, the merging, of humans and technology.

MB: You have been criticized for being apolitical because of your focus on the individual, on how ‘human beings’ deal with technology, while it is the institutional level on which moral standards are being made or mediated – politics formulates the norms...

PPV: This criticism is probably connected to my phenomenological background: first look at the micro level, and from there rise to the macro level. But of course I am political! Politics and phenomenology need each other: “politics without phenomenology is blind, but phenomenology without politics is empty,” I once wrote in response to one of my critics. I have no problem with building a certain level of normativity into products which incorporate a higher level of social organization, such as smart thermostats which help you consume less energy. So I’m not shunning that level, but I do think I can best contribute to it from the expertise I have, which is the level of individual interactions. I want to stick to my trade. At the same time you should be wary of making Grand Designs for society, which is a nasty trait of both the phenomenological tradition and some political-philosophical traditions. Good intentions can result in quite horrifying totalitarian utopias, as my teacher Hans Achterhuis has demonstrated so convincingly. I believe in plurality, in the sense of products catering to a great variety of life styles while at the same time incorporating a number of collective values, which they may express adamantly. Values of sustainability, for instance, which I think most of us recognize as both urgent and conflicting with other values we hold dear. We all want to travel and do all kinds of things, and at the same time we realize that our climate is about to explode, so to speak. These kinds of contradictions can be addressed collectively by design, if our individual willpower is wavering.

MB: In his essay in this book, Victor Margolin states that it’s fine to provide people with the tools to do their part in bringing about ‘the good society,’ but if we do so without touching the rubrics of institutions like industry, economy and politics, we’re nowhere...

PPV: I can sympathize with that. The question is whether we are then still talking about design. In a democracy we want to address such things through public discourse. But it could be instructive to read policies in terms of design. Taking into account the mediation effects, as I call them, of policies in their design can be extremely beneficial. Providing space for people to relate to policies, for instance, seems to me a rather more intelligent way of designing them than to unilaterally drop them into society, which then engages in looking for ways to circumvent these policies. To redesign the systems themselves is a different beast. Things like the democratic system of representation, the electoral threshold, or even the demands we make on the products that enter the market... To design such institutional infrastructures could be a good thing theoretically, but will be very hard to implement in practice. We should think about that, for instance to not only judge a product on safety, but also on the way it impacts behavior. There are so many products that have a negative behavioral effect! I find the idea of ‘nudging’ a congenial answer to this, even if it’s a typically liberal noncommittal way of trying to influence people by giving them the option to comply or not. But some things are important enough to become law, and then of course you have to take into account the trias politica... How to translate that into designing the material world, to talk about a politics of materiality is an interesting challenge... As far as I am concerned, the political view behind the ‘nudge’ approach, which calls itself ‘libertarian paternalism,’ does not go far enough. The idea that we could have an opt-out regarding the impact of technology is a profound misunderstanding. We are in it, all the time. And that gives us the responsibility to design it in an accountable way. The focus should be on safeguarding a plurality of lifestyles, not on an individual autonomy we have actually never possessed in relation to technology.

This whole discussion, obviously, also depends on how you understand politics. Politics, to be sure, is about power and you can wield power through materiality. Producers of products have power, which in the case of the Googles and Microsofts and Apples of this world may be more than should be left to the market. At the same time, though, politics is also about exchanging views on living together, on public space, on acceptable social behavior. That’s the slightly softer, phenomenological side. But also this side – public space, public life – is fundamentally influenced by technology. Through camera surveillance, social media, and soon Google glass, a new public sphere has been created and still is being created, in which you can also see political power. People can gather in new ways and exert influence. That implies a new approach to political design – or the politics of design – which should be taken more seriously. The way we design the means for people to get together and share opinions definitely touches at the heart of democracy. You can say “voting once every few years should be enough,” but that is formal democracy. Substantial democracy requires that people have the means to form and exchange ideas, to embrace or oppose ideas of others, to express opinions, to debate... So, the fact that public space has changed so compellingly as a result of the digital revolution is an important challenge to designers.

MB: The power of the designer in the kind of environments we are talking about – the design of a new public space – may be disproportionally great. Technologically, you can do a lot more than is comfortable for the average user, which means that in products for the consumers’ market, much design effort goes into editing out features which surpass a central – and simplified – brief. The dashboard is a favorite example of mine: its design filters out 90% of the information the car’s system can throw at you. You don’t want an overload of information at 120 kilometers or more per hour. The dashboard provides you with the fraction of information you need and can handle at that speed. This editing of technological potential is a significant aspect of design, and a powerful capacity of the designer, because it determines which information reaches the user, and what they can do with it – what their action frame is, to borrow a term from Margolin. How can you teach designers to deal responsibly with that power?

PPV: Translated back to technological mediation, you’re talking about organizing the specifics of the relationship between user and product. And I think the best way to deal with this in a responsible way is to design this relation with an awareness of the way in which it mediates people’s experiences and practices, not only of its functionality and safety. Cars are a good example; more and more they can provide feedback to alert drivers to potentially dangerous situations. In practice people appear to accept this best when the feedback is embedded in a physical response, a slight jerk or heightened resistance of the steering wheel, for instance... Rather than being focused on keeping up our autonomy, we appear to prefer a smooth integration of the input of technology in our own experiences and practices. Therefore, the technology needs to be designed in such a way that we cannot only trust it in a cognitive sense, but that we can also rely on it in a very bodily and material way – we need to be able to entrust ourselves to it, as it were. The ‘intentions’ of the system need to be aligned with the intentions of users, and the interaction with the system needs to be such that it can form a responsible ‘hybrid’ in combination with its user. Actually, user is not a very good word in this context, because smart technologies like this are rather ‘immersive’: they use us as much as we use them.

