The Idea of An Artificial Science

I B. Dahlbom, S. Beckman & G. B. Nilsson, Artifacts and Artificial Science. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International 2002.

Technology is an amazing productivity enhancer, and its role in easing our burdens and producing economic growth is, of course, unquestioned.

But the fact that our lives have become so wonderfully comfortable thanks to modern technology, can no longer blind us from the fact that technology today is shaping us, our lives, and our world, in much more complex ways; and that all this is happening with very little understanding, foresight, or rational planning, while we are busy with more traditional political and economic issues.

A growing appreciation of the role of technology in shaping our lives by shaping the world we live in, has raised the question of democratic control of the development and diffusion of technology (Winner 1986, Beck 1995, Sclove 1995). As long as technology is first and foremost viewed as a vechicle of economic growth, our major worry is not to be left behind as that vehicle is moving swiftly into an unknown future. Where that vechicle is taking us, and how it could be possible to steer its course, are questions that will have to wait while we are running to keep up. If we ever find the time to try to answer those questions, and attain a more rational approach to the diffusion of technology, then we need a better understanding of technology and the way it is shaping our world and conditions of living.

1 An Artificial World

The modern world is an artificial world, a world of artifacts. If by “artifact” we mean “any object made by man with a view to subsequent use” (standard dictionary definition), there is a great number of different kinds and varieties. Theories, ideologies, paintings, songs, gardens, cities, families, professions, persons, languages, social organizations, cultures, tools, machine systems, and nations, are all artifacts. It is often difficult to draw the line between what is artificial and what is natural, and when we look closer at the distinction it is not so simple as it may first seem. Here we will manage with the intuitive notion and not worry too much about how and where to draw the distinction.

In the way nature used to be divided into different realms of organisms, so our culture is divided into different realms of artifacts. And like in nature, we have an inclination to distinguish between “higher” and “lower” cultural artifacts. These realms are visible in the way our societies are organized into professions and professional institutions. Technology used to be low class, better left to the engineers, aspiring members of the working class, making a career, developing the tools of a modern society. In the cultural salons and in the inner circles of power it was ideas, art, and organizations that were the artifacts of attention. But all that is changing now when, in the midst of the information technological revolution, the role of technology in shaping our ideas, our art, and our organizations, is finally beginning to be appreciated.

The aim of this essay is to urge on a change in knowledge interest and knowledge practice motivated by the importance of artifacts in modern life. But the aim is also to direct our attention to those lowly artifacts, the material machine systems, that play such a decisive role in shaping modern existence. When I speak of “artifacts” it is therefore often “technical artifacts” that I have in mind, but the points made are normally more generally applicable to the whole arena of artifacts. There should be no problem with this.

Machines used to be regarded as useful but boring, giving us economic growth, certainly, but irrelevant for a deeper understanding of the human condition and for the higher values in life. Only recently have we begun to understand how technology is an expression of our interests, an implementation of our values, an extension of our selves, and a form for our lives. When new technology comes along, the principal arena for creativity is the engineering, product development, and advanced use of that technology. While art is decorating our walls, engineering is shaping our everyday lives, our dreams, our nightmares.

Our interest in artifacts has primarily been in their production, operation, and spectacular effects on us. We have been interested in art and artists and in the experience of art. We have been interested in the functioning of technology and how it can ease our burdens, perhaps be dangerous to our health and pollute our environment. In the social sciences, we have studied the interactions between individuals and society, but our ambition to understand and accumulate facts about society has often led us to go on as if we were studying perennial structures rather than ephemeral constructions. And, when we took an interest in the historical evolution of those constructions, that interest almost always had a whiggish tinge. How else can we make sense of our past, except against a background of taken for granted facts and values?

