Profile of professor Dag Svanæs: ”We’re technological by nature”
In his homeland Norway, the professor at the Digital Design Department, Dag Svanæs, is known for wearing a tail. On Thursday March 25 he will hold his inaugural lecture about the integration of people and technology.
If you google the IT University’s professor Dag Svanæs, several pictures emerge where he is wearing a tail. It looks like a real tail as we see them on mammals, but it is not, of course. Dag Svanæs made it for a student theatre group at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and it was used as a troll tail in a production of Ibsen’s classic Peer Gynt. The tail is mechanical and follows the body’s movements by means of sensors of the same type that are used to stabilise drones in the air. In this way you get the feeling of having a tail, he explains:
“My tail made me reflect. I found it very interesting that, when I took it off after having worn it for half an hour, I had a bodily feeling of being tail-less. That made me reflect on the fact that our brains are capable of accepting body parts that we don’t have. That changed my perspective on our relation to technology.”
Dag Svanæs’ tail illustrates his approach to his professional fields, which are UX design (user experience) and Human-Computer Interaction, which, according to the professor, might also be called Human-Computer Integration because technology is an integral part of our lives:
“We’re technological by nature. It’s our nature as humans to use tools and build technology. Technology isn’t something that’s unnatural, something that’s separate from us. It’s always been a fundamental characteristic of humans that we create tools and that we create our surroundings and our own habitat. The natural condition for people isn’t the Norwegian hero who travels alone on skis across Greenland. Our natural condition is to be with other people in surroundings created by people. This is why it makes little sense to dream about bygone pre-technology times. We must relate to the technology that we’ve got here and now”, says Dag Svanæs.
In the beginning of his career Dag Svanæs had a classic ‘computer science’ approach to technology. In the 1980s he obtained a Master of Computer Science degree, and, while being employed with the Norwegian ministry of education, he was involved in introducing IT in Norwegian schools. However, he felt that he was restrained by the purely technological approach to IT, and studying social anthropology at the universities in Trondheim and Oslo helped set a new and humanistic direction for the now 62 years old professor. However, it was not until he visited Stanford University in the late 1990s that he found his very own approach to technology. While he was at Stanford, he worked on a PhD based on work of the German philosopher Heidegger (1889-1976) and the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) that he used to understand the relation between people and technology.
“Philosophy is the foundation for my approach to the practical side of things. It’s the basis for my way of thinking. Some of the things that I bring with me from phenomenology and especially from the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty are the focus on the human body and how thinking, communication and the use of technology are connected to the body. The bodily aspect in the use of technology has been at the core of my research interest. Concerning healthcare IT systems, it means for example that when we study how doctors and nurses use mobile phones during consultations, we need to observe carefully how they use their bodies”, he says.
According to Dag Svanæs, his research is based on two things: the philosophical side and the practical side. After Stanford he returned to NTNU where funding for research on philosophers long dead and their relation to technology was not to be found. For this reason he decided to use philosophy in a wide range of application-oriented projects, first as an associate professor and since 2010 as a professor at NTNU in Trondheim.
Dag Svanæs’ research is characterised by being multi-disciplinary and he has done a great deal of projects in partnership with the health sector. At the moment, he is doing research into the development of computer games for rehabilitation of elderly people in partnership with physiotherapists and professors of physiology. He is also heading a research project that examines how ‘participatory design’ is used in the development of the Norwegian equivalent to the Danish health platform; that is, how users are involved in the development of the system. He hopes that his research can help so that the health platform in Norway will not be criticized in the same way as the Danish one has been and this is where his philosophical approach is of use to him:
“It’s important to understand that all technology has a downside; unintended consequences that you haven’t designed for. Some of the unintended consequences are fairly easy to predict, but some come as a total surprise. The latter are what the former American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld called “the unknown unknowns.” In his words, there are things that we know that we don’t know (‘the known unknowns’) and we can usually handle these things relatively well. The things that often lead to disaster are those that we don’t know that we don’t know. We questions we have not asked. When it comes to technology, we could mention Facebook as an example. Few were able to foresee the dependency and problems it might lead to. It was just some young people designing a cool service.”
Dag Svanæs is well known at the Digital Design Department at the IT University of Copenhagen where he has been employed for a period of 12 years as an associate professor concurrent with his professorship at the university in Trondheim. He obtained his professorship on March 31, 2020 and he hopes that he will still have the opportunity to combine his practical, philosophical and artistic approach to research into IT. But one of his greatest ambitions is to inspire his students to find new perspectives in terms of developing IT tools and systems and present them to companies and to society; he believes there is a need for this. According to Dag Svanæs, technologies can influence human kind’s ability to survive in a positive as well as in a negative way:
“It’s important to understand that technology makes possible that there’ll soon be eight billion people on the planet. Without technology, there would’ve been less people. It wouldn’t be possible if we were still using bows and arrows. It’s also technology that destroys our surroundings – the climate, for instance. The fast spread of the current pandemic is also due to technology. It used to take decades for diseases to travel; now air travel made it move between continents in a matter of days. At the same time, we use technology to fight it, so it’s important to understand that all technology is complex and has both upsides and downsides,” he explains.