Janna van Grunsven
Technology can offer formidable solutions when it comes to bolstering mental and physical health. Often these solutions work with implicit assumptions about what it means to have a well-functioning mind and body. By questioning these implicit assumptions, philosopher Janna van Grunsven broadens the engineer’s perspective on health, thereby expanding the scope of their technological solutions.
Take ageing adults who may prefer to continue to live at home for as long as feasible
In the Western world, we often think of “being healthy” as having an autonomous, rational and self-determining mind inside a body that ought to function like a well-oiled machine. This has direct implications for people whose minds and bodies don’t correspond with this picture. It highlights functional deficiencies, particularly in ageing and disabled people, and often sees technology as promoting health by mitigating or fixing these deficiencies.
‘Take ageing adults who may prefer to continue to live at home for as long as feasible,’ she says. ‘When we highlight how cognitive and/or physical decline threatens their autonomy we might focus on technological interventions such as ambient assistant living systems, adding loads of sensors for monitoring people in their homes.’
A different view
Ever since her master’s education, Janna van Grunsven has been critical of the underlying picture of the (healthy) mind and the body that animates many of these technological choices. Using insights from the field of embodied, embedded, extended and enactive cognition [4E cognition], she has been captivated by the idea that the human body is in constant interaction with a wider physical and social environment.
‘This interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of people’s sense of self and their relationship to the wider world. Human beings are not autonomous minds inside machine-like bodies, we are embodied minds, deeply connected to and vulnerably dependent on the world. What does it mean to take this seriously in developing technology for mental and physical health?’
A nice example of a technological solution that seems to spring from this different view is that of the Duofiets, a sturdy two-seater bike that supports a shared meaningful experience between two people. ‘Although one of these people is typically les mobile than the other, this is not highlighted as a deficiency,’ Janna says. ‘The bike is designed so that both users contribute to a meaningful coordinated embodied interaction. I think we need more of this in our technologically shaped world.’
Human beings are not autonomous minds inside machine-like bodies, but deeply connected to and vulnerably dependent on the world
For a decade she explored the 4E cognition perspective in the United States, before joining TU Delft and adding technology to the mix. ‘It is super fun,’ she says. ‘I spend a lot of time collaborating with people in my section and with people from other disciplines, such as industrial engineers and people specialised in human computer interfaces. It is the least solitary way of practicing philosophy. It offers the opportunity to make a real-world impact.’
Her research recently landed her an NWO Veni grant in which she investigates how technology can influence what she calls the moral visibility of people. ‘It is the idea that we can succeed but also fail to be visible to one another as embodied expressive beings who are worthy of interaction’ she says. ‘For instance, exoskeletons can implicitly convey that ‘uprightness’ is a better way of moving about in the world as an embodied being. Thisshapes how wheelchair users are perceived and interacted with.’
She also delved into the mental health impact of COVID. ‘We sort of lost the world as a familiar meaningful context of everyday embodied interaction. The world became quite unfamiliar to us, suspect even,’ she says. ‘Is it still safe to touch a door handle, should I disinfect my groceries, how near can I get to my loved ones? It seriously affected our well-being.’ As a philosopher, I aim to make such implicit experiences conceptually explicit, providing a clearer target for potential (technological) solutions.’
She will soon also start as a supervisor for an interdisciplinary PhD project on Brain-Computer Interfaces for people suffering from ALS disease. And the 4TU Centre for Engineering Education awarded her and several of her colleagues a grant for rethinking the future of engineering ethics education. ‘Compared to twenty years ago, both researchers and students are much more open to consulting or involving a philosopher/ethicist,’ she says. ‘But some more exposure doesn’t hurt. Technology simply isn’t a value free’.
What will technological health solutions can we think of if we promote interconnectedness and solidarity?
Family life has put a dent in her leisure activities – pretty much reducing it to singing under the shower – but not in her ambitions. ‘Technological solutions that help undo presumed deficiencies certainly have a meaningful impact on people’s lives,’ she says. ‘But if we allow for vulnerability and being dependent, if we promote interconnectedness and solidarity, what other solutions can we then think of? This is the shift I would like to help institute in technology development and engineering education.’ She also would like to publish her findings in a book. ‘That will be part of my Veni.’