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On the hermeneutics of everyday things: or, the philosophy of fire hydrants


It can sometimes be difficult to think about “everyday” objects, those things we are so familiar with that they become taken-for-granted aspects of the backdrop of our world. But what if those objects, despite their everydayness, are politically fraught and call for closer examination? I suggest that insights from two contemporary perspectives, postphenomenology and actor-network theory, are useful for drawing out the experiential, social, and political dynamics of everyday things. In this paper, I review and resituate several key concepts from these two theoretical frameworks and outline a method for using them together for the evaluation of technology. As a guiding example, I explore a paradigmatic everyday device: fire hydrants. Despite their everyday character, hydrants fulfill multiple social roles, some of them loaded with difficult and important political implications.

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  1. Part of Ihde’s effort in developing the notions of embodiment and hermeneutic relations is to emphasize the variability of human experience, in contrast to what he observes to be too restricted a conception of technological mediation in the accounts of classical phenomenologists. In this effort, he outlines other forms of mediation, including what he calls “alterity relations,” in which technologies are approached as a kind of quasi-Other, and “background relations,” in which technologies make up our experiential context (Ihde 1990: 97, 109). Peter-Paul Verbeek has expanded on this list, testing it on either end, and has considered the kind of “cyborg intentionality” that he claims to characterize the cases of bodily implants and also actively responsive computerized environments (2011).

  2. Ihde’s method of variational analysis is inspired by Edmund Husserl’s work. The difference between Ihde and Husserl in their understandings of variational analysis is, in my view, crucial to understanding the pragmatism of postphenomenology. Where Husserlian variational analysis aims at eliminating all perspective and contingency from the investigation so that the “essence” of the object of study can be discovered, postphenomenology instead rejects this kind of essentialism. According to Ihde, postphenomenological variational analysis does not discover essence, but instead reveals the very multistability of the object of study (see Ihde 2009: 12; Ihde 2016a: 112). In my own work, I expand on the epistemological, methodological, and political implications of this insight (e.g., Rosenberger 2014; Rosenberger forthcoming a).

  3. In a previous article in AI & Society, I developed the idea that relational strategies can involve greater or lesser degrees of “abstraction” (Rosenberger 2013). This is true in the case of the pencil. If one is deeply familiar with a pencil, and has a well-developed strategy regarding its writing stability, one may be able to apply this hermeneutic and embodied relationship to other related though not identical writing relations. Put into this terminology, a deep familiarity with this specific relational strategy to the pencil also implies an abstract relational strategy that may be applied, albeit with less familiarity, to other writing situations, such as writing with a pen, coloring with a crayon, using an eyeliner pencil, or cutting with a scalpel-style precision hobby knife.

  4. This description is of course inspired by Martin Heidegger’s (2000) influential account of tool use and breakdown. But it should be noted that Heidegger’s aim was not to provide a practical description of user experience, but to develop a fundamental account of being itself. In my own work, in tune with the pragmatism of postphenomenology, I have continued with a practical account of the breakdown phenomenon, exploring the experience of the sudden drop in experiential transparency (Rosenberger 2009).

  5. While visiting Copenhagen, Denmark, where much of this paper was drafted, I noticed that virtually all of the hydrants in the city were strapped closed with plastic wire ties like the one shown here in Fig. 1c. Almost none of my friends and colleagues in the city had noticed them. I sent emails to a series of relevant city and national organizations to inquire about their purpose, and several replied that they also hadn’t noticed and didn’t know the reason. Finally, I received a very helpful reply from the Copenhagen Fire Brigade (Hovedstadens Beredskab). The zip ties perform multiple functions. They prevent hydrants from popping open due the quaking of passing trucks and busses. Also, a missing tie reveals that a hydrant has been opened in an unauthorized manner. And the ties are color coded to indicate the year the hydrant was last inspected.

  6. Accessed August 15th, 2016.

  7. In a short book currently under development, tentatively entitled Guilty Technology, I further develop this framework in which social networks close off, reopen, and expand technological multistabilities, and I introduce a more technical vocabulary (Rosenberger in progress). That work entails a sustained critique of anti-homeless technologies.


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Correspondence to Robert Rosenberger.

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Rosenberger, R. On the hermeneutics of everyday things: or, the philosophy of fire hydrants. AI & Soc 32, 233–241 (2017).

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  • Postphenomenology
  • Multistability
  • Hydrant
  • Actor-network theory
  • Materiality