Physical Distance is Social Distance.

Let’s work on being-together again.

(Photographer unknown)

Suddenly we became aware again of one another and of the things about us. People emerged from their seclusion and anonymity through their heroism, their selfless exertions, through acts of kindness and sometimes simply through the acknowledgment of tears and consolations.

— Borgmann (after 9/11)

Somewhere mid March I read a statement on a social media platform that read: “we should not talk of social distancing, we should talk of physical distancing, because we need the social contact, for our health and well-being”. While everyone seemed to understand immediately what was meant with this statement, I felt it could not be both more close to and at yet the same time further from the truth. Variations of this empathic call returned in my timeline in the days to come, and everyone agreed: let’s not forget to make social contact, especially with those we know as prone to loneliness and depression. As best as we could, we made contact with our loved ones, using all creative means available, through skype, tik tok video’s, a voice on the phone, mailing packages with little gifts to offer a bit of comfort, to show empathy, to make it clear we were still there, or here, but in any case: for each other, even if physically apart. 

To think social interaction can be delivered through a screen is perhaps the biggest delusion of our times.

The Corona crisis has put so much of our everyday world up on its head that it would be a shameful waste to let it pass without reflecting more deeply on some of the things we had, up to now, simply assumed to be true and unchangeable. This is not only the time to fight a virus, it is also a time to reconsider some things we took for granted. But to do that we typically first need some space and opportunity to take a step back from our daily lives, and look at it with fresh eyes and wonder. And boy, how these times offer that opportunity, in abundance. Personally, I have felt reflections about human life, the planet, society, economy, health, communication, technology, hit me in rays of ongoing fire so fast and rich that I simply cannot process them all, and I fear that most of it will be lost before I ever get the chance of writing it down. Yet there is one thought that stuck with me, because it is close to my heart, and this has to do with this call to dissociate physical from social distance. Some, especially some of those living in the Bay Area and comparable places of technological futurism, may hope that the crisis will mean the final transformative breakthrough of a completely digital, online life, whether it concerns shopping, education, the office, and even being with friends. Forced to use digital technologies and screens exclusively to do the things that up to now still had a physical, embodied counterpart in the real world, we may think that this will indeed be the time to leave the physical world for good: the world where your feet are located will be useful purely for that purpose: to store your fleshy behind, while at the same time, we meet, interact, trade and educate ourselves in virtual, digital spheres. And these people may very well be right. But if you ask me, it would really be the worst that could happen.

If anything good comes out of the Corona crisis, I hope, it will be that we in fact uncover the shallowness of the digital, and the poverty of the interaction provided by the screens that come along with it.

Instead, if anything good comes out of the Corona crisis, I hope, it will be that we in fact uncover the shallowness of the digital, and the poverty of the interaction provided by the screens that come along with it. The crisis has the potential to surface not a triumph of the virtual, but rather the deep necessity of our physicalbeing-together. Yes, it is true, we do need the social contact: people are social beings, even if we express our particular forms of social needs in a rich diversity of ways. And so the social media statement I quoted is absolutely right: we should not sociallyisolate ourselves, because social isolation, eventually, means death. Even if there is the odd person that can, and wishes to be on their alone for a very long time — and to be sure, such persons are known to exist, and perhaps even more than we think — still it is evident that for the vast majority of human beings social contact is as essential to their survival as the air they breathe. On the other hand, the social media statement is also very wrong to dissociate the idea of physical distance and social distance. To continue the analogy: there is actually no ontological divide  – no difference in ‘kind of being’ – between social contact and the materiality of fresh air in our lungs. While we need both to survive, neither air, nor social interaction, can be fed to us through a wifi connection.

We are currently like divers, on pressed air, and we now have been under water for quite some time.

To think social interaction can be delivered through a screen is perhaps the biggest delusion of our times. Being on the internet is great for many purposes, but in terms of social interaction, it is a being-alone in the illusion of being together. Or rather – it is, at best, a temporal extensionof the actual being-together that grounds it. It works like stretching an elastic band, which can only go so far, and should certainly not be stretched all the time, for if so it will surely loose it’s capacity. We can keep it up for a while, but only because we compensate the loss with renewed physical contact with others. Usually we just about make it through, and then, just in time, we slip back into the actual world of people and things, and we replenish ourselves with relief. We play with our children, we visit our parents, we go to the party, the bar, the neighbors; we talk with the shop owner, the random person on the street. Standing in the street and experiencing people stepping back from you, because we need to be 1.5 meters apart, is not adding to this replenishing, it is killing it. Asking a person not to touch your dog because you are afraid the dog will carry the virus over: the same. It has to be done, today, and perhaps for a while longer, to fight the spread. But it is killing us in another way, on the long run. We are currently like divers, on pressed air, and we now have been under water for quite some time. Like divers, we need to resurface at some point, to take some deep breaths, filling our lungs with the real social interaction that implicates an actual physical being-together. Air – the air we breathe – is not compressed oxygen in a tube, as we now are so aware of, reading about the devastating consequences for those who have been artificially oxygenated for multiple weeks. Likewise, social contact is not the flickering image on a computer screen. It is not the sending of photos and messages and emoji’s on a chat channel. Being in social contact is not a matter of digital information exchange at all: it is about what it is, literally, a being-together. And since our being is not some internal, mental thing, but our whole being, which is to say, our entire living body that is in the world, being-together means living bodies being together. If we had slightly forgotten how to make sense of what that meant, we are now in the strange lucky/unlucky position that we can reappreciate it, because we feel it with a strength that cannot be denied. Physical distance issocial distance.

We are now in the unique position that the ‘digital society’, that we blindly stumbled into in the first decade of this century, is now so much amplified that we can finally see its true shallowness right before our eyes.

If it turns out that, given the developments of the Corona crisis, it would be impossible to survive without completely abandoning physical being-together, if government will call upon us to self-isolate, not for a month, or even three months, but a year, two years, a lifetime: that would be the real crisis. And that would be the crisis we cannot survive – even if it means we stop a virus from spreading. We can feel now, on each day, and on each occasion, the loss, what is missing. It eats on the inside. Each phonecall, skypecall, email, we feel it, we feel what it is about. Let’s take it seriously, this feeling. Perhaps self-isolation, for a while, is also good, in order to really feel it, not as this implicit aspect of everyday life, in which it creeps in slowly but goes unnoticed, like a pick-pocket. Let’s feel it hardcore: stay inside and only have contact with your family and friends through the screen. Try it, for weeks on end. Feel, how that really feels. We must turn to the countries with the strictest quarantine measures to ask: how does this feel? We are now in the unique position that the ‘digital society’, that we stumbled into in the first decade of this century is now so much amplified that we can finally see its true shallowness before our eyes. This feeling, the feeling of wanting to go and have a chat with the neighbours, to meet your dad, but not being able to, to resort once more to this shallow picking up of the phone, and feeling how it just doesn’t cut it – this is the feeling that you should remember, even if we beat the virus, which I have no doubt we will at some point. And if you do not feel it, I urge you to do some soul searching and refind it. Because it is there, somewhere, inside you. It may have been obscured with layers and layers of Cartesian delusion, the age-old delusion that ‘we’ are a virtual mind, not material together-beings.  It is obscured because you may have been brought up in a world that already tells you the lie from the very first day you see the light – which in your case was sadly enough most probably the flashlight of four or five iphones hanging over your crib. Let’s work on a cure and a vaccine for this virus. Yes we we need to self-isolate, to increase the capacity in our hospitals, to give anyone who becomes seriously ill the chance to survive if they need to survive on hospital oxygen, if, for a while, fresh air is not enough anymore. But let’s also work on a cure and vaccine against the virus that is the digital delusion that human value is a purely virtual thing. Let’s work on being-together again. Let’s put screens back to where they belong: in dedicated places, for dedicated tasks. Like hospital oxygen, paradoxically enough, we can use the internet for a good cause. We can use internet to strengthen ourselves, our whole bodies, so much that once the medicine has been delivered and the vaccins are being administered, and once, as we say, life returns to normal, we will have changed so much that we will simply close our laptops, put away our phones, and go out and meet each other again, to touch each other, hug, talk, be together and feel together. To take a deep breath, and be human again.

