Albert Borgmann’s Philosophy of Technology, VGI & Citizen Science

21 March, 2014

Some ideas take long time to mature into a form that you are finally happy to share them. This is an example for such thing.

I got interested in the area of Philosophy of Technology during my PhD studies, and continue to explore it since. During this journey, I found a lot of inspiration and links to Andrew Feenberg’s work, for example, in my paper about neogeography and the delusion of democratisation. The links are mostly due to Feenberg’s attention to ‘hacking’ or appropriating technical systems to functions and activities that they are outside what the designers or producers of them thought.

In addition to Feenberg, I became interested in the work of Albert Borgmann and because he explicitly analysed GIS, dedicating a whole chapter to it in Holding on to RealityIn particular, I was intrigues by his formulation to The Device Paradigm and the notion of Focal Things and Practices which are linked to information systems in Holding on to Reality where three forms of information are presented – Natural Information, Cultural Information and Technological Information. It took me some time to see that these 5 concepts are linked, with technological information being a demonstration of the trouble with the device paradigm, while natural and cultural information being part of focal things and practices (more on these concepts below).

I first used Borgmann’s analysis as part of ‘Conversations Across the Divide‘ session in 2005, which focused on Complexity and Emergence. In a joint contribution with David O’Sullivan about ‘complexity science and Geography: understanding the limits of narratives’, I’ve used Borgmann’s classification of information. Later on, we’ve tried to turn it into a paper, but in the end David wrote a much better analysis of complexity and geography, while the attempt to focus mostly on the information concepts was not fruitful.

The next opportunity to revisit Borgmann came in 2011, for an AAG pre-conference workshop on VGI where I explored the links between The Device Paradigm, Focal Practices and VGI. By 2013, when I was invited to the ‘Thinking and Doing Digital Mapping‘ workshop that was organise by ‘Charting the Digital‘ project. I was able to articulate the link between all the five elements of Borgmann’s approach in my position paper. This week, I was able to come back to the topic in a seminar in the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester. Finally, I feel that I can link them in a coherent way.

So what is it all about?

Within the areas of VGI and Citizen Science, there is a tension between the different goals or the projects and identification of practices in terms of what they mean for the participants – are we using people as ‘platform for sensors’ or are we dealing with fuller engagement? The use of Borgmann’s ideas can help in understanding the difference. He argues that modern technologies tend to adopt the myopic ‘Device Paradigm’ in which specific interpretation of efficiency, productivity and a reductionist view of human actions are taking precedence over ‘Focal Things and Practices’ that bring people together in a way meaningful to human life. In Holding On to Reality (1999), he differentiates three types of information: natural, cultural and technological.  Natural information is defined as information about reality: for example, scientific information on the movement of the earth or the functioning of a cell.  This is information that was created in order to understand the functioning of reality.  Cultural information is information that is being used to shape reality, such as engineering design plans.  Technological information is information as reality and leads to decreased human engagement with fundamental aspects of reality.  Significantly, these categories do not relate to the common usage of the words ‘natural’, ‘cultural and ‘technological’ rather to describe the changing relationship between information and reality at different stages of socio-technical development.

When we explore general geographical information, we can see that some of it is technological information, for example SatNav and the way that communicate to the people who us them, or virtual globes that try to claim to be a representation of reality with ‘current clouds’ and all. The paper map, on the other hand, provide a conduit to the experience of hiking and walking through the landscape, and is part of cultural information.

Things are especially interesting with VGI and Citizen Science. In them, information and practices need to be analysed in a more nuanced way. In some cases, the practices can become focal to the participants – for example in iSpot where the experience of identifying a species in the field is also link to the experiences of the amateurs and experts who discuss the classification. It’s an activity that brings people together. On the other hand, in crowdsourcing projects that grab information from SatNav devices, there is a demonstration of The Device Paradigm, with the potential of reducing of meaningful holiday journey to ‘getting from A to B at the shortest time’. The slides below go through the ideas and then explore the implications on GIS, VGI and Citizen Science.

Now for the next stage – turning this into a paper…

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2 Responses to “Albert Borgmann’s Philosophy of Technology, VGI & Citizen Science”

  1. Dan Stowell Says:

    Interesting thoughts. I understand why the satnav fits into the device paradigm and the paper map does not, but one thing that occurs to me when you mention paper maps: You talk of a paper map as a conduit, but that’s not down to the non-device-ness of it, it’s due to the way the map opens up possibilities while the satnav only offers one possibility (i.e. the route). If there was a satnav which did not give strict instructions but said “the hill to your left is called X, but locally is known as Y … the stream here leads down the valley through the town of Z to the sea”, this would be the “conduit to the experience of hiking and walking through the landscape” that you speak of, yet it would still fit in the device paradigm.

    • mukih Says:

      Dan – thanks for raising the point. My reading of Borgmann is that he doesn’t argue that the device paradigm is deterministic – but that because designers and engineers don’t pay attention to it, we end with lots of technology that enact it in the world. The example that you are suggesting is a ‘reformed’ satnav that tried to consider what it is that people are trying to do and preserve the experiences. Compare the suggestion that you made to Borgmann’s ‘Orientation in Technological Space’ from 2010 http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3037/2568.
      Another interesting ‘use case’ is the role of GPS receivers in geocaching – it can argued that GPS is enabling a focal practice by the ‘hacking’ of the inherent device paradigm that is in it…


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