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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?

This blog post is dedicated to the definition of technical artefacts and to the question, whether what is a technical artefact is unchanging. The latter question is fielded in the context of “recent” technological inventions such as the World Wide Web, server farms, computational “clouds”, etcetera. The question is whether these inventions necessitate a change of how we define technical artefacts. The short answer is: of course, we need to change the definition! However, arriving at this answer necessitates a long but interesting journey. I promise, all of this will make more sense soon.

The reason for why I am interested in this subject is somewhat complicated. It is related to my long-term interest in cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and artificial “stupidity”. One of the main characteristics of the Internet of Things, cyber-physical systems, and similar technological “smorgasbords”, is that these systems not only interact with humans (“old-style interaction”, think Web 2.0), but that they also frequently and intimately interact with “things”. The question of what actually is meant by a “thing” in the context of the above systems has not decisively been answered, and I too have pondered about this question for quite a while. Essentialist definitions of what constitutes a “thing” have been offered (see, e.g., [Haller 2013]), but after identifying many shortcomings of existing models, and after long discussions with peers, I have the nagging feeling that an essentialist approach to meta-modelling “things” might not be the right way. Maybe the essentialist “thing” models offered are simply too narrow in their scope. But even if that is the case, i.e. that essentialist models are not the way to go when trying to conceptualise “things”, what would be a better type of meta-model for this purpose? Instead of attacking these questions head on, I decided a while ago to narrow my focus to a well understood subset of “things”, namely technical artefacts. One of the reasons for so doing is that technical artefacts are “narrower” in their definition, and that mature ontologies of technical artefacts are available from the pertinent literature [Vermaas 2011; Vries 2012]. It is my hope that once I have a better grasp on how to model technical artefacts, I might, eventually, arrive at a useful, comprehensive model of what constitutes a “thing”.

Setting the stage

Because the promised discussion of technical artefacts is rather involved, I decided to compile a mini-series about this topic instead of cramming everything into one lengthy blog post. In the next part, I introduce the reader to what the “traditional” philosophy of technology has to say about the ontology of technical artefacts. This branch of philosophy addresses the “how to” of technology development and production.

Detour into essentialism and ontologies

Above I mentioned essentialism and ontologies, two concepts that are intimately tied to each other. Ontologies are models that define entities through their essential relationships. An example for an ontological model is the tree of life, which defines all known species, kingdoms, etc. by relating them to each other. The tree of life does not define a human by it bipedalism, rather by its genetic relationship to other species. The homo sapiens sapiens is, for instance related to chimpanzees. Ontologies are grounded in the tacit assumption that something essential can be said about an entity, something that completely defines it. The concept of ontologies has its roots thus in essentialism, which “is the view that, for any specific entity (…) there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function.” [Wikipedia 2015]. This set of attributes makes the entity what it is; without these attributes it would not be that kind of thing. Think, for instance, of a ship that does not float on water but that flies by aid of static wings. It’s easy to agree upon that the entity in question is not a ship but an air plane. The attribute “flies with static wings”, make the artefact in question a plane. Note also that there usually is more than one attribute that characterises a thing.

Essentialism is an old tradition in western philosophy. The original explanation for essentialism was provided by Plato, who stipulated that the essence of an entity existed independently of the entity itself. In modern parlance, Platonism assumes that there is a type for each instance, and that the type itself exists. For example, a smart-phone you can buy is the instance, and the model line it belongs to is the type. Let my clarify this be assuming that your smart-phone is an iPhone 2. According to Platonism not only does your smart-phone exist as an entity, but also the model line, i.e. the concept of an iPhone 2 actually is an entity! (I know this sounds a tad crazy.) According to Plat, the type is “permanent, unalterable, and eternal” [Wikipedia 2015]. Note that essentialism is not limited to western culture; we can find evidence for its prevalence in many indigenous cultures [Medin 2004].

In contemporary thinking, essentialism is not so much seen as a claim about the world, but rather as a way of representing entities in cognition. There are four key criteria for essentialist thinking [Wikipedia 2015]:

  1. Causal mechanisms: as discussed above, the essence of an entity (attributes including its identity) is what makes the entity what it is, not the other way round. The identity is paramount. We allude to this when we say “my smart-phone”.

  2. Innate potential: an object will fulfil its predetermined course of development. The essence of an object predicts developments during the entity’s lifespan. Think, for instance, of chicken eggs.

  3. Immutability: superficial changes in appearance do not change its essence. For instance, painting a blue air plane red does not make it less an air plane.

  4. Inductive potential: an entity may share features with other entities but its essence is what makes it what it is. For instance, just because a cup and an air plane both are made of solids does not make the air plane a cup.

While Platonism is out of fashion it actually still echoes in many concepts we use. Think for instance of the discussion of when a foetus becomes a person. That is an essentialist discussion par excellence. Ontologies are another way of thinking that is intimately wedded to existentialism.

We will revisit what we have learned here in part II of this blog series.

Onward

As promised, the next blog post gets up, close, and personal with the “standard” ontology of technical artefacts.

Acknowledgement

The title of this blog post is a variation on Kallinikos et al.’s paper title “The ambivalent ontology of digital artifacts[Kallinikos 2013].

Thanks are due to my companion for valuable comments on the draft blog post.

References

[Haller 2013] Haller, Stephan, et al. “A domain model for the internet of things.” Green Computing and Communications (GreenCom), 2013 IEEE and Internet of Things (iThings/CPSCom), IEEE International Conference on and IEEE Cyber, Physical and Social Computing. IEEE, 2013.

[Kallinokos 2013] Kallinikos, Jannis, Aleksi Aaltonen, and Attila Marton. “The Ambivalent Ontology of Digital Artifacts.” Mis Quarterly 37.2 (2013): 357-370.

[Medin 2004] Medin, Douglas L., and Scott Atran. “The native mind: biological categorization and reasoning in development and across cultures.” Psychological review 111.4 (2004): 960.

[Vermaas 2011] Vermaas, Pieter, et al. “A philosophy of technology: From technical artefacts to sociotechnical systems.” Synthesis Lectures on Engineers, Technology, and Society (2011).

[Vries 2012] De Vries, Marc J. “Philosophy of technology.” Technology education for teachers (2012): 15-33.

[Wikipedia 2015] Wikipedia contributors, “Essentialism,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Essentialism&oldid=687610011 (accessed November 30, 2015).

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