To Design is to be Human: a review of Being and the Screen

Martin Řehořík
Feb 23 · 7 min read

Technologies are with us everyday, and there is no point in denying this fact. From the first thing in the morning to the last thing in the evening, almost everyone has a gadget that guides them through their days. To disprove it would be illogical, however, have times really changed from the past? Are we living different lives than our parents, grandparents, or other ancestors? Maybe, or maybe not, to be fair it is not that important. What is more important is to understand that the screens which we stare into shape us just as much as we shape them (perhaps even more), and that it is not entirely negative or positive. This shaping is exactly what we make it into.

That is why I decided to review a book by Stéphane Vial, a French philosopher and researcher in the fields of design and digital revolution, called Being and the Screen: How the Digital Changes Perception. Published in one volume with ‘A Short Treatise on Design’.

The book itself presents many different ideas, concepts and views. In this review, I will try to go through those ones that resonated with me the most and I am sure will resonate with you too. We will delve into the history of design, and take a look at different perspectives the book portrays.

What is ‘design’?

The book gives us an interesting insight into the history of design. In the introduction, Vial says that “All goods and services are designed. The urge to design - to consider a situation, imagine a better situation, and act to create that improved situation - goes back to our pre-human ancestors. Making tools helped us to become what we are - design helped to make us human” (Vial, 2019). And I think it is important to remember this as we go onwards throughout the book. To design is to be human, we have unique position in the order of things and we should act responsibly according to it.

One problem, which the book shines some light on, is that design is too open-ended. Meaning that a lot of people are calling themselves designers and to be fair, there is no blame to be assigned. It has such a vast spread of different little nuances - interior design, product design, service design, industrial design, social innovations design and so on. The work from physical products has shifted to social problems and innovations, but are designers really fit to design someone’s life?

“Designers often fail to understand the complexity of the issues and the depth of knowledge already known. They claim that fresh eyes can produce novel solutions, but then they wonder why these solutions are seldom implemented, or if implemented, why they fail. Fresh eyes can indeed produce insightful results, but the eyes must also be educated and knowledgeable.” (Vial, 2019)

If one is given a substantial burden they should understand it deeply (not saying one hundred percent), but often in the field of design (especially nowadays) we can see social innovators not being capable of grasping the real issues at hand.

The Theory of Ontophany

Ontophany is important to understand, especially because it is the whole paradigm of the book (Behind the Screen). So, what does it mean?

“The process of appearance of being is constantly technologically conditioned.” (Vial, 2019)

As said in the beginning, technology shapes us the same way we shape it. In many ways, they (technologies) are making our lives easier and by that they shape us to act a certain way. But one must not forget that shaping can be both positive and negative (such as fear of screens or IRL fetishim).

Both Visionary and Critical

As designers, it is important to see into the future and understand the trends, and what’s going on. But this can sometimes lead to negative circumstances where we are not critical of our creations and we cannot see clearly. In the foreword, Pierre Lévy prefaces that “we have to keep both eyes wide open - our critical eye as well as our visionary eye” (Vial, 2019).

His (Lévy’s) point is that we should not pathetically idolize order-words such as internet, innovation, big data, digital humanities, and other.

“The critical eye dissolves intellectual idols that obstruct our cognitive field.” (Vial, 2019)

On the other hand, the visionary eye exists, whose main function is to create and understand. Thanks to our understanding of symbols, we have a unique position in the world; until something else learns to manipulate these symbols. Vial later (in Chapter 6 “The (Digital) Design of Experience”) explores “factitive” objects that have someone/something do, be or believe. Furthermore, expanding on this he calls design “a phenomeno-technological activity that is intentionally factitive” (Vial, 2019).

