Technical Utopias

New Atlantis

Utopias are plans for a radically better place, a literary genre started by Thomas Moore. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis is the first of technical utopias. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and the Chamber of Inventions by Saint Simon are examples of technical utopias as the basis for political action.

Transhumanism & singularity


A clear contemporary expression of the utopian vision on technology are ideas such as transhumanism and technological singularity. The time is near that humanity will by technical enhancement enter a new phase of its evolution, surpass its poor situation and biological roots.

Modernistic city planning


Modernistic city planning provides some of the best examples of design driven by utopian goals of radical social change. Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier)

Nuclear bomb


With the nuclear bomb a technology has been contrived that is capable of destroying its maker. This is an emblematic technology for the dystopian conception of what technology can do to humanity.

Mechanization takes command


In the movie Modern Times by Charly Chaplin, he plays himself a factory worker who becomes a victim of the machine. He cannot follow the rhitme and is than swalowed. Design historian Giedeon gave this idea a poignant expression: mechanization takes command.

Social housing (lelystad)


City planning of the twentieth century was often inspired very much by socialist ideas. In many cases the dreamed of perfect societies were not realized but the new cities rapidly became centers of crime, poverty and segregation. Infamous is the example of Pritt-Igou, built in the 1950’s but demolished in the mid-1970s.



The Panopticon prison design by Jeremy Bentham was a utopian vision on all-visibility and the disapearance of irrationality and vice. The utopian vision of Bentham has for many people today, in the digital age, collapsed into a dystopian fear for continuous surveillance and control.

Waste & environment


In the course of the twentieth century the downside of industrial production has become clear. The consumer society not simply brings improvement for everybody but along with it waste and the environmental crisis. (Manufactured Landscapes, Edward Burtinsky photography)

Originary technicity

Building Blocks 1

“Building Blocks” by Kumi Yamashita nicely expresses the fundamentally mediated character of the human being. A human figure appears as a shadow of technical building blocks, without any pre-technical original.



“Intimacy” is a dress that becomes transparent when the wearer is aroused. An artistic exploration by Daan Roosegaarde into intimacy between humans and  technology.


“Post-industrielle Spontanvegetation” is the poetic phrase used for the phenomenon in the German Ruhrgebiet where nature has reinvested deserted factories.



The term cyborg is a combination of cybernetics and organism. The artist Stelarc suggests and/or investigates if this is the future evolution of humans.

Endless mediation


Every theory has its technical a priori, asserted Friedrich Kittler. He noted that Michel Foucault, who was a pioneer of thinking about material conditions, could or did not see how his own approach of an “archeology of knowledge” was itself the result of his research in libraries.

Remote control


This universal remote control has way too many buttons. It was even unclear what  was the front side. This problem was solved by putting the sticker from an apple (in the spirit of Donald Norman’s calls to apply “affordances” in design).

Car doorhandle


Car door handles are easy to use. According to usability expert Donald Norman users will easily understand what action of use this design affords. The appearance of the grip coincides with their way of handling, namely by extending the gripping gesture.

Paris bicycle lane


If the curve in this bike lane makes you smile it may also make you wonder to what extent all our movements and actions actually follow lines and obstacles in our environment.

Walking strips for the blind


A very clear example of how technology can guide and give directions. Also the example makes clear that whereas the eye is the dominant sense for reading information other senses can collect info too.

Pimped car


You may identify yourself with tproducts that match your style, but your very identity may also be shaped in the process. Anthropologist Daniel Miller (2010) provides an example from Trinidad, where in the 1980’s car  tuning was very popular, and people were often known and referred to by their cars (Miller 2010, 104).


TwingoCustomize your car to your own style, was the message of a recent publicity campaign. Technology can match your style and your way of being, so that you can identify as much as possible with the products you use. Since a few decades lifestyle has become an important category in marketing and design.

Design of a lifestyle

Publicity employs the figure of identification. Renzo Rosso, owner of Diesel jeans, said: “We don’t sell a product, we sell a style of life. I think we have created a movement… The Diesel concept is everything. It’s the way to live, it’s the way to wear, it’s the way to do something”

Gendered style


The first microwaves were dark colored and later they became white. This corresponds with a change of target group for marketing: first as “toys for boys” and later as kitchen appliences. An example from gender studies example (Cockburn & Omrod).

