What impact does technology have on people – and on our culture? In what ways can a better understanding of this relationship contribute to sustainable development and to socially responsible innovation? In his inaugural lecture at Aalborg University, Peter-Paul Verbeek addressed the topic of ‘techno-anthropology’.
On the 7th and 8th of September, Prof. Verbeek, the Professor of Philosophy of Technology at the University of Twente, was inaugurated as an honorary professor (or visiting professor) at Aalborg University and at its Copenhagen campus. His inaugural lecture dealt with the topic of ‘techno-anthropology’, and how this can accommodate the political dimension of technology.
At Aalborg University, the chair of ‘Techno-Anthropology’ is part of a research group of the same name. That group, in turn, is linked to the university’s Master’s programme in Techno-Anthropology. This group’s teaching and research activities focus on the relationships between people and technology from an anthropological perspective, involving both cultural and philosophical anthropology. In his inaugural lecture, entitled ‘Our Technological Condition: Techno-Anthropology and the Politics of Technology’, Peter-Paul Verbeek first addressed the part played by technology in the history of philosophical anthropology. In numerous philosophical analyses of the human condition, scholars ranging from Ernst Kapp to André Leroi-Gourhan and from Helmuth Plessner to Bernard Stiegler, assign a fundamental role to technology. And technology itself can be considered as ‘the human condition’.
Technology: more than just a human activity
Yet, if people are truly technological beings at heart, what are the implications of this? According to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, people have to ask themselves three basic questions, ‘What can I know?’, ‘What should I do?’ and ‘What can I hope for?’. Prof. Verbeek maintains that these questions span the domains of science, ethics and religion – and that the answers always involve technology. “Scientists explore the world using instruments. Ethical frameworks develop in interaction with technology. Technological capabilities constantly push back the boundary between what we can produce and manage, and the events that impact our lives. Science, ethics and religion are more than just human activities, the work of people – they are also largely determined by technology.”
That technologically mediated nature of the human condition causes Peter-Paul Verbeek to set his sights on yet another factor – the political arena. “Do technologies also shape the political questions we ask ourselves? The political theory of technology does, indeed, acknowledge the fact that technologies can have political overtones. They can include and exclude people, and embody power relations. For instance, there is Google’s power over our information-gathering activities, and the associated filter bubbles and commercial interests. Ultimately, according to the current theory, the reins of power are still in human hands, with people exercising control through technology.”
Towards a political theory of technology
Prof. Verbeek sees things differently. He advocates an alternative political theory of technology, one that assigns technology a role at the very heart of political life. In his inaugural lecture, Peter-Paul Verbeek drew on the work of Dewey and Latour to show how technology can not only exercise power but how it can also organize forms of political engagement. According to Dewey, the political aspect arises as an ‘audience’ gradually crystallizes around a given ‘issue’ – people are brought together by a shared sense of involvement. Prof. Verbeek explained that “And this is exactly the situation in which you’ll see technology playing its mediating role, by gathering an audience and through engagement with political issues. One example would be the role of social media and the current debate about Fake News.”
Peter-Paul Verbeek is the Professor of Philosophy of Technology at the University of Twente. He is also co-director of the university’s DesignLab. He is a member of the scientific editorial board of the SATS. Northern European Journal of Philosophy and of Philosophy & Technology. Prof. Verbeek regularly gives talks on the social role of technology and on the relationships between people and technology. He also actively participates in public debates about science, technology and society.
Like the University of Twente, Denmark’s Aalborg University (which also has a campus in Copenhagen) is part of the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU). ECIU, founded in 1997, is a consortium of 12 young research intensive universities focused on collaboration in innovative teaching and learning, research and knowledge exchange, enhancement of university-society interaction, internationalization of student and staff experience, and active engagement in policy development in the European context. A common characteristic of all ECIU institutions is that they are a key player in the regional innovation system. They are based in regions where major industries have declined and have consequently made a significant contribution to the regeneration of their regions. For nearly 20 years, the ECIU universities have been gaining innovative force through the pooling of expertise, mutual learning and joint projects in the framework of the association. The operations of ECIU are organized along 2 major lines: Innovation in Teaching and Learning; Entrepreneurship and the Societal Impact of Research. In these domains the ECIU offers a vast programme of joint training and research as well as collaboration with the regions in which the member Universities are located. Victor van der Chijs is the current ECIU president.