He perfectly explains the factitive intentionality in game design. “To fully grasp the digital design effect operating in game design, one has to understand the unique nature of the ludic video experience” (Vial, 2019). This is true not only for game design, but for other design types as well. For us to fully enjoy something, it has to come from the point of understanding. The enjoyment of playing comes from us interacting with digital devices which create experiences. If there is no gameplay, we cannnot appreciate any experience. Game design proves that phenomeno-technology creates new ways for us to enjoy the screen by connecting mechanisms and the machine. (Vial, 2019)

“The visionary eye discerns new problems, explores futures hidden in the fog of the future, and creates.” (Vial, 2019)

Digital Revolution

“But what makes it possible to actually speak of a “revolution”? What makes these changes in digital technologies worthy of being considered “revolutionary”?” (Vial, 2019)

One of the book’s main concerns is what this so called digital revolution is by portraying it from both a technological and a philosophical viewpoint. Here is why understanding the theory of ontophany is important. Vial shows that “our relationship-to-the-world, as a phenomenological relationship with “things themselves”, is fundamentally conditioned by technology and always has been” (Vial, 2019).

Being human is such a complicated phenomenon, our every facet is sophisticated and problematic. But, when we introduce the digital phenomenon into the equation it is a whole new different world. We need “concepts better able to grasp the complexity of the digital phenomenon and to illuminate more deeply the meaning of what we experience when facing interfaces” (Vial, 2019).

It could be said that understanding technology and the digital should be an easy task. In the end, everything can be broken down into algorithms consisted of simple operations of zero’s and one’s. Intertwining our lives with the digital brings enormous amount of possibilities and even when we think of such elementary concepts as communication we come across strange results such as technophobia (or its counterpart techno-fetishism).

Technophobia results in people not believing in digital, I will explain it on communication as it is basis of our everyday life. American duo of sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann present in their book The Social Construction of Reality the concept of face-to-face communication, which for them is the most true form of communication, and you can get no better than that. People nowadays tend to believe that online communication is a lesser form of communication because it is not face-to-face so they leave social media altogether. Paradoxically, not realising that they abandon a connected online world in which (almost) everyone already lives.

“Living exclusively in an immersive state, in a restrictive digital ontophany, can only be a phenomenological impoverishment of the experience of the existing. The question is not either whether to do exactly the opposite: stand against e-books, forbid video games, reject tablets in school, or close your Twitter account, waiting for the grass to grow….. As Jean-Claude Beaune writes, “The world we face, in our most mundane experiences, is cultural; that is, technological and technicized through and through. We have no natural experience of the world or of ourselves.” (Vial, 2019)

Techno-fetishism, on the other hand, goes in the steps of Marxism regarding commodities :... technology is a thing in itself, endowed with an abstract will, which guides the course of human events by pursuing its own ends - as a process without a subject.” (Vial, 2019) It formalized the need of a critical eye.

Technologies are not all good willed, even if at its inception some promise to be. Take into the account the impact of such phenomenons as Airbnb. The prices of housing rapidly inflated and immense number of properties are owned solely to bring profit into hands of private owners. The reality of technophobia and techno-fetishism is brought to life by the importance of not only designers but all of us to have both critical and visionary eyes.

Closing Remarks

Stéphane Vial has an endless stream of thoughts in his book Being and the Screen and in this review I have only touched the surface of couple of his ideas. But, hopefully my review brought into light some of his interesting observations. The idea that stuck with me the most is that we should try to understand technology in our context a bit more. It is not a novelty of present-day lives, because we can find notions of technology decades ago. Thus, the next time you unconditionally talk about the positives of technology and the digital or devotedly spread thoughts of how technology is ruining our lives, just stop for a moment and try to understand its connection to all our lives.

“Technology is no more transcendent to humanity than science is or art is. Science is also done without us and outside us, without our having any scientific knowledge and without being scientists ourselves, It’s the same for art: we are not all artists. Yet we do not feel dispossessed of science or art. Why would we feel that way of technology? Driving a car without knowing how it works technically or using the computing power of a computer without knowing what is at its heart constitutes a freeing from technology rather than a dispossession of technology.” (Vial, 2019)

Vial, S. (2019). Being and the Screen: How the Digital Changes Perception. Published in one volume with A Short Treatise on Design. The MIT Press.


Martin Řehořík

Written by


Články nejen o designu informačních služeb

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