Technology and Perception: That By Which We See Remains Unseen

“Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”
— C. S. Lewis

I wrote recently about the manner in which ubiquitous realities tend to fade from view. They are, paradoxically, too pervasive to be noticed. And I suggested (although, of course, this was nothing like an original observation) that it is these very realities, hiding in front of our noses as the cliché has it, which most profoundly shape our experience. I made note of this phenomenon in order to say that very often these ever-present, unnoticed realities are technological realities.

I want to return to these thoughts and, with a little help from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, unpack at least one of the ways in which certain technologies fade from view while simultaneously shaping our perception. In doing so I’ll also draw on a helpful article by Philip Brey, “Technology and Embodiment in Ihde and Merleau-Ponty.”

The purpose of Brey’s article is to supplement and shore up certain categories developed by the philosopher of technology, Don Ihde. To do so, Brey traces certain illustrations used by Ihde back to their source in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.

Ihde sought to create a taxonomy that categorized a limited set of ways humans interacted with technology, and among his categories was one he termed “embodiment relations.” Ihde defined embodiment relations as those in which a technology mediates an individual’s perception of the world and gives a series of examples including glasses, telescopes, hearing aids, and a blind man’s cane. An interesting feature of each of these technologies is that they “withdraw” from view when their use becomes habitual. Ihde lists other examples, however, which Brey finds problematic as exemplars of the category. These include the hammer and a feathered hat.

(The example of the feather hat is drawn from Merleau-Ponty. As a lady wearing a feathered hat makes her way about, she interacts with her surroundings in light of this feature that amounts to an extension of her body.)

In both cases, Brey believes the example is less about perception (although it can be involved) and more about action. Consequently, Brey offers some further distinctions to better get at the kinds of relations Ihde was attempting to classify. He begins by dividing embodiment relations into relations that mediate perception and those that mediate motor skills.

Brey goes on to make further distinctions among the kinds of embodiment relations that mediate motor skills. Some of these involve navigational skills and tend to be of the sort that “enlarge” one’s body. The feathered hat fits into this category as do other items such as a worn backpack that require the user to incorporate the object into one’s body schema in such a way that we pre-consciously navigate as if the object were a part of our body. Then there are embodiment relations which mediate motor skills in interaction with the environment. The hammer fits into this category. These objects become part of our body schema in order to extend our action in the world.

These clarifications and distinctions are helpful, and Brey is right to distinguish between embodiment relations geared toward perception and those geared toward action. But he is also right to point out that even those tools that are geared toward action involve perception to some degree. While a hammer is used primarily to mediate action, it also mediates perception. For example, a hammer strike reveals something about the surface struck.

Yet Brey believes that in this class of embodiment relations the perceptual function is “subordinate” to the motor function. This is probably a sound conclusion, but it does not seem to take into account a more subtle way in which perception comes into play. Elsewhere, I’ve written about the manner in which technology in-hand affects our perception of the world not only by offering sensory feedback, but also by shaping our interpretive acts of perception, our seeing-as. I won’t rehash that argument here; instead I want to focus on the withdrawing character of technologies through which we perceive.

The sorts of tools that mediate perception ordinarily do so while they themselves recede from view. Summarizing Ihde’s discussion of embodiment relations, Brey offers the following description of the phenomenon:

“In embodiment relations, the embodied technology does not, or hardly, become itself an object of perception. Rather, it ‘withdraws’ and serves as a (partially) transparent means through which one perceives one’s environment, thus engendering a partial symbiosis of oneself and it.”

Consider the eye as a paradigmatic example. We see all things through it, but we never see it (unless, of course, in a mirror). This is a function of what Michael Polanyi has called the “from-to” character of perception. Our intentionality is directed from our body outward to the world. “The bodily processes hide,” Mark Johnson explains, “in order to make possible our fluid, automatic experiencing of the world.”

The technologies that we take into an embodied relation do not ordinarily achieve quite so complete a withdrawal, but they do ordinarily fade from our awareness as objects in themselves. Contact lenses, for example, or the blind man’s cane. In fact, almost any tool of which we become expert users tends to withdraw as an object in its own right in order to facilitate our perception or our action.

In short essay titled “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C. S. Lewis offeres an excellent illustration of this dynamic. Granted, he was offering an illustration of different phenomenon, but I think it fits here as well. Lewis described entering into a dark toolshed and seeing before him a shaft of light coming in through a crack above the door. At that moment Lewis “was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.” But then he stepped into the beam:

“Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”

Notice his emphasis on the manner in which the beam itself disappears from view when one sees through it. That through which we perceive ceases to be an object that we perceive. Returning to where we began then, we might say that one manner in which a technology becomes too pervasive too be noticed is by becoming that by which we perceive the world or some aspect of it.

It is easiest to recognize the dynamic at work in objects that are specifically designed to enhance our physical senses — eyeglasses, for example. But the principle may be expanded further (even if the mechanics shift) to include other less obvious ways we perceive through technology. The whole of Marshall McLuhan’s work, in fact, could be seen as an attempt to understand how all technology is media technology that alters perception. In other words, all technology mediates reality in some fashion, but the mediating function withdraws from view because it is that through which we perceive the content. It is the beam of light into which we step to perceive some other thing and, as with the beam, it remains unseen even while it enables and shapes our seeing.

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