There are exceptions, of course, exceptional examples of a profound understanding of the artificial nature of our environment and ourselves, and the implications of this. But such understanding has normally tended to be idealistic in its philosophy, to identify the artificial with the socially constructed (Dahlbom 1992). Only recently has the pervasive role of material, technical artifacts in our lives become more generally appreciated. When the craftsman lays down his tools, when the worker leaves the factory, they leave technology behind—or so we used to think. But in a modern society technology is everywhere, shaping us, shaping our lives.

Saying so invites accusations of technological determinism. But when Lévi-Strauss (1976) argues that the architecture of the Bororo village served as a reminder without which the Indians soon lost any feeling for tradition; when Jaynes (1976) uses the story about how, when the Spanish mayor of a Mayan city ordered the abolition of idolatry, “upwards of a million” idols were brought in his presence, to illustrate his theory of the role of idols as authorities; when Yates (1966) tells about how the Roman senators memorized their speeches by using the “method of loci,” rehearsing speeches while walking through their houses; when Winner (1986) explains how Robert Moses built the New York highways with overpasses low enough to prevent public transportation from reaching the beaches; when Forty (1986) infers the Victorian class society from hallway furniture—then we do not have to think of these stories as examples of technological determinism, only as reminders of the role played by artifacts in making possible and supporting social practices. This does not mean that the meanings attributed to those artifacts, the roles they play, are not in turn made possible by those very social practices. Only that everyday observations of how people wait for busses or are stuck in traffic, drag along vaccum cleaners or watch television, has made us more impressed by how concrete, technical artifacts determine our lives, than by our creativity in attributing different meaning to such artifacts.

Our conditions of living are largely determined by our environment—natural, technical, and social. As long as we had only rudimentary tools there was not much we could do to change our natural environment. We could select a suitable place and our lives would be shaped by that place. The situation for most of us in the modern artificial world of powerful organizations and powerful technology, is not really different. Except that with a rapidly developing technology, our environment and therefore our lives are changing at a bewildering pace.

For the powerful nations and organizations of the modern world the situation is different. They have the power to influence the development and use of technology, thus the power to change our lives. The greatest challenge today, for those nations and organizations, and their supernational organizations, is to understand those changes, in order to make them the object of attention and eventually rational choice.

When our focus shifts from artifacts to their use, from artists and aesthetical experience to the institutions of art, from nuts and bolts to the complex interaction of technical and social artifacts, then an area of study is highlighted that is not very well attended to by modern science and arts. In the humanities, we study art with only casual glances at the role it plays in people’s lives and the way it shapes our modern society. In the social sciences, we study social organizations with only a casual glance at the role of technology in shaping those organizations. And in engineering, we study the production of technology without even a glance at the use of technology and how the organization of that use, together with the technical artifacts themselves, is the most powerful force in shaping our societies.

Scientific knowledge is knowledge about a given reality, past or present. Scientists are discoverers. Inventors operate outside the boundaries of science. But this means that whoever is interested in the world we live in, the world of artifacts, must refrain from delivering proposals for change and development, in order to win scientific respectability. Or, so goes the traditional view of science still dominating our academic institutions. But scientific practice speaks a different language. Even the natural sciences are more engaged in invention than in discovery, these days, creating the very objects and substances they study. When this traditional view of science dominates even the social sciences it means that the task of these sciences—to contribute to the shaping of a good society—will have to be disguised in order to be accepted.

What is needed is therefore a whole new view of science, a revolution in the understanding of what science is and could be. This revolution must include both an appreciation of artifacts over and above nature, a recognition of a design oriented science of artifacts and its difference from natural science. At the same time, this revolution implies a new understanding of the natural sciences themselves, recognizing the design elements in these sciences in a way not yet explicitly done.

Such a revolution in science will reinterpret and change the boundaries between the different sciences. When the role of technical artifacts in social organizations is appreciated, the barriers between the technical and the social begin to crumble. When the role of design in modern natural science is acknowledged, the boundaries between the technical and the natural begin to make less sense. A science of the artificial will include and reinterpret the social sciences, economics, engineering, as well as much of natural science. And a science of the artificial will, of course, take an interest in the historical construction of our artificial world, and thus include a revised version of the humanities as well. The distinctions between the sciences will no longer be drawn in terms of notions such as history, society, technology and nature, but in terms of knowledge interest and methododology. The sciences of the artificial will be defined by their design motivation.