Robot Rights? Let’s talk about Human Welfare instead

Today Abeba Birhane and I tweeted out our paper on Robot Rights (and why we think the whole idea makes no sense). I am just posting it here so you can find it again if you need it.

The paper can be found here 

Neurodiversiteitsrede 2019 Ontwerpen voor Diversiteit.

ndpdUitgesproken op 18 Juni 2019 Raadhuis Amstelveen ter gelegenheid van Neurodiversity Pride Day
Jelle van Dijk

“Ik wil de Stichting Neurodiversiteit hartelijk danken voor deze uitnodiging.”

“In Forbes magazine vond ik onlangs een artikel over een wearable ontwikkeld door onderzoekers uit Britisch Columbia in de VS. Dit horloge voor autistische kinderen* is vergelijkbaar met huidige smartwatches en health-trackers die nu populair zijn. Het meet hartslag, lichaamstemperatuur en zweet respons en via een algoritme voorspelt het apparaat zogenaamde ‘melt-down’s, de heftige en beangstigende situaties van totale verlies van controle en paniek, waar autisten in terecht kunnen komen. Er zijn veel van dit soort producten: interactieve, ondersteunende technologie, in ontwikkeling. Een ander product waar ik over las van onderzoekers uit Philadelphia, is een wearable die de stereotype bewegingen zoals het ‘flapperen’ of ‘schommelen’ kan detecteren, bewegingen die vaak voorkomen bij mensen op het autisme spectrum. De onderzoekers van dit product beweren dat deze wearable kan helpen bij vroege diagnose en eveneens bij het voorspellen van melt-downs.

Wellicht denkt u – wat mooi toch, dat dit allemaal kan tegenwoordig. De techniek staat voor niets. En wie zou ‘meltdowns’ nou niet willen voorkomen? Toch ben ik vrij kritisch over dit soort producten. Ik ben er overigens wel degelijk van overtuigd dat interactieve technologie een nuttige functie kan hebben. Het gaat mij hier nu om de manier waarop we de technologie begrijpen en uitleggen, en dat heeft uiteindelijk invloed op hoe zo’n product nou precies wordt ontworpen, en gebruikt zal worden. In deze lezing zou ik u graag willen uitleggen wat ik denk dat er aan schort, en hoe nou juist Neurodiversiteit als uitgangspunt een heel ander perspectief zou kunnen bieden.

Met mijn studenten van de opleidingen Industrieel Ontwerpen en Creatieve Technologie aan de Universiteit Twente doen we vaak opdrachten die over dit soort onderwerpen gaan. We bedenken nieuwe concepten voor interactieve technologie die ons in het dagelijks leven zouden moeten helpen en we maken hier ook prototypes van. Ik richt me daarbij in het bijzonder op mensen met bepaalde cognitieve, sensorische en emotionele uitdagingen, met andere woorden: mensen, voor wie het dagelijks leven niet zo vanzelfsprekend en gemakkelijk verloopt als voor veel anderen.

De mogelijkheden van nieuwe technologie zijn enorm. En dan bedoel ik niet alleen apps op je smartphone. We hebben allerlei sensoren, waarmee we van alles kunnen meten. We hebben allerlei software waarmee data kunnen verwerken en de computer zelfs op eigen houtje dingen kunnen laten leren. We hebben allerlei vormen van feedback – natuurlijk via beeld en tekst op een scherm, maar ook licht in alle kleuren, geluid en spraak, trilling, beweging, warmte. We bouwen sociale robots die met ons praten alsof het menselijke gesprekspartners zijn. En we kunnen al deze sensoren en feedback verwerken in horloges, armbanden sleutelhangers, in je kleding, schoenen, wandelstok of handtas, in tafels, koelkasten, voordeuren kookplaten beddenspiralen en in een slimme waterfles – het houdt niet op.

Ik richt me vandaag in het bijzonder op mensen op het autisme spectrum. De vraag wordt vaak gesteld: hoe zou interactieve technologie autistische mensen kunnen helpen een ‘normaal leven’ te leiden? De zere plek, waar ik in deze lezing graag de vinger op zou willen leggen, komt uiteindelijk neer op de vraag: wat vinden we ‘normaal’? En bedoelen we met ‘normaal’ ook altijd: ‘wenselijk’? Helpt technologie ons om iedereen in zijn waarde te laten, helpt technologie ieder mens om zichzelf te zijn, hoe gek of raar dat soms ook kan lijken voor de ander, of gebruiken we technologie om het normale, het gemiddelde, het gewone, dat wat de grote algemene groep karakteriseert, af te dwingen? Het woord normaal betekent soms alleen: dat wat de meeste mensen doen of vinden. Het gemiddelde. Maar het woord ‘normatief’ is meestal meer dan dat: de norm, dat is niet alleen wat de meeste mensen doen of vinden – het is daarmee ook dat wat mensen idealiter zouden moeten doen of vinden. En daar zit voor mij het probleem. Want wie bepaalt nou precies wat ‘afwijkend’ gedrag is? Wie bepaalt wat normaal is en wat niet?

Helpt technologie ons om iedereen in zijn waarde te laten, helpt technologie ieder mens om zichzelf te zijn, hoe gek of raar dat soms ook kan lijken voor de ander, of gebruiken we technologie om het normale, het gemiddelde, het gewone, dat wat de grote algemene groep karakteriseert, af te dwingen?

Neem nou zo’n wearable die detecteert dat je met je handen zit te friemelen of te flapperen. Wanneer is ‘ingrijpen’ dan noodzakelijk? Wat moet dat ingrijpen dan precies inhouden? Gaat iemand dan zeggen: houd eens op met dat friemelen? Gaat het apparaat je proberen af te leiden met een spelletje of muziekje, zodat je even niet meer zit te wiebelen op je stoel? En is dat dan wenselijk? Want wellicht was dat friemelen wel precies wat jij op dat moment nodig had? Hoe weten we eigenlijk wat een autistisch kind nodig heeft? Op welke manier heeft dat kind daar zelf dan  ook nog een inbreng in?

