Archives for posts with tag: ontology

In my last post, I wrote that what’s necessary for a class about learning technologies that don’t yet exist is a shift in thinking, away from ontology (“What are these technologies?”) to phenomenology (“How do we encounter and experience technology, and what does awareness of that encounter teach us about the processes of mediation?”).

But there are two problems with the terms “ontology” and “phenomenology.” First, although in the philosopher’s toolbox they’re valuable for their precision, in the classroom, they’re an obstacle. Their Greek roots might be transparent to philosophers, but they’re opaque to students. This doesn’t mean that students can’t ask the questions philosophers ask, or that we must sacrifice thoughtful inquiry at the altar of student evaluations. On the contrary — students want to ask these questions, once they’ve grasped the categories that make them possible. (They don’t normally think about their experience of a technology, but once I draw their attention to the question of experience, they are often eager to bracket off the question of the technology as an object.)

Second, these words carry baggage in philosophy. If you’re a phenomenologist, it matters whether you’ve read Gadamer, and Heidegger before him, and Husserl before him, all the way back to Hegel (to name only one potential pathway back through time). It matters whether you can see how Hegel’s approach differs from Heidegger’s, and why Heidegger made the choices he did. But we can do philosophical work without that baggage. The exercise of bracketing off — which I will describe in my next post — has value in the classroom, even if we do not pursue it with the same type of rigor as a serious philosopher.

In fact, in the classroom, it has value precisely because we can pursue it differently. Husserl’s goal in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (to pick a book I know reasonably well) was to lay out a system of thought that got over the distractions and distortions of ontology and could be reproduced by other philosophers. My goal in teaching technology is different. My goal is to equip my students with strategies to discover how to make a technology they’ve never encountered useful. My students produce work that a serious philosopher might find sloppy, but if they successfully negotiate a new technology without a user’s manual — if they find a way into the structuring logic of that technology — such “sloppiness” doesn’t matter. In fact, such “sloppiness” is really a reflection of an inventive type of play, which has a value I will explore in later posts.

So, then, what exactly is my goal for students? I’ll explain with a metaphor. I learned to cook from my father. (My mother taught me to bake, which is a different metaphor altogether!) He didn’t use cookbooks much, if ever. When I was young, he was known for “Dad’s surprise,” which consisted of whatever he could find that looked interesting combined in unexpected ways. He really liked to push the boundaries — once he made “sushi” (for lack of a better word) using fruit leather wrapped around rice and peaches and mangoes, if I remember right.

The way to make this type of cooking work is to play around with ingredients and see what they do. My father liked to talk not about “how to make chicken” but “the philosophy of chicken.” What he meant was it was important to know how ingredients behaved — what you could expect when you put chicken in the oven, or in a pan, or in the microwave, or on the grill, or over the engine of a 1974 half-ton GMC pickup you’re driving to a campsite. (Note: don’t try the pickup experiment — it didn’t work.)

Paying attention to how ingredients behave is what made me the cook I am today. I’m not a gourmet chef, but I have an even more useful skill — when I get home in the evening, and everyone is hungry and tired, I can pull together five ingredients from the pantry and get something on the table pretty quickly. Often, it’s even something good! But it’s because I can anticipate how long each one will take, and how it will combine with the others, that I am able to cook without a recipe in front of me.

That’s what I want my students to do — figure out how to “cook” with new technologies. If they’ve got some sort of machine in front of them, but no “recipe,” can they make it work? How can I get them to the point where they have strategies to generate the questions they need to ask, and then answer them?


I’m going to make a bold declaration about what I teach.

But first, I want to begin with a common misperception you encounter when you teach communication. People think that what you teach can be reduced to technical skills. I’ve taught, say, non-linear video editing. I give people cameras, and I tell them how to focus the lens or adjust the white balance, and I show them how to upload video and edit it and make — I hope — a decent-looking video. Technical skills matter.

But they don’t matter the way people think they do, or at least, their value is not limited to what’s immediately at hand. Knowing how to edit video might get a student a job, and if it does, I’m happy to have played a role in someone else’s success. But technologies change. A new version of a video-editing software suite comes out, and it looks nothing like what it’s replaced. (Final Cut Pro X, anyone?) If all I’ve taught is how to use version 1.0, and my student is flummoxed by version 2.0, I’ve failed.

This happens all the time. Planned obsolescence is a great business strategy. In fact, whatever technology I’m teaching at any given moment is probably already obsolete. (Budgets are tight at universities, and they’re outpaced by the rate of change. Who’s going to buy the new update when the old one still works?)

So here’s my declaration: I can teach technologies that are so new they haven’t been invented yet. I can equip students with the skills they need before we even know what those tools look like.

What we have to do — what I began to do in my last post, and in my manifesto — is rethink the value of technical skills. They are not merely instrumental. (Nor is education itself, in case my broader point isn’t clear.) If we pay attention to the ways technologies mediate our encounter with the world outside of ourselves, we can speculate about what other, newer technologies might do. The real value of technical skills lies not in their ability to get someone a job but in the awareness they bring to the logics of mediation.

In the language of philosophy, what I’m suggesting is that we move away from ontology — the inquiry into the nature of existence, where we ask, “What is this technology and how do we use it?” — to phenomenology — the inquiry into the nature of experience, where we ask, “How do we encounter this technology, and how does it mediate our experience of the world?” These are meaty questions, ones I want to bring into the classroom. But first we’ll need to find a way to ask them without the intimidating apparatus of philosophy itself. If words like “ontology” and “phenomenology” get in the way of the work they’re meant to do, we should abandon them, at least in the undergraduate communication classroom.

How we do that will be the subject of my next post.