Trying to develop such a new understanding of “a science of the artificial,” there is no better way to begin than with Herbert Simon’s little gem of a book from 1969, The Sciences of the Artificial. In a few short chapters, Simon sketches a powerful program for a new science, for an artificial science.

2 Simon’s Program for a New Science

The modern world is an artificial world, Simon says, but modern science is a science of nature. Something is wrong. While the natural sciences are interested in how things are, the sciences of the artificial are concerned with how things might be—with design. Indeed, artificial science is a science of design. One of Simon’s motives for his campaign for an artificial science—in addition to the obvious scandal that science keeps ignoring the world we live in—is the shortcomings of the natural sciences as a foundation for (education in) engineering and other professions:

In view of the key role of design in professional activity, it is ironic that in this century the natural sciences have almost driven the sciences of the artificial from professional school curricula. Engineering schools have become schools of physics and mathematics; medical schools have become schools of biological science; business schools have become schools of finite mathematics…Few doctoral dissertations in first-rate professional schools today deal with genuine design problems, as distinguished from problems in solid-state physics or stochastic processes. (p. 56f)

Artifacts or artificial systems are functional, adaptive systems, on Simon’s view, systems that “can be characterized in terms of functions, goals, adaptation” (p. 6). Artifacts are by definition man-made, but in all other respects, organ isms are good examples of artificial systems, being adaptive systems that have “evolved through the forces of organic evolution” (p. 7). Business organizations, machines, and organisms are all exemplary adaptive systems.

An artifact can be thought of as the interface, Simon says, between, on the one hand, the substance and organization of the artifact and, on the other, its environment. The two sides of the interface, its structure and its environment, fall under the province of the natural sciences. But the interface itself belongs to artificial science. Therefore,

a science of artificial phenomena is always in imminent danger of dissolving and vanishing. The peculiar properties of the artifact lie on the thin interface between the natural laws within it and the natural laws without. (p. 57)

Only by holding fast to the “process of design itself” will it be possible to develop an artificial science that is radically different from the natural sciences—that can encompass both “human purpose” and “natural law,” finding “means for relating these two disparate components” (p. 4).

Simon’s ambition is to come up with an empirical science and the major problem is therefore “to show how empirical propositions can be made at all about systems that, given different circumstances, might be quite other than they are” (p. x). How do we rise above the contingency of artificial phenomena, how do we get beyond “the normative rules of good acting”? Only by directing our study to the limitations set by nature on our design efforts. Simon’s ideas of how to study the artificial consequently divides into an empirical science about the limits of rationality (or adaptation) on the one hand, and an empirical science of adaptation on the other. And modern evolutionary biology is therefore a good model for artificial science, with organisms as exemplary artificial systems. Simon’s radical program for a new science of design is reduced to a rather well known theme in contemporary American thinking: functionalism.

Simon seems to be so caught up in the traditional scientific ideals, that he does not see how his attempt to make the sciences of the artificial respectable in the eyes of traditional empirical science, makes him abandon the very idea of an artificial science. His definition of artifacts in terms of adaptation makes of biology a bridge between the natural sciences and the artificial, but he does not see that this ought to make us question our traditional understanding of biology as an empirical science of nature, in favor of a more design oriented view of biology. Instead, this bridge becomes proof that the sciences of the artificial meet the traditional ideals of science.

Simon’s conception of design involves a similar emphasis of similarities between the science of design and traditional empirical science. He has a very broad conception of design: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” (p. 55). This definition is unfortunate, I believe, since it has the consequence of making “design” synonymous with “decision making,” “problem solving,” “planning,” and similar terms, covering virtually the whole field of cognition, thus leading Simon to his favorite hunting grounds in search for a science of design: to design is to search through a tree of alternatives finding a satisfying answer.

