In February 2020 I was awarded a Marie-Sklodowksa-Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Commission to pursue a research project on the Philosophy of Automation at the University of Vienna. The project "How Artifacts Acquire Agency: Towards a Philosophy of Automation" is scheduled to begin in June 2021 and will be supervised by Prof. Marck Coeckelbergh.

How Artifacts Acquire Agency: Towards a Philosophy of Automation

In today’s society, automation literally surrounds us. It plays an increasingly central role in a wide range of applications including transport, retail, management, manufacturing, energy, IT services and policing to name just a few. Furthermore, recent advances in the field of machine learning have facilitated the automation of tasks previously considered achievable only by humans, such as driving a car or classifying the content of images. These advances have renewed longstanding concerns about the social impacts of automation, triggering a proliferation of studies exploring the relationship between technology, employment and inequality. However, despite the current widespread interest in the social consequences of automation, the question of what automation itself actually is, typically receives little attention. In a wide variety of disciplinary approaches to

the topic, the nature of automation is often taken to be self-evident or trivial; denoting little more than the capacity of a technology to operate without human involvement. This is no less true for current work in the philosophy of technology, where the self-regulating nature of automating technologies such as robotics is often taken for granted.

            Yet while common, understanding automation in this way fails to account for the wide variety of ongoing skillful practices upon which automating technologies depend. For as sociological and feminist studies of technology often reveal, in order to function successfully, not only must these technologies be maintained, monitored, cleaned or assisted in various ways, but the environments within which they operate also often need to be carefully controlled. Far from simply working ‘at the push of a button’ then, such studies reveal how automation often depends on systems of skillful practice which must be hidden from view before these technologies can be considered to function autonomously. The primary objective of this project is: to develop a new philosophical approach to the study of automation that recognizes the essential role played by human operators. In order to do so, this project aims to (a) identify the different forms of human agency upon which automating technologies depend, (b) explore the processes by which they come to be hidden from view and finally (c) examine ethical concerns associated with their erasure. 

In 2019 I defended my doctoral dissertation at the University of Bergen. My project explored the role of technology and practice in seventeenth century English science.

Technology and Practice in Seventeenth Century

English Experimentalism

This dissertation aims to explore the role of technology in the emergence of experimental culture in seventeenth century England. Whereas scholarship in HPS has traditionally emphasized the more scientific aspects of the epistemology of early experimentalism, this project attends directly to technology; understood here not only in terms of mechanical devices but also forms of practice and practical knowledge. By focusing on the way in which the goals promoted by experimental societies, such as the Royal Society of London, were often concerned primarily with technology and innovation, my project aims to elucidate aspects of the relationship between science and technology in early modern England that have been overlooked by traditional forms of scholarship.

    A central focus of this study is the relationship between craft practices and the development of an experimental scientific methodology; a theme which has long formed a dominant concern in the historiography of the scientific revolution. Beginning with the work of Edgar Zilsel in the early twentieth century, it has been common to claim that artisanal culture influenced the development of experimentalism by providing a template for empirical methods and values. Yet despite the enduring popularity of the idea that various aspects of the methodology of modern science find their origin in craft traditions, this study seeks to outline the limitations of this notion by exploring the intersections between epistemology and social history. For taking technology, rather than science, as the central focus of this study underscores the extent to which epistemic and social concerns underlying the new experimental philosophy were often deeply intertwined.

    In the western tradition, philosophical discourse surrounding technology has long been informed by social issues. Even as far back as classical antiquity, the low social status that was ascribed to artisans was reflected in the accounts of technology proposed by Plato and Aristotle, both of which emphasized the moral and epistemological inferiority of technical practices. Accounts of technology in classical society also reflect anxieties stemming from the recognition that the knowledge and skill of the craftsman possessed an autonomy that prevented its control by the ruling elite. The fact that craft knowledge resisted codification and was acquired exclusively through extended periods of practice meant that members of the lowest social classes were commonly understood to possess exclusive forms of expertise that could not be submitted to external

assessment or verification. For this reason, the skills of the craftsman were often considered both as threatening established forms of social order and subverting traditional notions of knowledge and rationality.

    This project aims to detail how conceptions of technology in early modern England can be understood as continuous with those of classical antiquity in various ways. For not only did craftwork continue to be regarded as socially and epistemologically inferior to competing forms of natural inquiry, but the anxieties which had surrounded the moral status of craft knowledge and the forms of knowledge upon which it depended in classical antiquity also continued to persist. These social tensions surrounding technology created a host of problems for experimental philosophers of the seventeenth century, who practiced and promoted forms of technological practice, such as experimentation, which had previously been considered the exclusive purview of the artisan. Eager to preserve differences in social status between the gentleman and the artisan, experimental philosophers drew upon existing cultural resources, in particular classical philosophical ideas, to argue for the intellectual and moral superiority of their practices over that of the artisan.

    The overall goal of this project is to demonstrate how social tensions surrounding technological practice can be understood to have influenced the way in which experimentalism was both practiced and conceived by early modern natural philosophers. Together, the various papers in this project identify a number of historiographical and philosophical misunderstandings concerning the relation between science and technology in the early modern period that I argue can be traced back to an underlying tendency to understand experimentalism in isolation of the social contexts from which it emerged.

Articles from this Project

Nature as Spectacle: Experience and Empiricism in Early Modern Experimental Practice

Centaurus (2018)

Enchanting Automata: Wilkins and the Wonder of Workmanship

Intellectual History Review (2017)

Manual Labour and 'Mean Mechanicks': Bacon's Mechanical History and the Deprecation of Craft Skills in Early Modern Science

Perspectives on Science (2017)

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Experimentalist as Spectator: The Phenomenology of Early Modern Experimentalism

The Past, Present and Future of Integrated History and Philosophy of Science (Routledge, 2019)

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© 2017 by Mark Thomas Young.

 

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