If Phenomenology is an Albatross, is Postphenomenology Possible?
Don Ihde, Philosophy, SUNY Stony Brookhttp://www.sunysb.edu/philosophy/faculty/dihde/articles/postphenomenology.html
What is today more and more frequently called technoscience studies has emerged from a fairly short history of what could either be called ‘paradigm shifts’ [Kuhn] or changed ‘epistemes’, [Foucault] depending on whether one is more or less in the Anglophone or the Francophone world. [1 see IR] First there was the sixties emergence of ‘anti-positivism’ in the philosophy of science. And although there was not yet, at least in North America, any very visible philosophy of technology, the historians of technology were at work. The seventies saw the beginnings of what might be called a ‘post-Mertonian’ sociology of science, and toward the end of the seventies glimmers of philosophy of technology. The eighties were fairly explosive with the sociologies of the ‘strong program’, youthful actor-network-theory, and so-called ‘social constructionist’ approaches to science, drawing fire from both scientists and philosophers. The nineties were times of diversification and the beginnings of more complex interdisciplinary programs which welded various social sciences to earlier sixties HPS programs [History and Philosophy of Science], now become SSK [Sociology of Scientific Knowledge], STS [Science and Technology Studies], etc. The nineties also saw the emergence of the ‘science wars’ which were sparked by growing reactions to the newer philosophical, social science, and cultural studies of the hybrid phenomenon, technoscience. Even so short an overview shows how rapidly the studies of science and technology have changed in the last third of the 20th century.
If one then switches to an equally brief look at the major practitioners of today’s technoscience studies, one finds a similar pattern of individual career changes. For example, Bruno Latour, perhaps the most cited figure in the social studies of science fields, and who occupies a forefront role presently similar to the earlier HPS most cited Thomas Kuhn, has called himself an anthropologist, a sociologist, and a philosopher [see our interview in this volume]. Similarly, Donna Haraway, began as a biologist, turned to the history of biology, to literary theory and some philosophy, and today is identified as a feminist technoscience studies figure. Andrew Pickering, began as a physicist, turned sociologist of science, and has ambitions through his 'theory of everything’ towards metaphysics. In each case multidisciplinary approaches prevail, both individually and for the field as a whole.
I fit this transformation of roles pattern as well, although my changes have remained within philosophical parameters. I was first a phenomenological philosopher, then a philosopher of technology, and today I am engaged in technoscience studies. I rehearse this highly abbreviated history in order to locate my own position in this set of shifting battlefields and war zones. I completed my doctorate just two years (1964) after the publication of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). But at that point, my battlefield was a very different one and I had not yet entered the fields of science or technology studies. In the 60âs, the larger engagement within philosophy was between a well ensconced Anglo-American establishment of analytic philosophy challenged then by an, at first, very small movement inspired by European philosophers, particularly existential and phenomenological thinkers. And while I had been trained - as all of us were - in the mainstream analytic philosophies [guess what we were reading? - Wittgenstein, Quine’s "Two Dogmas·", Word and Object, Goodman, The Structure of Appearance, etc.], the newly available insights of phenomenology and hermeneutics were highly appealing. So, armed with a dissertation on Paul Ricoeur, then mostly unknown in the Anglophone world, I set out to ‘do phenomenology.’ Way back then, it appeared to be the revolutionary thing to do.