Product as symbol


The symbolic meaning of a product can also be used for helping people to understand a product and guide their behavior. The sigaret form makes clear here is an astray for cigarets at the entrance of a shop.

Piano Stairs


After transforming the stairs in a swedish metro station into a piano 66% more of the people chose to take the stairs. (see on youtube)

Choice and nudge


Technology can “nudge” people according to Thaler & Sunstein prestructure our choices. If this is so, they ask, what does that imply for the display of food in a school cafetaria? Profitable snacks in the from, or healthy food?

Escalator teaches a lesson


Persuasion to save energy


Persuading speedometer


The speedometer does not give neutral feedback about speed, but also teaches a lesson: respect the maximum speed here!

Speed bump


A clear example of technology that by physical obstruction coerces humans behavior is the speed bump. Anthropologist and philosopher Bruno Latour analyses that such a case morality is delegated to technology. The decision making proces is short cut.

Shopping cart with anti-theft lock


These anti theft shopping carts have a lock at the left front wheel that is activated when the cart passes the red dotted line. A clear example delegated morality (Bruno Latour) or moralizing devices (Hans Achterhuis).

Enforced watching to the left


This fence makes people walk in a S-curve and thereby enforces watching to the left. In London this important for people from the continent, who are not accustomed to cars driving on the left of the road.

Machine operation safety


Enforced behavior is applied in design for safety with god reason. Here a dangerous machine must be operated with two hands, so that one cannot cut one hand with one’s other hand.

Long Island low overpasses


A famous example of coercive technology comes from philosopher Langdon Winner. He recounts that the overpasses on Long Island were designed low to keep away busses and poor people and thus were a vehicle for a racist ideology.

Embodied technologies


Technologies that you can handle without thinking, as if they were your own bodily members, are said to have become embodied. Good examples are a pencil or a bike. They structure one’s action, but this does not feel like coercion.

Playing a musical instrument


Musical instruments are also embodied. Playing music with an instrument feels as an enrichment, not as confinement.

Ballet shoes


Ballet shoes, when the technique is mastered, enable to walk on one’s toes: an activity impossible without this embodied technical product.

Marching army


Mediated gestures are not experienced as coercive. A coercive element of embodiment become visible by thinking back to the training necessary to produce the tuning of body and technology.

Driving a car (simulator)


In this driving simulator tests were conducted to find out how smart assistent systems should communicate with the driver. One option was a nudge from the steering wheel.

Supermarket Coffee


Lovely smell of bread in the supermarket




Alphabet effect


Proto-Sinaïtische symbols on a tablet (circa 1.500 voor Christus). The invention of the alphabet is a condition for developing an analytic stance and for abstract, logical thinking.



Jeremy Bentham invented around 1791 the Panopticon, a building principle for ubiquitous inspection. He claimed that such surveillance would engender and moral conscience. A subject loses the power but also the will to do wrong.



CCTV is a present day partial realization of Bentham’s Panopticon idea in public spaces. The question is what subjects it conditions: everybody save, confident and free, or rather everybody a potential criminal?

Public transport gates


The introduction of e-payment in public transport makes aware of how different systems, technical environments condition traveling activities in different ways. A gain of flexibility at the price of gates and coupling to databases.

Blue light


In an environment of blue light one can no longer recognize blue. Applied in toilets this is a measure against using drugs by needle.

Continents orientations

Jared Diamond

As Jared Diamond (1997) claims, the difference in orientation of the continents explains differences in cultural exchange and pace of development of the civilization in the Americas and Eurasia.

Caravans and Islam


The spread of Islam corresponds with the extension of old caravan routes and caravanserai organisation (McNeill 1988). Religious conversion has of to do with the content of the message, but apparently also with material and organisational factors.



While the car is invented for fast transportation, when everybody has a car the technology gets overheated, or a reversal effect occurs: to many cars make a traffic jam (Marschall McLuhan). This effect is not the result of our direct interaction with a car, but is an indirect system effect, behind-our-backs.



Now everybody has a car, and would be relieved of having to walk, many people start jogging, noted Regis Debray. Ease of transport and longing for fitness appear as two conflicting trends.

