, , , , ,

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.

The elusive ontology of platforms

A prime example of an elusive technical artefact is a modern-day computing device equipped with an operating system. This artefact is a platform, meaning that it creates an environment in which a wide variety of applications can run without undue restriction. Let’s take my laptop as an example: it has a word processor, an office programme (email + calendar + …), a video player, a web browser, a hardware-monitoring programme, and so on. There is thus a one-to-very-many relationship between the artefact (laptop) and its use plans. Furthermore, many of the possible use plans are not even “hatched” when the platform is launched. For instance, multi-player Internet games are not what modern personal computers were originally designed for. One could claim that even though the platform on which these games rely (personal computers + the Internet) lacks a clearly defined goal, the games themselves have a clear, predefined purpose and use plan. So perhaps the ontology works after all. However, even if we grant this case, there are other cases where any preconception of the emerging use is clearly absent. One example is the use of the video app on a smartphone for citizen journalism. I have yet to see a specification for a video app that states “documenting police brutality” as one of the app’s goals / use plans.

It might be argued that I have made a category error: perhaps the use plan for a smartphone need not specify for what human activities it can be used (and how), but should instead describe the use of the artefact in a device centric-way. The device-centric use plan for a smartphone would be to “carry out logical operations to support on-device apps and to interact with hardware via predefined interfaces.” Fair enough, but I think that describing use plans and goals in this way renders the definition of technical artefacts rather useless. For instance, if knives are just about cutting (an artefact-centric view), how could we differentiate between a kitchen knife and a scalpel? It is therefore my opinion that the definition of a technical artefact, and thus its ontology, can only provide meaningful discriminatory power if its goals and use plans are described from a human perspective.

To summarise, my criticism of the ontological approach to technical artefacts is that in some cases the usage of these artefacts was unforeseen, and indeed unforeseeable. If that holds true, does it then make sense to insist, from an essentialist vantage point, that “there is a set of attributes [i.e., goals and use plans] which are necessary to [the artefact’s] identity and function” [Wikipedia 2015]? Thus, the ontological approach may not be the best way to go. But what alternatives do we have? This question is addressed in the next section.

Essentialism versus phenomenology

In the previous section, I showed that a given technical artefact can realise many unforeseen goals and use plans. The essentialist base assumption that an artefact is imbued with unchangeable attributes such as gaols and use plans is thus questionable. That we rather use artefacts for what we happen to need, instead of what they originally were designed for, is not a new insight; it was at the centre of Husserl’s work on phenomenology. One interpretation of phenomenology is that relations to an entity are more real than the entity itself. This phenomenon is tied to the concept of intentionality. “Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.” [Pierre 2014]. Let me explain this with an example: what makes a table a table? One can of course say its composition, the function it has, the goal it serves, and its use plan. But a table is different to different people: a writer can use this technical artefact as a writing desk, while her children may see it as the scaffolding over which a blanket is thrown in order to create a cave [Ahmed 2010]. Also, in case of need, the table can be burned in the fireplace. So what is a table? A desk? Part of a cave? Provisional firewood? It seems that the desire of the person relating to the physical entity we call a table defines what it is. In other words: the “aboutness” of our desires is more basic than entities.

So what is the foundation of our relation to an entity? First we have a goal and then we choose an appropriate artefact. For instance, in order to heat a meal one can use open fire, a gas stove, a microwave, etcetera. One starts with what one wants to have (warm food) and then looks for artefacts that facilitate this goal. In this formulation, the status of a technical artefact as such is more the result of an elective procedure and less a question of whether such artefacts come with intrinsic use-centric properties, i.e. essentials such as realised goals, and use plans. This order of choosing is usually not visible in every-day life since we use the same type of artefacts over and over again. That we made a decision, to buy an induction stove instead of a gas stove, for instance, is not manifest in our conscious. In such a situation the induction stove indeed seems to be imbued with particular attributes (goals, use plans, etc.) instead of just being an artefact that happens to fulfil our needs due to its intrinsic functions.

