“Ready-to-hand” (zuhanden) and “present-at-hand” (vorhanden) are concept introduced by Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) in his famous book Being and Time (1927). Heidegger considers these as ways to explains the way we encounter the world and act through it. By ‘ready to hand’ Heidegger describes how a tool “equipment” becomes invisible in the background of the work and we are no more conscious of it, as our main concentration is focused on the work not on the tools that we use to perform the work. But this invisible equipment will come from the ‘background’ to the ‘foreground’ and become an entity that is ‘present-at-hand’ as soon as it breaks down or fails functioning properly. Dourish gives the mouse on computer as an example of that. A mouse can be a part of our hand while clicking on menus, buttons or dragging and dropping objects on the screen, in this way, we are not conscious about the existence of the mouse during the work. thus mouse became ” What Heidegger calls “ready-to-hand”. However, our orientation toward the mouse is changed when it reached to the edge of the mouse pad and doesn’t move anymore, at that moment we became conscious about the mouse as we pay attention to it again to bring it back to the center of the pad. When the mouse becomes the object of our activity, it turns to be “present-at-hand”. But as soon as we fix its position and made it works properly, it will start to go back to the “background” of our attention gradually. This “background”, in which the equipments are faded disappeared, was always the heart of Heidegger’s view of ‘being-in-the-world’.
Thinking about this concept, we see many reflections of that in our own life where some tools are so faded in the background of our daily activities, in a way that we don’t feel them as a part of the work until an interruption happens that draws our attention to their existence. As an example from my life, I was working in a TV station as a technician responsible for preparing daily live interviews with political analysts for a news bulletin. Conducting a live interview requires a lot of expensive devices and equipments including: Video broadcasting system, audio-video mixers, cameras, and a car that was a mini broadcast center full of expensive TV equipments (SNG van) (see picture 1). Most of these equipments require special attention and high level skills to be operated and manipulated continuously. Thus, they were always “present-at-hand” according to Heidegger’s concept. But there are some other small and not noticeable parts that were not in our focus at all. For example, the ear piece (see picture 2) that an interviewee would put in his ear to hear the anchor’s voice from the studio.
This little piece would always disappear and fade in the ‘background’ to become ready-to-hand as soon as we put it on the interviewee’s ear. Until one day it stopped working during a live interview. The interviewee couldn’t hear the coming voice from the studio and would start adjusting his earpiece. At that moment we all paid attention to that little piece and tried to fix it, I can assume that it was the first time in my life that I realised the important role of that small tool. Unfortunately, we couldn’t repair it in such critical time, and thus, the on-air interview failed.
This is an obvious example of how invisible technology can pop up to the surface to become visible when there is an obstacle or it breaks down. The Heidegger’s concept of fading or withdrawing the technology to the background or disappearing from our awareness doesn’t mean that tools go completely invisible but they are just not in our focus, however this concept is similar to what Mark Weiser (1952 –1999) says about disappearing technologies:
“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” -Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century.
While Heidegger doesn’t describe “ready-to-hand” equipment as a good nor the “present-to-hand” as a bad tool, Weiser go further, he thinks that a tool that can be invisible and let you focus on the task rather than to the tool itself is a good tool.
“A good tool is an invisible tool. By invisible, I mean that the tool does not intrude on your consciousness; you focus on the task, not the tool. Eyeglasses are a good tool — you look at the world, not the eyeglasses. The blind man tapping the cane feels the street, not the cane. Of course, tools are not invisible in themselves, but as part of a context of use.” -Mark Weiser, The World is not a Desktop, ACM Interactions
The concepts of “ready to hand” and “present at hand” raise a question: Is the quality of a tool or a ‘technology’ depends on its readiness and presence? Or according to Weiser the goodness of any technology depends on appearing or disappearing in our daily routine? There is still not clear if all kind of technologies can disappear. I cannot imagine a very noisy electricity generator can be disappeared in my daily activity while I will be always concerning about when it will be turned off. In another hand, perhaps, all type of equipments or devices will seems to be “present at hand” when we are first introduced to them, but after a certain time, they may turn to become ” ready at hand” when we got enough skills use them smoothly. At that time your hands will use it automatically and unconsciously while your thinking is on the task or the work itself.
Paul Dourish, ‘Where the Action Is’, The Foundations of Embodied Interaction, E-book 2004
Mark Weiser, The Computer for the 21st Century. http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/SciAmDraft3.html
Mark Weiser, The World is not a Desktop, ACM Interactions, 1993 http://www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/ACMInteractions2.html