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.

Presence Emerges: Bodies in Conversation

Sunday before last I opened up my Twitter feed to find Sherry Turkle getting pummeled for her opinion piece in the Sunday NY Times, “The Flight From Conversation.” Rarely has my feed spoken with such strident uniformity; Turkle had clearly struck a nerve. With other more pressing commitments demanding my attention, however, I bookmarked the essay and several of the responses that came in over the next few days. A little over a week later, the storm having mostly blown over, I want to throw in my belated two cents.

Critics noted that Turkle presented a false dichotomy. Conversations can still happen even in a world that includes social media and text messaging. This is true in principle, of course. And, in principle, I suspect Turkle would agree. But I’m not sure this is really the best way of approaching these sorts of concerns.

Perhaps it would be better to reframe the issue in terms of presence. Granting that, in the abstract, the use of electronic forms of communication does not necessarily preclude the possibility of conversation, and granting, of course, that not every conversation is nor ought to be of the deep and absorbing variety, it seems worthwhile to explore how actual instances of face-to-face conversation might be affected by the kinds of technology Turkle has in view.

And to narrow our focus even further, I’ll focus on the cellular phone. It is after all the cellular phone that materializes electronic communication across the whole field of our experience, and it is the materiality of the cellular phone that presents itself in the context of face-to-face conversation.

It seemed to me that Turkle’s concerns were strongest when they dealt with the manner in which technology impinges on face-to-face communication. And on this point many of her critics agreed with her concerns even while they disagreed with the manner in which they were packaged. This is also the aspect of Turkle’s work that seems to resonate most widely. After all, much to her critics bemusement, the threaded comments seemed mostly to validate Turkle’s point-of-view.

It is easy to see why. Most of us have been annoyed by someone who was unable to give another human being their undivided attention for more than seconds at a time. And perhaps more significantly, most of us have felt the pull to do same. We have struggled to keep our attention focused on the person talking to us as we know we ought to, and we know we ought to because some shred of our humanity remains intact and we know very well that the person in front of us is more significant than the text that just made our phone vibrate in our pocket. We have been on both ends of the kind of distractedness that the mere presence of a smartphone can occasion, and we are alive enough to be troubled by it. We begin to feel the force of Simone Weil’s judgment: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

And so Turkle’s piece, and others like it, resonate despite the theoretical shortcomings that make certain scholars cringe. After all, what difference does it make that some study showed that a statistically significant portion of the population reports feeling less lonely when using social media if I can’t get the person standing two feet away from me to treat me with the barest level of decency.

The question remains, however, “Are smartphones at fault?” This is always the question. Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us lonely? Are smartphones ruining face-to-face conversation? Put that way, I might say, “No, not exactly.” That’s usually not the best way of stating the question. Rather than begin with a loaded question, perhaps it’s better simply to seek clarity and understanding. What is happening when cellular phones become part of an environment that also consists of two people engaged in conversation?

Out of the many possible approaches to this question, it is the path offered by Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “intentional arc” that I want to take. Merleau-Ponty writes:

“The life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life – is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past, our future, [and] our human setting ….”

Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher whose work has built on Merleau-Ponty’s, adds this explanatory note:

“It is crucial that the agent does not merely receive input passively and then process it. Rather, the agent is already set to respond to the solicitations of things. The agent sees things from some perspective and sees them as affording certain actions. What the affordances are depends on past experience with that sort of thing in that sort of situation.”

Here’s what all of this amounts to. The “intentional arc” describes the manner in which our experience and perception is shaped by what we intend. Intending here means something more than what we mean when we say “I intended to get up early” or “I intend to go to the store later.” Intention in this sense refers to a mostly non-conscious work of perceiving the world and how that perceiving is shaped by what we are doing or aim to do. Our perception, in other words, is always already interpreting reality rather than simply registering it as a pure fact.

This work of perception-as-interpretation builds up over time as an assortment of “I cans” carried or remembered by our bodies. This assortment becomes part of the background, or pre-understanding, that we bring to bear on new situations. And this is how our intentional arc “projects round about us our past, our future.”

What is particularly interesting for our purposes is how the insertion of a tool into our experience reconfigures the “intentional arc” that is supporting our experience. The phenomenon is neatly captured by the expression, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” This line suggests that how we perceive our environment is shaped by the mere presence of a tool in hand. (Notice, by the way, how this “effect” is registered even before the tool is used.)