With such an abstract and general conception of design, Simon has no difficulties in showing that a science of design is congruent with traditional science. To give to engineering education a design orientation therefore does not mean to abandon the use of traditional science as a foundation of engineering: it only means a change in what scientific theories to choose. Rather than general physics and mathematics, engineering should be seen to rest on the theorizing in such specialities as statistical decision theory, control theory, complexity theory and other theories together constituting a general theory of design.

Looking closer at the details of Simon’s program, one wonders if engineering, with such a general design theory as its foundation, will not run the very risk Simon is complaining about. Will not the very design orientation that Simon wants to promote get lost in the trappings of good old-fashioned science? Will not the artificial itself, the interface between the internal and the external environment disappear into the background, exactly like Simon warns us? If the idea was to give to engineering a foundation that differed from traditional science in being design oriented, then would not such a foundation have to be guided by values substantially different from those guiding science?

We may wonder, of course, if there is anything like a general artificial science possible, in addition to the specific sciences of the artificial, such as economics, architecture, education, or computer engineering. Maybe this demand for a general science of the artificial is only another example of the forlorn positivistic dream of a unified science? Or, we may react to Simon’s idea of a science of design by arguing that the design process is an artistic process rather than a scientific one.

Even if I am critical of the conservative way Simon’s attempt to define a science of the artificial eventually turns out, I am much impressed by the power in the way he begins. His characterization of the artificial world and the need for an artificial science is both powerful and intriguing. And I do think that the concept of the artificial can play an important role in a reorientation of the sciences that is long overdue.

Only by coming up with the idea of history was it once possible, two hundred years ago, to redirect research from its preoccupation with nature. Can we hope to achieve something equally spectacular with the idea of the artificial? History is fundamentally different from science, and the distinction worked out in the 19th century between the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) and the sciences (Naturwissenschaften) has proved viable and fruitful. The use of the notion of a society as a basis for faculties and academic disciplines has not been equally successful. The social sciences remain strange hybrids between the humanities and natural science, vacillating in their approach and methods. Perhaps, we could use the concept of the artificial to achieve what has not been possible with the concept of society: to lay the foundation for an autonomous and distinct research approach that can be an alternative to both natural science and history.

Simon’s idea of a general science of the artificial was radical in the late 1960s and remains radical today. In spite of his stature within modern organization theory and cognitive science, a Nobel Laureate in economics, his program for a general science of the artificial has attracted very little attention. One explanation for this is, perhaps, that while the general idea is radical enough, Simon’s particular suggestions are, as we have seen, rather conservative.

3 Objections to Simon

I want to very quickly summarize my objections to Simon’s characterization of the sciences of the artificial. One objection is directed to Simon’s view that the sciences of the artificial are design sciences, when this is interpreted to mean that the sciences of the artificial themselves ought to attend specifically to the design process and aim at formulating a general theory of design. Sometimes, it seems as if Simon goes so far as to identify the sciences of the artificial with a general science of design, treating the design activity as a common link, rather than suggesting general characteristics of the objects of design to unite the sciences of the artificial.

Certainly, design is a central concept in the sciences of the artificial, playing a role comparable to the role played by “explanation” in the natural sciences and “interpretation” in the humanities. It designates the task and method of the sciences of the artificial, but there is no reason to demand that those sciences themselves make a special study of their methods. A reasonable amount of self-reflection on the conditions of design is necessary, especially for those who are engaged in educating designers, but an interest in the process of design rather than in its products, will turn the sciences of the artificial into methodological disciplines, rather than substantive sciences of our artificial world.

