A BENCH is a straightforward example of a low-tech device. It is designed for the simple purpose of providing a place to sit. It accomplishes this by presenting a horizontal surface of appropriate size and height. The public-space bench, common to parks, train and subway platforms, and bus stops, is a suitable guiding example for our inquiry exactly because of its straightforwardness and simplicity.
As noted earlier, despite being designed, manufactured, and put in place for one purpose, benches are sometimes also used for a second. That is, although made for sitting, they are also sometimes used for sleeping, and this second option is at times taken up by people living unhoused. This second usage propels the bench into the complicated legal and moral controversies over the issue of homelessness, which spiral out into the politics of everything from adequate housing, unemployment, and racial discrimination to domestic violence, addiction, and mental illness, among many other thorny and important topics. And more, this second usage has in part led to the enactment of controversial laws and has prompted strategic redesigns of public-space objects. Thus, despite its straightforwardness and simplicity, the bench is a moral and political flashpoint.
The philosophical challenge of accounting for a technology like the bench is to somehow develop a way to conceive of both its material specificity and its practical multiplicity. How should we think about an object that is at once designed for a specific purpose but is at the same time open to alternate uses and yet at the same time again still somehow remains limited in the ways it can possibly be used? Can we conceive of technology in a way that appreciates its concrete materiality and also its abstract ability to maintain different meaningful places in different people’s lives?
To address these questions, we must first evaluate our intuitions about the nature of technology. To draw forward the potentially unreflexive and deeply held impressions about technology that might linger in the backs of our minds, let’s consider some ideas from the philosophy of technology.
A central problem in the philosophy of technology, at least as I see it, is to figure out how to conceive of technology in a way that sees it as neither entirely determining our future nor entirely innocent of such determinations. Contemporary thinking on this point is haunted by two ghosts. One tradition of thought, sometimes called determinist, sees technology to carry us toward a certain future and to do so rather independently of our individual choices. “Utopian” determinists see technology as increasingly solving our problems. They look at the past, with its inferior medicine and food production and life-spans, and draw a line through the present and out into the future to predict a continuing positive vector of technological development. There are also “dystopian” determinists who see technology to be increasingly leading us to our doom. They perform the same basic maneuver as the utopians but come to the opposite conclusion. Their line from the past to the future runs through the increasingly destructive capacity of our weapons, environmental degradation, worker exploitation, or existential ennui. In contrast to both forms of determinism, there is an equally haunting tradition of thought, sometimes called instrumentalist, that sees technology as playing no role in shaping our lives whatsoever. In this view, technologies cannot ever be understood to be responsible in any way for anything. They are simply neutral and innocent instruments, subject entirely to our whims as users.
Contemporary thought in the philosophy of technology largely attempts to split the difference. Work in this field tries in many different ways to conceive of technology in a manner that is neither determinist nor instrumentalist. (The terms instrumentalist and, especially, determinist end up being used as insults flung at anyone who strays too far toward one of these positions.) That is, contemporary work attempts to tell a story in which neither we completely control technology nor it completely controls us. But versions of both determinist and instrumentalist thought certainly continue to shamble on throughout contemporary culture. They lurch undead in the backs of our minds in the form of unreflexive intuitions. As we work to conceive of the politics of public-space technologies, we must be careful not to stumble into either’s grasp.
My favorite summary of this state of affairs is found in an interview with contemporary theorist Albert Borgmann. He writes, “If there is one thing that the significant philosophers of technology agree on, it is this: Contemporary culture is pervasively technological, and technology is non neutral.” This claim, itself astute, is also notable for what it implies: the significant philosophers of technology agree about, and only about, what technology is not. They agree that technology is not purely instrumental. The handy term nonneutral allows a person to be clear that she is not an instrumentalist without positively claiming to be a determinist. But although there is agreement over what technology isn’t, there are still open questions about how we should understand what technology actually is.
My recommendation is that we think about technology through the notion of multistability. First developed by the philosopher Don Ihde, multistability refers to a technology’s capacity to be taken up for different uses and to be meaningful in different ways. As Ihde puts it, “no technology is ‘one thing,’ nor is it incapable of belonging to multiple contexts.” Yet at the same time, a given device cannot simply be used for just any purpose, nor can it be meaningful in simply any way imaginable; the specifics of its concrete materiality—its particular physical composition—put limits on which uses and meanings are possible. In this terminology, only some relationships between a user and a technology prove to be “stable” within the experience of users. That is, a user’s relationship with a technology is open to multiple “stabilities.”
The notion of multistability comes to us through a tradition of philosophy called phenomenology. Phenomenology approaches philosophical problems from the entry point of the deep description of human experience as it is lived. That is, rather than start with a science-style God’s-eye view on human beings, phenomenology begins by describing experience itself, putting on hold our received wisdom and concepts as much as possible, even ideas as basic as “subjects” and “objects.”
Ihde develops a phenomenological account of technology. He explains that technologies should not simply be counted among all the objects in the world that we experience, as if they are merely another thing that we perceive or act upon. Technologies play a “mediating” role in experience. They come between the user and the world, transforming the user’s abilities to perceive and act. In this way, the technological mediation of user experience is nonneutral. Peter-Paul Verbeek, also working in this line of thinking, goes so far as to claim that it is through technological mediation that the user and the world become who they are. As he puts it, “when a technological artifact is used, it facilitates people’s involvement with reality, and in doing so it coshapes how humans can be present in their world and their world for them.”