A phenomenological model of technical artefacts

An important insight provided by the phenomenological approach is that we have desires and related goals independent of technical artefacts, but that, once a technical artefact is at hand or under construction, we are able to translate the rather generic goals into an artefact-specific language. Artefact-specific goals are commonly referred to as requirements. The distinction between goals and requirements enables us to recast the ontology of architectural artefacts (see part II):

goals and concerns

As stated, the goal comes first. Humans have one to many goals, and humans may choose artefacts to accomplish their goals. In that case, their goals frame the requirements about a particular artefact. This artefact comes, in accordance with the established ontology of technical artefacts (see part II), with a composition and contingent functions. What makes the model above different from the established ontology is the prominence of the goals and that the goals are translated into requirements. In other words, if our goals and the requirements a technical artefact meets do match, we identify the artefact as a solution to our desire. An example is our desire to cook a meal. A gas stove fulfils some of these needs, while an odometer does not fulfil any of these needs. In other words, our desires are a filter through which we look at objects. This model accommodates our everyday experience: we have a desire, e.g. to navigate while mountain biking, and we then look for artefacts that best support our desires (compass, maps, GPS, etcetera).

Based on the skeleton sketch above, we can now build a full-fledged model of technical artefacts:

goals and concerns - full

As before, the goals and the use plans are of course contingent on the social system they operate in. Note that this model abandons essentialism in that it is no longer assumed that “there is a set of attributes which are necessary to [the technical artefact’s] identity and function” [Wikipedia 2015] such as goals and use plans, rather one sees the technical artefact as a means to an end, and the goals as the lens through which to see artefacts.

Is the new model any good?

The answer to this question has several facets.

  1. The new model is actually closer to the view hold by Vermaas et al., i.e. that technology “is an expression of our endeavours to adapt the world in which we live to meet our needs and desires” [Vermaas 2011; p. 1]. In accordance with this understanding, the new model puts the desires and endeavours first and the realisation and the involved artefacts second. The proposed model has thus the virtue of directing attention back to where it belongs, i.e. human desires.
  2. The new model does a better job of accounting for emergent use cases and plans. In this model, one does not need to foresee all future use cases of a technical artefact. Rather, one starts with the goals and checks whether the requirements that a technical artefacts meets by virtue of its composition and functions are a good match with the goals. If the match is satisfactory and the use case in mind is not yet part of the use plans, the use plan is refined retro-actively. In this model, the use case is not longer prescriptive but descriptive.
  3. The new model readily includes artistic artefacts as long as they realise at least one goal. Also, since technical artefacts no longer need to come with pre-defined use plans, gene-manipulated life-forms readily qualify as technical artefacts, while “pristine” life-forms such as hunting game do not qualify as technical artefacts since they are not the outcome of a design process. In conclusion, the new model includes artefacts that the “traditional” ontology counter-intuitively excludes (see part II) while, at the same time, still excluding clear cases of non-technical artefacts (wild life, electrons).

What gives?

So, finally we have arrived at a more utile model of technical artefacts, but after this arduous journey one might wonder why this even matters to you. It does matter to me, and my quest to better understand what “things” are in the context of the IoT and cyber-physical system, but what about you? In case you do not share my quaint obsession with understanding the nature of “things,” is there any benefit to be had for you? I think the answer is yes. Let me elaborate on this question in the next and final part of this blog-post series.


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

I thank my companion for copy-editing an early version of this blog post.


[Ahmed 2010] Ahmed, Sara. “Orientations matter.” New materialisms: ontology, agency and politics (2010): 234-57.

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

[Pierre 2014] Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/intentionality/, 2014.

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

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


If you like this blog post please click the below “like” button.

If you want to stay up to date with my island letters please use WordPress’s “follow” function or the email option provided in the panel on the right.

Also, please share your thoughts in the comment section; letters can and should be sent both ways.