The ambivalent ontology of technical artefacts – part IV

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Earlier in this series (part II), I introduced an established ontology for technical artefacts and then analysed whether this ontology is an effective tool for discussing the difference between technical artefacts and other entities.

In essence, I found this ontology to be lacking, because it neglects the social context of technical artefacts. In order to amend this shortcoming, I introduced social systems as part of the ontology of technical artefacts. The question was then whether this “fix” was sufficient, or whether there might be an even more fundamental problem with this ontology. Remember that the foundational assumption of the ontological approach is that there is a set of attributes which are necessary to [the artefact’s] identity and function” [Wikipedia 2015]. But what are these attributes? Technical artefacts are assumed to exist in unambiguous, predefined social contexts and to have unambiguous goals and use plans as their attributes. As we saw in part III, however, technical artefacts may acquire new goals and use plans over their lifetimes. How can we talk about “the” technical artefact if its attributes are ever changing? Let me illustrate this question with some examples. Thereafter, I will elaborate on my thoughts about how to solve the shortcomings of the traditional ontological model of technical artefacts.

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The ambivalent ontology of technical artefacts – part III

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The social nature of technological artefacts

In the last part of this blog-post series I talked about the fussiness of some technical artefacts. With fussiness I meant that clearly formulated goals and use plans do not exist for these technical artefacts. Rather, these goals and use plans seem to surface after the artefact has already been in use for a while.

Let me add another layer to this ambivalence: the social layer. As we will see below, the social aspect of an artefact can actually revoke its function, which then makes us question the original definition of technical artefacts (see part II), i.e. that they have functions that realise goals and are described in use plans.

Technical systems with a pronounced social aspect are referred to as hybrid systems. An example of this is a transport-analysis system that uses voluntarily solicited smartphone acceleration data for the determination of road “bumpiness”. This system consists not only of the obvious technical artefacts (communication links, web servers, cell phones, etc.), but also of social facets such as solicitation mechanisms (public relations, reward systems, etc.). As you can see, this kind of technical system is not merely technical; it also has a strong social part and is thus a hybrid system.

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The ambivalent ontology of technical artefacts – part II

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The “traditional” view of technical artefacts

Technical artefacts are a subset of technology, which “is an expression of our endeavours to adapt the world in which we live to meet our needs and desires. Technological action may therefore be termed a form of goal-oriented human behaviour aimed at primarily resolving practical problems” [Vermaas 2011; p. 1]. Thinking about technology by relying on the concept of technical artefacts is only one of many possible avenues. However, it often constitutes the only/main view through which technology is considered [Vries 2012].

How do we model the essence of technical artefacts? The ontology of technical artefacts is sketched in the universal-modelling-language diagram below. (To learn more about the universal modelling language check, for instance, the pertinent Wikipedia page).

ontology technical artefact

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The ambivalent ontology of technical artefacts – part I

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I am writing this blog post on a train that moves quickly along the rails, with intermittent stops in small to smallish cities. I am writing this blog post on a laptop, and a while ago I checked Wikipedia concerning Philip K. Dick (in connection with the recently published TV show The Man in the High Castle). As you can see, I am surrounded by many a technical artefact. Actually, every one of us experiences the same immersion: technical artefacts are prevalent to the degree that it is actually quite hard to put a finger on what they actually are. There are easy cases, such as a train, but what about a Wikipedia page? Is such a page a technical artefact, or rather a special configuration of supporting technical artefacts, such as the Wikipedia server I accessed and the connecting Internet?
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Conway’s “force” and the limits of self-awareness

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The other day I read Melvin E. Conway’s How do Committees Invent for the first time. The main thesis of his article is that “organizations which design systems […] are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” So, for instance, during the time of the Apollo programme, one expected to find one teams for each of the three propulsion stages and at least two teams for the lunar module and the command module. Interestingly, Apollo’s stages were not only designed by different teams, but they were even produced by different companies at different locations in the US.

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Let’s get started

Dear all,

Wish you all a happy new year (but only if you adhere to the Gregorian calendar:) ).

Just wanted to let you know that I am quite comfortable with the newish publishing frequency of one blog post roughly every fortnight. Work life looks less crazy in 2016, and I intend to keep up with this publishing frequency for the time being.

So what is up next? I am in the midst of penning a blog-post series about technical artefacts. Currently I am looking at four parts, but the series might grow whilst writing it. After this series I’ll probably pen some lighter blog posts about, among others, what I have learned from Hollywood apocalyptic films.

In case you would like to engage me on topics previously not covered in this blog please contact me.

Take care!

Cloud Atlas, the epistemic version

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The other day I saw the novel The Known World on a book pile in my friend’s apartment. The title intrigued me for a reason unrelated to the content of the novel: what constitutes the known world is an interesting epistemic challenge, in that knowledge is highly fluid. Our world, right now, will soon be history, and soon most of what we know now will be forgotten. However, one can also claim that, over the last ten thousand years, the body of our collective knowledge has increased. But that is a somewhat narrow view, for humanity not only has gained knowledge (for instance about the existence of other galaxies), but we also have replaced old knowledge with new knowledge. One example for this is medicine: even in cases where we still use the same active agents for treatment (think aspirin), our explanations for what ailments to use it for, and how to use it, have changed quite a bit over the millennia.

While entertaining the above line of thought, an idea for a very different novel emerged. This novel would illustrate the historic change of knowledge, and how knowledge changes who we are, how we act, and how “facts” affect us. In a sense, it would resemble the novel Cloud Atlas in one central aspect: that of historical constants. While Cloud Atlas loosely subscribes to the idea of reincarnation, i.e. the continuous rebirth of “persons” and their long path toward “redemption”, my novel would address the fact that some things have not changed over the millennia but how we frame them has. Examples for such constants are death and physical violence. Instead of following a handful of persons throughout their reincarnations, as is the case in Cloud Atlas, my novel would look at the reincarnation of events, and how they are modulated as a result of our changed knowledge. Think, for instance, how murder has been contextualised throughout the millennia.

The change of the operational knowledge operational of a society would change many aspects of murder: how it is justified; how it is carried out; how the murderer tries to escape persecution. The unchanging event “murder” could be investigated in a series of shortish detective stories. In each chapter and respective time period, the same type of murder would take place. Each time, the murder would accomplish the same ultimate goal, for instance the inheritance of wealth, and each time the epistemic base would be different. Let me explain the “epistemic base” with a few examples. In biblical times, the justification for the murder could be a perceived command from the gods. In totalitarian times it could be the “otherness” of the victim: the murdered could be framed as a capitalist traitor in the former Soviet Union, and the victim’s past dealings with Jews could be the trigger in Nazi Germany. So, the ultimate effect of the murder, i.e. enrichment of the murderer, would always be the same, but the justification would change quite a bit. But not only that: say, for instance, that the murderer’s justification (for instance racism) is not shared by the prosecuting authorities and that the murderer will thus face grave consequences. What then? The murderer could, for instance, try to obscure who committed the murder. Obscuring the murder would, among others, rely on the approach of the investigating and prosecuting authorities and their capabilities. For instance, obscuring a murder becomes a different kind of enterprise after the advent of finger-print technology and DNA analysis. How the murder is committed is strongly dependent on the utilised knowledge of the investigating authorities.

In summary, my novel describes a murder  that is carried out over and throughout the millenia, but how it is framed, how it is perceived, how it affects everyone involved, would change dramatically.

If you like this idea and want to develop it further please contact me.

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