Computing and the philosophy of technology

Recently I wrote about the philosophy of computer science (PCS), where some people, online and offline, commented that one cannot have computer science but have the science of computing instead and that it must have as part experimental validation of the theory. Regarding the latter, related and often-raised remarks are that it is computer engineering instead, which, in turn, it closely tied to information technology. In addition, many a BSc programme trains students so as to equip them with the skills to obtain a job in IT. Coincidentally, there is a new entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the Philosophy of Technology (PT) [1], which, going by the title, may well be more encompassing than just PCS and perhaps just as applicable. In my opinion, not quite. There as several relevant aspects of the PT for computing, but if one takes the strand of engineering and IT of computing, then there are some gaps in the overview presented by Franssen, Lokhorst and Van de Poel. The the main gap I will address is that it misses the centrality of ‘problem’ in engineering and that it conflates it with notions such as requirements and design.

But to comment on it, let me first start with mentioning few salient points of their sections “historical developments” and “analytic philosophy of technology” to illustrate notions of technology and which strand of PT the SEP entry is about (I will leave the third part, “ethical and social aspects of technology”, for another time).

A few notes on its historical developments
Plato put forward the thesis that “technology learns from or imitates nature”, whereas Aristotle went a step further: “generally, art in some cases completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and in others imitates nature”. A different theme concerning technology is that “there is a fundamental ontological distinction between natural things and artifacts” (not everybody agrees with that thesis), and if so, what, then, those distinctions are. Aristotle, again, also has a doctrine of the four causes with respect to technology: material, formal, efficient, and final.
As is well-know, there was a lull in the intellectual and technological progress in Europe during the Dark Ages, but the Renaissance and the industrial revolution made thinking about technology all the more interesting again, with notable contributions by Francis Bacon, Karl Marx, and Samuel Butler, among others. Curiously, “During the last quarter of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century a critical attitude [toward technology] predominated in philosophy. The representatives were, overwhelmingly, schooled in the humanities or the social sciences and had virtually no first-hand knowledge of engineering practice” (emphasis added). This type of PT is referred to as humanities PT, which looks into socio-politico-cultural aspects of technology. Not everyone was, or is, happy with that approach. Since the 1960s, an alternative approach has been gestating and is becoming more important, which can be dubbed the analytic PT that is concerned with technology itself, where technology is considered the practice of engineering. The SEP entry about PT is about this type of PT.

Main topics in Analytic PT
The topics that the authors of the PT overview deem the main ones have to do with the discussion on the relation between science and technology (and thus also on the relation of philosophy of science and of technology), the importance of design for technology, design as decision-making, and the status and characteristics of artifacts. Noteworthy is that their section 2.6 on other topics mentions that “there is at least one additional technology-related topic that ought to be mentioned… namely, Artificial Intelligence and related areas” (emphasis added) and the reader is referred to several other SEP entries. Notwithstanding the latter, I will comment on the content from a CS perspective anyway.

Sections 2.1 and 2.2 contain a useful discourse on the differences between science and engineering and on their respective philosophy-of. It was Ellul in 1964 who observed in technology “the emergent single dominant way of answering all questions concerning human action, comparable to science as the single dominant way of answering all questions concerning human knowledge” (emphasis added). Skolimowski phrased it as “science concerns itself with what is, whereas technology with what is to be.” Simon used the verb tenses are and ought to be, respectively. To hit the message home, they also say that science aims to understand the world but that technology aims to change the world, and is seen as a service to the public. (I leave it to the reader to assess what, then, the great service to the public is of artifacts such as the nuclear bomb, flight simulator games for kids, CCTV, and the likes.) In contrast, while Bunge did acknowledge technology was about action, he stressed that it is one heavily underpinned by theory, thereby distinguishing it from the arts and crafts. Practically regarding software engineering, then to say that development of ontologies or the conceptual modelling during the conceptual analysis stage of software development are, largely or wholly, an art, is to say that there is no underlying theoretical foundation for those activities. This is not true. Indeed, there are people who, without being aware of its theoretical foundations, go off and develop an ontology or ontology-like artifact nevertheless and call that activity an art, but that does not make the activity an art per sé.
Closing the brief summary of the first part of the PT entry, Bunge mentioned also that theories in technology come into two types: substantive (on knowledge about the objects of action) and operative (on the action itself). A further distinction has been put forward by Jarvie, which concerns the difference between knowing that and knowing how, the latter which Polanyi made a central aspect of technology.