De zaak is misschien ernstiger dan hij op het eerste gezicht lijkt. De filosoof Foucault maakte al jaren geleden een analyse van zijn huidige tijd, en wat hij toen schreef, op basis van een analyse van de manier waarop wij misdadigers straffen en disciplineren, is in mijn ogen alleen maar relevanter geworden. Nu voert het te ver om hier diep in te gaan op de filosofie van Foucault. Ik wil me beperken tot dat voor ons nu relevant is. Foucault laat zien hoe wij met behulp van technologie elkaar – niet alleen misdadigers, maar iedereen – steeds meer zijn gaan observeren. Met behulp van apparaten zijn we elkaar steeds meer in de gaten gaan houden, monitoren, ons gedrag aan scoren, in kaart brengen, registreren. Denk bijvoorbeeld aan het onderwijs, het voortdurende monitoren en verslagleggen van de prestaties van de kinderen, via toetsen en voortgangsrapporten, waar basisschool leerkrachten zo over klagen. Dat gaat hierover. Maar hij laat ook zien hoe deze gegevens gebruikt worden om de persoon die in de gaten wordt gehouden beter in de pas te laten lopen, te ‘normaliseren’. Op school wordt afwijkend gedrag geregistreerd, en op afwijkend gedrag wordt gehandeld. Ook dit is bekend: als je geen ‘problemen’ veroorzaakt, dat wil zeggen als je gedrag binnen het normale blijft – zul je veel minder snel opgemerkt worden. Impliciet is het gevolg dat het systeem – zelfs zonder dat individuele mensen dat nu zo graag willen – probeert om alle kinderen zoveel mogelijk in het ‘normale’ te krijgen. En technologie kan dat proces enorm versterken.

Ik zie tenminste drie specifieke manieren waarop ‘de norm’ wordt door middel van de technologie zoals we die zagen in de wearables waar ik het eerder over had.

1) De normativiteit in het meten.

Vergelijk de analyse van Foucault nu eens met de interactieve technologie in zo’n smartwatch. Het autistische kind wordt voortdurend gemonitored. Waar we ons steeds meer bewust van worden is dat zulke technologie nooit neutraal is. Je zou zeggen: ik meet toch enkel objectief het gedrag van het kind? Ik zeg toch niet dat ik daar nare dingen mee ga doen? Maar al op het moment dat ik jouw handflappers ga registereren, met een handflappersensor, breng ik al een heel normatief gedachtengoed met mij mee. Ik zeg impliciet: er is dus ‘normaal’ gedrag, dat hoef ik niet te meten (daar heb ik geen sensor voor), en er is ‘bijzonder’, niet ‘normaal’ gedrag, het handflapperen, en dat ga ik registreren. De handflappensensor zegt: handflapperen ‘is iets’ – iets dat afwijkt van ‘de rest van de dingen’. En alhoewel het strict genomen niet zo hoeft te zijn dat ik jouw handflappers afkeurenswaardig vind, ligt het gevaar in de praktijk natuurlijk wel degelijk op de loer. Ik vermoed dat autistische mensen direct snappen, wat ik hier bedoel. Maar voor de neurotypische mensen wellicht het volgende voorbeeld: stel dat ik elke keer als jij door je haar strijkt een knopje in zou drukken, en er zou op een grote teller een getal bij komen, dan zou jij je binnen de kortste keren afvragen: wat is er verkeerd met mijn haarstrijken? Mag ik soms niet door mijn haren strijken? Waarom wordt dat bijgehouden? Wat wil je met die data gaan doen? Het registreren van gedrag, wat voor gedrag dan ook, is altijd normatief, er is altijd al een ‘waarde’ die zit ingebakken in de technologie waarmee we werken.

2) De normativiteit in het selectief toepassen.

Als we iets uitzoomen is er nog iets anders aan de hand. Wiens hartslag en huidgeleiding gaan we nu meten met deze horloges? Zoals ik het begrijp, zullen de horloges gedragen worden door de autistische kinderen. Waarom eigenlijk? Waarom dragen de ouders en leerkrachten en therapeuten van de autistische kinderen het horloge niet evengoed? Is het niet net zo belangrijk, dat niet-autistische mensen iets leren over hun eigen lichamelijke respons op de gebeurtenissen? Door het horloge alleen aan het autistische kind te hangen, doen we opnieuw al een normatieve uitspraak: er is hier iets mis, en de oorzaak van het probleem ligt bij jou, niet bij ons. We willen je helpen, maar jij bent uiteindelijk de bron van de problemen. Opnieuw: ik overdrijf hier, maar ik wil graag eerst het punt duidelijk maken, voordat we uiteindelijk weer kunnen nuanceren, wat we zeker ook moeten doen.

3) De normativiteit in de consequenties.

De derde grote vraag is: zelfs als we de normativiteit van het registreren en meten voor het gemak even vergeten, waar worden deze data nu precies voor gebruikt? Worden ze gebruikt om het kind te helpen, met een probleem, waar het kind zelf, vanuit diens eigen beleving, last van heeft? Of gaan we deze data gebruiken om het kind te corrigeren, of te trainen? Of gaan we eigenlijk helemaal niet daadwerkelijk de communicatie aan met het kind maar willen we alleen een alarmbel, om ‘tijdig in te kunnen grijpen’? Willen we het kind beter begrijpen, zodat we ons er beter toe kunnen verhouden? Of willen we het repareren? En willen wij, omstanders het gedrag beter begrijpen, of willen we het kind helpen om zichzelf beter te begrijpen, of beter aan ons te kunnen tonen, wat het kind meent, dat wij zouden moeten begrijpen?

Als je de artikelen over wearables en andere, vergelijkbare, ‘assitive technologies’ doorleest dan ontdek je dat deze wearables: hoe ze werken, wat er nuttig aan is, zelden worden beschreven vanuit de beleving en het gezichtspunt van het kind zelf, maar vanuit het waardensysteem en vanuit de ogen van de omstanders. De ouders en bijvoorbeeld de juf in de klas, en de psycholoog, kunnen met deze apparaten afwijkend gedrag registreren en een meltdown zien aankomen, zodat zij tijdig kunnen ingrijpen. Zelfs als het apparaat gebruikt zou worden om het kind iets te leren, dan is mijn indruk dat het gebruikt zou worden om het kind te leren zich ‘normaal’ te gedragen. Zich aan te kunnen passen aan wat als ‘wenselijk’ en passend gedrag wordt beschouwd.

Misschien helpt het de kern van mijn zorg te begrijpen als we bedenken dat ergens diep onder al deze technologie, toch als basis de gedachte lijkt te bestaan: als het kind nu maar niet autistisch was geweest, dan hadden we het hele probleem niet gehad, en dan hadden we deze ondersteunende technologie ook niet nodig gehad. En daarmee wordt de bron van alle problemen uiteindelijk gezocht in het autisme. Wellicht lijkt u dit logisch. Maar dat is het niet. Het perspectief van neurodiversiteit verwerpt die gedachte. Terecht, in mijn ogen.

Neurodiversiteit als ontwerp-perspectief

Een perspectief van neurodiversiteit kijkt er heel anders tegenaan. Vanuit neurodiversiteit bekeken, is de autistische manier van zijn een andere manier van in de wereld zijn. Dat wil zeggen: een andere manier van beleven, waarnemen, een andere manier van informatie verwerken, een andere manier om tot handelen te komen. Een andere manier van ‘omgaan met de wereld’. Vanuit een neurodiversiteitsperspectief ligt ‘het probleem’ niet per se in het autisme als zodanig, maar in de interactie tussen de autistische manier van zijn, en de manier waarop de rest van de wereld is ingericht. En die rest van de wereld, laat mij dat benadrukken, bestaat voor een groot deel uit niet-autistische mensen, die bepaalde niet-autistische verwachtingen en gewoonten en gebruiken hebben, en die in onze maatschappij grotendeels de dienst uit maken. En die rest van de wereld is bij gevolg bijna volledig ingericht met allerlei ontworpen producten, gebouwen, systemen, regels, de inrichting van steden, scholen, kantoren, allemaal zaken die goed passen bij een neurotypische manier van zijn, maar vaak veel minder bij een autistische manier van zijn.

