In What Things Do, Verbeek (What things do: philosophical reflections on technology, agency and design. Penn State University Press, University Park, 2005a) develops a vocabulary for understanding the social role of technological artifacts in our culture and in our daily lives. He understands this role in terms of the technological mediation of human behavior and perception. To explain mediation, he levels out the modernist separation of subjects and objects by decreasing the autonomy of humans and increasing the activity of things. His approach consists primarily within a clever integration of the theories of Latour and Ihde, which provides a comprehensive understanding of the social role of technological artifacts. Despite the fact that Verbeek’s book is carefully thought out and already quite influential in the field of philosophy of technology, his approach raises some conceptual and pragmatic questions. The conceptual questions concern (a) the precise meaning of the concept of mediation and the possibility of distinguishing between different forms of mediation, and (b) the differences and similarities between human and technological agency and intentionality. The pragmatic questions concern the application of his theory to the realm of engineering ethics. Particularly pressing is the question of how to assign (moral) responsibility to humans when technological artifacts are mediating the outcomes of human actions. With this article, I will raise these issues, and look forward to Verbeek’s reply.
- Technological agency