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Ready-at-hand and Present-at-hand

I find that, picking up one of the rubber phone props, the texture arrests me somewhat and I’m suddenly conscious of the physical object in my hand. Instead of the mobile being an almost invisible conduit for the flow of communications, something I speak and hear through, I’m now aware of it as a device in my hand.

Of course this is temporarily true whenever I get a new, unfamiliar phone, and I begin to talk through the phone only when I get to know it.

In Where the Action Is (embodied interaction and tangible computing), Paul Dourish discusses Heidegger’s distinction between “ready-to-hand” (called zuhanden) and “present-at-hand” (vorhanden). The first is when you act through something, and the equipment fades into the background. Dourish gives the computer mouse as an example: You feel as though you are operating the menus, icons and so on directly, and not as though you’re asking the mouse to do it on your behalf.

The second, present-at-hand, is when the mouse becomes an object of study in its own right. Instead of it being something that equips you for a task (it being the joining between these two), you have bumped up against some aspect of its nature that makes you focus on it as an entity. This can impede your use of it as this early leaflet, How to Make Friends by Telephone, says. On page 4, this advice is given:

“Speak TO the person at the other end of the line—not TO the telephone—then you’re more apt to be pleasant and understanding.”

How does this interaction guideline change when we constantly switch between acting through the phone (to talk) and interacting with it (to consult an address book, or write a text message)? Does regarding the phone as an object of interaction prevent us from acting through it, and reduce its well-suitedness to being a communication device?

Maybe a good place to look is the Blackberry, which mixes these two forms of interaction happily and successfully. I wonder whether part of its success is due to small touches such as the on-switch pointed out by Rod McLaren:

“The BlackBerry is usually left on all the time, and when slipped back into the holster a magnet switches off the screen. The holster is more than just an inert wrap of protective plastic: as well as protecting the screen, it saves battery life and allows the handset to appear instant-on and ready.”

When you unholster a Blackberry, you don’t need to turn on or unlock the keypad. Perhaps this makes it easier to “act through” the physical device to directly manipulate the data of emails and appointments.

A question

Now I’m thinking in this way, it’s fun to consider some counterfactuals. Imagine that mobile phones were regularly covered with awkward materials (high friction and abrasive). What forms of physical interaction would we design in, in order that the phone “disappear” and become something that we could act through?

No answer I’m afraid, but something I’ll be considering.

Before this:

After this:

2 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Rachael said on 15 March 2010...

    Thank you for this post and very clear explanation. I also find that when things break, they become present-at-hand. It’s sort of like, I have been using this thing, but now that it stopped working, I finally notice it. It’s not just HERE for me. It has failed me, and I finally see it for the first time in weeks or even years.

  • Trackback: Google Glass and driving out bodies around 30 April 2013

    [...] an excellent essay. I especially like the distinction between Ready-at-hand and Present-at-hand technologies, and how our bodies shouldn’t become marionettes to [...]

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