Vanuit dit perspectief bekeken, is het niet in de eerste plaats belangrijk om handflapperen te detecteren, of stresslevels, om ‘in te kunnen grijpen’;  vanuit neurodiversiteitsperspectief is het in de eerste plaats belangrijk om op zoek te gaan naar al die verschillende manieren waarop autistische mensen interacteren met een grotendeels niet-autistische wereld, en veel beter te begrijpen wat daar nu eigenlijk gebeurt.

De filosofe Hanne de Jaegher schrijft hierover het volgende (in het boek Linguistic Bodies), en ik heb het vertaald, en enigszins geparafraseerd:

“Autistische mensen creëren betekenis in interactie met de wereld, net zoals niet autistische mensen. De dingen zijn betekenisvol voor een autistische persoon, op een manier die neurotypische mensen vaak moeilijk vinden om te begrijpen. Dat wil niet zeggen dat ze niet betekenisvol zijn. We moeten gewoon harder ons best doen ze leren te begrijpen. Helaas zijn veel benaderingen van autisme gericht op een poging om gedragingen, die voor niet-autisten lastig te begrijpen zijn, ‘weg te behandelen’. Neem bijvoorbeeld het zogenaamde schommelen, of handflapperen. Dat is een gedrag dat niet gepast lijkt en waarvoor een therapie op zijn plaats zou zijn, maar het zou beter zijn als we zouden proberen te begrijpen wat dat gedrag doet, waar het voor dient, en hoe het betekenisvol is voor de persoon die dat gedrag vertoont.” 

Vervolgens laat Hanne zien, hoe onderzoek heeft uitgewezen dergelijk stereotype gedrag belangrijk is bij het omgaan met de overweldigende hoeveelheid informatie, die een autistische persoon soms heeft te moeten verwerken, terwijl op zulke momenten, in die onvoorspelbare hectiek van het dagelijks leven, de snelheid van informatieverwerking en de hoeveelheid prikkels die een autistische persoon op enig moment kan verwerken, daar niet op is ingesteld.

Wat willen we met technologie?

Nu komen we bij een kruispunt. We kunnen technologie blijven gebruiken om bepaalde normatieve uitgangspunten, ideeën over wat passend en normaal en gebruikelijk is, die gedeeld worden door de grootste groep in de samenleving – in dit geval, de neurotypische groep, verder te bevestigen, nog meer vast te leggen, en we kunnen met sensoren en interactieve feedback iedereen die afwijkt zo goed en zo kwaad als het gaat in het gareel proberen te krijgen. We bepalen op basis van de neurotypische norm, wat correct en juist en gewenst is, en we gaan ‘ondersteunende technologie’ maken die er voor zorgt dat iedereen zich zoveel mogelijk volgens die normen gaan gedragen, of dat degenen met ‘abnormale’ gedragingen in ieder geval geen last veroorzaken, dat zij de rust niet verstoren, het systeem niet ondermijnen. Dit is niet de kant die ik op zou willen gaan. Wellicht is het al een belangrijke les ons te beseffen, zoals Foucault al suggereerde, dat dit wel precies is wat de inrichting van onze maatschappij telkens weer neigt te doen. Niet alleen met computertechnologie, maar ook met de inrichting van ons onderwijs, rechtstelsel, het ontwerp van de publieke ruimte, enzovoorts.

We kunnen ook een andere kant op gaan, en dat is niet de makkelijkste kant. Het is roeien tegen de stroom in. Wat ik voorstel is dat we neurodiversiteit – en eigenlijk nog veel breder ‘diversiteit’ in het algemeen, als uitgangspunt nemen. De ondersteunende technologie die ik voor mij zie, is technologie die diversiteit juist omarmt, die het mogelijk maakt, die het stimuleert.

Ontwerpen voor neurodiversiteit

Hoe zou dat eruit kunnen zien?

1) Participatie
In de eerste plaats is het van cruciaal belang dat, in dit geval, autisten, maar in het algemeen zoveel mogelijk diverse mensen, meedoen aan het gesprek, aan tafel komen zitten bij ontwerpprojecten en actief worden betrokken, niet alleen als proefpersonen of testers, maar ook als eigenaren, projectleiders, ontwerpers en zo meer.

Nothing about us without us.

2) Diversiteits-technologie.
Vervolgens kunnen we gezamelijk, vanuit een ‘diversiteit’ aan perspectieven, gaan kijken naar de concrete inrichting van ondersteunende technologie, die aansluit bij de manier van betekenisgeving van autisten, en die niet al impliciet uitgaat van neurotypische normen.

(Hierbij wil ik ook verwijzen naar een artikel dat ik met collega’s uit verschillende landen en komend vanuit verschillende vakgebieden schreef, getiteld “Diversity Computing”.)

Om te beginnen zullen autisten zelf gaan bepalen van wat de sensoren eigenlijk moeten meten en registreren. Het gaat hen misschien helemaal niet om het handflapperen, of het voorspellen van de meltdown op zich. Misschien gaat het wel om heel andere dingen, waarvan autisten zeggen: dit is iets wat ik graag zou willen meten, bijhouden, hier zou ik nu graag een sensor voor willen. Mijn speculatie is dat dit uiteindelijk enorm gaat helpen bij het voorkomen van bijvoorbeeld melt-downs. Maar ik voorspel ook dat het handflapperen er niet door gaat afnemen.

En dat is OK.

En wellicht dat sommige autisten graag zouden willen kunnen voorspellen wanneer iemand anders boos wordt. Dat betekent dat het horloge dus juist bij de ander omgehangen moet worden, en niet bij de autistische persoon. Zo’n technologie zou overigens in plaats kunnen komen van huidige trainingsprogramma’s met sociale robots die autistische kinderen moeten trainen om emoties te herkennen in gezichten. Maar wat de ander daarbij wel moet gaan accepteren, is dat autisten je dus misschien niet aankijken bij een gesprek.

En dat is OK.

Want het gaat er uiteindelijk om, dat je samen leert met elkaar te communiceren. Niet: communiceren per se op een vooraf-bepaalde, neurotypische, wijze. Neurodiversiteit betekent dat de neurotypische norm niet langer vanzelfsprekend leidend is, niet lange bepaald wat het apparaat moet ondersteunen, wat het apparaat moet meten, welke feedback het apparaat moet geven.

Hierbij moet ik ook denken aan een project van Tjerk Feitsma, de organisator van dit evenement, waarin hij software ontwikkelt om het gesprek tussen autist en werkgever te reguleren. Het idee van deze applicatie is dat de gesprekken puur gaan over de inhoud, en dat alle ‘subtext’, alle subtiele relationele opmerkingen, eruit gefiltered worden door middel van kunstmatige intelligentie. Dat lijkt mij nou fantastisch: dat al het ‘gedoe’ op de werkvloer dat te maken heeft met onderlinge sociale relaties, verwachtingen, irritaties enzoverder, niet langer verstopt wordt in ogenschijnlijk zakelijke emails. Dat we ons echt kunnen concentreren op de inhoud, en belangrijke relationele zaken voor aparte besprekingen kunnen bewaren. Neurotypische mensen willen dit ook graag, maar zijn er zo ongelofelijk veel slechter in, dan autisten. De meerderheid kan hier nog veel leren van de neurodiversiteit, en een applicatie die dit bevordert zou ik direct omarmen.


