Revisiting ontology and epistemology … again

As a science student I came across ontology and epistemology. I’m now learning about systems and they’ve cropped up again. I never fully understood them the first time around. After mulling over, and resisting, it dawned on me that understanding them offer practical choices for how I approach, not just work, but life overall.

So for the umpteenth time: what do they mean? But I can’t ask that question without framing it. The question needs contextualising. Reframe. In a systems thinking context, what do they mean?



Things exist outside of me. They are fully formed and I can study it from a distance. By studying it I am not changing it. I am gathering objective knowledge by identifying, distinguishing and naming it. For example, take the concept of an ‘ecosystem’: the ontological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ exists even if I don’t because it is something that exists fully formed and independent in nature.



I am part of the things that I am aware of – by naming it I am giving existence to it, and I’m using language to learn about it. As my thinking changes, the thing I’m thinking about also changes. Going back to the example of an ‘ecosystem’: the epistemological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ can’t exist if I don’t, because I am the one describing it as an ‘ecosystem’. It is a construct I’m inventing to learn about what I frame as an ‘ecosystem’.

So what?

Well, I think revisiting these concepts are useful when stepping back and asking: how do I see the world? how do I interact with projects? how do I work with other people? how do I choose to frame things? how do I learn? do I see things as fully formed, or do I see myself as co-creator of the situations I’m a part of?

So for me, choosing an epistemological framework means owning up to responsibility. By blaming situations or other people we shy away from the responsibility (and opportunity) to design behaviours that are purposeful1. It’s a tough one, because we are very good at sidestepping responsibility.

Now, when I get back to work, things just can’t be the same anymore.

  1. In Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World, Ray Ison distinguishes between two forms of behaviour in relation to purpose: purposeful behaviour, that is behaviour that is willed, and purposive behaviour, that is behaviour to which an observer can attribute purpose. 

Relearn to unlearn to learn again

I’ve been obsessed by methods for years, but lately I’ve been thinking about frameworks. Maybe I’m fatigued by prolonged immersion in the method stream?1 Methods don’t concern me that much anymore; they can be learnt, borrowed, invented or outsourced.

You can master the methods to build a car, but why build another car in the context of climate change, natural resource depletion and congestion? By changing the frameworks underpinning the methods – in a 21st century context – the question then becomes: how do we adapt our methods to build new kinds of cars?

But where do our frameworks come from? Do we choose them or are they learned? Can we unlearn or relearn behaviours that are rooted deeply?

I worked in a higher education digital context for awhile where the academics discussed pedagogy a lot. I remember someone saying, ‘to unlearn something you have to learn it again’. That made sense to me.

For example, I taught myself to play the classical guitar when I was 15. A few years later I had formal lessons and corrected some of my earlier learning. I still play, but there are areas where I continue to struggle.

So I ask myself, do I practice until I get it right (method), or do I go back and revisit the theory (framework) before I practice again?

Applied to ourselves, this approach offers transformative implications.

  1. The method stream is the accumulated flow of ‘how to’ information via all the digital channels that I plug into. 

What do we do when we design?

In ICON magazine Christien Meindertsma says:

Architects can work across the board because they make things but they also write texts about what they do and they’re able to talk about it, which often designers aren’t. 1

That statement struck a cord because I have been thinking about the relevance, consequence and impact of the work we do as designers shaping the web – and my belief is that as a profession we need to do more to cultivate reflective practice as part of our toolbox. We need to think and write beyond the hard methods that we use: what are our guiding principles? what are the frameworks guiding our thinking? and what are the responsibilities we own up to?

If, for example, all our collective efforts as digital workers are co-creating a postliterate society, and were I to believe this to be a bad thing, is this the kind of work I want to be doing? (Regardless of how much I love the internet.)

I believe that we are doing important work. We are co-creators of the greatest social technology people have yet invented. And we need to engage with it in all seriousness by being able to step back and ask ourselves: what is it that we do when we do what we do? 2

For the web may be the last chance we have to invent something that can change everything – in a good way.

  1. Originally published 1st May 2010, Conversation between architect Alejandro Aravena, filmmaker Gary Hustwit, designer Christien Meindertsma and journalist Bruce Nussbaum. 

  2. In Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World, Ray Ison attributes the question: What is it that we do when we do what we do? to Humberto Maturana. It is used here in the context of ‘critical reflection on our circumstances’. 

The technology of emotion

In my systems studies I’ve come across the work of Humberto Maturana, and his writing is changing how I understand the relationship between emotion and technology:

Technology is not the solution for human problems because human problems belong to the emotional domain as they are conflicts in our relational living that arise when we have desires that lead to contradictory actions.1

Maturana does not see progress or technology as values. Instead, his plea is that we become honest and clear about our emotions and desires. Only then can we take responsibility for what we do – and by implication (my interpretation) design technologies that are rooted in empathy, both for people and the environment.

Technology can’t change problems rooted in our inner conflicts if those technologies sprang from our inner conflicts themselves (Facebook, for example), yet we use technology to try to change our emotions by being inauthentic (contradictory actions). But the problems remain and we abdicate responsibility claiming: technology is changing us. But technology can only change us if we allow it.

Technology brought forth by people contain no power in itself, the power resides in the emotions and desires of the people who created it, and ultimately in those who consume it without question. And this is where we need to take a hard look at ourselves, as we, and not technology, are creating the world we live in.

Transparency or deconstructing opacity

Digital is not new, yet I still think of it as somewhat novel and about to transform the world as we know it. (By digital I mean the Web 2.0 incarnation, where the web evolved into an organic-like being, as opposed to the mechanical machine-like nature of Web 1.0.) And I’m still waiting. Sure, digital is becoming more sophisticated, softer and more pliable, clay-like, its nature is accelerative, predictive, replicative and transferral but it is not transforming our lives in the crucial areas that matter – out of control consumption and the associated patterns of environmental degradation.

Many things are changing, cars are becoming computers as are kitchen appliances, operating machines in hospitals, mobile phones … ubiquitous computing is here and for most of us it is happening as if by stealth.

But these are hardly examples of digital breakthroughs contributing to seismic paradigm shifts in the way we live. They are extenders, or prolongers, of the status quo and are solutions rooted in nostalgia for the carbon fueled intoxication of unsustainable living. What is the point of efficiency gains, acceleration, and increased productivity if the net result is increased consumption that cannot be sustained? A hastening of extinction.

Digital technology holds the promise to make things transparent. By transparency I mean the ability to see through phenomena. Digital technology allow us to deconstruct opacity, which is a good thing because an opaque world disempowers us. The flip side is that we may not like what we see, but it may just provide the motivation for meaningful behaviour change.

For example, we can use digital technology to ‘see’ air pollution, something that is ‘invisible’, and for a visual species things that cannot be seen somehow does not exist. If you can see something heading towards you, you have time to change course.

On the flip side I could argue that irrational concepts (unscientific) that are invisible, exert more sway over us than rational things (scientific proof) that are visible. And this is a worrying aspect of human behaviour.