My second objection to Simon concerns his definition of the concept of design. Identifying design with planning, decision making, or problem solving, makes this concept abstract enough to serve as a basis for uniting all the disparate sciences of the artificial. But, a design concept that identifies design with cognition is too abstract to distinguish the sciences of the artificial from sciences in general. The general science of design, defined by Simon, supplies methods of problem solving, in the way logic and mathematics have always done. In the engineering sciences such a design science will simply play the role that mathematics does today.

If we want to argue that the sciences of the artificial are defined by their design orientation, then we need a more specific concept of design. If it is the use of technology that is the core of the sciences of the artificial, then it is the design of those concrete artifacts, machines and organizations, that is the focus of our interest. Our design efforts find their completion in the realization of a concrete artifact, and the competence that distinguishes a good designer from a general problem solver is the capacity to consider the conditions of concrete realization.

In the natural sciences, problems are solved by devising principles, theories, constructs, and similar abstract artifacts, but in the artificial sciences, the solutions are always, primarily, concrete. Even if the abstract artifacts of the natural sciences often are transformed into concrete form, and vice versa, this is no easy task. To speak of technology as “applied science” is to seriously underestimate the complexity of this transformation.

Natural science is a systematic, institutionalized search for knowledge with the ambition to improve our knowledge of nature. Artificial science is not a theoretical study of the design of concrete artifacts, but a systematic, institutionalized form of such design activity with the ambition to improve the world of artifacts. The typical way to do artificial science is therefore to study the use of technical artifacts, and design and implement improved versions. This work can be dominated by the implementation of abstract principles of design, or it can be dominated by a concrete bricolage with concrete building blocks accompanied by reflection.

My third objection to Simon is against his definition of the concept artifact. By concentrating on the functionality of artifacts, in analogy with the survival value of organisms, Simon ends up with an artifact concept which is too conservative to serve as the foundation for a reorientation of science. This is especially unfortunate since he combines this American standard approach, functionalism, with an original and fruitful definition of artifacts as interfaces.

American functionalism is motivated by the ambition to show that nature, people, mind, society, or whatever it is that is the focus of attention, is a mechanism. The most convicing proof that something is a mechanism is to show how it can be analyzed, without remainders, into functional components in the way typical of a machine.

Functionalism helps us see how organisms and artifacts are made. When natural science goes looking for laws of nature, functionalism goes hunting for design principles: how a certain function is realized in a certain family of organisms or artifacts. Facets or a lense, Otto or Wankel, von Neumann or parallel, are examples of successful design principles and the identification (in biology) and invention (in technology) of such principles distinguish both biology and technology from the natural sciences.

Functionalism is appropriate as a philosophy not only for biology but for technology as well—as long as we restrict ourselves to the functionality of artifacts. But the artificial sciences, as I have defined them, are oriented more towards the construction and use of artifacts than to understanding them, and both of these aspects are not well handled if we concentrate on the functionality of artifacts. Let us see why.

The functional analysis of an organism or an artifact tells us about the functions of the different components. If the functional analysis is carried far enough, we may hope to reach components which are simple enough for us to see how they are constructed and how we could make them ourselves. The functional analysis, if carried deep enough, will tell us how to reproduce the artifact, at least in principle, but that is not what we mean by being able to design it. That ability is more general: being able to design something like that. Nor does a functional analysis tell us how to make the artifact: the way something is actually put together is not revealed by the functional analysis. Thus, if we are really interested in designing and making artifacts, then functional analysis of existing artifacts, or of requirement specifications, will have to be combined with more concrete, hands-on engineering.

Functionalism makes no difference between organisms and artifacts, but this means that one misses what is really the essence of artifacts—their use. When we do a functional analysis of a refrigerator, we don’t take into account its context of use anymore than we would if it was a sea-urchin we were analyzing. We will consider its overall function as cold storage, and how well it fulfills that function in the given environment, just as we would with the sea urchin. We could, of course, introduce the use of the refrigerator into the analysis, and perform the sort of analysis we do in biology when we study the interaction and co-adaptation of different species. But even if this is possible in principle, then in practice it is completely out of the question. A functional analysis of a refrigerator will determine its capacity as cold storage relative to the environment, but whether the egg shelf is placed in child-friendly position or not, and whether there should be an egg shelf in the first place, when eggs are no longer sold by weight, these are questions which due to their complex context dependence will turn the functional analysis into an ethnological investigation.