Sensoren, software, interactieve feedback, we kunnen er echt mooie dingen mee doen. Maar we hebben wel de juiste ‘mindset’ nodig. Wat mij betreft is dat het perspectief van neurodiversiteit. Vanuit dit perspectief is de persoon niet langer afwijkend als in iets dat niet goed is en gerepareerd moet worden, maar in plaats daarvan hebben we een diversiteit aan mensen die allemaal op hun eigen manier in het de wereld staan. De neurotypische inrichting van de wereld van van vandaag – dat wat neurotypische mensen dus ‘normaal’ noemen – is voor bijvoorbeeld autisten soms in de praktijk best lastig om in te opereren. Die mismatch – en niet een normatief idee van “afwijkend gedrag” – zou het uitgangspunt moeten zijn voor de ontwerper van een nieuwe technologie.

Ik heb vandaag telkens gesproken over autisten en niet autisten, maar ik denk dat mijn verhaal van toepassing is op allerlei vormen van diversiteit in denken, waarnemen, voelen, beleven en handelen. Het gaat over neurodiversiteit in de breedste zin, en uiteindelijk zelfs over diversiteit in het algemeen. De mens is gewend om zichzelf in hokjes in te delen – in groepen en categorieën. En soms is dat ook nodig of onvermijdelijk. Maar uiteindelijk zijn we allemaal individuen, we zijn allemaal onderdeel van een veel grotere ‘diversiteit’ of zoals de filosofe Hanna Arendt dat noemt: de pluraliteit. Dat betekent niet dat we naar een puur individualistische samenleving moeten gaan, waarbij we allemaal doen alsof we in ons eentje op de wereld zijn, met onze eigen leefregels, volkomen losgezongen van de ander. Hanna Arendt zegt juist: we zijn verbonden in onze verscheidenheid.Diversiteit is dus altijd iets dat je samen bewerkstelligt. Hanne Arendt geeft ook een mooie metafoor voor wat technologie kan doen. Ze geeft als voorbeeld de tafel: we kunnen onze verschillen op tafel leggen, maar tegelijkertijd verbindt de tafel ook degenen die eraan plaatsnemen. Dat is volgens mij de rol die technologie – een technologie van de diversiteit – zou kunnen spelen.

Mijn visie voor de nabije toekomst is dus dat technologie onze verbondenheid in verscheidenheid, met andere woorden onze diversiteit van zijn kan helpen versterken.

*) Voetnoot: In deze lezing zeg ik “autisten” en “autistische kinderen”, of soms “mensen op het autisme spectrum”. Ik volg hiermee de conventie: identity-first. Ik beschouw daarmee autisme als onderdeel van de identiteit, niet als een ‘stoornis’ of ‘ziekte’, die iemand ‘heeft’. Met andere woorden: de term ‘mens met autisme’ zou opgevat kunnen worden alsof het autisme geen onderdeel van je ‘mens-zijn’ zou zijn. Daarom zeg ik dus ook niet: mensen met autisme. In dit onderzoek valt te lezen dat het er dan ook op lijkt dat de meeste autisten zelf de voorkeur geven aan ‘identity first’. Ik ben me bewust van de vele discussies die hierover bestaan, en ook dat de taal hierin meespeelt, in het Engels klinken woorden bijvoorbeeld weer anders dan in het Nederlands.

What it takes to understand our embodied being: in defense of Tim Ingold

NB This text is a draft. Comments for improvement, or interesting lines of further thought, are most welcome.

I have used the following papers, which should be read in this order, as my main sources:

For this moment I decided to use bold text for my own commentary, and normal text for all quotes. Here we go:

What it takes to understand our embodied being: in defense of Tim Ingold.

In the following commentary I will give my personal reading of the debate between two anthropologists, Tim Ingold and David Howes, a debate which started in fact by a short paper by another anthropologist, named Sara Pink. By way of context, the reader may wish to position Pink, and myself, on Ingold’s side of the debate. I will thus defend the position of Ingold, and I explain why I think Howes’ is misrepresenting Ingold. Ingold defends himself as well of course, in the series of papers that form the debate. He does so in increasingly strong voice, up to the point where the reader may wonder whether Howes is getting a fair debate on the subject, or is rather attacked personally. There is something to be said for this. On surface value, Howes’ seems the considerate gentleman, while Ingold is shouting. Yet we can see some vile in Howes’ writing as well, albeit in a more subtle way. For example, in one of the opening sentences of his reply to Pink’s original article, he says this:

In her eagerness to establish ‘sensory anthropology’ as the way of the future, Sarah Pink has engaged in a good deal of shadow boxing, aiming blows at an ‘anthropology of the senses’ that exists solely in her imagination.

I read this as pejorative and disparagingly of the arrived male professor, explaining to the younger female researcher that she has not understood the least of his theories – but of course Howes’ would be eager to point out that such assessment equally only exists in my imagination.

Concerning Ingold, by contrast, some evidence of ‘street fighting’ is less concealed, as illustrated by sentences like:

[F]or Howes it clearly strikes a raw nerve, for he proceeds to launch into a catalogue of disagreements, as though the mere citation of my work were enough to render Pink guilty by association of all the sins and errors he attributes to me. I, likewise, am condemned for referring to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. With Howes, you have to be careful whom you cite, because if they happen to be on his hit list, you’re fired!

And it is getting edgier as we proceed into the debate:

I thank David Howes for his response. As ever, it mixes wilful misquotation with crude caricature, and is delivered with all the finesse and precision of a blunderbuss. In the interests of clarity, I shall try yet again to put the record straight. Whereas Howes remains stuck in the trenches, however, I prefer to move on, and I will endeavour to end on a positive and constructive note.

Now, in order to understand what may have triggered Ingold to write such stark ad hominems, we need to start at the beginning. This is the paper by Sara Pink, who proposes a new form of anthropology that focuses strongly on the human senses and she positions this research in contrast to what is called ‘anthropology of the senses’, a line of research the founding father of which is Howes.

Sara Pink writes:

Equally, recent work by neurologists suggests that understandings based on the idea of differentially sensing modalities attached to specific sense organs should be replaced by understandings of the senses as interconnected in human perception – in that ‘the five senses do not travel along separate channels, but interact to a degree few scientists would have believed only a decade ago’ (Cytowic 2010: 46).


Approaches to ethnography that engage with the senses, however, are often developed in the context of ‘innovative’ and interdisciplinary research methods. Thus, long-term ethnographic fieldwork, which for some remains anthropology’s defining practice, is being surpassed by ‘sensory’ methods developed across the ‘ethnographic’ disciplines. Such methods that appreciate and engage with the senses and the theoretical principles outlined above include walking methods and collaborations with artists. They might be located in research projects that explore how people make place or experience inequalities in their everyday lives.

In the same journal, below Pink’s article, Howes responds, but in doing so he responds more to Ingold than to Pink herself, who was referred to as one of her inspirators. (That, in and of itself I find disrespectful, as if Pink’s contribution as such is not really worthy of a debate, and one would misuse the opportunity to engage in an renewed fight with an old, male, rival). In any case, this is what Howes’ writes:

Phenomenology also has the drawback, particularly from the perspective of the social sciences, of emphasising the individual and the subjective over the communal and social, and in consequence having little to say about the politics of perception.