Merleau-Ponty might analyze the situation as follows: The feel of a hammer in hand, especially given prior use of a hammer, transforms how the environment presents itself to us. Aspects of the environment that would not have presented themselves as things-to-be-struck now do. Our interpretive perception interprets differently. Our seeing-as is altered. New possibilities suggest themselves. The affordances presented to us by our environment are re-ordered.

Try this at home, go pick up a hammer, or for that matter any object you can hold in hand that is weighted on one end. See what you feel. Hold it and look around you and pay really close attention to the way your perceive these objects. Actually, on second thought, don’t try this at home.

Another example, perhaps more readily apprehended (and less fraught with potential danger) is offered by the camera. With camera in hand our environment presents itself differently to us. I would go so far as to suggest that we see differently when we see with camera in hand. The concrete objectivity of the world has not changed, but the manner in which our perception interprets the world has; and this change was effected by the presence of a tool in hand (even prior to its use).

In this sense, the tool does have a certain causal force, it causes the environment to present itself differently to the user. It may not cause action, but it invites it. It causes the environment to hail the user in a new way.

Returning to the situation with which we began, we can ask again how the presence of a smartphone reconfigures face-to-face conversation. How does it alter the intentional arc that suspends the act of conversation? I first began thinking through this question by focusing on the phone itself, but this approach foreclosed itself; it wasn’t proving to be very helpful to me. But then I thought about the act of conversation itself and the question of presence. What would it mean to be fully present to one another and what difference would this make for the act of conversing?

I realized then that the really interesting dynamic involved what two people offered to one another in the act of conversing face-to-face. Presence was not a uni-directional phenomenon involving the intentionality of each partner individually. Presence was not something one person achieved. Rather presence emerged from the manner in which the act of conversation coupled the intentionality of each individual. To borrow Merleau-Ponty’s lingo (and give it my own somewhat sappy twist), two intentional arcs come together to form a circle of presence.

Merleau-Ponty spoke of our body’s natural tendency to seek an “optimal grip” on our environment. In face-to-face conversation, our bodies seek an optimal grip as well. While our conscious attention is focused on words and their meaning, our fuller perceptive capabilities are engaged in reading the whole environment. In conversation, then, each person becomes a part of a field of communication that includes, but is not limited to verbal expression. To put it another way, our intentional arc includes acts of interpretative perception of the other’s body as well as their words.

When we perceive eyes and hands, facial gestures and posture we perceive these not merely as eyes or hands but as eyes that signify, hands that mean, etc. We are attuned to much more than the words a person offers to us. Conversation involves the whole body in an act of holistic communication. And we perceive much of that communication at a non-conscious level; perceiving these dynamics becomes a part of our pre-understanding applied to the act of conversation.

But this dynamic that enriches and shapes face-to-face communication depends on each person offering themselves up to be read in certain ways. Our attention intends the other’s body as a nexus of communication, but when the other’s body is not engaged in the act of conversation, dissonance results and presence is broken.

Back to the smartphone. When the smartphone enters into the dynamic it disrupts the body’s communicative patterns. Gestures, eye contact, posture, facial expression — all of it is altered. It no longer means in the way our body is used to perceiving meaning. Perception finds it impossible to achieve an optimal grip on the embodied interaction. And because our bodies give and receive this sort of communication tacitly and often in remarkably subtle ways, we may not be conscious of this dissonance in the act of conversation. We may only register a certain feeling of being out of sync, a certain feeling that something is off. Presence fails to emerge and conversation, of the sort that Turkle champions, indeed, of the sort we all acknowledge as one of the great consolations offered to us in this world — that kind of conversation becomes more difficult to achieve. Given the bodily dimensions of face-to-face conversation, I’m not sure it could be otherwise.

It is not that “social media” in some abstract generic form or the practice of texting in general that threatens conversation. It is the concrete materiality of the device entering into the intentional arcs of our perceiving and meaning-ful bodies engaged in face-to-face communication that is troublesome.

Body and Soul

From Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals. Speaking of Aristotle’s many commentators:

“They have underestimated the importance of the fact that our bodies are animal bodies with the identity and continuities of animal bodies. Other commentators have understood this. And it was his reading not only of Aristotle, but also of Ibn Rushd’s commentary that led Aquinas to assert: ‘Since the soul is part of the body of a human being, the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I” (Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians XV, 1, 11; note also that Aquinas, unlike most moderns, often refers to nonhuman animas as ‘other animals’). This is a lesson that those of us who identify ourselves as contemporary Aristotelians may need to relearn, perhaps from those phenomenological investigations that enabled Merleau-Ponty also to conclude that I am my body.”