MB: The question is whose morality (or fear) is built into the system? That of an experienced and responsible driver, that of a government that wants to enforce the law, or that of an insurance company that wants to minimize payments and risk of litigation?

PPV: In this context there are three levels of morality: ideally intended morality, actually implemented morality and the eventually resulting practical morality of the user. You can relate those to the three parties involved in moralizing design: policy-makers, designers and users... All three parties could benefit from a mediation approach, avoiding a merely instrumental approach which embodies the incorrect idea that humans are always in charge of the impacts of technologies, and also avoiding a deterministic approach in which they feel powerless in relation to technology. The implementation, design and use of technology should take place from an awareness of the fact that any technology creates relations between users and their environment, and helps to shape specific perceptions, interpretations, actions, practices. Approaching technology in terms of mediation makes clear that designing technology implies designing humanity.

MB: In your book Moralizing Technology, or the Dutch reworking of it as Op de vleugels van Icarus, you suggest that the ethical question should be asked at the very start of the design process...

PPV: Too often, design is still conceived as a kind of engineering with an aesthetic topping. The goal of that book was to persuade designers that what they do, whether they like it or not, is inherently and totally moral. It’s the continuation of ethics by other means, to paraphrase Von Clausewitz. Another, connected, aspect of ethics that I want to scrutinize in a new line of research is that of self-realization. How can design provide a ‘kick-off’ for technologies of the self? How can design play a role in subjectification, in ‘becoming-self,’ or in the user’s emancipation if you will? From this vantage point you don’t design functionality, you design a kind of relationship. Or a space that invites the user to enter into a relationship.

MB: You mean designing engagement, another central term in social design?

PPV: Yes, and that is political once more, albeit again on the micro level. I think engagement is essential, not only with the product itself, but via the product with the user’s environment. I think that many of the big ethical issues, or the political issues of today, are connected to a change in engagement, a widening gap between our daily experience and the real state of affairs in the world. You buy off your guilt over polluting the air with your intercontinental flight by paying for trees to compensate for the plane’s CO2 emission. That is a rather abstract kind of engagement. Not very corporeal. A more material way of providing clear feedback is the smart thermostat we mentioned before. It shows you how much energy you’re using, encourages you to use less and can partly take over if you’re sloppy. In short, it invites you to engage with your domestic energy usage as responsibly as you can.

MB: Or it disciplines you.

PPV: I want to principally look at this through Foucault’s vision on ethics, which shows that any normative framework, any ethics, presupposes a subject – someone who freely subjects to something bigger. Why else would you adjust your behavior?

MB: To belong?

PPV: The ethics of the old Greeks was much more about how to actively subjectivate yourself, so to speak, to subject yourself to a moral code. That’s why I suggest that when you design a system in such a way that it makes people want to be influenced, then you have a real ‘technology of the self,’ a technology that helps you to consciously engage with yourself as ethical being. I like to call it ‘ascetic design’ – not in the Dutch Calvinistic meaning, but in the way the Greeks meant it: taking responsibility for oneself. Not by denying all things pleasurable, but as self-technique, ‘making something out of yourself.’ Ascetic design could be design that assists people in becoming subject to the morality of technology, that stimulates this process of becoming self...

MB: For the cynic, this looks very much like the extremely effective way brands seduce consumers to buy their products as signs of self-realization – and subject to the morals of the market in the meantime...

PPV: (laughs) The realm of consumption and advertising in my view totally lacks engagement – it propagates disengaged consumption of goods that are readily available and ingrained in a preconceived life style, based on a-priori ethical standards and norms. Even if brands increasingly try to link themselves to ‘good causes’ and self-realization, this ‘engagement’ remains shallow because it ignores how ethics develop in interaction. Design should also be a kind of pain in the ass sometime, which stimulates you, makes you think. Design can also make things unfamiliar, that may be the key here.
It’s a dilemma all the same – the whole notion of technology is that it lifts at least part of the burden of engagement from our shoulders, that it takes over things, that we can leave things to it... In that respect it’s not so strange that the old philosophers of technology, like Jaspers, talked about its demonic side. Technology can be a seductive demon. That is why in my view this notion of ascesis is so important, because you can only fend off such demons by consciously engaging them.

MB: You seem to build your argument on a conscious human, who is above seduction and manipulation. You know such humans are very rare...

PPV: That is partly why I think that design should raise awareness of that. There are two ways: we can all agree in a democratically grounded manner that we should adjust our behavior, and then we can purposely engage with the mechanisms to engender that effect. That’s the persuasive side of design. The seductive side entails nudging people in the desired direction without them noticing. At the same time, we feel it’s necessary to raise awareness of people’s implicit, irrational motives, and make these explicit and put them as conscious choices before them. As questions, not as reprimands. Designs that correct your behavior often represent one life style, incorporate one normative point of departure. It may sound ascetic when your phone tells you that you should really use it less, but I would find it truly ascetic if you need to take a specific step before the thing even starts up. Something that addresses your own responsibility in using the technology. Maybe there are situations when this is too much to ask, and in which you help people more by gently nudging, steering them in a certain direction. As much as I prefer persuasion, we should not shy away from studying such repertoires of seduction, because they can play an enormously important role. We should not shy away from designing stronger ethical influences into products for fear of being regarded as paternalistic. We have been doing it already for a very long time in products that we find completely self-evident. I mean, if you lock your door you don’t say it’s paternalistic because it discourages the burglar from developing his own moral conscience and thwarts his autonomy of choice. We are often too hypocrite to acknowledge it: if you have no problem locking your door, you should not be afraid of paternalistic design.

max bruinsma