This naive emphasis on some primal, ‘prereflective’ (in Merleau-Ponty’s term) unity overlooks all the ways in which the senses conflict with one another as regards both physical experience and cultural values: for example, the sensory dissonance produced by encountering a holy man who looks ugly but emits a fragrant odour of sanctity, or the stick in water that looks different to the eye from how it feels in the hand. The senses do not always work together or convey the same message. This makes sensory perception far more complex – and interesting – than phenomenologists imagine.

But the point of phenomenology is not to deny all that exists ‘post-reflectively’, the point is that there is something *before* it, something that grounds the practices of using representations. There is, indeed, a pre-reflective unified experience.

Ingold himself responds as follows:

That Howes’s anthropology is so founded is apparent from the way he reifies ‘the senses’ as bodily registers that convey messages to the mind of the perceiver. … Appearances can be deceptive. This is not, however, because the mind has to piece together information about external objects delivered by way of different registers. For the senses are not keyboards or filters that mediate the traffic between mind and world. They are rather – as Gibson (1966) always insisted – aspects of the functioning of the living being in its environment. And their synergy lies in the fact of their being powers of the same organism, engaged in the same action, and attending to the same world (see also Merleau-Ponty 1962: 317–18). If we are occasionally deceived, it is because what we find there does not always match our expectations. (my emphasis).

He continues:

In my book I go to great lengths to refute the notion of the human (or non-human) being as an individual subject bombarded by sensation-inducing sensory stimuli from the external environment, and with it the idea – to which Howes himself subscribes – that in order to ‘make sense’ of the world, these induced sensations have to be cognitively assembled (or ‘constructed’) in terms of received cultural categories.

Ingold then arrives at what I think is the crux of the whole dispute:

Howes appears incapable of thinking outside the box of a representational theory of knowledge production whose walls are set up by the dichotomies between subject and object, between individual and social, and between object and image.

By contrast, Ingold’s position is that:

[E]very living being is a particular nexus of growth and development within a field of relations. Skills of perception and action, I argue, emerge within these processes of ontogenetic development. It is because these skills differ from being to being, depending on where they stand in relation to others, that they perceive the environment in different ways.

Ingold critically assesses Howes position from this perspective:

In the very objectification of the senses, as things one can have an anthropological study of, it seems that the eyes, ears and skin are no longer to be regarded as organs of a body that, as it makes its way in the world, attentively looks, listens and feels where it is going.

In the next paper, Howes, in turn, responds like this:

[Ingold’s] anthropology of the senses is concerned, not with ‘collective representations’ but with how ‘people practically look, listen, touch, taste and sniff as they go about their business’. “Ingold’s approach has the appeal of being seemingly straightforward and practical, “

This, to me, is pure rhetorics. Howes neglects the core of the matter, and frames Ingold’s ideas using terms that suggest Ingold is cutting corners and offering a too simplistic theory, one that should not be taken seriously in the first place. This goes on in sentences like:

“Ingold’s quasi-truism that ‘as a mode of active, exploratory engagement with the environment . . . hearing is an experience of sound [and] sight is an experience of light’.

One may indeed perhaps be inclined to think that, because we are so familiar with the colloquial use of the term ‘experience’, Ingold’s statement would seem to be a truism. But Howes has read phenomenological work, and may be expected to know better. It is not at all a trivial statement to say that hearing is an experience of sound, rather than, for example, stating that hearing is an information proces that delivers data about the external world to a mind. Furthermore it is not trivial to say this experience is grounded in active exploratory engagement with the environment. This means: no active exploratory engagement, no hearing. It also means: information processing by a machine of waves in the auditory spectrum? Very well, but no hearing, because machines have no experience. Not everyone would readily agree to such “quasi-truisms”, because, in fact, they are nothing of the sort. But in order to see this one needs to be interested in meant by the term “experience” in the phenomenological and (for example) the pragmatist traditions, and calling Ingold’s theory a quasi-truism from the outset, suggests one is not really interested at all.

Howes also claims that Ingold says that “all of the senses are very similar to each other: ‘Vision has much more in common with audition than is often supposed, and for that matter also with gustation and olfaction.’”

But here Howes’ is making a joke out of the debate. Ingold was here responding to Howes who claimed that Ingold was only talking about vision and thought that olfaction, for example, was just a ‘lower’ sense. Ingold explained that he does not think olfaction is a lower sense and that, for that matter, olfaction and vision are to be understood as on a par: they are all very important, and therefore similar. Ingold does claim that the senses do not form separate ‘worlds’ as we experience the world in a unified way, since the world we experience is tied into with the body that we are, and we are not multiple embodied beings at the same time but one integrated being, at least in the non-pathological situation. Implicitly, Howes’ is making olfaction and gustation something peculiar by distinguishing it so strongly from vision and hearing, even though he claims that he does not think they are lower. But his discussion of it and the examples he gives from indigenous cultures driving on touch and smell still seems as if he encounters these senses as something ‘primitive’ that he then feels the need for to help emancipate in our Western understanding of things. He accuses Ingold of being that Western colonial thinker. But it is, in my view, Howes talking to himself and convincing himself that he embraces diversity, in the face of his own biases. The distinction between lower senses and higher senses that Howes’ wants to get rid of was never a problem of Ingold in the first place, precisely because Ingold just does not make the distinction, as he does not make the distinction between practical work and ‘higher’ cognition or cultural symbols. This brings me to Howes contention that Ingold’s view would

“relieve[] the anthropologist of the need to delve into such fields as religion or aesthetics or take any symbolic systems into account.”

Ingold never claims that these *phenomena* are not important. He just opposes the research paradigms that take these practices as some native, inborn poverty of human minds. He wants to know what is the phenomenological *basis* upon which systems of symbols are ultimately built.

Howes’ then proceeds with:

“the often-difficult task of understanding a people’s ‘system of collective representations’ can, Ingold assures us, be ‘readily circumvented by means of participant observation which allows the ethnographer to access other people’s ways of perceiving by joining with them in the same currents of practical activity.’“

Here, Howes does not seem to understand what Ingold is trying to say. Howes’ mistakes a methodological argument with a topical one. Ingold wrote this as part of a methodological argument. Howes’ himself had asserted earlier that another people’s indigenous practices are inaccessible. 

For one, by universalising the subjective sensations of the individual, phenomenology ignores the extent to which perception is a cultural construct. Culturally informed practices that differ from one’s own are inaccessible from a purely phenomenological perspective (see Howes 2005: 29)

Ingold responds

In truth, they would be inaccessible only if one’s own self and the selves of others were individual subjects of the kind that Howes imagines subjects to be: each locked in a private world of sensations, such that they can communicate with one another, and share their experiences and understandings, only by framing these sensations within a system of collective representations common to a community and validated by verbal convention. If that were indeed the case, then an ethnographer wishing to access the experiences and understandings of people of another culture, and not initially privy to their representations, would face a dilemma akin to that of the would-be map-reader who needs a key to read the map, but has to be able to read the map in order to decipher the key. He or she could never get off the starting block (Ingold 2001: 117). In reality, of course, this dilemma is readily circumvented by means of participant observation, which allows the ethnographer to access other people’s ways of perceiving by joining with them in the same currents of practical activity, and by learning to attend to things – as would any novice practitioner – in terms of what they afford in the contexts of what has to be done. This communion of experience establishes a baseline of sociality on which all attempts at verbal communication subsequently build. It is what makes anthropological fieldwork possible (Ingold 1993: 222–3).

