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Embodiment As a Guard Against Transparent Technologies [0]

Svein Sando, Cand. Theol.
Assistant Professor at Queen Maud's College for Early Childhood Education, Thoning Owesens gate 18, N-7044 Trondheim, Norway


Communication technologies (ICT) strive to be regarded as transparent in the respect that the technology presents itself as a mean to immediacy. This transparency is experienced from the user, but judged from an external position; the communication is not immediate but remediated. The relation between people using ICT is a relation between disembodied persons, but the transparency tends to make the users believe that they are embodied. Disembodiment is ethically problematic because our restraint in offending each other is partly tuned by bodily presence. Close sensible relations between people reveal our vulnerability and thus make us bashful against each other. This bashfulness and restraint is a guard against offending each other. Bashfulness presupposes embodiment. The significance of embodiment as ethical important is underpinned from a Christian point of view by the importance of incarnation in Christian theology. It is an incarnate embodied God that is wounded on the cross, and by that act brings atonement for sin.

Books written by David Rothenberg, Jay Bolter, Richard Grusin, Hubert Dreyfus and Knud Løgstrup inspired me to write this paper.


Three books have made me think on some technologies as transparent tools in which we think we grasp the surrounding realities as real, and that this transparency, if it exists, is ethically problematic because of the disembodiment it often imply. I will first present the three books, and finally discuss their ethical implications from both a common and a theological point of view.

Three contributions

David Rothenberg: "Hand's End" (1995)

Technology is the totality of artifacts and methods humankind has created to shape our relations to the world that surrounds us, modifying it into something that can be used and manipulated to submit to our needs and desires. The world changes as we learn to see it in new ways. And the way we see the world depends on how we use it. (Rothenberg p.xii)

Technology seems to be the most important interface in which we deal with out surroundings. This interface works both ways. We react upon nature through technology and great part of our understanding and interpretation of the nature are delivered to us through technology, at least in a high-tech society as the contemporary Western. Man is equipped with senses and limbs as a "natural" interface. Increasingly, however, we direct this natural interface towards technology, and less towards the nature as it is.

A theory of technology will be outlined here as an extension of humanity, examining how the use of tools tries to realize human intentions, while transforming these intentions in the process. ... technology never simply does what we tell it to, but modifies our notions of what is possible and desirable. (Rothenberg p.xiv)

Technology exists in the tension between what mankind wish and what is possible. Technology is at the frontier of experience. Technological experiences give insight in what is possible. The frontier, however, is not at all static, but is moved by means of an ever-changing technology. This is what most people call 'progress'.

Rothenberg's book is about "nature as technology reveals it to us" (p. xvi). Nature is thus interpreted by man through technology as a sort of spectacles. Ordinary spectacles are transparent. A fairly recent development of spectacles is contact lenses. These are almost invisible and unsensed, at least if they work properly and intended.

Contact lenses thus serve as a double metaphor here: they are physically transparent and they are used as a mean of sensing the surroundings.

Inspired by Rothenberg, I think one can say that at least some technologies aims at transparency. They are not transparent in a physically matter like contact lenses, but in such way that the user seems to neglect the technology itself. Instead she focuses on how "technology reveals nature to us", to put in the words of Rothenberg. This transparency is especially noticeable in the electronic medias. Bolter and Grusin explicitly discuss this in the book "Remediation":

Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin: "Remediation. Understanding New Media" (1999)

… the goal of virtual reality is to foster in the viewer a sense of presence: the viewer should forget that she is in fact wearing a computer interface and accept the graphic image that it offers as her own visual world. (Bolter & Grusin p.22)

Bolter & Grusin says, however, that this wish for transparency has been part of the media technology for a long time. Albrecht Dürer noted that 'perspective' means to "see through" (p.24). The visual artists until the 19th century, when the photography changed their working conditions, aimed at reproducing the nature in a way that man through the technology of painting, could be mentally moved "into" picture, not unlike virtual reality (VR) today.

