‘Questioning Technology’: The Importance of Empirical Work and Ontological Philosophy

by Declan Mcdowell-Naylor

There’s little question that, for at least two decades, technology has been a centre piece of enquiries across the humanities and social sciences. Nearly every field has made valuable empirical contributions, addressing plenty of normative questions ‘about technology’. Yet, there’s lacking a question ‘of technology’, though in many areas this is changing. Nonetheless, I feel it persists enough to make a point on it and to advocate the continued use of philosophy alongside empirical studies.

It is often the case that the initial assumptions, or analytic consensuses, about technology go unquestioned. This can be damaging to otherwise useful empirical investigations of normative concerns. Because they are, typically, reductive or undetermined in some way, they severely limit the horizons of their argument and findings. Additionally, they risk creating false scenarios based on a limited set of circumstances, usually in the form of a dichotomy. Lastly, they sometimes make statements that are entirely incorrect.

There a few common examples of these initial assumptions, or analytic consensus. The first, and perhaps most common, is the idea that technology, and usually that just means social media, is a just a tool (and that data is just data). There are examples of technology, being referred to as a political tool for use in elections, or as a means to achieve political goals in movements. This is openly contestable, yet I’ve frequently seen it explicitly referred to as ‘merely a tool’. This is certainly accurate intuitively, but that’s a very limited basis.

Another assumption is that questions about technology must take place within the two sided-political debate based on competing political factions, typically institutions or movements. It leans on the notion of technology as tool, arguing its use as such should be for democratic and emancipatory ends, as opposed to totalitarian ends. So the argument usually ends with the dictum that we should strive for genuine democracy or some hopeful conclusion that we find ourselves on the cusp of a better society. Good ideas, sure, but are they enough?

I’m not saying they’re necessarily incorrect assumptions, or the only ones. This is the point. Technologies are tools in a sense, and we do encounter situations where technology plays a role in what is generally a struggle between two forces. But these statements in no way exhaust what technology is or does, and to frame it that way not the best foundation for empirical work, as I’ve stated above. They are at least useful contributions. There are situations where there are basic errors and bad uses of data, usually in journalistic discourse adapting academic discourse, used to inflame technophobia.

So, why endorse a philosophical approach to empirical studies about technology? For me, when it comes to writing ‘about’ technology, retaining the popular and normative concepts attached to the issue can only take an empirical study so far. Not only this, we also have to be aware of how our research feeds into public discourse. Encouragingly, the advocates of philosophy come from many different areas.

For example, a few days ago I found a blog post which argued why the concept of ‘cyberspace’ must die. Cyberspace, with all its historical connotations and metaphorical guise, is totally unsuited to a world in which we have the Internet of Things. And it was right. Likewise, a few years ago now, the philosopher of technology, Andrew Feenberg wrote Ten Paradoxes of Technology, in which he argued, quite bluntly, that most of what we know about technology’s ontology is false. Accordingly, he argues these common sense conceptions have- far from abstract worries- political consequences in the real (that is, empirical) world. Likewise, ANT theorists have for years now being advocating a mixture of philosophy and sociological empirical work, from their early work in science labs, to my favourite study: Annmarie Mol’s The Body Multiple (2002). Recently, from the PIR department which I work in, Andrew Chadwick’s The Hybrid Media System (2013) adopts an ontological approach to the concept of ‘hybridity’ to inform an empirical analysis of political communication and the attendant technologies. From sociology, Judy Wajcman (2008), in establishing her sociology of technology and time, carefully considers the “need for increased dialogue to connect social theory with detailed empirical studies”. There’s more examples, of course, these are simply indicative.

What is clear is that the philosophical approach has gained particular traction around the question of humanity, a question with perhaps the closest tie to the questions about technology. We see this in work of the ‘post-humanists’. As a recent example in touch with the meta-debate of method and philosophy, Daniel Chernilo (2014), in a recent paper (also presented at the Centre for Social Ontology), introduces what he calls philosophical sociology, described in the abstract as “an enquiry into the relationships between implicit notions of human nature and explicit conceptualizations of social life within sociology”.

So we are certainly seeing a constellation of advocates from many disciplines. Venn and Blackman put forward that ‘common ontologies’ are emerging across the humanities, social sciences of natural and physical science. Unifying them in this sense, the basic argumentative premise is actually nothing unusual, but it is important. It basically says that if we apply different initial assumptions derived philosophically, this will lead to a different range of enquiry, and thus the approach to a normative issue under consideration. Still, we have to appreciate the perspectives of different disciplines without blithely assuming there is an automatic ease transitioning concepts. Writing about human nature is comparative to writing about technology’s nature, and we already know about the philosophical and political debate on the former. But, equally, this doesn’t mean we should just stick to what we (think) we know every time.

To conclude, it is particularly important to broaden our assumptions about and of technology, since technology is already broadening and challenging our assumptions in the way in which it newly enables certain new forms of sociality and practice.  We need to keep up with it, empirically and philosophically. How this reaches out into the methodologies of natural and physical science is significant for the future of technology design and implementation, as Feenberg suggests. I’ve seen a recent theoretical computer science paper which was attuned to the need for formal philosophical enquiry. In this regard, we need to continue to pay attention to the ontological arguments which relate to ethical issues and the normative moralities across society- for that challenge, empirical observations will certainly not alone suffice.



Chadwick, A. (2013) The Hybrid Media System. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

Mol, A. (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. London: Duke University Press

Feenberg, A. (2010) Ten Paradoxes of Technology. Techne, 14 (1), 3-15.

Wajcman, J. (2008) Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time. The British Journal of Sociology, 59 (1). Available at: http://primo-roy.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/44ROY_VU2:TN_wos000253757500007

Chernilo, D. (2014). The idea of philosophical sociology. British Journal of Sociology, 65 (2). Available at: http://primo-roy.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/44ROY_VU2:TN_scopus2-s2.0-84899592908


Declan Mcdowell-Naylor is a doctoral researcher in the Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway,  University of London.




Categories: Digital Sociology, Rethinking The World, Uncategorized

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