That was what the quote was referring to. Howes now claims, instead, that because of this, Ingold is not ‘taking into account’ representational systems that people use. This is not true. Ingold does give a priority to embodied action over formal representation. His whole point is that granting a study of formal systems of representation the exclusive right of the only possible way to understand how culture is  enacted is getting in the way of the fact that much of what is needed to explain about cultural practices is primordial to representation, namely, it is grounded in embodied action. Only on the basis of a phenomenological understanding of embodied action can we try to make sense of symbolic representation in the first place, and the way to understand such embodied sense making is to take a fundamentally participatory approach, if we want to have any chance in finding out how representations actually work, that is, what they actually *do* in the practice. What goes wrong in so many accounts of human activity and being is to think that there is some symbolic representation that could provide us as researchers with direct access to the practice, by analysing looking at what the representations “are”. This is problematic in a variety of ways, one of which being that studying the symbols does not get us to their meaning within the practical setting within which they are used, and another being the danger, at least, of too quickly taking *ones own* practical grounding as the basis for working with these representations, that is, taking our own historically evolved ideas of the meaning of a symbol, as the basis for understanding the system in which that symbol is used. Which leaves unexplained where that meaning comes from let alone being able to tell if we got it right. All of this is what Ingold has been keen to point out for many years now in a long series of books and papers and Howes is glossing over it with an arrogance that is quite frustrating.

Howes’ makes strange assertions like:

“Ingold might argue that these experiences do not properly involve the senses but rather the mind “

But the distinction between senses and mind is one Ingold would never make in the first place, in fact his philosophy is precisely all about getting rid of this distinction completely. And getting rid of a mind-sense distinction is not saying there is only sense, or only mind, it is to claim that what we call ‘mind’ and ‘sense’ are actually part of the same thing, which is something unlike either of the two in isolation.

Then there is the idea put forward by Howes’ that two different processes could operate at the same time involving different senses:

“what of drinking coffee while talking on the telephone”

Well, what of it? To begin with, I do not see why it is two different senses that define the distinction between coffee drinking and talking on the phone. I am also touching and seeing the coffee and touching and seeing the phone, all at the same time. To describe this scene in terms of distinctive senses makes little sense to me, if anything, we are talking about various activities, about a concert of coordinated actions. In any case, the experience is still one experience. It is the experience of ‘drinking coffee while talking on the telephone’. Upon reflection, we can break it down into two component parts: drinking and talking.  And there is something about the way we can be said to shift our attention from the phone to the coffee, perhaps, but perhaps not, it all depends on where our attention goes. Regardless, we could also have broken this scene down into many more component parts (taking a sip, putting the mug back, checking whether there is still coffee in it, testing whether it is too hot with our lips). Or we could break the scene down in entirely different ways. For example, suppose we burn our lips on a gulf of coffee spilled because the conversation partner tells us he just robbed the bank. The scene could be broken down in: “before”, “during” and “after” this shocking event. Such a split is just as meaningful, but this one makes no distinction between tasting and hearing and touching, and the pain. We could also split the scene into elements in our sensory field that are in the center of our attention, versus elements that are part of the experiential ‘background’, versus aspects that are, at that moment, not part of our lived world at all. Or what about an example that seems in principle no different from Howes: “drinking coffee while enjoying the sun”. In this example it is much less clear why we should dissociate the touch of the sun on our skin from the activation of our olfactory buds by the coffee. They are together needed to account for exactly that type of experience. Even marketeers know what an experience is made of, which is why people in coffee commercials are always sitting in Italian squares in a setting sun. The point is that telephone conversations (and not sun tanning) are part of the practice of using language – and it is our Western, modernized culture which has biased us into giving special status to anything to do with symbols, rather than, say, just tasting coffee. But there is no fundamental difference betwee being engaged in a conversation and being engaged in drinking coffee and there is no reason why in unified experience the two cannot go together. Yes, splitting up “drinking coffee” and “talking on the phone” is familiar to most of us (*). But the activity of making this split, that is, recasting the unified experience into a number of cognitive categories, is itself a practice and that practice, if it has any chance to be explained, needs to be understood first in terms of how it is grounded in embodied being. Breaking up the world into categories is part of what we do. The point is not to deny this, but to investigate its grounds. And these grounds, Ingold holds, are not themselves already representational categories.

(* For example, autistic people may break up their experience in ways completely different from neurotypical individuals.) 

Howes also puts a denigratory tone on ‘practical skills’, saying in various places that there is more than ‘just’ practical skills. As if there is an aspect of human life that is not practical. This, of course, is precisely what the tradition has taught us: there is practical skills, and then there is the real intellectual life, the level at which things become truly meaningful. The point of Ingold is that even something as sophisticated and abstract as, say, an anthropological debate in an academic journal, is still at the core a practical activity. There is no distinction between cognition, on the one hand, and practical action, on the other. It is all phronesis, practical wisdom, or know-how, in the end. We are neglecting the practical nature of our intellect, placing the latter instead on one side of an essentially Cartesian divide. 

So, Howes for example wonders how to

“separate such things as symbolic agricultural rituals from practical acts of farming, particularly when the two may overlap in the same act (e.g., first harvest)”

But this is exactly the point: there is no such thing as symbolic agricultural ritual that is not grounded in the practical act of farming. Howes seems to suggest that there is symbolic agriculture and practical agriculture and he accuses Ingold of only paying attention to the latter:

Ingold ‘slices’ up the world by insisting on separating practical action from all other human endeavours.

This is simply untrue. It is Howes that makes the distinction – Ingold is arguing that the dichotomy is false to begin with. This is misrepresenting Ingold’s position and with that the entire project of embodied phenomenology, or he simply doesn’t understand it. 

Howes also believes Ingold is only interested in ‘vision’, and seems to suggest also that phenomenology and ecological psychology (Gibson) are purely ‘visual’ accounts of human interaction with the world. He writes:

“The Cashinahua of Peru, however, attribute their skill at hunting to the cultivation of what they call ‘skin knowledge’ and ‘hand knowledge’. As far as they are concerned, ‘eye knowledge’ has little to do with it (Kensinger 1995: 239–43). “

That is indeed an interesting finding, although I wonder if blind Cashinahua would hunt in the same way as their sighted brothers. But I cannot judge on this because unlike Howes I do not have the facts about this culture. More importantly however, I wouldn’t know, why this interesting culture would contradict Ingold’s basic stance. The fact that he wrote about vision doesn’t contradict this at all. Phenomenology is not about ‘vision’ per se, even if Merleau-Ponty wrote a lot about it, and neither is Ingold’s position, who wrote about the way basket weavers use active grip and touching with their feet as integrated aspect of the weaving activity, to give just one example.

Howes writes:

“the notion that due to our ‘existential grounding in one world’ we all share the same experiences easily becomes a stepping stone to presenting one’s own experiences as normative, as we see time and again in Ingold’s own work “

This is a potentially valid critique of the way researchers, in general, tend to impose their implicit values and ways of perceiving the world onto their subject matter. I do not see why it is exclusive of Ingold, or that he would be specifically suspect on this matter. It is good to be conscious of the problems, but it goes for Howes as well. All researchers are prone to imposing their own implicit norms. If anything, it is often the ‘objectivist’ accounts that try to shove existing normative assumptions under the carpet, claiming they have gotten rid of it (while they haven’t), while a participatory phenomenological methodology would at least surface quite explicitly the variety of perspectives that all stakeholders bring to the table, not in the least those of the researcher herself. 

