week 3

Among this week’s readings, Verbeek and Ong stood out to me. Verbeek’s framework of human-technology relations was really interesting — splitting them into embodiment (“technologies form[ing] a unity with a human being, and this unity is directed at the world: We speak with other people through the phone, rather than speaking to the phone itself”), hermeneutic (“in which human beings read how technologies represent the world […]  Here, technologies form a unity with the world, rather than with the human being using them.”), alterity (“human beings interact with technologies with the world in the background of this interaction. Examples are human-robot interactions, getting money from an ATM, and operating a machine.”), and background (“The sounds of air conditioners and fridges, the warm air from heating installations […] — in all of these examples, technologies are a context for human existence, rather than being experienced themselves”) relations. These are simple enough definitions but extremely helpful in analyzing a technology — the design that works well for one type of relation may not be so useful for another. A background technology should probably be as invisible and unfelt as possible, whereas in alterity relations it may be beneficial to point out the technological process underneath (“This machine dispenses X and Y bills,” for example). One confusion that I had in this reading was in understanding the schematics of these relations: “(human – technology) —> world” vs “human (technology/world)”. Maybe these would’ve been clearer as full diagrams — I couldn’t immediately tell if “-” symbolized subtraction or connection, or what the difference between “-” and “/” were, and so on. 

Ong’s chapters interested me in particular because of my interest in linguistics: the subject of oral languages was unfamiliar to me, but still fascinating (if not moreso). Being bilingual, I experience the shift in mental patterns and grammatical structure in switching from one language to the other — even verbal or prepositional changes can make a deep impact. Portuguese doesn’t differentiate between make and do, for example: they’re combined into one verb, fazer. This of course has psychological implications — maybe Portuguese speakers think of creating or manufacturing things as more closely related to actions or performances than English speakers do (imagine using the same verb for both “I bake cakes” and “I perform theater,” which are, in some way, both creative activities). On the other hand, English doesn’t differentiate the verb to be between temporary and permanent states of being, which Portuguese does (estar and ser, respectively). Does this blur the line between current and eternal for English speakers? Is the default “to be” perceived as closer to temporary, or closer to permanent? 

All of this is just to say I have felt these mental shifts myself, but this reading put into perspective how easy I have it, since my two languages are so similar to each other in the grand scheme of things, and since I’ve been fully immersed in their written versions from a very young age. Trying to grasp how I’d view the world through an oral lens was both challenging and very intriguing. One of the aspects of orality that stood out to me was that “oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.” This makes perfect sense in those cultures, under those circumstances — and to some extent, written languages do similar things (how many stories have been lost to time? Which ones have remained and why?). At the same time, though, it seems almost unthinkable: an equilibrium means your society is not changing, not moving forward. Is that good, or are there aspects of it that should be rethought?

It is extremely difficult to take yourself off the mindset of written language. I’ve felt and seen how this affects language learners. I used to pronounce minute (MIN-it) as “min-oot” because I kept seeing the written word in my head, so similar to the Portuguese minuto (mee-NOO-too) — until one day something just clicked, and my brain internalized the word in a different way. Similarly, English speakers have an awfully hard time pronouncing a Portuguese word like pão, since the nasal ã is not present in English. But instead of hearing the sound, which would be closer to puh-ng (a combination of sounds that, although strange, certainly exists in English), most early learners just visualize the a and o, and say pow (which in Portuguese sounds like a totally different word: pau, meaning stick and slang for penis). In my experience, it doesn’t matter how many times I say the word out loud for a friend who’s trying to learn it — I have to give them an explicitly visual cue (“think of it as ending in -ng”) for it to click. In that way, it seems to me like the more fluent you are in a language, the less visually you need to think about it: you’ll start internalizing pronunciations as oral learners would.