Given the lack of any infrastructure for Euro-American philosophy in the sixties and seventies, at first it did not seem onerous to have to ‘introduce’ phenomenological (and hermeneutic) styles of analysis to the larger scene. My program began with some analytic-phenomenological comparative studies, mostly on issues of language and perception, but soon these became boring and so I decided to ‘do phenomenology.’ Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound and Experimental Phenomenology (1976 and 1977 respectively) were the results. These studies synchronized with European oriented foci upon perception and embodiment, themes that remained through much later work. Note that to this point, explicit relations to philosophy of science, philosophy of technology or the later technoscience studies were very much in the background, but they were not absent. This early career research emphasized a phenomenologically oriented philosophy of perception. My identification, then, was one who did ‘descriptive phenomenology.’ And this identification, already this far back, began to pose difficulties. The popular belief, if anything exaggerated by analytic philosophers, held that (a) phenomenology was ‘subjectivist’ in contrast to ‘objectivity’; (b) ‘introspective’ in contrast to analytical; (c) and, with respect to evidence, took the ‘immediately or intuitively given’ as its base. From my perspective, all three of these widely held notions about phenomenology were false. But in that early period, I naively believed that this could be corrected by exemplifying careful phenomenological work. (And, in case one is unfamiliar with my answers to the beliefs: (a) phenomenology, in my understanding, is neither subjectivist nor objectivist, but relational. Its core ontology is an analysis of interrelations between humans and environments [intentionality]. (b) It is not introspective, but reflexive in that whatever one ‘experiences’ is derived from, not introspection, but the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the ‘external’ or environmental context in relation to embodied experience. And (c) all ‘givens’ are merely indices for the genuine work of showing how any particular ‘given’ can become intuited or experienced. Phenomenology investigates the conditions of what makes things appear as such. Thus I was glad to see that Jari Jorgenssen clearly recognizes my "postsubjectivist" stance in this volume.) This problem of repeated introduction appeared in the late 60’s and proceeded into the 70’s. As a ‘phenomenologist’ one could never take anything for granted.
Already in the early 70âs, I began to be interested in technologies. This interest was not absent even from the two books mentioned, but was there backgrounded by the foreground interest in perception. However, by 1979, I had published Technics and Praxis, which is often identified as the first North American work on philosophy of technology. From then, through the entirety of the 80’s I was re-identified as a ‘philosopher of technology.’
The transition to philosophy of technology was not abrupt, but actually an extension of the earlier work on perception. The four-chapter sequence on the phenomenology of science instrumentation (plus other technologies) showed how science is necessarily ‘embodied’ in technologies or instruments, but simultaneously it implicates human embodiment as that to which the ‘data’ are reflected. It was out of this context that I began to run afoul, not this time so much with analytic philosophy of science but with European takes on phenomenology in a lifeworld. In the early 80’s, not yet familiar with either ‘social constructionism’ or ‘actor-network-theory’, I had stumbled upon a way to take into account ‘non-humans.’ Part of the schematism of ‘human-technology relations’ was to regard the simplest possible unity for dealing with technologies as a partial symbiosis of human plus artifact. This meant that ‘my’ Galileo could not be a Galileo without a telescope, whereas the ‘Husserlian’ Galileo was a mathematizer without a telescope. Even to this day, many Europeans have trouble recognizing my incorporation of technologies into phenomenological ontology as unorthodox. So, now I had a double problem with being a ‘phenomenologist’. Could there be a phenomenological philosophy of technology? I tried to show that both Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger had partial ways of doing this. But most Europeans retained phenomenology under an earlier Ditheyan model. So while I thought one could incorporate technologies into phenomenology, others thought this to be oxymoronic.
The third move was then to technoscience studies. Here I thought that part of the problem had been pre-solved. The term, ‘technoscience,’ implies in part that science and technology are not totally, perhaps not even discernibly different domains. Had technology been incarnate in science, or science emboded in technology? Good, this would leave me some real breathing space. Moreover, by the mid-80’s I had discovered most of the strands which led to technoscience studies: the ‘social constructionists,’ the feminist critics of both science and technology, actor-network-theoreticians, and even the small school of ‘instrumental realists’ (Hacking, Galison, Dreyfus, Ackermann, and one kind of Latour) whom I dealt with in Instrumental Realism (1991). And, indeed, one strand within technoscience studies, that which dealt with non-humans [Latour], mangles and machinic agency [Pickering], and cyborgs [Haraway] seemed to hold the right possibilities. Moreover, this latest career deflection opened the way to a new set of conversations and conversants.