This passage struck me for two reasons. The first is the host of assumptions that are challenged by that one line from Aquinas. That line alone troubles all sorts of commonly held misconceptions regarding the theological anthropology of the medieval Christian tradition. Misconceptions held both by those inside and outside of the tradition.

The second, of course, is MacIntyre’s recommendation of Merleau-Ponty and his investigations of the body’s role in structuring experience. Seconded.

Creatures of Technological Habit

Sometimes the most obvious realities are those that slip just below our awareness of things, blending into the background of lived experience, surreptitiously shaping and forming our assumptions, intentions, and actions. These realities are in a sense too big to notice, or better, too pervasive to notice. Their very ordinariness renders them ordinarily invisible.

When we think and talk about technology, particularly digital technologies or the Internet, we tend not to think very much about our bodies. In fact, digital technologies have inspired dreams (or, nightmares) of disembodied existence and uploaded consciousness. Even if we are not quite entertaining the possibility of digital immortality, we do tend to talk about digital technology in language that obscures the body’s presence. The Cloud, the Information Age, virtual reality — each of these terms, and others beside, suggest something ethereal and abstract. In any case, they certainly do not invite us to notice the role our bodies may play in the digital order of things.

The scholars associated with the website Cyborgology have coined the phrase digital dualism to describe the tendency to abstract the virtual world of bits and data from the “real” world of atoms and stuff when we talk and think about the Internet. I’m sympathetic to their critique of digital dualism. There are different kinds of realities at play, each with their own distinguishing characteristics, but one is not less real than the other and each affects the other in very real ways. Simply put, there is only one reality with digital and material dimensions always informing one another.

But dualisms can be hard to overcome. We like to think in oppositional pairs or binaries. Interestingly, like many of our habits of thought, this may in part be linked to our experience of moving about as bodies in physical space. The world presents itself to us as either here or there, near or far, up or down. As we move about, we are faced with a choice between left and right, backward and forward. And so it may be that digital dualism is built upon a much earlier and more venerable dualism — the old fashioned mind/body variety usually associated with Descartes.

But, consider the following for a moment:

When we update our status on Facebook, we are doing something with our body.

When we send out a tweet, we are doing something with our body.

When we take a picture with our phones, we are doing something with our body.

When we enter and send a text, we are doing something with our body.

When we search the Internet, we are doing something with our body.

And on and on it goes. Our bodies are the one intractable fact that we cannot escape. The body is the ground of being. And I say this while not adhering to philosophical materialism. We may be more than our bodies, but we are certainly not less than our bodies. But we really need not get caught up in metaphysical debates here. What I’m talking about is tangible, not unlike Samuel Johnson’s stone.

Dancers, athletes, craftsmen, and members of liturgical religious communities have an intuitive grasp of the body’s often unnoticed but pervasive influence on the conduct of our everyday lives. Let me illustrate with a personal anecdote or two from the realm of athletics.

A few days ago, when I was getting ready to go running I asked my wife to toss me a shoe that was just out of reach. She did, and without thinking about it, as the shoe was coming toward me, I “trapped” it with my foot using the same gesture I would’ve used to trap a soccer ball. Now it has been a very long time since I’ve played soccer, but that gesture materialized without any conscious thought on my part. It was instinctively activated from a repertoire of possible techniques that my body knew and deployed without my conscious reflection. It became a part of this repertoire by being repeated until it became habitual.

When I played baseball I was a catcher. To this day, some years since I’ve actually caught a game, if I crouch I can feel all sorts of latent bodily “I-cans” coiling up. I can feel the movements of the arm and wrist used to receive a pitch. I can feel exactly what to do if a ball comes in the dirt or if runner breaks for second. These movements are inscribed in me as a form of bodily, non-theoretical know-how. I am told that the experience of professional dancers is similar as is that of craftsmen who have honed an intuitive feel for their work in whatever their medium of specialization. The craftsmen is an especially apt example for our purposes for the way in which tools are implicated in the craftsman’s bodily skill. Finally, consider also the religious believer shaped by a liturgy. For example, the Catholic who crosses themselves reflexively at appropriate moments.

