Digital Technology and Cultures/Phenomenology and Autonomous Vehicles

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Phenomenology is a tradition of theory that explores phenomena through human experience (Husserl 1982). The word phenomenology is rooted in the combined meaning of the Greek words “logos” and “phenomena”: the art and practice of letting things show themselves (Heidegger 1927). Thanks to the work and concepts of 20th-century philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Alfred Schutz phenomenology has, as a discipline, fully came into its own. It is distinct from but related to other key disciplines in philosophy, such as ontology, epistemology, logic, and ethics (Smith 2003). In our modern ever technologically advancing society, phenomenology is more relevant than ever. Under the guise of qualitative research, phenomenology is used to study and analyze how humans interact and experience technology. One example of this is the way in which humans perceive self-driving and autonomous automobiles.

French Phenomenologist Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes perhaps the most sustained argument for the elemental role perception plays in how humans understand and engage with the world around them (Merleau-Ponty 1968). How might autonomous vehicles succeed if they take away the perception that we as humans are no longer in control? How much does the fear of AI and technology taking over the world have to do with our perception of reality? How are autonomous vehicles/self-driving cars altering our perceptions of reality and our perceptions of control? Are humans afraid of their world becoming less real? In the past quarter of a century, the move away from direct, material connectivity to what we often call “wireless” technology (Philosophy of Technology 2012) has left some feeling less materially connected and less in control. Because of these questions and assumptions, extensive research on the meanings of particular experiences for drivers/passengers as time goes on will serve to benefit the widespread usage of autonomous vehicles and the comfort of the humans using them. This is especially important because the potential benefits of this technology can only be realized once self-driving cars are adopted en masse (Howard and Dai 2014).

As self-driving cars become more prevalent, the public is demanding more information about how automated vehicles will coexist with current cars and predict human behavior. Phenomenology may be used to study how passengers and drivers perceive not being in control and figure out how artificial intelligence might be implemented to adapt to the various nuances in human interactions with autonomous vehicles. One of the debates posed by self-driving cars involves the fear over loss of our autonomy. Automobiles and our understanding of independence are so deeply connected. However, that could fade when we experience the loss of control of their systems (Brogan 2016). By analyzing this new technology in a phenomenological way we can see more clearly how the self-driving car isn’t that much different from the invention of the railroad train centuries ago. This is because as Verbeek and Marshall McLuhan have pointed out, "technologies can be mediators of experience". Rather than distancing us further and further away from reality, they help shape our relationship with it. With each new technology comes the potential to create new forms of very real human engagement (Verbeek 2002).


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Edmund Husserl 1910s
Edmund Husserl 1910s

Edmund Husserl: The founder of phenomenology. Most phenomenological works either directly or indirectly link back to the original work of the Austrian-born German philosopher. According to Husserl’s phenomenology, our experience is directed toward—represents or “intends”—things only through particular concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, etc. These make up the meaning or content of a given experience and are distinct from the things they present or mean (Smith 2003).

"All consciousness is consciousness of something"
— Husserl


Martin Heidegger: A 20th-century German existential phenomenologist especially concerned with Ontology and the meaning of "being". His later work focused on the cultural impact of technology by which he exposed the limitations of mediated representation. He was also a known member of the Nazi party from 1933 until the party's demise in 1945. Heidegger never publicly apologized for his involvement with the Nazi Party and is only known to have expressed regret once, privately. Because of this, his relation between his philosophy and National Socialism are still highly controversial.

“This techne as a form of revealing has in the modern world been replaced by technology as a form of control that offers human beings a picture of the world in which they hold dominion or mastery. ”
— Heidegger

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: French 20th phenomenologist philosopher who was influenced by the work of Husserl and Heidegger. He emphasizes the foundational role perception plays in understanding the world and the centrality that the body plays in perception. In contrast to his contemporaries, he believed that it is through our bodies and sensation that we perceive and experience things; that we are embodied subjects, involved in existence.

"The perceiving mind is an incarnated mind"
— Merleau-Ponty

Phenomenologist Philosopher Alfred Schutz
Phenomenologist Philosopher Alfred Schutz

Alfred Schutz: Alfred Schutz work focuses on Social Phenomenology which involves the social construction of reality. He studied Husserl's work intensively in seeking a basis for a sociology of understanding. His work resulted in a book entitled Der sinnhafte Aufbau der sozialen Welt (The meaningful construction of the social world) which was published in English as The Phenomenology of the Social World. He is also known for his theoretical contribution of dividing the lifeworld into four subcategories. The theory of the lifeworld is that social experience creates a world that is separated from social reality that has been directly experienced and social reality that is on the horizon of direct experience.

Key Concepts

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Consciousness: the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself.

Embodiment: Refers to experience mediated through a body.

Intentionality: According to Husserl intentionality is aboutness or directedness as exemplified by conscious mental acts.

Lifeworlds: The intersubjectivity of knowing. As an observer, we can only interpret the experience of one another through our own meaning context, based on limited access to objectively see another person's stream of life activity (Schutz 1967).

Locus of Control: The locus of control is a framework for understanding people's perception of the controlling factors in their lives. Having an Internal locus of control can also be referred to as "self-agency", "personal control", "self-determination", etc. Those with an external locus of control attribute outcomes of events to external circumstances. Externals tend to believe that the things which happen in their lives are out of their control. They are also more prone to depression (Locus of Control Wiki 2017).

Perception: Phenomenology is primarily concerned with external perception but to a degree internal and mixed perception as well. External perception or sensory perception is the way we process the world around us — everything outside of our body. Internal perception tells us what is going on within our bodies. Mixed perception is that which is oriented with our moods and emotions.


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