Technology: Instrumental, Determining, or Mediating?

by Fabio Tollon

DALL·E generated image with the prompt "Impressionist oil painting disruptive technology"
DALL·E generated image with the prompt “Impressionist oil painting disruptive technology”

We take words quite seriously. We also take actions quite seriously. We don’t take things as seriously, but this is changing.

We live in a society where the value of a ‘thing’ is often linked to, or determined by, what it can do or what it can be used for. Underlying this is an assumption about the value of “things”: their only value consists in the things they can do. Call this instrumentalism. Instrumentalism, about technology more generally, is an especially intuitive idea. Technological artifacts (‘things’) have no agency of their own, would not exist without humans, and therefore are simply tools that are there to be used by us. Their value lies in how we decide to use them, which opens up the possibility of radical improvement to our lives. Technology is a neutral means with which we can achieve human goals, whether these be good or evil.

In contrast to this instrumentalist view there is another view on technology, which claims that technology is not neutral at all, but that it instead has a controlling or alienating influence on society. Call this view technological determinism. Such determinism regarding technology is often justified by, well, looking around. The determinist thinks that technological systems take us further away from an ‘authentic’ reality, or that those with power develop and deploy technologies in ways that increase their ability to control others.

So, the instrumentalist view sees some promise in technology, and the determinist not so much. However, there is in fact a third way to think about this issue: mediation theory. Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek, drawing on the postphenomenological work of Don Ihde, has proposed a “thingy turn” in our thinking about the philosophy of technology. This we can call the mediation account of technology. This takes us away from both technological determinism and instrumentalism. Here’s how.

Mediation theory focuses on the ways that technologies shape our experience of the world. For example, think of a simple technology such as contact lenses. Someone who wears contact lenses experiences the world completely differently when they are wearing the lenses compared to when they are not. This is not to make the almost trivial point that their visual perception is changed in some way. Rather, the deeper point is that the way they can possibly go about their lives with contact lenses is substantially different from when they do not have them. The way they are in the world is different: without the contacts they might not be able to drive, to read properly, to play the piano, etc.

Moreover, mediation theory stresses the importance of relations. Now, when we normally think of relations, we think of them as being between different things, for example between a subject and an object. On this understanding, we might think that mediation theory suggests that artifacts, or technologies, are intermediaries between subjects (ourselves) and the world. This would be wrong. The thesis is more radical than that. What mediation theory actually proposes is that we are not interested in relations between entities, but rather that subjectivity and objectivity themselves are co-shaped by artifacts.

To go back to the example of contact lenses: it is not so much that the artifact (the lens) changes the relation between the user and the world. Rather, it is that the user is themselves changed by the contact lens. It provides a different sort of access to reality.

This takes us away from seeing technology in instrumental terms: no longer is the value of a contact lens linked to what it can be used for, but instead mediation theory highlights the ways different contexts and different users would be changed or influenced by its use. That is, we as users of technology are brought into the equation.

Similarly we are taken away from determinism about technology. While the instrumentalist viewed technology as neutral, for the determinist technology was not so, and it in fact had a controlling influence on society. However, with mediation theory we can see that technology is not autonomous: it cannot be spoken about independently of the culture and individuals on which it operates. Thus, to say it has a controlling or alienating influence cannot be a claim we make about technology as such but perhaps something we might be

Mediation theory therefore provides us with a theoretically rich ‘third way’ when thinking through the disruptive effects of technology. By recognizing the ways that technologies can come to affect  and change our values, beliefs, and practices, mediation theory is well-placed to trace the transformative potential of different technologies.