Interview with Daisy Alioto1
Philosopher Don Ihde discusses a human future shaped by the technology we’ve created.
MEDICAL IMAGING is responsible for some of the most powerful moments of our lives, from the first glimpse of a growing fetus to the discovery of a tumor. Before the invention of the X-Ray in 1895, none of it was possible, but imaging is now a fundamental part of diagnosis and even how we understand our selfhood. If we considered these images to be art, then philosopher Don Ihde would be one of their most prolific collectors.
Ihde is a distinguished professor of philosophy at New York’s Stony Brook University. He is the author of over twenty books, including the 1976 Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound—the first and only phenomenological investigation of the experience of sound—and a follow-up, 2015’s Acoustic Technics.
As a phenomenologist, Ihde studies consciousness. Specifically, he’s a postphenomenologist, meaning he believes we can only interpret our experiences through the confines of our own brains—and the audio and visual instruments that mediate them. Simply put, Ihde studies the philosophy of technology. His next book will focus on how technology and instruments are now shaping the humans of the future just as they shape our understanding of the past. Over a root beer float on the Upper East Side, we talked about echolocation, Vermeer, and Lucy’s skeleton.
—DAISY ALIOTO for Guernica
GUERNICA: I’m interested in how you started exploring medical imagery and what types of media you’re seeing it expand into.
DON IHDE: A lot of the medical imagery has to do with biography because I had open-heart surgery, I had knee replacements, I had a hiatal hernia, etc. Every time one goes for surgery you get a whole spectrum of imaging. Of course, I’ve been doing research in imaging technology across the board for close to twenty years. When you think about it, medical imaging is actually quite new. The first major medical image was the X-Ray in 1895. This is the first time you get imaging of anything that’s in the bodily interior.
GUERNICA: Versus drawings.
DON IHDE: Yeah, Australian Aborigines have a style of X-Ray painting. In the European tradition, you go back to the Renaissance when you start doing autopsies. But to peer inside a living body—X-Rays are the earliest. Now of course, it’s absolutely amazing. I have probably a dozen CDs of my own imaging, and a couple of times I’ve used them in lectures. At Oxford, I did a presentation called “My Case.” What specialists try to do is get at least three imaging processes that are totally different from each other. Then you can run these through a computer program and make a composite image. In one scenario you suspect a brain tumor, so you image the brain tumor with PET scans, MRIs, and CT scans and create a 3-D model. The doctor opens up the skull to excise the cancer, but they can’t see anything. Do you cut out what’s supposed to be in that spot or not? The current story is yes, you believe the images over what you see with your eyes.
GUERNICA: Is that an actual case, or is it a medical school scenario?
DON IHDE: It’s a sort of urban legend, but the notion is true.
GUERNICA: The trust in medical imaging is that great?
DON IHDE: Yes. There are several books on the history of diagnosis, and that’s very interesting because, gender-wise, it had long been prohibited in Asia and Europe for male doctors to touch females. So there are periods in history when they created dolls, and the woman would point to the part of the doll where the pain was. Later, post-Renaissance, that taboo is gone. A lot of the probes were combined tactile and acoustic. For example, a doctor might thump an abdomen to see if there is a tumor. You have a long history of changes in diagnosis, from no touch, to touch, to acoustic and visual. But visual is a problem because if you’re a living being, you can’t see beyond the surface of the skin. Now you don’t have that problem. Laparoscopic surgery, inserting a camera into the body, is sometimes called Nintendo surgery, and the best training for laparoscopic surgeries have actually been video games. A developing field is sonifying cancer. You can acoustically discriminate between healthy and cancerous cells by hearing them. Make the vibrations into sound, and anybody can learn to tell the difference.
DON IHDE: In the eighteenth century, it was very common to think that each of the five senses was discrete and yielded very different data. That period is totally dead. A Jesuit priest named Lazzaro Spallanzani was the first to discover bat echolocation. He saw that bats could fly in the dark and catch a moth. He put wax over the bat’s eyes but the bats could still catch the moth. If you put wax in the bat’s ears, the bats couldn’t catch anything. So I argue that science would be much richer if it were multisensory. And the problem with instrumentation is that instruments, unlike our senses, can be monosensory. Since the nineteenth century and the discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum—which is really the discovery that all energy coming from something has a wave form—in theory we could image anything along that spectrum. In fact we don’t, because only certain parts of the spectrum have been instrumentalized. But the new thing is computerization. You can take all the data, the measurement of the frequencies, and transform it into an image.