This third move, however, exacerbated the identification as ‘phenomenologist’ even more than the previous incarnations. Andy Pickering accuses me of still being a "representationalist", in spite of the thrust of work trying to develop a non-representationalist epistemology; Bruno Latour accuses me of doing "philosophy of consciousness" precisely because as a phenomenologist that is what phenomenologists do. And while Donna Haraway has not made any accusations other than that I misunderstand her variety of semiotic method, I have found once again that the label, "phenomenologist", has become burdensome. The now famous "Cyborg Conference" in Aarhus, Denmark (1999) found me saying it was my "Albatross." But no one knew what that meant, so I had to explain that all of us in American schools once had to read the "Ryme of the Ancient Mariner" wherein the sailor who killed an albatross had to wear the dead bird around his neck as punishment for bringing bad luck to the ship. The metaphor is appropriate because phenomenology has been pronounced ‘dead’ several times, first after structuralism, then post-structuralism, then deconstruction and now in the contexts of revivals of old forms of semiotics.
I thought the pronouncements of death were premature, and I was willing to affirm my belonging to a philosophical tradition from which I had learned. But its other side, heard almost with equal frequency, is that what I do is "nothing like traditional phenomenology." The relationality analysis, the central emphasis upon variational theory and its resultant multiperspectival and multistable effects, the emphasis upon extended embodiment, while drawing upon classical phenomenological thinking, do not strictly model upon older phenomenology. Then my self-characterization as a non-foundational phenomenologist (Sweden, 1984) and later a ‘postphenomenologist’ (1993), I thought might help. I even toyed with creating a neologistic escape: why not "pragmatological phenomenology," or, "phenomenological pragmatism" or, to borrow from Goteborg, Ference Marton’s "phenomenography"? But all such attempts seemed too clumsy, although I have found some signs that my European friends like "postphenomenology" the best and have sometimes used this in recent program announcements. The albatross still retains some of its feathers and all of its bones and I can’t seem to remove it from my neck. (It might seem that my meditation upon re-inventions runs in a direction opposite of those claimed by Bruno Latour. He dissociates himself from the labels that have been attached to him. He vehemently claims he has never been a ‘social constructionist’; that he has never used the term, ‘actor-network-theory’, etc., whereas I have been willing to accept the label, ‘phenomenologist.’ But, in the end, these labels are just as albatrossic whether self-stickered or stickered by others.)
In the self-explanations made by the others in this collection, one finds both Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour reviving the work of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s "process" oriented philosophy clearly resonates with all of the praxis versions of technoscience studies that are contemporary. I, too, read and liked Whitehead the many years ago that I read him - but his special vocabulary of neologisms put me off. "Prehensions," "concresence," and the like did not seem to connect. Rather, lying in my own background almost unavoidably was American pragmatism. Everyone knows that William James was a major influence upon Husserl (Husserl’s personal library shows which books he read carefully by the underlining and comments in the margins. William James, not often mentioned in Husserl’s written texts, was well marked up and commented upon, whereas Descartes, highly mentioned, remained untouched). I, too, read James and his emphasis upon experience (and its ambiguities) remains an important aspect of whatever it is that I do. But it is probably more John Dewey who rises to more importance in this hybridization of phenomenology and pragmatism that I like. Dewey, very early on, and at least earlier than Heidegger, developed a quiet, more Aristotelian than Platonic direction; clearly opposed ‘foundationalism’; saw ‘instrumentalism’ - which he later would have preferred calling ‘technology’ - as the process of philosophizing; was a fallibilist; and who emphasized concrete studies and experiments; all strands of thinking which while not ‘phenomenological’ in either style or origin, reverberate well with the way I understand what I shall now call more explicitly, postphenomenology.