Designs, requirements, and the lack of problems
The principal points of criticism I have are on the content of sections 2.3 and 2.4, which revolve around the messiness in the descriptions of design, goals, requirements. Franssen et al first state that “technology is a practice focused on the creation of artifacts and, of increasing importance, artifact-based services. The design process, the structured process leading toward that goal, forms the core of the practice of technology” and that the first step in that process is to translate the needs or wishes of the customer into a list of functional requirements. But ought the first step not to be the identification of the problem? For if we then ultimately solve the problem (giong through writing down the requirements, design the artifact, and build and tests it), it is a ‘service to the public’. Moreover, if we have identified the problem, formulated it in a problem description, written a specification of the goal to achieve, only then we can write down the list of requirements that are relevant to achieving the goal and that solves the problem, which will not only avoid a ‘solution’ exhibiting the same problem but also meet the goal and be this service to the public. But problem identification and problem solving is not a central issue to technology, according to the PT entry; just designing artifacts based on functional requirements.
Looking back at the science and engineering studies I enjoyed, the former had put an emphasis on formulating and testing the hypotheses—no thesis could do without that—whereas the latter focusses on which problem(s) your research tackles and solves, where theses and research papers have to have a (list of) problem(s) to solve. If a CS paper does not have a description of the problem, one might want to look again what they are really doing, if anything; if it is a mere ‘we did develop a cute software tool’, it is straightforward to criticise and easily can be rejected because it is insufficient regarding the problem specification and the system requirements (the reader may not share the unwritten background setting with the authors, hence think of other problems and requirements that he would expect the tool to solve), and the ‘solution’ to that (the tool) is then no contribution to science/engineering, at least not in the way it is presented. Not even mentioning the problem-identification-and-solving and its distinction with science in the approach of doing research is quite a shortcoming of the PT entry.

In addition, the authors confuse such different topics even more clearly by stating that “The functional requirements that define most design problems” (emphasis added). Design problems? So there are different types of problem, and if so, which? How can requirements define a problem? They don’t. The requirements entail what the artifact is supposed to do and what constraints it has to meet. However, if it defines the problem instead, as the authors say, then they are not parameters for the solution to that problem, even though the to-be-designed artifact that meets the requirements is supposed to solve a (perceived) problem. Further, they say that engineers claim that their designs are optimal solutions, but can one really say that a design is the solution, rather than the outcome of the design, i.e., the realisation of the working artifact?

If it is the case, as the authors summarise, that technology aims to change the world, then one needs to know what one is changing, why one is changing that, and how. If something is already ‘perfect’, then there is no need to change it. So, provided it is not ‘perfect’ according to at least one person, then there is something to change to make it (closer to) ‘perfect’; hence, there is a problem with that thing (regardless if this thing is an existing artifact or annoying practice that perhaps could be solved by using technology). Thus, one—well, at least, I—would have expected that ‘problem’ would be a point of inquiry, e.g.: what is it, what does it depend upon, if there is a difference between problem and nuisance, how it relates to requirements and design and human action, the processes of problem identification and problem specification, the drive for problem-solving in engineering and the brownie points one scores with it upon having a solution, and even the not unheard of, but lamentable, practice of ‘reverse engineering the problem’ (i.e.: the ‘we have a new tool, now we think of what it [may/can/does] solve and that can be written in such a way as if it [is/sounds like] a real problem’).

In closing, the original PT entry was published in February this year, and quickly has undergone “substantive revision” meriting a revised release on 22 June ’09, so maybe the area is active and in flux so that a next version could include some considerations about problems.

[1] Franssen, Maarten, Lokhorst, Gert-Jan, van de Poel, Ibo, “Philosophy of Technology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =


3 responses to “Computing and the philosophy of technology

  1. Pingback: Computing and the philosophy of technology | UK Web Designer

  2. Pingback: Posts about Politico as of June 30, 2009 » The Daily Parr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.