technology will help to shape human
actions and experiences, and will
therefore have an impact that can be
understood in ethical terms. Designers
materialize morality [ 16]. Therefore,
along with functionality, interaction,
and aesthetics, mediation deserves
a central place in the conceptual
framework that implicitly and explicitly
guides design activities.
THE ETHICS OF DESIGN
How, then, can designers take
mediation into account in their design
work? First, designers can try to
anticipate mediations when designing a
product. Imagination can be a powerful
tool for that, and the mediation
framework described here can help
guide one’s imagination through various
dimensions of the relations between
humans and products.
A more invasive approach is to design
mediations explicitly into products.
Rather than preventing unintended and
unanticipated mediations, the ambition
is then to design products that explicitly
have an impact on people’s experiences
and practices—like the speed bumps
and double-sided printers mentioned
above. The “nudge” approach defended
by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
[ 17] has a similar ambition: gently
influencing people’s behavior in a
Explicitly influencing people via
design is a contested thing to do,
though. It puts something at stake that
has become one of the most sacred
things in contemporary Western
culture: human autonomy. For that
reason, for instance, Thaler and
Sunstein explicitly call their approach
a form of “libertarian paternalism.”
It is inevitably paternalistic, in the
sense that it exerts influence on human
beings, but at the same time it explicitly
aims to be libertarian, in the sense that
it always gives people the possibility to
opt out. Nudges should never be given
invisibly or without the possibility of
From the perspective of mediation
theory, though, this focus on
autonomy is not very helpful. Without
giving up on human freedom, to the
contrary, mediation theory shows
that technologies always mediate
human practices and experiences.
Rather than seeking to eliminate these
unavoidable impacts of technologies,
we should make the best of them. And
rather than seeking for autonomy
against the powers of technology, we
should seek to develop responsible
forms of mediation. Users, designers,
and policymakers should be enabled
to read, design, and implement
technological mediations, in order
to be able deal in a critical, creative,
and productive way with powers that
remain hidden otherwise [ 18]. Human
freedom cannot be saved by shying
away from technological mediations,
but only by developing free relations
to them, dealing in a responsible way
with the inevitable mediating roles of
technologies in our lives.
At the intersection between interaction
design and philosophy of technology,
a lot of interesting work is to be done.
Philosophy of technology can offer
conceptualizations of the relations
between humans and technologies that
deepen our understanding of what
interaction can mean in interaction
design. At the same time, the field
of interaction design is a rich source
of inspiration for philosophy of
technology, as the place where new
types of human-technology relations
emerge, and where designer intent
and use practices meet. The concept
of mediation can be the bridge
between the fields: Rather than
seeing technologies as functional, we
need to understand how they play a
mediating role in human practices
and experiences. Technologies-in-use
help shape relations between users and
their environment. Mediation theory
can help us analyze the various shapes
these relations can take, the points
of application between a technology
and its user, and the specific types
of mediation at play. Designing
interactions is designing relations
between human beings and the world,
and, ultimately, designing the character
of the way in which we live our lives.
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Peter-Paul Verbeek is professor of
philosophy of technology at the University of
Twente, The Netherlands. His research focuses
on human-technology relations and the
philosophy of design. His publications include
Moralizing Technology: Understanding and
Designing the Morality of Things and What Things
Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology,
Agency, and Design.
→ p. email@example.com
DOI: 10.1145/2751314 COPYRIGHT HELD BY AUTHOR. PUBLICATION RIGH TS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00