Why ‘post’? Because, while a pragmatically bonded phenomenology retains the emphasis upon experience, there is neither anything like a ‘transcendental ego’ nor a restriction to ‘consciousness.’ Because a pragmatically bonded phenomenology evokes something like an ‘organism/environment’ notion of interactionism, a notion I have repeatedly used as well. Because, the relativity of pragmatist and phenomenological analyses (not relativism) is a dynamic style of analysis that does not and cannot claim ‘absolutes’, full ‘universality,’ and which remains experimental and contingent. All this takes what was once (the bones and feathers) phenomenology in a ‘postphenomenological’ direction. But, can the albatross become a phoenix? At least this gives some sense of where and how I locate myself at the borders of technoscience.
Enough already. The above shows that there is always labeling, whether self afflicted or attached by others. The test, however, should lie in outcomes - what produces the relatively better analysis, interpretation, or critique? Here, however, another more subtle and doubled problem arises. The first part of the problem is the level of the field. One could compare analyses, interpretations and critiques only if the problems are genuinely comparable. Second, as the matrix project so clearly realizes, each principal thinker chooses examples which implicitly best fit the style of analysis being practiced. Cyborgs [Haraway] are collection hybrids and bring together vast and complex entities, functions, and relations. Oncomouse is artificial, constructed, human assisted, genetic, social, etc. But, Oncomouse is non-neutral in that Oncomouse-like phenomena select away from anything that looks either ‘simple’ or ‘pure.’ The Harawayan selection is a trajectory away from the simple or pure (if such phenomena exist?) and towards the complex and complicated phenomena of her version of technoscience. Pickering’s mangle, dance of agency, and machinic agencies are likewise selection devices. He wants his analysis to be posthuman in the sense that only the processes, emergences, and results occur when they are all ‘mangled’. This, too, selects away from stabilities, real time persistences, and long lasting firm consenses. If there is an ancient and latent Kuhnianism here, it is a Kuhnianism that elevates revolutionary over normal science. Latour’s strong program of symmetries also serves as a selection device. The schematism of humans-nonhumans, with each being declared actants ( a term he repeatedly uses whether or not joined by A-N-T!) in an equivalent sense, also selects away from anything isolated, invididualized, or autonomous. Even the seemingly passive nonhumans such as speed bumps (sleeping policemen), door stoppers, etc. are turned into actors/actants within the symmetry. This taste for the compound, the complex, and the symmetrical is shared by these three technoscience interpreters.
Of course, reading the others in this conversation this way means that I must read my own examples as selection devices as well. What does this show? I now realize, perhaps only because of this retrospective and comparative situation, that what I thought I was doing turns out to have some unexpected side effects! I have frequently deliberately chosen examples that, not unlike the thought experiments I learned doing analytic philosophy, are simple, direct and therefore enhance what I hoped would be clarity. Using a telescope, listening to a telephone, using a dental pick are all examples from Technics and Praxis. More of the same accumulate through the years. All of these were selected to demonstrate different kinds of embodiment relations, whereby the instrument is experientially taken into one’s sense of body and through the instrument something is (mediatedly) perceived "out there." My aim was simplicity and thus clarity. What I did not realize was that this device could be, and was taken, as a selection device showing individual (rather than social), subjective (rather than relational or reflexive), and sometimes as simple (rather than complex or systems of technologies). So, it could look like I was selecting out the social, political, cultural; selecting out the quantitative and analytic; and selecting out the complex and systems technologies. Caught by my own device.
