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Philosophy of Technology Roundtable: Doors of Mediation

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“The examined life is not worth living,” Socrates declared. Today, philosophers are finding that to examine life, we must also examine how technology is changing the way we live.

With an array of new gadgets at our disposal, digital tech has become part of nearly everything we do – from gaming to shopping to videoconferencing at work. In the IP-enabled domains we now increasingly inhabit, Socrates’s famous dictum must be paired with Apple’s equally famous catchphrase: “there’s an app for that.”

When considering how interactive, immersive, and virtual technology is redefining what it means to be human, philosophers of technology use the term technological mediation. But what does this term imply, exactly? And why is it important?

Dr. Frank Scalambrino, a distinguished philosophy professor and author, and Dr. Jason M. Pittman, a cybersecurity professor who is co-leading the Brain-Machine Interface program at Capitol Technology University, share their respective takes on the topic.

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Frank Scalambrino: In general, “mediation” is a kind of relation. That means, when we relate to something, someone, some activity or its outcome through some “medium,” then we can say that the relation is “mediated.” On the one hand, this is very simple and easy to understand. If you use a shovel to shovel snow, then the shovel is mediating your relation to the snow. On the other hand, mediation can be trivialized. Though there are two quite popular ways to trivialize “technological mediation,” they both may be described as stemming from a kind of absurd reduction.

The first trivialization suggests that it is impossible to relate to anything without some form of mediation. This is a kind of trivialization because even if it is true, which in some way it of course is, it does not eliminate the issues revolving around the types of mediation – specifically technological ones – being used in the world. It would be like saying that there’s nothing wrong with humans consuming anti-freeze, since humans have to consume something. And, that, of course, is an absurd suggestion.

The second trivialization suggests that to question the use of technology to mediate the experiences of our daily lives is to suggest that we should return some primitive form of existence, for example, returning to “back-breaking field work” without even employing a horse. However, were it true that criticizing technological mediation is tantamount to desiring some primitive form of existence, then we would have never invented a more ergonomic version of the snow shovel, since every critical interrogation of the original snow shovel would merely have been a veiled attempt to get us to “use our hands instead.” We, of course, want to avoid both of these trivializations.

As an alternative, I would suggest there is value in awareness. Just as it is beneficial to be aware of the effects of certain behaviors – smoking, for example – there is value in becoming aware of the social and psychological effects of technological mediation. When a manufacturer markets a product for children, there are criteria they need to meet before the product can be marketed. By contrast, products such as “social media” aren’t required to meet certain criteria, nor do they come with warning labels. In some cases, the effects can be insidious or difficult to see.

One effect of the technological mediation of life is the apparent loss of privacy. On the one hand, we may be complicit in this loss insofar as we have become our own paparazzi. However, on the other hand, it is also clearly the case that incentives exist, financial among others, to appropriate our personal information.

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Jason Pittman: Dr. Scalambrino has introduced the notion of “technological mediation.” In relation to computer science, it’s interesting to consider mediation as it relates to the underlying computing paradigms. My thinking has led me to view computing in terms of two paradigms: traditional and modern.

In traditional computing, the goal has been to process alphanumeric data. That is, we consume alphanumeric input in algorithmic functions to produce alphanumeric responses. However, modern technology increasingly requires mixed data sources that incorporate space and time dimensions. This is the basis for experiential computing and the foundation for how we interact with immersive technologies such as virtual assistants, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality.

Now, we often don’t consider what is going on between us and the technology we interact with. We assume that the output is tightly coupled to our input and little concern is reserved for how the relation with technology is mediated. Take brain-machine interface technology for example; the EEG input is mediated by the brain-machine interface to enact a user’s agency in the experiential computer. However, the user’s sense of agency can be manipulated when the brain-machine interface relation is compromised or corrupted. That is, we can be fooled into thinking we are in control of an experiential computer when in fact we have no control. Further, because the relation is implicit, and the mediation hidden, we do not have a means to certify whose thoughts are serving as input to the brain-machine interface.

Thus, the value in discussing technological mediation is that we can develop the means to investigate such relations and mediations. Indeed, investigating these relations and mediations may help us develop more resilient or robust user experiences, user interfaces, and cybersecurity principles for our experiential computers. 

Dr. Frank Scalambrino has taught undergraduate and graduate-level coursework in the philosophy of technology, and his publications include an edited volume, Social Epistemology & Technology, published by Rowman & Littlefield International (2015), an anthology, Philosophy of Technology: A Reader, published by Cognella (2014), and an edited special edition of a journal of the Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective (2017). While living in Paris, France, he opened his first social media account and, ever since, he has been interested specifically in the social and psychological effects of the use of technology to mediate life. His work explicitly engages philosophers such as Jacques Ellul, Jean Baudrillard, Ernst Jünger, Martin Heidegger, and Plato.

In determining his projects as an author, Dr. Scalambrino believes:

“Empty is the word of that philosopher by whom no affliction of men is cured.  For as there is no benefit in medicine if it does not treat the diseases of the body, so with philosophy, if it does not drive out the affliction of the soul.” ~Epicurus, “Fragment #54.” Learn more about Dr. Scalambrino at https://www.linkedin.com/in/frank-scalambrino-ph-d-7b25165b.

Dr. Jason Pittman is a scholar, professor, and cybersecurity thought leader. He teaches in the cybersecurity program at Capitol Technology University and has earned numerous awards for his teaching and research. His interests include pedagogy and cognitive science issues related to cybersecurity education, as well as the evolution of computing systems in trans-humanistic scenarios. “I see the stars as our inevitable destination and work to do my part is helping our species get there,” Pittman writes.