GUERNICA: Coming at it from the perspective of a collector or someone who appreciates art, do you foresee a scenario where people will begin to collect these images or audio samples, and they’ll be decontextualized from the medical field?
DON IHDE: When I give lectures on sonifying science, many times there will be artists in the audience who give me samples of stuff they’ve done. There are annual contests put on by some of the top science magazines for best science images. They range from regular photography to the phenomenon of the microphotography of cells. Twenty-first-century imaging is largely using microscopic processes. So, for example, you can trap a single atom or a single proton. Two years ago, one of my colleagues was the fourth member of an atom trapping consortium. Unfortunately, Nobel Prizes can only be split by three, so he was the guy who was left out.
GUERNICA: You’ve kept all of the images from your own cases. Do you keep them because they’re useful to your work, or do you have an instinct to save them for other reasons?
DON IHDE: I originally kept them because I wanted to use them as examples in what I write, and I do, a lot, but it’s very interesting because we have no direct experience of our brain. I can’t experience my brain because I’m inside of it. If you’re imaging your brain, you can also find scary things. As one ages, your brain shrinks. And how much it shrinks, and where it shrinks, relates to conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
GUERNICA: Do you think that having recordings and imagery that help us experience our own brains has a philosophical impact?
DON IHDE: It clearly has. My thesis with Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction is that we make technologies, and, in turn, technologies make us. There is a notion in design of designer intent. Why was the lead pencil invented? Well, the inventor of the lead pencil wanted it to be a marking machine. The dominant use of a pencil is to write, but I remember going to a one-room public school, and one of my bullying friends stabbed me with a lead pencil. I remember reading about a court case where a man tried to stab a judge with a pencil. There are Google pages full of similar instances around the world. It’s obvious that the pencil lends itself to precisely that kind of use. It’s not as lacking in dominance as you might think. I have an article on the fallacy of the designer intent because a lot of designers think they can design uses into technology. You can’t do that. I use the pen, I make the mark, but the pen is also using me. The pen could be said to be allowing these kinds of marks. I can’t do just anything with the pen. That’s particularly true of imaging.
GUERNICA: Instruments play a big role in this.
DON IHDE: The interrelationship is true from the simplest to the most complex. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s art or science.
GUERNICA: There were artists who, even before computers, were creating their own coding systems to create analog works based on some ratio, or what we would call a program if it was in a machine. Computer art is really not that new—whether it was the Fibonacci sequence, or whatever other system.
DON IHDE: In the early 2000s David Hockney produced a book with Charles Falco called Secret Knowledge. It’s about his discovery that many Renaissance painters used a camera obscura to construct paintings. Many in the art history community were outraged by this because they thought it cheapened the art. I happen to be a big Vermeer fan. There can be little doubt that he used a camera obscura. He’s only got something like thirty-nine paintings and many of them show exactly the same room.
DON IHDE: I never went into aesthetics. Aesthetics is what philosophers have to say about art, and a lot of them take an analytics position and raise the question, “What is an art object?” As soon as you fall into that trap, an artist is going to come along and say, “That isn’t art it’s something else.” That’s a hopeless gig.
GUERNICA: But what about defining beauty? Is it harder to rewrite a definition of beauty?
DON IHDE: I don’t like definitions at all.
GUERNICA: So you couldn’t be a lawyer.
DON IHDE: Definitions get you into that time trap, and I’m very much more process-focused. Take Lucy for example. Lucy is famous largely because she has almost a total skeleton. The more sophisticated we get with instruments, the more we can find out. Through CT scans of her skeleton, they now think she died falling out of a tree because of the way her bones are broken. If nineteenth- and twentieth-century technologies can retroactively transform our bodiment, what then do the technologies we now use do?