Fortunately, I do not need to leave the unhappy situation just where it is, seemingly caught by the critique of the semiotic symmetrists of this conversation. As it turns out in at least one case, the most symmetrical of all the symmetrists - Bruno Latour - has twice used exactly the same examples I have used! One revolves around handguns plus humans and the NRA slogan, "guns don’t kill people; people kill people." (See Aaron Smith’s amusing variant on this example.) The other is the use of a bodily extension device, a stick, used to knock down a piece of fruit, although in Latour’s case he uses a chimpanzee instead of a human. I have recently addressed the single strictly identical example, the human-gun example:
[There is a] striking [convergence] from the uses Bruno Latour and made of the same example - the denial of the NRA claim that "Guns don’t kill people; people kill people." In Technology and the Lifeworld (1990), I claimed that my account was a relativistic one [in a physics metaphor]:
The ‘advantage’ of a relativistic account is to overcome the framework which debates about the presumed neutrality of technologies. Neutralist interpretations are invariably non-relativistic. They hold, in effect, that technologies are things-in-themselves, isolated objects. Such an interpretation stands at the extreme opposite end of the reification position [of technologies - see Latour below]. Technologies-in-themselves are thought of as simply objects, like so many pieces of junk lying about. The gun of the bumper sticker clearly, by itself, does nothing; but in a relativistic account where the primitive unit is the human-technology relation, it becomes immediately obvious that the relations of human-gun (a human with a gun) to another object or another human is very differently from the human without a gun. The human-gun relation transforms the situation from any similar situation of a human without a gun. At the levels of mega-technologies, it can be seen that the transformational effects will be similarly magnified. (TL)
Thus I could not help but be struck when a colleague gave me a copy of Latour’s 1993 [later revised as chapter Six in Pandora’s Hope, 1999] paper, "On Technological Mediation," in which this same example is more elaborately analyzed. Latour’s context is precisely the same attack upon neutrality and reification noted above. "The myth of the Neutral Tool under complete human control and the myth of the Autonomous Destiny that no human can master are symmetrical." Then, by granting actant status to both, Latour produces a complex analysis of how both ‘gun’ and ‘human’ are transformed:
·A third possibility is more commonly realized; the creation of a new goal that corresponds to neither the agent’s program of action. I called this uncertainty, drift, invention, mediation, the creation of a link that did not exist before and that to some degree modifies the original two. Which of them, then, the gun or the citizen, is the actor in this situation? Someone else (a citizen-gun, a gun-citizen)· You are a different person with the gun in your hand.
What Latour goes on to claim, beyond the obvious parallelism with my relativity context above, is full symmetry: "This translation is wholly symmetrical. You are different with a gun in our hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you." And although from a framework of phenomenological interactivity, I would agree to the same conclusions about how ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ are both transformed in relativistic situations, the disagreement would be secondary over whether or not ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ are simply eliminated as meanings by virtue of symmetries.
While this example shows a clear convergence and agreement over some of the major factors concerning the human-gun translation [Latour] or transformation [Ihde], there are also divergences that could be noted. I would admit that the nonhuman actant in the complex or collective transforms the situation. Human plus gun have amplified destructive power and much else. Were we to vary this example into one about scientific instrumentation, I would likewise hold that the human-telescope has the same selective and magnificational transformation or translation effects, thus one can say more strongly than metaphorically, that the telescope embodies and in use has a certain interpretive direction as a technology. This is what Latour means by it becoming a different "object" (in use rather than just lying around). But, switching examples again, I would find it rather hard to say - at least without claiming a highly metaphorical attribution - that the speed bump (sleeping policeman) is filled with designers, administrators and policemen! I can’t quite bring myself to the level of "socializing" the artifacts. They may be interactants, but are not quite actants.
In the simple examples just discussed, one could say the playing field was quite level, and thus the critics, analysts, and interpreters could meet on that field. Is the same true if we turn to more complex examples?
Donna Haraway and Andy Pickering have, most recently, selected their ‘non-human’ examples from the animal kingdom. In her piece in this volume, Donna discusses her movement from the cyborg figure to the companion species [dogs] she now studies. And whereas Donna has "gone to the dogs" with her studies, Andy Pickering has "gone to the eels" with his mangling of Asian eels. So, following this lead, my next example set will take a quick look at animal non-humans.