An artificial science oriented towards the construction and use of artifacts must supplement a biological interest in function with an interest in implementation and the complex context of interaction in which artifacts belong. Such a science of the artificial cannot use functionalism as its philosophy. Instead it will need a philosophy going beyond our traditional view of science towards a program for a whole new science.

4 A New Engineer

Functionalism is inadequate as a foundation for artificial science because it is inadequate as a foundation for engineering. To Simon, artificial science is the theory corresponding to the practice of engineering (including social engineering). I have no quarrel with that parallel, except that I think it is time to introduce a different notion of engineering from the traditional one presupposed by Simon (Dahlbom & Mathiassen 1997).

In traditional engineering we concentrate on how artifacts function, and on how to make them function. The new engineering, I envision, will take a different view, attending to the use of artifacts, to the role they play in our lives and to how they play those roles. Such a perspective will revolutionize engineering, embedding it in a social context, making artifacts in use rather than artifacts its subject matter.

Sometimes attempts at introducing more social and humanistic themes into the engineering curriculum seem to be an expression of an ambition to reduce the power of technology. This is not my vision. Technology is the outstanding social force and no amount of humanism will change that. But just because it is such a force, is it important for those who have the competence to control it, to take an interest in its use.

A quick illustration of what I mean is to see the impact that environmental awareness is beginning to have on engineering professions working with technologies, which have effects on the physical environment and on people as physical organisms.

To begin with, the typical engineering response was to think of environmental issues as consequences of technology, leaving those consequences to politicians and other decision makers to deal with. As public interest in environmental issues grew, those issues began to interfere with engineering work, causing irritation. Gradually, however, environmental issues have entered engineering curricula, influencing the nature of technical competence itself in more and more branches of engineering. From being a source of irritation, pollution has become an area of engineering expertise.

Analogously, I argue that as technology becomes more and more important and pervasive in all aspects of modern life, engineers will have to include more and more social aspects in their technical problem solving and into the very core of the technical curriculum. It would be so much easier and much less dangerous to introduce such aspects as additional, but distinct, skills, of course. But it would also be much more inefficient and contrived.

My main argument is simple. As long as technology played a less pervasive role in society, as long as engineers were engaged primarily in military affairs, or in heavy industry; as long as they were not engaged in the everyday affairs of everyone, it w as possible to carry on as if technology was somehow different from society. It made sense to speak of the social consequences of technology, and engineers became experts on designing, constructing, maintaining, and repairing, technology, while knowing ne xt to nothing about the actual details of its use. When humans were considered at all, they were treated as “factors” to be added, somewhat as an afterthought, to real engineering, or handed over to “cognitive psychology” to handle. All this is changing now that technology is stepping out into the everyday lives of everyone.

The efficiency and productivity of modern society is based on the division of labor. Without division of labor, there is no hope of expertise. It has often been a long and arduous task—the different branches of engineering are good examples—to define and purify the particular areas of expertise. But in a changing society, lines of division will have to be redrawn, and even such “natural” dividing lines as those defining technical competence may have to be moved.

Computer technology or, as it is nowadays often called, information technology, is a particularly striking example of the need for such a change. The name itself makes some people a bit nervous. Computer engineers work with computer technology. It is the users, politicians, and media that talk of information technology. How do the two relate to one another? When engineers develop computer technology, do they also develop information technology?

Really, that question puts the finger on the transition I am here advocating. As long as the engineering task was restricted to the machine itself, traditional engineers were doing fine. As long as computers were used as automata, it was their independence of human beings that made them so powerful. The power of information technology, on the contrary, lies in its dependence on human beings, in the many ways—as tools, networks, media, and the like—in which it involves and enhances human actions and interactions. It is this power of information technology to infiltrate our lives, our minds, our pains and pleasures, which places new demands on the engineering profession.