The modern media, like TV, VR and "ordinary" computer games, seems to regard the transparent unmediated (re)presentation as both possible and wanted:

… computer graphics experts, computer users, and the vast audience for popular film and television continue to assume that unmediated presentation is the ultimate goal of visual representation and to believe that technological progress toward that goal is being made. (p.30)

Hubert Dreyfus: "On the Internett" (2001)

The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus discusses the problems of transparency of ICT in his new book "On the Internet". He is very sceptical to the vision held by some Internet enthusiasts that our future lives may be lived to a great part in cyberspace where the goal is disembodiment and ubiquity. Contrary, he finds that embodiment (widely understood) to be important to withstand "loss of the ability to recognize relevance", reduced ability to "acquire skills", "loss of a sense of the reality of people and things", and a "life without meaning" (Dreyfus p.7). One of his arguments against telepresence through advanced electronic communication as an adequate substitute for real presence is lack of access to the whole physical context of the other person. Disembodiment also makes touching of each other impossible, and cannot be replaced by robotic substitutes.

Studies of infant children suggest that physical contact between the child and other humans is mandatory to normal development. The body thus seems to be of more importance to us that just being a container for our spirit or intellect.

Some ethical issues on technology in general and ICT especially

By the contributions of Rothenberg, Bolter and Grusin, it seems to me that the new media technology offers a possibility of making itself invisible in a way that we are mislead to believe that immediacy is both possible and desirable. This goal of transparency is ethically problematic because the reality is filtered through something we are supposed to believe are transparent, which at best is only semitransparent.

On the other hand, technology represents a kind of reality in it self (machines) which can be experienced, used, evaluated etc. In this case, however, the focus is on the technology as technique. In this case the transparency as the ordinary user may experience (or ought to experience from the viewpoint of the promoters of this technology), becomes opaque.

This shift between transparency and opaque may be some of the reasons why computer engineers seldom find their products ethically problematic, while people who evaluate the same technology in its transparent fashion do see such problems. What is opaque is visible and attracts attention. But the visible metal boxes, electronic circuits and computer source codes on a paper or a screen is hardly ethically challenging with a too close point of view. Even if the constructors of a technology aims at the use of this technology, what is at hand for the constructors is in first hand this technology in its visible and ethically less problematic fashion. The end user, however, experiences the same technology in its transparent fashion and have to live with all the ethically consequences which are made possible by this technology.

It seems to me that a technology that strives to be transparent is ethically dangerous because the ethical focus is removed away from the technology and is at most focused on the use of it by the end user or from other external people. Moreover, transparency is ethically problematic because such technologies do not bring us in an immediate contact with reality and nature, but remediates it often without making this clear.

Dreyfus gives an analysis of ICT that takes my view further by using the concepts 'disembodiment' and 'embodiment'. The concept 'transparent technology' is a way to describe the technology from the user's point of view. The concept 'disembodiment' is an external perspective of it. The user may think the ICT is so transparent that he can communicate with other persons as if they were present, which is as if they were embodied. However, from an external, analytic point of view the transparency is false with respect of embodiment. At the contrary, the person with whom one communicates through ICT is disembodied. This figure illustrates it:

Why is disembodiment ethically problematic? I will use the rest of this paper to discuss this. I will to some extent support my discussion on the ethics and the sensation metaphysics of the Danish theologian and philosopher, prof. Knud E. Løgstrup (1905-1981):

Løgstrup's bashfulness and restraint

In his metaphysics, Løgstrup uses the phenomenon 'restraint' (Da.: tilbageholdenhed) to say what Western culture lacks in order to act ethically towards nature. In replace of restraint, we conquer the nature in order to meet our needs. 'Restraint' is described with words as "shame and shyness, respect and recognition, bashfulness and modesty" (Løgstrup 1995 p.44). The concept is very similar to the concept 'bashfulness' (Da.: bluferdighed), which he uses in his earlier writings on ethics (Løgstrup 1991:29, 1966:53-66). Restraint is combined with sensation in order to behave ethically. The basic ethical phenomena like confidence are tuned by sensing The Other and thus restrain one in being shameless. Sensation of the embodiment of The Other is therefore important in order to behave ethically towards one another. Disembodied communication is therefore to some degree ethically risky.

Theologically underpinned discussion

So far, I have argued without making any theological claims. Let us se, however, with basis in Christian theology, how we can extend our ethical analysis within this framework.

Starting with the incarnation of the Son in Jesus Christ, one ought to notice that God regards both creation and body as a suitable container for our Saviour. Moreover, salvation was fulfilled through a carnal sacrifice. The creation of the world, the nature and humans included, was in Gen 1 considered to be "very good" (NIV). Nature and bodies then seem to play an important and positive evaluated role in Christianity, despite Christians from time to time having overemphasized the spirit and located sin often primarily to the body. The reason for this may be bad influence from neo-Platonism and Gnosticism.