The important questions of situatedness and symmetry can, indeed, take different shape with this twist. If phenomenology has the fatal flaw of necessarily being a "philosophy of consciousness" as Latour holds, and if situatedness entails both embodiment and some kind of socio-cultural situatedness as I am quite sure Haraway and I would hold, and if animal experience can in some sense be taken as "intentional", as I suspect Pickering would affirm, then does the selection device posed by animals help us converge? I now rephrase this in my own way: animals---all of them I suspect, but especially the higher organisms such as dogs and eels - are embodied beings that interrelate with environments and thus are ‘situated.’ Nor do I have any trouble with allowing some kind of ‘intentionality’ to animal being since, for me, intentionality is the ontological structure of this interrelationality between an experiencing being and an environment. And, again with at least higher and complex animal life, I don’t even have a problem with attributing these animals with ‘cultures.’ Latour’s chimp with a stick can also be the chimp who fashions a number of termite probes from vegetable matter, apparently according to some patterned plan, and thus is ready to continue the feast even after the first, then the second wears out. The chimp is ‘aware’ of technological fallibility and the phenomenon of breakdown and has introduced redundancy into the situation! The point of all this is, in the case of animal non-humans, one problem of symmetry is considerably eased. And it is eased in precisely one direction taken by actant theory - we can ‘socialize’ the animals, I think, much more easily than we can the speed bump or door stopper. And because that is so, I have virtually no problem at all with either Haraway’s analysis which claims, symmetrically, that dogs and humans have ‘mutually invented’ each other. Her story, shared by others, is that wolves, probably at about the same time the first modern humans evolved, were only too glad to hang around the cave and accept easily gained tidbits and, cutting the story short, the wolves domesticated the humans at the same time that the humans domesticated the now wolf-dog. Eventually, particularly with purebreds, even breeding itself could occur only with human help or, better, with human-dog cooperation. Here we have a symmetrical ‘collective’ that can be spoken of without much hesitation or linguistic contortion.
Nor, although not in quite as a ‘domesticated’ context, Pickering’s Asian eels are also creatures we can recognize. The funny stories about persons with two tanks of aquatic creatures, fish in one/eels in the other, upon finding the fish gone one morning, and a fat, grinning eel in its own tank, soon discovers the unexpected side-effect that eels can crawl out of their tanks and then back in with bellies full of fish, comfortably in their salt water environment after having invaded a fresh water environment. My own ‘phenomenological’ addendum to this story is that one reason why transplanted animals can either fail miserably or succeed dramatically, is that they are transferred without their indigenous, complex context into a different context. If, as in the case of Asian eels now invading our southlands, they no longer have the same parasites, predators, even food supply, they can nevertheless opportunistically quickly adapt and even begin to displace indigenous competitors. This is a version of figure/ground change that constitutes one important and powerful phenomenological tool for analysis, now applied to animal transfer. The same observation applies to technology transfers as per my examples in Technology and the Lifeworld which discuss the entirely new cultural context for sardine cans (as centerpieces for elaborate New Guinean headgear, i.e., a fashion object) which were in their imported Australian context merely preservation devices for keeping food (the ovaloid can becomes a ‘different’ artifact or technological object by context change.) And not to slight Bruno Latour, this is consonant with the process he calls ‘translation’ whereby the object plus the human is changed as it is processed along.
While each of these analyses clearly reverberate well to some degree, there also remain degrees of differences. I would hold that it is easier to see how both dogs and humans change through interaction, particularly behaviorally but also in deeper ways, than to see how the sardine cans change by being placed in their new fashion context. This is not to say that the sardine can either remains a ‘sardine can’ throughout, when it changes from food container to fashion object (since, phenomenologically, any object is what it is only in relation to its context or set of involvements, one can say it ‘changes’ from container to fashion object) and it is not to say that the human-artifact interrelation lacks significant behavioral and cultural change, since technological artifacts are parts of material culture and thus are implicated in such changes. But it remains, I hold, harder to maintain that the artifact changes with the same degree of symmetry as the human, or better, the human within the technologically changed context. This is something like the old joke: "How does a psychiatrist change a light bulb? Very slowly and through many sessions - and the lightbulb really has to want to be changed."