Information technology makes the role of technology in shaping our everyday lives obvious for everyone to see. Once that observation is made it becomes so much easier to see that this always has been true of technology, even the most mundane and simple tools. Technology has been creeping up on us, and only slowly have we begun to understand its social role. The idea with technology is that the use of it shall change our lives. And yet, we have a tendency to think of it as something we can introduce into our lives without really changing them. And that is why we and our societies change with the diffusion of technology while we don’t really understand what is going, or see what is happening until it has already happened.

Technology is a social phenomenon. Traditional engineering tried to abstract from the social dimensions of technology, and the social dimensions suffered. At the same time the social sciences largely neglected technology and its role as a social force. It has taken a long time for most of us to really appreciate what Marx saw clearly, that society is best understood as technology, an organization of the use of technology, and ideas about technology and its use. With such a materialistic conception of society as the basis, it is time to bridge the gap between engineering and society. Technology as a social phenomenon is the bridge and it will merge engineering and social science into a design oriented, artificial science.

5 Foundations of Artificial Science

A much more radical program, distinguishing more sharply between the sciences of the artificial and traditional empirical science, is vaguely discernible in Simon’s discussion. Rather than here going into the details of Simon’s views, I want to present such a more radical version of, or alternative to, his views, making a more definite distinction between artifacts and organisms and between design and theorizing.

The idea of an artificial science is a radical suggestion to supplement natural science and the humanities with a third “faculty”, the faculty of the artificial. We can of course use slogans to introduce artificial science: if natural science aims at explaining nature, the humanities at understanding human action, then artificial science is focused on the design of artifacts. We can state the program boldly by claiming that the idea of the artificial will manage to do what the idea of the social has not: lay the foundation for an alternative both to natural science and to the humanities. Here I want to summarize, briefly, what I take to be eight distinguishing characteristics of an artificial science that does not hesitate to make a break, both with natural science and the humanities.

1. Artifacts are designed rather than described

Our attitude to artifacts differs from our attitude to nature. There is a difference in “knowledge interest.” In the natural sciences we want to find out what the world is like while in the artificial we are interested in what could possibly be and how to make it so. Artifacts inspire us to improvements. Our interest in how they are made is guided by our interest in making them ourselves, and making them better. Rather than turning to the natural sciences for legitimacy and status, disciplines like engineering, economics, and, more generally, the social sciences, should develop their own identity as design oriented knowledge disciplines. In biology it is natural to view organisms from a functional stance, but in engineering the typical stance is a design stance—and these two are fundamentally different.

To say that artificial science is a design science is to say that there we study possibilities rather than restricting ourselves to the already realized, and that it is our ambition to construct rather than describe, understand, or explain. These two aspects are obviously related. It is because in artificial science we are interested in possibilities that we have to insist on concrete realization, as a way to make sure that something really is possible. In the natural sciences, abstract analysis is satisfactory, since there we don’t have to doubt the existence of the object of study.

2. Technology in use rather than design practice 

As research disciplines mature, they typically shift their attention from practice to theory, from applied to more basic research. Thus, modern physics began, in the hands of Galileo, as an attempt to improve various machinery (pumps, pulleys) used in early attempts at industrialization. And look at it now. When engineering goes looking for scientific status it turns to the natural sciences and thus loses its design orientation. But the cure does not lie, as Simon suggests, in a retreat to design activity, but in the development of an artificial science making the use of technology its object of study.

In such a research approach it will become important to learn more about the technology as it looks from the user’s end; how it should be described and classified from that perspective rather than from the production perspective. The research will be design oriented, but it will be so from a user perspective, considering improvements in use quality rather than in product quality. With technology as its focal point, this research will view technology as a social system rather than as some physical hardware. Relations between people and artifacts will turn out to be complex, and demanding new conceptual tools for description.

