Central and East European
Society for Phenomenology

Conference | Paper

The “Background Relations” in Don Ihde's Phenomenology of Technology

Joaquim Braga

Thursday 2 December 2021

15:00 - 15:40

Zoom 1-1

In the multiple spectrums of human-technology relationships, Don Ihde introduces a unique form of mediation, through which the technological devices themselves create the empirical context of human experiences. Namely, in Technics and Praxis: A Philosophy of Technology (1978) and Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (1990), Ihde designates this phenomenon as background relations, since, unlike other mediated relations, they do not imply a specific and direct involvement with the devices that support them. It is, rather, the very materiality of devices—such as, for instance, that of lighting, heating, and cooling systems—that involves beings, and regardless of the use given to them.

Ihde describes this kind of invisibility of devices in the same way phenomenological analyses characterize the ambiguous ontological status of pictures—technology is, here, a “present absence,” in the sense that it couples with the environment and is no more able to be fully individuated by human attention. Because they have such a bipolar nature (presence and absence), background relations transform, with greater subtlety, the ways we perceive and act in the world. In our era, the growing automation of technological devices means that human intervention in their use is not continuous, and, therefore, there is also no fully conscious attention to the effects they may produce. Sometimes, it is only due to situations, in which technologies or their energy sources collapse, that we have a real perception of their inscription in our environment.

Furthermore, in Existential Technics (1983), Ihde asserts that “for a technology to function well, it must itself become a kind of barely noticed background effect. It must itself be ‘withdrawn’ so that human action which is embodied through technology can stand out.” The elimination of noise caused by the presence of the artifact increases, according to Ihde, the “transparency” effect of technology, since, as with communication technologies, “the better it functions, the more likely it becomes that we may simply grow used to its functions and ‘forget’ that it is there and that it is a significant element in our mediated communication situation.”

Now, although current technologies try to be more transparent—that is, materially less visible—, background relations continue to be part of our empirical social contexts and influence the spheres of sociality. It is important, therefore, to think about how these technological dynamics are carried out and how they are inscribed in our social relations. Since what is implicit in the background relations is the possibility of decentralizing technology from the individual sphere and extending it to the social sphere. They are, therefore, technological relationships that go beyond the private use we make of artifacts, and that condition the environment and the atmosphere of the environment, as well as determine the constitution of public spaces for social interaction.