The notion of multistability thus points out that a technology always has the potential to mediate human experience in multiple ways. There is always more than only one possible path for a given technology to transform a user’s ability to act on, perceive, and understand the world. And simultaneously, the materiality of that technology places limits on what those potential acts, perceptions, and understandings may be. This understanding of materiality is in tune with the work of Susan Bordo when she writes that “‘materiality,’ in the broadest terms, signifies for me finitude. It refers to our inescapable physical locatedness in time and space, in history and culture, both of which not only shape us (the social constructionist premise, which I share with the postmodernists) but also limit us (which some postmodernists appear to me to deny).”
With all this said, it will still most often be the case that there is a main purpose to which a technology is put, a chief manner in which that technology tends to be taken up by most users. Again following Ihde, we can refer to this most common usage as “dominant.” That is, although a technology always remains usable through multiple stabilities, it will often retain a dominant stability. And most often, this dominant stability will be the purpose for which the device has been designed and manufactured.
Let’s use a simple example to show how these concepts work: Ihde’s attempt to brainstorm different possible uses for a hammer. He writes, “A hammer is ‘designed’ to do certain things—drive nails into a shoemaker’s shoe, or into shingles on my shed, or to nail down a floor—but the design cannot prevent the hammer from (a) becoming an objet d’art, (b) a murder weapon, (c) a paperweight, etc.” The hammer is thus multistable, and its dominant stability is the purpose of hammering, set in its usual context of building and fixing, workbenches and nails. The hammer was made for this dominant stability; that is, this is the function for which the hammer has been designed, created, distributed, and sold. As a form of technological mediation, when a person uses the hammer through this dominant stability, it transforms his ability to bang nails into something. But alternative stabilities are available too. The hammer can be used to hit and hurt someone else, an act that, I can only presume, would require a different kind of swing. Rather than finding its place on the workbench, the hammer can sit on a desktop and hold a stack of papers in place. It can find new meaning as a piece of found art. Surely further stabilities are possible, and surely many exist in actual practice. At the same time, owing to the specific materiality of the hammer, limited as it is to being only some sort of handle with a hammer head, this device cannot be used to do simply anything or to mean simply anything.
Think again of our guiding example of the bench. The public-space bench, just like any technology, is multistable. The dominant stability is that purpose for which it was designed, manufactured, purchased, and installed in a public area: it provides a place to sit. The public-space bench mediates user experience, transforming this point of the world into a location that affords sitting. Of course, it is possible to think of alternative stabilities. Cyclists sometimes use benches as makeshift bike racks. Joggers sometimes lean against benches to do stretches. With what I swear has always been the utmost cleanliness, and with the help of a diaper bag and changing pad, I have used benches on occasion as a changing table.
But of course the alternate stability of the public-space bench at issue here is its potential use as a bed, and in particular its pervasive use for just this purpose by unhoused people. For those without shelter, a bench of a standard design is something that affords sleep. It does so not only because of the contingencies of its material design but also because of its location in public space. For example, if the bench is in an area trafficked by other members of the community, and is thus in the view of many people, then it can sometimes offer a level of safety not found otherwise alone in the city’s margins.
And the bench is in many ways a microcosm for the dynamics of public space itself. Following this conception of the bench, with its dominant stability, and its alternate stability sometimes taken up by people living unhoused, we can think about the multistability of public space generally.
We can consider the dominant purposes and meanings of public space. That is, we can think about the various features of public space and consider their interlocking dominant stabilities. The streets enable local transit. They provide a means for businesses to transport their goods and for people to travel by car and by other modes. Sidewalks enable foot traffic. Bus stops, as well as train and subway platforms, provide areas for travelers to wait for public transportation. Urban plazas offer meeting places and areas to sit outside for lunch. Public parks provide the community with shared spaces for outdoor recreation, relaxation, exercise, and gathering. They serve as event spaces. They provide vital green space. Their playgrounds provide areas for children to spend time. Their trees provide shade. Their presence can increase property values. By providing beneficial outdoor amenities for the community, they serve local business interests. These are just a few of the interconnected dominant uses of public space.
Against this broad sketch of the general dominant stability of public space stands an alternative in which unhoused people find a place to live. The streets and sidewalks become not only travel routes but areas in which to spend time. Garbage cans are not only waste receptacles but also a source of recyclables that can be collected and traded in for a modest income. Garbage cans may also be sources of food. Underpasses provide a form of shelter. Railways become walkable arteries. Shopping carts provide a means for moving and storing personal items. Empty coffee cups are used for panhandling. Alleyways, hillsides, roadsides, and other in-between areas—those interstices of city space—provide places to camp. Public parks become living spaces. For some, the city itself is home.
Thus we see in the standard configuration of public space both a dominant stability and a well-developed alternative stability. We see a dominant stability, to put it even more generally, that involves zones used for transit and recreation, with objects and layouts arrayed in tune with the purposes for which they were originally made and installed, and all this happening in accord with prevailing community and business interests. We also see an alternative stability in which those living unhoused, out of necessity, take up those same zones as a form of habitation. For those who have no experience with homelessness, this at times highly visible alternative usage of our shared space can serve as a reminder of the plight faced by the unhoused. It can serve as a reminder as well that the public interest does not reduce to business interest.
But the story does not end here. This is just the start of an account of both the multistability of technology in general and public space and its implications for homelessness in particular. Even though the standard designs and layouts of public spaces leave them open to these alternative usages by unhoused people, we will see efforts in design and law that target and restrict these stabilities. To account for these forces, we must turn next to social theory.