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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

As we can see from the above diagram, technical artefacts are physical entities designed by humans, and these entities have a function that is described in the use plan [Vermaas 2011; p. 1]. Furthermore, technical artefacts have a composition, and the function of the technical artefact realises the goal(s) for which the artefact was constructed in the first place. Let me elaborate these concepts in more detail.

Function

The function of a technical artefact answers the question of what the artefact is for. “[T]he core activity of technical designing is describing a physical object that is able to fulfil a technical function effectively and efficiently” [Vermaas 2011, p. 21]. Note that the function is not inherent to the technical artefact, i.e. it is an ascription, whereas its physical properties are inherent [Vries 2012, p. 17]. The function of a technical artefact is intimately tied to the goal that it is intended to fulfil. For instance, the goal for a water cooker is to heat water, and its functions are thus to contain and to heat water. “The function of the technical artefact can only be said to have been realised at the moment the goal is achieved.” [Vermaas 2011; p. 14].

Instead of saying that the function is not inherent to the technical artefact, one can also say that the function is a different view of a technical artefact, a certain way of describing it. Composition and use plans are yet other ways of describing it. Each of these views can be tied to a different level of abstraction [Floridi 2008]. Note that functions also have a life-cycle dimension, in that different functions may be expressed during different life-cycle phases. Examples for such phases are operation, maintenance, and disposal [ISO 2015]. In the example of the water cooker, it boils vinegar or the like during maintenance in order to free it from deposited limestone.

Composition

Composition answers the question of what the technical artefact consists of. For instance, a water cooker consists of a heating element, a power supply, a water container, etcetera. Note that in the case of software-laden technical artefacts, the software may be seen as part of the composition. An example of this is operating systems on personal computers. While a manufacturer of personal computers can deliver them without an operating system, it is often included since a computer without an operating system does not meet its intended usage. This brings us to the use plan.

Use plan

The use plan answers the question of how the artefact shall be used. “[I]n a broad sense, technical designing is an activity aimed at achieving the goals of people, companies or society as a whole” [Vermaas 2011, p. 21]. If there is more than one usage of a technical artefact, one often differentiates between primary and usage and secondary usage(s). For instance, a TV screen can be “misused” as the screen of a personal computer, and a personal computer can in turn be “misused” as a door stop. Or coloured umbrellas can become pixels in a huge display. Also note that the primary usage of everyday technical artefacts is mostly conveyed through observation and through cultural transmission. For instance, watching a game of football implicitly explains the use plan of the football, and the use of a drill can be conveyed through crafting lessons at school.

Goal

As can be seen in the above diagram, the functions of a technical artefact realise one to many goals. In the case of a primary usage, these are the goals for which the artefact was originally designed. It is at this abstraction level that normativeness enters the description of a technical artefact. Only when we know what an artefact is used for is it possible to evaluate qualities of the artefact. In the case of the water cooker: is it easy to handle; how does the boiling time compare to the needs of the user; etcetera? While the goal might be seen as a minor aspect of technical artefacts, it is actually foundational in terms of a wide range of questions, e.g. how to delimit technical artefacts from other physical entities; how to describe technical artefacts from a societal point of view; etcetera. More about this below.

The ontological scope of technical artefacts

The above ontology of technical artefacts enables us to discuss the important question of why certain artefacts cannot or should not be counted as technical artefacts. According to Vermaas et al., any artefact that does not feature the above attributes is not a technical artefact [Vermaas 2011, pp. 7-11]. For instance, the goal for a technical artefact alone does not count as technical artefact since it is not a physical entity.

Let us examine the utility of the above ontology by answering whether three important classes of entities are technical artefacts.

Natural entities

For natural entities, no clear function is perceivable. For instance, what goal does an electron serve? Yes, it can be part of an atom, but it can also be part of plasma, and it would be a stretch to say that the goal of an electron is to be part of an atom or plasma. Also, natural entities are not man-made. Therefore, natural entities are not technical artefacts.

Biological entities

Biological entities constitute a subset of natural entities, and, in contrast to technical artefacts, they do not fulfil a human-centric function [Vermaas 2011, p. 10] nor are they man-made. But the demarcation is not as sharp as it might appear. Think of gene manipulation and cloning: are the outcomes of such processes not at least to some degree human-made and do they not fulfil a human-centric function?

Artistic work

According to Vermaas et al., artistic work does not have a clear, unambiguous function [Vermaas 2011, p. 5]. This assessment might be justified when we compare an abstract installation with a water cooker, for instance, but to me it comes across as narrow-minded. After all, art like that of Banksy serves a clear function, namely that of societal and political commentary. Therefore, I would argue that  artistic artefacts should be put on a grey scale between technical and non-technical artefacts. I will revisit this topic in part III, where I talk about sociotechnical artefacts.

Analysis and criticism

The above ontology identifies salient attributes of a technical artefact (function, composition, etcetera), and these attributes do aid us in distinguishing technical artefacts from, natural objects, for instance. However, as my discussion of biological and artistic objects has demonstrated, the discriminatory power offered by the ontological model of technical artefacts is actually rather low. For instance, it is not clear whether political-art objects are technical artefacts or not.

There is another criticism one can raise: the above model is clear and it has some utility, but it is, at the same time, rather dated. What I mean by this is that the ideas embodied in this model stem from how technical artefacts have “traditionally” been developed and engineered: (1) goals for a system are defined and requirements are specified; (2) the technical artefacts necessary for achieving the goal are described and then produced. One way of thinking of this is “technical artefact = internalised goal”. Based on this traditional understanding of technology, thinkers concerned with this topic were able to derive a simple and utile ontology of technical artefacts. However, this simple approach falls short of explaining many (modern) phenomena. For instance, what we will see more of in the future are increasingly dynamically created systems. Consider accessing weather forecasts via a browser on your smartphone. What you do in this case is to dynamically compose a system consisting of your smartphone and the weather service (communication links, web server, meteorological platform, database, etcetera). The question in this case is whether the traditional way of defining technical artefacts is useful for such scenarios, especially if the technical artefacts in question are configured and used for unforeseen uses. What if the output of this system is fed into an art installation that converts weather data into music, for instance? Is, in this case, the meteorological platform a music instrument in addition to “just” being a meteorological platform? This example might seem facetious. However, if we recognise that open, multi-use platforms such as the smartphone and the personal computer have become ubiquitous in today’s world and that such technologies, by their very nature, lend themselves to multi-purpose uses, the question arises whether a clear demarcation of goals actually can be established for this type of technical artefacts. This is no small matter since clearly distinguishable goals are essential for building an ontology.

In the next part, I discuss this “fuziness” in depth.

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

[Floridi 2008] Floridi, Luciano. “The method of levels of abstraction.” Minds and machines 18.3 (2008): 303-329.

[ISO 2015] Systems and Software Engineering — System Life Cycle Processes. ISO/IEC/IEEE 15288 (2015).

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

[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.

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