Jaron Lanier (2006) calls the ability of humans to learn to control virtual bodies that are quite different than our own “homuncular flexibility”. This is, for him, a dangerous idea. The idea is that the familiar mapping of the body represented in the cortical homunculus is only one option – we can flexibly act (and perceive) using quite other mappings, e.g., to virtual bodies. Your body can be tracked, and these movements can be used to control a lobster in virtual reality – just as one experiences (via head-mounted display, haptic feedback, etc.) the virtual space from the perspective of the lobster under your control.
This name and description makes this sound quite like science fiction. In this post, I assimilate homuncular flexibility to the much more general phenomenon of distal attribution (Loomis, 1992; White, 1970). When I have a perceptual experience, I can just as well attribute that experience – and take it as being directed at or about – more proximal or distal phenomena. For example, I can attribute it to my sensory surface, or I can attribute it to a flower in the distance. White (1970) proposed that more distal attribution occurs when the afference (perception) is lawfully related to efference (action) on the proximal side of that distal entity. That is, if my action and perception are lawfully related on “my side” of that entity in the causal tree, then I will make attributions to that entity. Loomis (1992) adds the requirement that this lawful relationship be successfully modeled. This is close, but not quite right, for if I can make distal attributions even in the absence of an actual lawful relationship that I successfully model, my (perhaps inaccurate) modeling of a (perhaps non-existent) lawful relationship will do just fine.
Just as I attribute a sensory experience to a flower and not the air between me and the flower, so the blind man or the skilled hammer-user can attribute a sensory experience to the ground or the nail, rather than the handle of the cane or hammer. On consideration, I think we can see that these phenomena are very much what Lanier is talking about. When I learn to operate (and, not treated by Lanier, 2006, sense) my lobster-body, it is because I have modeled an efference–afference relationship, yielding a kind of transparency. This is a quite familiar sort of experience. It might still be a quite dangerous or exciting idea, but its examples are ubiquitous, not restricted to virtual reality labs.
Lanier paraphrases biologist Jim Boyer as counting this capability as a kind of evolutionary artifact – a spandrel in the jargon of evolutionary theory. But I think a much better just-so evolutionary story can be given: it is this capability – to make distal attributions to the limits of the efference–afference relationships we successfully model – that makes us able to use tools so effectively. At an even more basic and general level, it is this capability that makes it possible for us to communicate meaningfully: our utterances have their meaning in the context of triangulating with other people such that the content of what we are saying is related to the common cause of both of our perceptual experiences (Davidson, 1984).
Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lanier, J. (2006). Homuncular flexibility. Edge.
Loomis, J. M. (1992). Distal attribution and presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1(1), 113-119.
White, B. W. (1970). Perceptual findings with the vision-substitution system. IEEE Transactions on Man-Machine Systems, 11(1), 54-58.
The name of this blog, Ready-to-hand, is a translation of Heidegger’s term zuhanden, though interpreting Heidegger’s philosophy is not specifically a major interest of mine nor a focus here. Much has been made of the significance of phenomenology, most often Heidegger, for human-computer interaction (HCI) and interaction design (e.g., Winograd & Flores 1985, Dourish 2001). And I am generally pretty sympathetic to phenomenology as one inspiration for HCI research. I want to just note a bit about the term zuhanden and my choice of it in a larger context — of phenomenology, HCI, and a current research interest of mine: cues for assuming the intentional stance toward systems (more on this below).
The Lifeworld and ready-to-hand
Heidegger was a student of Edmund Husserl, and Heidegger’s Being and Time was to be dedicated to Husserl.1 There is really no question of the huge influence of Husserl on Heidegger.
My major introduction to both Husserl and Heidegger was from Prof. Dagfinn Føllesdal. Føllesdal (1979) details the relationship between their philosophies. He argues for the value of seeing much of Heidegger’s philosophy “as a translation of Husserl’s”:
The key to this puzzle, and also, I think, the key to understanding what goes on in Heidegger’s philosophy, is that Heidegger’s philosophy is basically isomorphic to that of Husserl. Where Husserl speaks of the ego, Heidegger speaks of Dasein, where Husserl speaks of the noema, Heidegger speaks of the structure of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world and so on. Husserl also observed this. Several places in his copy of Being and Time Husserl wrote in the margin that Heidegger was just translating Husserl’s phenomenology into another terminology. Thus, for example, on page 13 Husserl wrote: “Heidegger transposes or transforms the constitutive phenomenological clarification of all realms of entities and universals, the total region World into the anthropological. The problematic is translation, to the ego corresponds Dasein etc. Thereby everything becomes deep-soundingly unclear, and philosophically it loses its value.” Similarly, on page 62, Husserl remarks: “What is said here is my own theory, but without a deeper justification.” (p. 369, my emphasis)
Heidegger and his terms have certainly been more popular and in wider use since then.