All of this reflects what Henri Bergson called “habit memory.” The temptation may be to minimize this form of memory when compared to our explicit memory of people, events, images, etc. But, returning to my example above, I remember less and less of my soccer games in that sense, while I will never forget how to trap a soccer ball (even if my ability to actually do so wanes significantly over time).

Our ordinary experience in the world is constantly mediated by this kind of embodied, not quite conscious “know-how.” The preeminent philosopher of the body, Merleau-Ponty, called it coping. Hubert Dreyfus, building on Merleau-Ponty, has called it “intelligence without representation.” It is the way in which we are constantly and non-consciously fine-tuning our movements and actions so as to find the best “grip” on reality as we experience it.

Charles Taylor offers this illustration of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of coping, or how we make our way about the world:

“Living with things involves a certain kind of understanding, which we might also call ‘pre-understanding.’ That is, things figure for us in their meaning or relevance for our purposes, desires, activities. As I navigate my way along the path up the hill, my mind totally absorbed anticipating the difficult conversation I’m going to have at my destination, I treat the different features of the terrain as obstacles, supports, openings, invitations to tread more warily or run freely, and so on. Even when I’m not thinking of them, these things have those relevances for me; I know my way about among them.”

The best way to become aware of this dimension of our experience is to think about the moments when it breaks down. My favorite example of this is the Empty Milk Jug Effect. When you pick up an empty milk jug that you think is full, you’re caught off guard; you experience a palpable rupture between non-conscious, embodied judgments and the feedback flowing back through the embodied instantiation of those judgments. The point is that without consciously thinking about it, your body had adjusted itself to find “optimal grip” based on habit memory and when those adjustments proved inadequate you get that sudden sensation of applying way too much force. But what we need to consider is how infrequently this happens. Most of the time our bodies, the world, and our non-conscious thought processes are more or less in sync.

One more example to bring it closer to the realm of digital technology. Since I’ve become habituated to the use of my MacBook, I have an odd experience every once and awhile. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m willing to bet it’s not. When opening a new window or tab I often begin scrolling with my fingers on the track pad simultaneously with the loading of the page. There are times, however, when there is a slight delay in the opening of the page and I experience a momentary visual disorientation as my eyes move to track with a page that isn’t moving as it should given my habit memory associated with my fingers scrolling on the track pad.

Now at one level this may seem insignificant, but it functions like the tip of an iceberg. It’s a momentary awareness of an immense but ordinarily veiled reality that structures the whole of our experience. (I could be talked down from the scope of that last statement, but I’ll let it stand for now.)

Taylor added that “our grasp of things is not something that is in us, over against the world; it lies in the way we are in contact with the world.” And this brings us to the point: we are in contact with the world through our tools. Our tools, our bodies, our brains, and the world form a circuit of pre-understanding, perception, thinking, and action. A large portion of this circuit is composed of non-conscious habit-memory, and some of that habit-memory is formed through our technologically mediated engagement with the world. The way we use our tools can form habits that sink below the level of consciousness and thereby become part of the pre-understanging through which we navigate experience. And this happens because we use our technologies with our bodies and repeated bodily actions turn into our habit-memory.

We casually (with a nervous laughter) speak of being addicted to the Internet or to Facebook or of panicking when we forget our cell phones. We feel a certain compulsion, but we tend to psychologize this compulsion, that is we render it a mental or emotion disposition. And so it may be, in part. But the compulsions of technology may be less in the mind than in the body. Or better yet, they are anchored in the mind through the body.

Moreover, because our technologies enter into the circuit comprising our engagement with the world, they change the nature of our experience. As we navigate the world, our pre-understanding does not merely recognize objects in themselves within our field of experience. Rather, we perceive objects as they are for-us and how they figure in whatever activity we are engaged in. Our tools then shape how things and experiences appear to be for-us. Having hammer in hand changes how things present themselves; it opens up new possibilities for action that were not present before. For the person with a smartphone, their grasp of things lies in all of the ways the smartphone enables contact with the world. Repeated, embodied activation of these possibilities form habit memories that are then sedimented into the pre-understandings we bring to bear upon experience.

We have formed countless habit memories with our digital technologies, especially as they have become increasingly portable and handheld. We instinctively relate to the world through the capacities and capabilities that we have learned through the embodied use of our tools.


Two related posts:

Technology, Habit, and Being in the World 

Technology Use and the Body