The Ontologies of Technology

Richard Lindner, Boy With Machine, 1954

In Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s 1991 book What is Philosophy?, the writers make the argument that philosophers are things of their time, creators of concepts through which the world can be interpreted. Philosophy, juxtaposed alongside science and art, provides the fundamental constructs that those disciplines require as a kind of prima terra, before any art can be made, or any science can be done. Philosophers, then, are in the business of creating ontologies.

This is of course a rejection of truth, at least in the absolute sense of the word. Richard Rorty distinguished between the concepts that ‘the truth is out there’ versus ‘the world is out there’. This goes all the way back to Wittgenstein and language, and the relations between the subject and the world: truth can only exist with language; and language can only exist with a subject. Therefore truth can’t exist ‘out there’, only the world can be out there – with its phenomenona (Husserl) and forms (Plato) and things-in-themselves (Kant).

Philosophers then use language to construct concepts and amass them into an ontology upon which art and science can be done. Different philosophers at different times have created different ontologies throughout history. Not only that, but ontologies are things of both time and place. ‘[H]uman history and the history of philosophy do not have the same rhythm,’ Deleuze and Guattari write. He continues ‘…England, America, and France exist as the three lands of human rights. As for Germany, it will continue to reflect on the French revolution from its side, as that which it cannot do…’ (p. 103) In those times, the rational enlightenment realised itself differently in different parts of the world, even at the same time. Concurrently, there were different ontologies in other parts of the world – in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America; from within which, different art and science emerged. (As an aside, it seems to me that the level of interconnectedness of a place contributes to its ontological uniqueness; and that therefore there were likely more distinct ontologies in tribal Africa and Latin America than in Europe.)

The emergence of Greek philosophy occurred because of a confluence of circumstance. They put it thus: ‘Philosophy appears in Greece as a result of contingency rather than necessity, as a result of an ambiance or milieu rather than an origin, of a becoming rather than a history, of a geography rather than a historiography, of a grace rather than a nature.’ (p.96-7) The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle was genuinely ancient, and certainly not consistent with what would today be seen as consistent with liberalism. It was a historical ontology, the intellectual scaffolding of that time and place. It spread, as Greek power spread; so too the enlightenment spread, as Western Science spread.

The question arises then – what is our ontology? For some time now, Western Liberal Enlightement thinking has been seen as old – maybe for over a century. Niezsche recognised the naive dogmatism of the enlightenment in the late nineteenth century. Imaging technologies awoke new concepts of being at that time – the x-ray, the photograph, and even photos of the moon began to stir the imagination into thinking that maybe the new scientism, and the scientific method, might be less comprehensive than was once thought. The impressionist, cubists, abstract and surrealist painters reflected an emergent chaos in being. Yet the allure and attraction of liberalism persists.

In the aftermath of the second world war, proof if any was needed of the dangers of global fundamentalism, international order and human rights were universalized more perhaps as a sign of hope than strength. In the seventy-odd years since, that hope has slowly ebbed away. Neoliberalism sought another truth in latent social forces, in markets, and that too was laid waste by time. None of these new structures that we have attempted to evolve from the ruins of the enlightenment has taken hold.

Isaiah Berlin advocated a return to the romantics, the anti-enlightenment movement. Ecology and new approaches to phenomenology (object-oriented ontology) and the work of Tim Morton, Ian Bogost and others offer other paths. As Heidegger lamented the state of the world in his final years, he was asked in the Only a God can save us interview what would replace philosophy in this new world – ‘Cybernetics’ was his answer.

There are clearly questions of contingency. Nevertheless, if we consider that the job of philosophers has been in ontology-making (with similar contingent baggage), it seems clear that machines could just as easily construct ontologies. If we consider how terrorists are radicalised online, how activists are cultivated within filter bubbles, how political polarization accelerates as automated media proliferates – these processes are at best unfurled within mediated epistemologies. They are ontologies not merely of time and place – for these people and their ontologies often share both time and physical space – are separated further by machines: recommendation engines, engagement machines, and artificial intelligences with aims and objectives unrelated to ontology, and yet having the effect of creating ontological schisms. Such divides have historically resulted in classhes of culture and clashes of civilisations – failures in communication as a result of ontological rather than physical or even spiritual disagreement.

Ontologies are human things. They are linguistic, personal. Therefore machines can’t have ontologies. They can however shape how we construct our own, and it is imperative that we recognise that.

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