In relation to this, we read how Howes argues against “a phenomenology of perception which speaks simplistically of ‘sensing the world’ (Ingold)” and for “an understanding of perception which allows for the cultivation of ‘ways of sensing the world’”.

Regardless of the fact that Ingold’s analysis is far from simplistic, Howes himself cannot avoid a problem quite similar to what he accuses Ingold of. His explanatory framework, within which diverse ‘ways of sensing’ are supposedly made intelligible (i.e., the framework of collective representations) is a normative claim to a particular universal claim, namely, the claim that all people necessarily operate on the basis of collective representations. 

Howes also completely misses the point (and probably on purpose) when suggesting that Ingold refuses to study certain phenomena on account of their being part of the world of sense. He states:

“[Is] the idea that the Desana can detect human scent trails [] a collective representation, similar to their notion that odours can be perceived with the whole body? Is this, according to Ingold’s division of the field, an example of ‘sensing the world’, and therefore to be studied by the sensory anthropologist? Or is it part of a ‘world of sense’ and therefore to be eschewed?”

Howes is mixing up different phenomena with different explanations. The Desana detect human scent trails in the forest. This is a perfect *phenomenon* to be studied. Ingold would claim that the best way to study this phenomenon it is to *not* interpret it as a collective representation. If Ingold is not interested in ‘a world of sense’ it is because he thinks that would be the wrong explanation of the phenomenon, not that he is not interested in the phenomena (sic).

All of this also does not mean Ingold would claim representations do not exist – Ingold writes symbols on his blackboard, and he wouldn’t deny it. Representational practices should however be seen as embodied practices and we need theory of how the use of symbols is ultimately grounded in our embodied being in the world, which is utterly different (in fact, more like the reverse) from a theory that grounds our basic ways of sensing the world in a representational framework. 

Ingold “he has done little to show what social anthropology can bring to phenomenology and ecological psychology, namely, an emphasis on the social.”

I think that Howes has a point about the importance of the social, but not that Ingold would be neglecting it. It is true that phenomenology not always pays attention to social interaction, but see for example the work of Albert Schutz. However, Howes himself says little about the social, for what he conceives to be the social is actually not very much about social interaction itself but more about collective representation, which he seems to equate with ‘social’ and distinguishes in a Cartesian fashion from more bodily, “practical” responsiveness. As Ingold puts it:

By placing practical activity and mental engagement on opposite sides of an epistemological divide, Howes conspires to reduce the former to mindless, gut responses driven only by the imperatives of subsistence and survival. It is this reduction that leads him to the curious conclusion that my focus on practical enskilment, inspired as it is by work in both phenomenology and ecological psychology, amounts to a denial of the social. It does so only if we equate the social, as Howes does, with ‘cultural values and symbolic representations’.

In contrast, as Lucy Suchman has explained, drawing on Garfinkel and phenomenology, the social is itself embodied activity in a shared space (Suchman, 1987). My own further take on this is that all embodied activity is likewise inherently social through and through, the relation runs both ways. Representational artefacts (e.g. symbolic culture) have an important place in this activity – but the representational structure as such do not equate or constitute the social, this structure both emerges out of and subsequently constrains what is always already social before it is representational. In other words, to be social there does not need to be communication by means of representational vehicles, even though we have evolved to make this a very important aspect of our social practices (Van Dijk, 2018) see also (Jaasma et al, 2017)

In fact Howes concedes that, in line with Suchman, “cultural values and symbolic representations constrain the ways in which people act in the world.”

Indeed, they do. And I do not see how it goes against anything Ingold has written about. Ingold’s analysis of how practices lead to artefacts would be a groundwork for understanding not only how representations constrain our actions, but also how representations come into being as emergent from these actions, while Howes seems simply to assume that such representations to be in place.

Thus he insists:

“cultural constructions of gender have shaped the particular practices engaged in by women and men in Western history “

And nobody would deny it. Yet the question is: “where” are these ‘conventions’?  Following Ingold we can conclude they are in any case not stored in the minds of people, information units stored as activity patterns in the brain, and neither are they ‘stored’ as collective representations ‘in the social reality’, constituting some independent existing thing called ‘the culture’. Rather, gender conventions are enacted in the way we walk and talk, embodied in the gendered artefacts we use, and in the gendered ways we interact with these artefacts and with each other. They are part and parcel of the skilful, situated performances that emerge as self-organising patterns in each concrete situation, not executions of templates stored in the mind or in ‘the culture’. It would be quite a misunderstanding to accuse anybody holding such an embodied view to

“naturalise[] perception, disallowing any cultural influences. “

As Howes accuses Ingold of. But to say that a cultural convention gets enacted in practical settings does not mean it is naturalised, but it does mean to deny it a special ontological status as existing outside of the concrete circumstance in which it arises: it is not an independent power, floating in the cultural air pushing people this way and that way, as a counterforce to their more ‘bodily’ or ‘genetic’ inclinations – what we call cultural convention it is part and parcel of what people are – and this means it is not something that can be dissociated from the other aspects of human being.

“I hold it to be counterproductive to create an opposition between ‘sensing the world’ and ‘worlds of sense’. “

Ingold would in fact accuse Howes of creating the opposition in the first place. To talk of a world of sense means to create a second ‘world’, what Ingold calls the ‘virtual world’, one that is supposedly distinct from to that other world, i.e., the world we live. In fact there is only one world which is the world of our lived experience, and we experience that world using the full richness of all our senses. 

I would like to end with Ingold’s fine statement in his final paper, just below his rather sarcastic opening. This statement below, and not the first ad hominems, show quite clearly the values that typify Ingold as a person and as an academic, even if these were somewhat overshadowed by his frustration about the way Howes’ was mistreating his ideas.

“My overriding aim is to understand how people perceive the world around them, and how and why these perceptions differ. These are among the fundamental questions of anthropology. In the search for answers, we should draw on all the sources of ideas and inspiration we can. We should listen to what so-called ‘indigenous people’ have to tell us, and in my work I do. We should attend to what people with impairments of sight and hearing have to tell us, and in my work I do that too. And we should also take note of what psychologists, neurophysiologists and philosophers – among others – have to tell us, and I do that as well. What I do not do, however, is to treat what others have to say (whatever their training, background or experience) as objects of anthropological analysis, or as token exemplars of systems of collective representation specific to particular communities of provenance. On the contrary, I treat them as both catalysts and checks to my own thinking, in an ongoing, critical conversation in which I feel privileged to participate.

Cytowic, R. 2010. ‘Our hidden superpowers’, New Scientist 24 April: 46.
(Quoted in Pink).

Suchman, L. 1987 Plans and situated actions : The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Van Dijk, J. 2018 Designing for Embodied Being-in-the-World: A Critical Analysis of the Concept of Embodiment in the Design of Hybrids. Multimodal Technologies Interact. 2, 7.

Jaasma, P. Frens, J. Hummels, C.C.M & Van Dijk, J. 2017. On the Role of External Representations in Designing for Participatory Sensemaking. Proc of DESFORM, Eindhoven/Delft.


Embodied Empowerment


I updated my page here on Embodied Empowerment, with the latest links to the Powertoolkit that contains many of the participatory methods we use, and with a link to my latest journal paper that contains the underlying embodied design philosophy.

The next step will be another journal paper, specifically addressing the concept of Embodied Empowerment proper… stay tuned!