Consider the claim that you can't sin or behave unethically against bodiless or disembodied entities. Is it possible to offend a pure idea? You can oppose it, but will that be considered immorally, whatever hard you try to defeat an idea? Hardly. There is, however, one Christian exception to this, namely sin against The Holy Spirit (Marc 3.29) that is explicitly named as non-forgivable sin. But since The Holy Spirit is part of the trinity and since The Son is incarnated with a body, then trinity is more than embodied. This is however a special case. More interesting in our context is to test the hypothesis for the case of "ordinary" entities in this created world.

One counterexample might be to claim that you can offend my person by offending my immaterial values or my ideas. I will refute in saying that the offence of these values or ideas will be sensed in my body. When I am offended, I feel it with my psychosomatic body. To be hurt is sensed within my embodiment.

Viewed from a theologically positions, this may be a hint to understand why atonement for sin was only possible for an incarnate God. I do not know how God feels being offended, but I know that physically or psychic assault is primary linked to my body, not my spirit. The spirit or intellect may convey the offence, but it resides either in my nerves or in my flesh.

If this holds, disembodied persons on the e.g. Internet are more or less regarded as invulnerable because the possible offender doesn't see any body to hurt. My ongoing research on ICT-students seems to underpin a claim that it is a lower threshold in offending faceless and bodiless peoples on the Internet (chat, newsgroups, e-mail) than what happens in a normal face-to-face discussion. The body is important for us to prevent unethically actions. This way of seeing it seems to be in agreement with the ethics of E. Levinas, which claims that the face is a significant barrier against evil acts. And of course, Løgstrup's focus on bashfulness and restrain works in the same direction.

Assuming this, technologies which either shields our bodies out, or remediates it (and the created nature as well) in a way that makes it less vulnerable, is ethically problematic because one remove an important barrier against acting bad against each other is removed. Vulnerability is probably by most people considered to be something that we must handle with care. The more vulnerable, the more careful handling. Our own needs and tendency to conquer in order to meet those needs must to some extent be put aside in meeting the vulnerable. Løgstrup thinks we should expand our normal attitude of restraint towards closely related persons (which we know are vulnerable) even to the nature as a whole (which in our culture by most are considered to be free to conquer and explore). We sometimes use terms like "wounds in the landscape" that shows that we should be able to consider the nature as a whole to be embodied and thus vulnerable and thus something we have ethical obligations towards. Or to put it the other way around: because the nature is material and embodied, it is vulnerable and has status as ethical objects.

Technologies that reduce our feelings with the embodiment of objects thus put those objects in an ethically more risky position since embodiment and vulnerability act together in making us more ethically observant and responsible.

This does not mean that our dealing with transparent and remediating technologies should all together cease, but must at least be compensated with a greater understanding and alertness when using such technologies, so that we do not harm or offend the objects in which the technology puts us at a distance to. Close embodied relations between people are challenging, partly because it put restraint on our acting, or at least ought to do so. Use of technologies that increase the distance between people and make them disembodied and at the same time communicable, may be a temptation to not be committed to each other. In this respect using ICT puts us in an ethical risky situation.


Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin (2000)

Remediation. Understanding new media. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London

Dreyfus, Hubert L. (2001)

On the Internet. Routledge, London

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1966)

Kunst og etik. Gyldendal. København. (1st ed. 1961) (Eng.: Art and Ethics)

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1984)

Ophav og omgivelse. Betragtninger over historie og natur. Metafysik III, Gyldendal, København

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1991)

Den etiske fordring. Gyldendal. København. (1st ed. 1956) (Eng. translation: The Ethical Demand)

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1995)

Metaphysics. Volume II. Marquette University Press, Milwaukee. (Translation by Russell L. Dees of excerpts from "Ophav og omgivelse" [1984], "Vidde og prægnans" [1976], "Kunst og erkendelse" [1976] and "System og symbol" [1983])

Rothenberg, David (1995)

Hand's End. Technology and the Limits of Nature. University of California Press. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford


0) This paper was presented on the Ninth European Conference on Science and Theology, Nijmegen 19.-24.3.2002, arranged by the The European Society for the Study of Science And Theology

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