Philosophy and Its Implications for Technology
Back when I was in college, I had a few friends who majored in philosophy. I always joked that they were in fact majoring in unemployment. They usually greeted this gold nugget of humor with frowns, rolling eyeballs, the occasional raspberry and, more often than not, a rejoinder about my own decision to major in history. Still, I always understood that the ideas expressed in philosophy were more than just meaningless abstractions that could be taken for granted or even ignored.
At this point, you might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with me?” On its surface, IT seems to be a fairly straightforward (though hardly simple) enterprise, and not in need of theoretical assessments. In this respect, it’s not unlike mathematics. Yet even math—essentially a language of numbers—has had its share of philosophical figures. Technology might benefit from similar reflective examinations, so in the spirit of the famed Socratic axiom “Know thyself,” I’ll attempt to extrapolate philosophical models for IT.
Socrates, Hegel and the Evolution of Knowledge
Most discussions of philosophy begin with that great Greek thinker, Socrates, the teacher of Plato. Socrates would always question the ideological positions of his interlocutors, who were frequently among the most prominent citizens of the city-state of ancient Athens. It was through this technique—known as the dialectic—that he got them to think critically about their own ideas and values.
The dialectical approach was further developed many centuries later by the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He claimed that a new concept or vision (a thesis) would arise, which would then be countered by an opposing view (its antithesis). However, instead of one of these “winning” over peoples’ minds, the two would be fused together through various stages of intellectual, pragmatic and moral compromise to form a synthesis. This ideal seems to fit certain aspects of IT, such as with open-source collaborative development processes, but ultimately falls short in terms of scale and speed. There are simply far too many things happening far too quickly in technology for the dialectical framework to apply in any meaningful way.
Aristotle’s Chaotic Web of Information
Perhaps the most appropriate philosophy for IT is chaos theory, which is by nature unpredictable, dynamic and highly conditional. In spite of the name, it does not describe a state of chaos, but rather the emergence of new and unanticipated arrangements that could not have been foreseen because there are so many factors in play at all times. It is paradoxically orderly and uncontrollable at once. Although chaos theory was refined and redefined in the 20th century by French scientific philosopher Henri Poincare, its roots lie in the works of Aristotle. He argued that any thoughts about the way the world works must be shaped and organized according to the multiplicity of empirical data points that comprise them, emphasizing causal relationships. Because these are always in flux, the theories that explain them will constantly change as well.
Civilization today is continually shifting, adding new ideas or methodologies while it drops others. Technology has certainly contributed to this state of affairs, but is subject to it too, having helped set in motion a situation it no longer can control—if it ever could have. While there are many examples of this, the case in point par excellence is the Internet, which owes much more to Aristotle than anyone seems to acknowledge.
Exploding Plato’s Static World
According to Plato, we live in a world defined by metaphysical ideas and beliefs, which are eternal and unchanging. He believed that the tangible elements of the physical world were subservient to these everlasting forms, as defined by the higher realm of logical thinking. Thus, ideally, pillars of civilization like government and economy would remain in a fixed state.
Of course, in the world of IT, nothing stays the same—it could be described as being in a condition of perpetual upheaval. And the industry impacts all other institutions around it as well. As Larry Downes and Chunka Mui wrote in their book “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance,” technology, which progresses exponentially, tends to accelerate the development of the rest of humanity, which otherwise would advance at a slower pace.
Brian Summerfield is Web editor for Certification Magazine. Send him your favorite study tips and tech tricks at firstname.lastname@example.org.