In the history of ideas, it’s no secret that related concepts, events or “discoveries” often arise together, perhaps as an extension of the overall intellectual or cultural zeitgeist or perhaps in some dialectic between or around a component therein. There is some relationship, as a facile example, between enlightenment ideas of the 18th century and the French and American revolutions. Perhaps, it is as simple as the former inspired the latter, but as equally, perhaps, the latter validated the former.
Anyway, seemingly unrelated ideas and/or events that occur closely together in time are interesting. And often have connections. I have been thinking for some time about two contemporary ideas/events: the Internet of Things and Object-Oriented Ontology. I don’t know that they’ve ever been explicitly connected (certainly someone else has put two and two together?), but either way, it’s worth exploring.
First of all, the concept of the “internet of things” has been around at least since 2008 and as a term describes the proliferation of embedded technologies in a wide variety of objects that enable data collection, processing and communication. The idea behind the internet of things is that we are seeing the emergence of an interconnected network of real objects. These real objects and their network capabilities are fairly primitive, or dumb, at present, as they consist of various sensors, RFID tags, cameras, all embedded in buildings, cars, phones, products, public artifacts like streetlights, and so on, but as technology progresses and more things get processors and networks, our shared physical environments will become more and more information-rich, integrated and “smart.”
Processor enabled, send-receive capable, and algorithmically or AI-enhanced, these objects may at some point in the near future facilitate great changes in our human experience of the world around us. It may be that our environment becomes commercialized, as in segments of the film Minority Report, or that we may experience what some (to borrow from the object-oriented ontologists) are now calling “ecology without nature.”
Secondly, the other concept at hand, “object-oriented ontology,” is a philosophical movement that apparently began in 1998. Graham Harman and Levi Bryant are two of the thinkers in the movement. Here is a good, succinct description of it, from a Georgia Tech symposium site on the subject:
Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.
One of the key tenets of OOO is that objects have agency, in some form, which is to say that they have the power to act in the world. And thus, thinking of automated systems and objects, existing in a vast network, interacting with the natural environment, humans and each other, what better kind of philosophical grounding could we have for an existence in the midst of the internet of things? Further, OOO often puts things and their relationships with each other on equal footing with the relationships of things to humans, thereby empowering things (and thus demoting humans) in a way to which we’re not (yet) accustomed.
I am simplifying the concepts at hand, but think of it: are not things with the power to act (broadly defined) at the center of the networked world we are building? And will we not be defined by our relationships to these “smart” things in the future? And finally, is it an accident that we can consider an object-oriented ontology and an internet of things at the same time? Do they need each other? And if so, why? Does philosophy (and things like philosophy) provide inspiration or justification for tech-driven ontological change?