'Do you realise that you cannot get angry with me on Teams?'
Lecturer in Philosophy & Professional Practice Chris Detweiler will give his inaugural lecture on 16 March
Anyone who gets into conversation with lecturer Chris Detweiler becomes increasingly curious. Even though he asks more questions than he answers. Questions concerning innovations to innovate. According to Facebook's algorithms. The technology behind MS Teams. The soft urge in a health app. As Lecturer in Philosophy & Professional Practice at the Centre of Expertise Global and Inclusive Learning, he questions our relationship with technologies. Why should we question things that are self-evident? In the run-up to his inaugural lecture on Wednesday, 16 March, a discussion on the impact of philosophy on professional practice.
The image of philosophy suffers from the dusty busts of Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer and the like. They have earned their place in the canon of philosophers, but with that they are immediately centuries away from us. As Chris says: "I am happy to leave that canon for what it is. I talk to people about the questions that belong to the present. I question their self-evidence. It might mean you can be the man who spoils a party with his questions."
He mentioned the important topic of innovation for example. "This is a high priority for us at THUAS as well. But what do we mean by innovation? Is that necessarily a good thing? Or may we put effort into conserving and maintaining things as well? When I come up with questions like that, I see them thinking: here he is again...! But just take a look at the United States where I come from. There, innovating in military technologies costs billions. While dams, roads and bridges rapidly crumble. The state of the US infrastructure belongs more to a country in decline than to a high-performance economy. So why are you focusing entirely on shiny new things?"
Living with technology
The focus of his philosophical research is the question of how we live with technology. "Using technologies impacts you. The heavy book of city maps which disappeared from each and every car for example. We traded it for a navigation tool, which may or may not be properly integrated in the dashboard. Whenever you delegate an action to technology, you don't do it yourself anymore. As a consequence, you lose your skills."
"People have never truly lived without technologies. By technologies, I mean all the tools a person needs. When creating beautiful rock paintings, people from The Stone Age also used simple technologies in order to mix colours or apply them to the stone. For centuries, we have refined our understanding of technologies. Nowadays, we see more and more technologies we are not able to understand. Think of AI, for example. We increasingly rely on this technology. We delegate more and more aspects of our lives to it. When you realise how important technology is in our lives, how do you live well with it? How can we describe the technologies we live with? Which worldview stands behind these technologies?"
Now we see more and more technologies we don't understand
"Modern technologies are designed in such a way that you hardly realise you are using them. Just like we can spend evenings endlessly scrolling on Facebook."
Is there anything wrong with that, then? "Not if you are aware that you are observing people through a technology that others have made. Do you know the people who created it? Did you take part in the process? Do their technologies reflect how you perceive the world? Do you know the priorities behind algorithms? You must keep asking those kinds of questions before you ask the big question: how do we want to live with these technologies? By asking the questions, the obviousness disappears."
Is this self-evidence always harmful then? As Chris says: "No, we talk to each other on MS Teams nowadays. I can see on my screen that your office has a door. Fortunately, such a fact is self-evident. The fact that we are now doing this interview digitally is also self-evident. You can like or raise your hand on this platform. But do you even realise that you cannot get angry at me on Teams? They left out that icon in the interface. Technologies bring us so much, while they also reduce opportunities. We don't realise this fact as much because we are so impressed by innovation."
He also mentions another example: the health apps, technological gems that you can download straight to your phone. Modern design and modern platform technologies encourage a healthier lifestyle. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. "I like walking. Great to clear your mind while walking in the forest. But it changes when you download an app like Fitbit on your phone. The app introduces into your life a competitive relationship with yourself. The space you walk through is no longer quiet nature, but an arena full of competitive potential. You get a star if you perform well."
By definition, I question nudging as a technique
"You might sometimes underperform. Or you skipped a day. As a consequence, you get subtle nudges. A gentle prompt to adjust your behaviour. By definition, I question nudging as a technique. But as we worry about this unnoticed urge, we should not overlook the other forms of normativity. The walk you take has no longer anything to do with clearing your mind. What was private becomes traceable and readable. That readability and that reduction of your feelings are amazingly profound, without us even realising it."
Keep asking questions
If it were up to Chris Detweiler, philosophy would push us to ask a lot of questions about what we do. "I am happy to be working at a university of applied sciences, close to professional practice. I am researching. But as a lecturer in philosophy in a Communication & Multimedia Design degree programme, I also teach designers. What are the consequences of the beautiful things they create? What does their design do to users? In the years to come, I want to integrate such questions into educational practice. The role of psychology in this practice has long been recognised. I would like to see us asking philosophical and ethical questions just as easily about what we make. As a university of applied sciences, we drive changes in professional practice. From which human point of view exactly? What are the ethical implications? We must keep on asking these questions."
To get more information on the inaugural lecture, you can visit our website.