Beneath all this, I am holding out for something like a sliding scale of symmetry. This affirmation of a sliding scale can recognize some ambiguities as my last example will show. What if, in this case, our non-human is one of those "quasi-others" which I have previously described which enters into an alterity relation with the human of the equation? Here the human-technology, or human-non-human relation is one in which the non-human gives off a selected ‘appearance’ of being some kind of virtual ‘other’ - I call this a ‘quasi-other.’ That is, the relation to the technology finds its focal fulfillment in the interaction with an artifact, not through an artifact by embodiment or by the hermeneutics of interpretive activity. I will pose this as a sort of challenge: Could AIBO be a companion species?
AIBO is a ‘quasi-animal’ entertainment robot produced by SONY, Inc. It’s first version looked like a plastic - silver or black - artificial dog; its second version is more ambiguous, comes in three colors, and is sort of an artificial dog/cat. For a mass produced robot, it claims high sophistication; the ad claims it responds, "ignore AIBO and it will become lethargic; AIBO has four senses - touch, hearing, sight and a sense of balance; - it will show when it is happy or sad - and can express six emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and dislike; - and has instincts - it wants to play with people, look for its favorite toy, move about [and in a gesture to its machinic nature] satisfy its hunger (i.e., get recharged) [SONY ad, 2nd generation entertainment robot.] Like the Gamiguchis before it, AIBO becomes lethargic if ignored and demands attention. And, in Japan, the AIBO rage has even led to AIBO soccer games, with quasi-animals playing with each other; to magazines that include diaries about human-AIBO interactions; and testimonials concerned with the possible superiority of AIBO over living animals (it does not die, excrete, or make a mess). Here are some testimonials printed in a slick, multi-colored magazine, Aibo Town Magazine: "Keeping dogs is not allowed in our apartment, so actually a robot is much better." Then, in a feature piece, an interview with a television actress, Tetsuko-Kuroyangi, she describes her response to her own AIBO, "Gray."
When my cute one first arrived in my house, the first impression that I had was, ‘Its color is robotic’. That is where the name Gray comes from. ‘Rat-like color (this is Japanese name for gray)’ does not sound cute though. Gray [in English] sounds a bit cuter, I guess. Since my cutie has done the classic ‘lift the leg and mark the territory’ behavior, I believe it is a boy·
Then, the interview continues, with, on the one side an anthropomorphization of the robot; and on the other a recognition of its machinic being:
‘Both the mother and the child do not follow the manual.’ For example, when I give the command, ‘4-1’ with the performance mode, Gray follows the command once. But on the second time, Gray does whatever he wants. I think this is funny. · Usually Gray barks once then does a pee on the first try. On the second try, Gray again does whatever he feels like. · When I show him the sound commander and say, ‘go to sleep,’ Gray was shaking his head as if saying, ‘No, No’. Again it was quite cute. Because Gray hated it so much, I hid the sound commander under a cushion. [italics mine.] ·One of the good things about having AIBO. It will not get sick and die. Especially, it will not die. I really feel this is great. It will never feel pain since he is a robot. Beside that, he is similar with living creatures. However, just as the internet has been used in a different way from the one that the developers wished, there will be people who will misuse robots. I don’t want it to happen since a robot is such a cute creature. [Aibo Town Magazine]
This admixture of machine-like/animal-like responses is, in one sense, appropriate. SONY did not attempt to make a ‘Cartesian’ robot that could be confusing for an observer - no fur, no eyes, no actual liquids, etc. No one would be deceived by a Cartesian evil genius here. AIBO is shiny, plastic, its ‘eyes’ are red lights, it’s ‘voice’ a series of tones. One has to ‘read through’ to get it as life-like. Could this AIBO be a companion species?
