Last minute abstracts

The Friend Gatherer

Do Social Networking Technologies Change Our Way of Making Friends?

Yoni Van Den Eede

Ph.D. fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO)

Department of Philosophy

Free University of Brussels (VUB)

Submitted to track 12: Technology, culture and globalisation


As technological advancement constantly presses us forward, consulting a faraway past can help us to get our bearings in the present. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provided a seminal account of friendship. Nowadays we might be in need of a reevaluation of this concept, as digital communities mediate our friendships and determine the manner in which we make friends. Social networking technologies – e.g., Facebook, MySpace, Netlog – bring about two sorts of convergence. First, they integrate all sorts of technologies formerly used separately – mail, IM, photo organizing, calendar software, video, database processing, etc. – in a straightforward graphical user interface, hence creating an all-round organizational social tool. Second, they combine technological concepts with a “non-technological” concept, i.e., friendship, in an unforeseen way.

Do these convergences alter the concept of friendship qualitatively, or “only” quantitatively? In search for an answer to this question, we zoom in on four apparent aspects of “friend networks,” while taking counsel from Aristotle as well as from some contemporary technology and media philosophers.

1. Calculation. Digital community utilities impose a certain structure – partly automatic, partly individually organized – on our network of contacts. Do these features enable a more calculating way of friend making than before? Yet Aristotle's definition of friendship already included “friends for profit” and “friends for pleasure.”

2. Visuality. Do online networks give rise to an intensification and isolation of friendships' visual facet? According to media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, we return to tribal conditions of instantaneity, tactility and involvement in the era of “electric technologies,” after an epoch of individuality, visuality and private detachment, once reinforced by phonetic writing and movable type printing. But although the stress on visuality has diminished, now the “iconic” grows in importance: exactly a characteristic social networking sites seem to exhibit. Still, Aristotle's outline of friendship contained an aspect of “veneration” too.

3. Community. More than ever, our friendship networks are “open” and “for everyone to see.” Digital communities seem to furnish each one-to-one friendship relation with a “communal” background: “the others” are always around. Are digital communities truly “communities”? Applying Amitai Etzioni's definition of the concept, we could very well claim that they fulfill nearly all conditions. Nevertheless, Aristotle already claimed that every friendship relation is inevitably embedded in a community (of interests).

4. Accumulation. Online networkers seem to display a tendency for “counting up”: once online, they always welcome, and even deliberately search for “more” “friends.” Again conferring with McLuhan, we consider if this attitude shows resemblances with what he calls 'man the factfinder'– the electric era equivalent of the hunter-food gatherer. Aristotle, too, looked into the problem, in asking how many friends of either type one should have. As so often, he proposed the right “middle” as the best solution. Yet this last aspect calls for an elaboration: are we thus “gathering,” “collecting” our friends online? Is the friend networker a friend gatherer? To further the question, we investigate Baudrillard's account of “collecting” in The System of Objects. His interpretation, although heavily psychoanalytically oriented, appears to converge with all four of the above points. The collector organizes his or her collection in a calculating manner; lays an important stress on visuality in the displaying and enjoying of the collected objects; needs a communal backdrop of “others” to endorse, appreciate or “complete” his or her collection; and finally feels a ceaseless longing to accumulate. Still, does this convergence constitute a qualitative difference between “classic” and “digital” friendship? Expanding further on Baudrillard's concepts of “model” and “series,” we discover that the “gathered friend” is of necessity an “objectified friend.” As collected object, indeed, the digital friend differs paradigmatically from the “classic” one.

This, however, doesn't imply that “classic” friendship is bound to perish. Yet we consider, in conclusion, if the “classic,” aristotelian concept of friendship isn't, in the long run, in contradiction with the technological premises of the Internet: as Aristotle emphasized the importance of nearness and “time spent together,” can “classic” friendship survive in an environment of instant communication without spatial boundaries – i.e., is it ever able to converge with organisational technology?

A postphenomenological take on sustainable technology: from technical fixes to participatory socio-technical innovations

Gert Goeminne

Postdoctoral Fellow of the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO)

Center Leo Apostel - Free University of Brussels

Center for Sustainable Development - Ghent University

Erik Paredis

Center for Sustainable Development - Ghent University

Flemish Policy Research Centre for Sustainable Development

Starting from the question “What is sustainable technology?” this paper puts forward a postphenomenological perspective in discussing sustainability, technology and their interrelations. Adopting the postphenomenological account of the co-constitution of subject and object (Ihde) and the related conception of knowledge production and technological innovation as necessarily situated and engaged activities, we aim to create the conceptual space where simplistic demarcations between science and policy, facts and values, technical and social can be critically assessed and challenged.

Focusing on the entanglement and the way the sedimentations of co-constitution crystallize out, a postphenomenological account of knowledge production and technological innovation brings into scope the rich and lively complexities of the socio-material practices at the heart of these two activities rather than a paralyzing representation in terms of represented humans and non-humans (things or knowledge). Realizing the complex ways in which our in-between socio-material practices shape the world reveals the many potential configurations it may take, dependent on the choices we make and the practices to which these choices give rise.

Rather than delegating responsibility either to the techno-scientific (objectivity) pole of rational decision-making or to the social (subjectivity) pole of value-based lifestyle changes, we now realize that sustainability is about human choice, and thus about the different socio-technical practices and behaviours such choices embody. We propose to think of socio-technical innovations as a concrete lead towards a hybrid sciencepolicy framework, engaging both expert and lay people, in which sustainable technologies can be realized in their socio-material complexity.