Føllesdal also highlights where the two philosophers diverge.2 In particular, Heidegger gives a central role to the role of the body and action in constituting the world. While in his publications Husserl stuck to a focus on how perception constitutes the Lifeworld, Heidegger uses many examples from action.3 Our action in the world, including our skillfulness in action constitutes those objects we interact with for us.
Heidegger contrasts two modes of being (in addition to our own mode — being-in-the-world): present-at-hand and ready-to-hand (or alternatively, the occurant and the available (Dreyfus 1990)). The former is the mode of being consideration of an object as a physical thing present to us — or occurant, and Heidegger argues it constitutes the narrow focus of previous philosophical explorations of being. The latter is the stuff of every skilled action — available for action: the object becomes equipment, which can often be transparent in action, such that it becomes an extension of our body.
J.J. Gibson expresses this view in his proposal of an ecological psychology (in which perception and action are closely linked):
When in use, a tool is a sort of extension of the hand, almost an attachment to it or a part of the user’s own body, and thus is no longer a part of the environment of the user. […] This capacity to attach something to the body suggests that the boundary between the animal and the environment is not fixed at the surface of the skin but can shift. More generally it suggests that the absolute duality of “objective” and “subjective” is false. When we consider the affordances of things, we escape this philosophical dichotomy. (1979, p. 41)
While there may be troubles ahead for this view, I think the passage captures well something we all can understand: when we use scissors, we feel the paper cutting; and when a blind person uses a cane to feel in front of them, they can directly perceive the layout of the surface in front of them.
Transparency, abstraction, opacity, intentionality
Research and design in HCI has sought at times to achieve this transparency, sometimes by drawing on our rich knowledge of and skill with the ordinary physical and social world. Metaphor in HCI (e.g., the desktop metaphor) can be seen as one widespread attempt at this (cf. Blackwell 2006). This kind of transparency does not throw abstraction out of the picture. Rather the two go hand-in-hand: the specific physical properties of the present-at-hand are abstracted away, with quickly perceived affordances for action in their place.
But other kinds of abstraction are in play in HCI as well. Interactive technologies can function as social actors and agents– with particular cues eliciting social responses that are normally applied to other people (Nass and Moon 2000, Fogg 2002). One kind of social response, not yet as widely considered in the HCI literature, is assuming the intentional stance — explanation in terms of beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, etc. — towards the system. This is a powerful, flexible, and easy predictive and explanatory strategy often also called folk psychology (Dennett 1987), which may be a tacit theory or a means of simulating other minds. We can explain other people based on what they believe and desire.
But we can also do the same for other things. To use one of Dennett’s classic examples, we can do the same for a thermostat: why did it turn the heat on? It wanted to keep the house at some level of warmth, it believed that it was becoming colder than desired, and it believed that it could make it warmer by turning on the heat. While in the case of the thermostat, this strategy doesn’t hide much complexity (we could explain it with other strategies without much trouble), it can be hugely useful when the system in question is complex or otherwise opaque to other kinds of description (e.g., it is a black box).
We might think then that perceived complexity and opacity should both be cues for adopting the intentional stance. But if the previous research on social responses to computers (not to mention the broader literature on heuristics and mindlessness) has taught us anything, it is that made objects such as computers can evoke unexpected responses through other simplier cues. Some big remaining questions that I hope to take up in future posts and research:
- What are these cues, both features of the system and situational factors?
- How can designers influence people to interpret and explain systems using folk psychology?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of evoking the intentional stance in users?
- How should we measure the use of the intentional stance?
- How is assuming the intentional stance towards a thing different (or the same) as it having being-in-the-world as its mode of being?
- But Husserl was Jewish, and Heidegger was himself a member of the Nazi party, so this did not happen in the first printing. [↩]
- Dreyfus (1990) is an alternative view that takes the divergence as quite radical; he sees Føllesdal as hugely underestimating the originality of Heidegger’s thought. Instead Dreyfus characterizes Husserl as formulating so clearly the Cartesian worldview that Heidegger recognized its failings and was thus able to radically and successfully critique it. [↩]
- It is worth noting that Husserl actually wrote about this as well, but in manuscripts, which Heidegger read years before writing Being and Time. [↩]