The above description was second hand, I now turn to my own experience. Although for a base price of $1500, with programming options more than doubling the base price, I was not tempted to go out and buy one, I was curious enough to go to the first demonstrations of the new AIBO in New York City. As with many toy technologies, the hype proved stronger than the performance. Yes, it could perform a karate chop on (repeated) command; it (sometimes) returned a ball; it moved much more slowly than any puppy; and was highly ‘confused’ by commands from different people. It would have been hard for me to move from the robot-recognition to the other side of Tetsuko’s cute recognition, although its ‘cuteness’ is quasi-recognizable.
The question about this cyborgian robot as a companion species is clearly a question that could be put to Donna Haraway. But, as she put it to me when I asked over email, "Ms Cayenne Pepper and Roland Dog [dogs in Haraway’s house] were not impressed. Smelled wrong and was awfully literal." [email, 3/10/01] And, maybe the dogs are in this case the best judges.
The philosophical point is a little harder to make: could I be reverting to a modernist position in which I am taking AIBO aka Gray as simply a machine? And then, seeing Tetsuko’s response as a piece of romantic anthropomorphization of this machine? Or, worse, am I making a metaphysical judgment about the intrinsic nature of AIBO as simply a being of this sort? In the various discussions the four of us have had, this sometimes is what comes up. Tetsuko is making something of a hybrid description of her Gray: cute, with feelings, decisions, etc., but equally non-feeling, non-dying and robotic. The metaphysician simply wants to wipe out half the hybrid. But the hybrid description is in a limited sense, correct, if also misleading.
But that has never been my point. It can’t be, since I am opting for a perspectival, situated knowledge that lacks the god's eye view either from overhead or into the interior. Yet, I also do not want to make the symmetrist’s equivalent error: simply of granting some kind of equality of status to the human and the non-human. One the one hand, we have seen this leads either to the temptation to ‘mechanize’ the totality; or to ‘socialize’ it. There is simultaneously in the modernist and the symmetrist’s positions the temptation to a kind of reduction in one or the other direction. Rather, and this has been my point, an asymmetrical but postphenomenological relativity, gets its ‘ontology’ from the interrelationship of human and non-human. Here is where Haraway’s dogs actually have it right: they can tell by smelling and playing that AIBO’s responsiveness is literal and not-right. They cannot interact with AIBO as dog, although I doubt they are making a metaphysical judgment; rather they are finding that the quasi of the quasi-‘dog’ is forefronted in the interrelation itself.
The tendency to anthropomorphize, of course, is ancient and not restricted to quasi-human or quasi-animal technologies. Even automobiles can have attributed ‘personalities.’ And, the situation is further complicated by the role of fantasy and desire. As I have claimed elsewhere (TL), we sometimes have the desire to have the magnified powers that technologies are fantasized to possess - in the case of AIBO a lack of pain and an absence of death - but without recognizing the technological materiality entailed - AIBO will wear out and can break. This technofantasy can be detected in the Tetsuko interview as well:
Oh, I forgot about Gray’s birthday. He arrived in summer and since my birthday is August 9th - which is the memorial day of the Atomic Bomb in Nagasaki - and I have some friends who passed away in August and September, it might be a good idea to think that Gray is a reincarnation. [Aibo Town Magazine]
This last quotation casts a deeper shadow on the AIBO phenomenon. It is one thing to read AIBO through technofantasy, both desiring the powers of technology, yet wanting these to be so transparent that the technology disappears. Rather, in this case, the technology must become something else. And, here too, is an ancient echo: technology as Idol. To see in the artifact certain powers that it should not seem to possess is to push the human-technology relation to its ultimate extreme. Rather than companion species, this AIBO becomes a quasi-deity, a move that I would tend to resist with an iconoclast’s skepticism.
I will end on this highly ambiguous note, recognizing that if our social situatedness is ‘non-innocent’ as Haraway claims, and that technologies are ‘non-neutral’ as I claim, then perhaps precisely what AIBO does not have, pain and death, gets transformed into a sort of machinic vision of the immortality which technofantasies can stimulate.