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The art, poetics, and grammar of technological innovation as practice, process, and performance
Coeckelbergh M.  AI & Society 33 (4): 501-510, 2018. Type: Article
Date Reviewed: Aug 1 2019

Intrigued by the almost lyrical title (notice the alliteration of three “p”s) and the somewhat improbable connection of technology innovation to art and grammar, I stumbled upon this paper that blatantly illustrates the chasm between the humanities (social sciences, philosophy) and science and technology.

If you deflate the tremendously overblown language, the ten pages boil down to fairly trivial “insights.” For instance, the way an inventor is able to realize how her idea is constrained by the physical properties of the material she uses becomes a “dialogue” between humans and non-humans, “[a] performance embedded in a form of life.” That technology is intimately related to tools and tool usage in our everyday life is formulated as, “technologies ‘become woven into the texture of everyday existence’ and then ‘shed their tool-like qualities to become part of our very humanity.’”

I did not check the deductions based on the philosophers Dewey, Heidegger, and Latour, but I know Wittgenstein (if one can ever “know” him at all). Here, for instance, the author simply takes the eight occurrences of “tool” or “instrument” in Philosophical investigations [1] and Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use” natural language semantics to draw a (purported) connection to technology, which, admittedly, is also about tools and usage of tools. Based on this resemblance, the author then simply transfers and rephrases all of Wittgenstein’s notions in that context to the technology domain. Notice that Wittgenstein never speaks about innovation or invention here, so the transmission apparently is stuck in the middle.

Furthermore, the paper ostensibly subscribes to a concept of technology innovation where a single person first forms a kind of mental idea and then sets out--alone--to bring this idea into existence, for example, by building a new device. Without giving any reference at all, the author claims that thinking of innovation “is often guided by” this model--an erroneous claim distant from the typical large undertakings of today’s almost exclusively team-based innovation projects (see also: personal computers (PCs), iPhones, Tesla, autonomous driving). Interestingly, the paper completely fails to acknowledge the currently flourishing maker movement, where innovation is exactly brought about the way the author criticizes.

So, unless you want a peek into how a philosopher thinks about invention processes, you can safely ignore this work. Common sense will lead you to the same conclusions, albeit without the airy language.

Reviewer:  Christoph F. Strnadl Review #: CR146639 (1910-0376)
1) Wittgenstein, L.; Anscombe, G. E. M. (trans.) Philosophical investigations (2nd ed.). Oxford, Oxford, UK, 1967.
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