23 days ago

Technology and The Discreet Cough

Link: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/DemandingChange/~3/rw-BfF7oflo/technology-and-discreet-cough.html

In fiction, servants cough discreetly to make people aware of their presence. (I’m thinking of P.G. Wodehouse, but there must be other examples.)

Technological devices sometimes call our attention to themselves for various reasons. John Ehrenfeld calls this presencing. The device goes from available (ready-to-hand) to conspicuous (visible).

In many cases this is seen as a malfunction, when the device fails to provide the expected commodity (obstinate) and thereby interrupts our intended action (obstructive).

However, in some cases the presencing is part of the design – the device nudging us into some kind of conscious engagement (or even what Borgmann calls focal practice).

Ehrenfeld’s example is the two-button toilet flush, which allows the user to select more or less water. He sees this as “lending an ethical context to the task at hand” (p155) – thus the user is not only choosing the quantity of water but also being mindful of the environmental impact of this choice. Even if this mindfulness may diminish with familiarity, “the ethical nature of the task has become completely intertwined with the more practical aspects of the process”. In other words, the environmentally friendly path has become routine (normalized).

Of course, people who are really mindful of the environmental or financial impact of wasting water may sometimes choose not to flush at all (following the slogan “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down”) or perhaps to wee behind a tree in the garden rather than use the toilet. It is quite possible that the two button flush might nudge a few more people to think this way. 

So sometimes a little gentle obstinacy on the part of our technological devices may be a good thing.


Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Chicago, 1984)

John Ehrenfeld, Sustainability by Design (Yale, 2008)