The news & remediation


In the succession of media/technologies, often the new media first imitates its predecessor. A news webpage looked like a newspaper, but introduced hyperlinks. Today the news papers prolongs its existence by adopting aspects of websites: tabloid format and “read further on page…”

Glasses & printing press


Without glasses never the succes and huge influence of the printing press. Both inventions of the late middle ages reinforce each other, go together in the same trend towards great importance of reading and information.

utopian technology

In the course of the twentieth century the belief in the miracles of technology was undermined by the advent of the nuclear bomb, environmental problems, and oppressing bureaucracy. The shocking discovery was that technological progress comes at a price. There is no technology that simply liberates people, but technology appeared to make people dependent and it seemed hard to keep technical developments under control. The overall conception of technology reversed from utopian to dystopian (cf. Achterhuis 1998). The dystopian exemplary mediation effect is that all technology is likely to accumulate into a system that dominates humanity.

dystopian technology

From the Enlightenment up to well into the twentieth century the dominant conception of technology as a whole was very positive, sometimes utopian. Technology was seen as a panacea, ready and waiting to be discovered and developed by humanity. The role of technology as a necessary mediator of human progress was first systematically developed by Kapp (1877). Applying Hegel’s dialectical scheme to the relation between humans and technology, he found that humans gain self-understanding only after they have reproduced themselves in technological extensions. The skeleton became to be seen as a mechanism; the heart was defined as a pump; and nowadays the brain is compared to a computer.

ambivalent hybridity

Beyond utopian belief and dystopian despair (cf. Achterhuis 1998) in contemporary “empirical”, or “practice oriented” philosophy of technology the idea has come to prevail that humanity has long been knitted together with technologies: hand-axe, clothing, housing, cars, smartphones. We cannot possibly exist without technology. Many people may have a nostalgic longing for the material culture and technologies from their childhood or the time of their parents and grandparents. But that’s still very different from becoming independent, free of technology.


One type of technical mediation in the before-the-eye quadrant is guidance. Products give users suggestions about possible use. A well-known concept that helps understanding impacts on behaviour through cognitive suggestion is affordance. Donald Norman, a pioneering scholar in cognitive ergonomics, took the notion of affordance from the field of environmental psychology and elaborated it in the context of design. Affordances, in the applied sense of Norman, are the use action possibilities that users recognise when they perceive products (Norman 1988). The concept of affordance helps to analyse how buttons, grips, displays, meters, ribs, etcetera, all physical features, are cognitively associated with possible actions, uses.

Lifestyle / Identification

Products can contribute to fashioning peole as they identify themselves with and through technologies. People choose products that fiit their style, and thereby those products help to shape and express the identity, the self of people. This exemplary mediation effect can best be categorized in the cognitive interaction quadrant. Daniel Miller’s approach of Material Culture Studies, offers the best example of technical mediation as identification with and through technologies. Miller claims, that by using technology people express themselves. They do not just represent what was already there, for in the act and interaction with technology they also create themselves. He asserts that “objects make us, in the very same process that we make them” (Miller 2010, 60).


Persuasion is another type of influence through cognitive interaction. Compared to guidance, persuasion can be characterised as a stronger type of influence on behaviour. In this case the user guiding effect goes beyond supporting existing, conscious goals: it reminds people of values or intends to teach new ones. This effect was elaborated by B.J. Fogg (2003) with the concept of persuasive technology. Central in Fogg’s approach is the captivation of attention (taken from rhetorics). Persuasion thus focuses on effects that work cognitively, by addressing user’s decision making processes.


A concept that helps exploring effects of more or less coercive physical influences, is delegation as elaborated by Latour (1992). Many everyday products enforce a certain behaviour on humans. Latour wittily discusses a speed bumps making car drivers slow down, door grooms ensuring that doors are being closed, and hotel keys with heavy key fob disciplining hotel guests to leave the keys at the hotel desk. Technologies carry scripts with them, guiding users it like a movie script helps actors. When products guide humans, Latour thinks this implies the delegation of morality from people to products.

mediated gestures

Products can coerce physical gestures, but they can also structure gestural routines in more subtle ways. Products such as pencils or a bikes are used without much thought. And if one does think about it, they are rather experienced as comfortably integrated and empowering, than as constraining. Still, these technologies do constrain, or structure human activities. Historical studies into discipline (Foucault 1977), concerning learning to write at school for example, bring to the fore that many everyday skills depend on much training that is afterwards mostly forgotten.

subliminal affect

Subliminal affect denotes behavior steering effects of technology (such as attraction or dislike) by smells, noise or by images that works subconscious. Even if there is no physical contact, this effect is still best categorized in the to the-hand-quadrant. There is resemblance with interaction before-the-eye in the sense that cues are conveyed. Unlike interaction in the before-the-eye quadrant conscious cognition is however not involved. Instead, affection occurs by subliminal tuning to the triggers from the environment. There is also resemblance with indirect behind-the-back influences, because direct interaction is hardly perceived.

environmental conditioning of subjectivity

The figure of “environmental conditioning of subjectivity” designates the effects that people’s point of view regarding the world and themselves is implicated by the technologies and material setting of our environment. It ıs one of the effects of technology behind-the-back and is concerned with how the technical environment implicitly conditions people’s subjectivity. In the modern west (17th to 20th century), human self-understanding emphasized self-consciousness, individuality and autonomy. In modern philosophy, the  autonomous subject was often considered as a pre-given concept that should be necessarily assumed.

technical determination

Zooming out and looking from a very large historical distance renders the intentions and efforts of individual people, or even humanity altogether, ever less relevant. Our strivings are clearly limited by environmental conditions. They also have a more profound influence, favoring certain directions and paths of human history, almost pulling history into that direction. Or, as Marshall and Eric McLuhan (1988) affirmed, technological environments can function as a “formal cause” of human activities. This means that the technical environment is, in this figure, not exactly the driving force of history (efficient cause) but it forms the direction in which the driving forces necessarily drive it into.


Understanding the course of technical evolution has been an important theme from the early period in the philosophy of technology on. For example, an internal logic of evolution with regard to the theme of technology extensions of humans was being formulated: mechanical tools as extending bodily members; machines as exteriorizing nutrition and blood circulation; information technology as projecting the nervous system. Other scholars have rather described patterns and trends in the evolution of technologies by focusing on the concrete adventures of the mutual adaptation which occurs when new technologies and existing cultural habits clash and have to be reconciled.

above-the-head (abstract)

Typical of many philosophical investigations into technology, such as Heidegger’s famous essay The Question Concerning Technology (1977), is that the essence of technology is sought beyond particular, concrete technologies. In such an abstract philosophical approach there is no demonstrable contact point between technology and humans. The effects occur above the head. The philosophical approach deserves credit for having first discovered the importance of technology’s transformative effects. Furthermore, abstract figures of technical mediation are and remain relevant for understanding and criticising general appreciations of technology that inform attitudes towards technology (of designers, policy makers, as of users as well).


before-the-eye (cognitive)

The before-the-eye quadrant denotes interaction where technology makes contact to the human decision making faculty. The more common design term of cognitive interaction may also be used (with reference to cognitive and physical ergonomics). In this quadrant, products can influence behaviour by giving signs (arrows, texts, light signals, beeps) which are input in the decision making process of users. The quadrant is named after the eye, because for our cognition the eye is typically the dominant sense for communicating with the world. (Hearing, touch or even smell can do this too, but typically these senses function rather by tuning subconsciously with the world.) The point is that in the before-the-eye category cognition and conscious decision making play a role in the determination of action.

behind-the-back (environment)

The category of environmental influences concerns exemplary technical mediation effects that do not contact users directly, either their body or their mind, but the effect reaches people, as it were, behind their back. It concerns indirect effects from the material, technical environment. In this quadrant are collected examples of real, concrete cases of influence of technology on humans, but there is not exactly a use situation, no actual user-product interaction. In this case technology does not influence the decisions or bodily gestures, by direct contact, but has an implicit influence by forming the environmental setting. Changing and designing the environmental setting is only possible to a limited degree. However, an exploration of the effects of technology behind-the-back does help to grasp trends that may converge or conflict.

to-the-hand (physical)

The most direct type of influences of technologies on humans is that of physical behavior steering effects. The behavior guiding effect occurs to-the-hand, where the hand represents the body, its gestures and affects. Typical is that the decision making process is largely short-cut. Influences by physical interaction in the form of technical obstructions such as fences, locks, etcetera can be found everywhere. “Designing is throwing obstacles in other people’s way”, affirms Vilém Flusser (1999, 59). The application is widespread and uncontroversial where there is a broad consensus about the need of behavior correction as in the case of safety. In less obvious cases designers and policy makers would naturally go for influencing user decisions and not their bodily gestures.

utopian technology
dystopian technology ambivalent hybridity


technical determination
environmental conditioning

mediated gestures
subliminal affect