Simon’s interest in artifacts is an interest in their production, and in this respect he accepts the current orientation of our engineering schools, however much he may otherwise object to their curricula. Identifying quality of use with functionality he views the task of the sciences of the artificial as that of developing methods for how to produce “satisficing” artifacts, leaving the use of those artifacts for the users to worry about.

3. Artifacts have quality rather than functionality

If the functional analysis of an artifact does not tell us how to design or make it, then it does not tell us how to use it either. The functionality of an artifact, like the functionality of an organism, is a measure of its adaptation, its fitness , or “survival value,” and therefore functionality is a poor substitute for use quality. The distinguishing idea of artifacts, compared to organisms, is their use and we should, of course, be suspicious of an attempt to define that use in terms of a concept equally applicable to organisms.

Functionality is of course a rubber concept, but if we want to use it both in biology and in engineering we should be wary of extensions such as “aesthetic function” or “political function,” unless these can be reduced, in turn, to survival value or market value. But then, functionality is not enough if we want to judge the use quality of an artifact. A functional analysis will not tell us if the artifact is beautiful, what it means to us, how it will change our habits, or influence the struggle for power. The full concept of use quality concerns the happiness, to use another rubber concept, of the users. And adaptation or functionality is not the same as happiness.

When we abandon functionalism as being too narrow, we will have to stop thinking of the relations between people and technology in terms of “use” only. To speak of the use of technology is often natural when we consider its functional quality as a tool. But when we consider the other dimensions of quality this way of thinking becomes less appropriate: technology is not only used but also experienced (aesthetics) and interpreted (symbolism); it is a habitat (ethics), and it has power (politics).

When we give up narrow functionalism, we will also supplement the standard conception of engineering with, what Lévi-Strauss (1966) calls, bricolage or tinkering, when it comes to both the production and use of technology. Tinkering is what we do when we interact with artifacts, when we are active rather than passive. As an alternative to functionalistic engineering, to functionalism, tinkering rejects the very simple notion of functioning as an analysis of technology use, in favor of a view of our interaction with technology as complex, changing, and practically unpredictable unless we can assume a substantial cultural homogeneity.

4. Artificial science is normative rather than objective

If the quality of an artifact is its functionality, then artificial science need not worry any more about normativity than does biology, in spite of the fact that the artificial world is suffused by values. But if the quality of good technology goes beyond its functionality, if it involves the idea of the good life, then artificial science will be normative in a way that engineering is and biology is not. Engineering, as the practice of artifact design, and artificial science, as the theoretical foundation of that practice, will both have to grapple with the question of what good technology is, and how to design it.

Biology, like any other science, has its values of course that guide its pursuit—values such as truth, simplicity, generality, exactness, consistency, rationality, creativity, and so on. Furthermore, science is itself an artifact and scientific research can, therefore, be viewed as engineering, subject to the same normative considerations as other varieties of engineering. Thus, the values of engineering, that is, functionality, aesthetics, symbolism, ethics, and politics, can themselves be applied to science in general.

The fact that scientific research can fruitfully be viewed as the construction of artifacts, and that artifacts can be viewed as scientific theories, that theories can be viewed as instruments and instruments as theories, does not make it any less fruitful to distinguish science from engineering, natural science from artificial science. And the question of the normativity of science and technology does not concern whether these enterprises are guided by norms—of course they are—but to what extent their everyday practice will get us involved in normative conflicts and difficult normative considerations. If we did all agree on the qualities of good technology, then engineering and artificial science would be as (little) normative as natural science is to day. But to treat artificial science as a non-normative enterprise when we do not agree will only mean to go on neglecting the very reason for having such a science.

These first four points, according to which artificial science is a normative and design oriented study of the quality of artifacts in use, are inspired by Simon’s ideas and have grown out of a critique of those ideas. They define the object of study, orientation and raison d’être of artificial science. The four points that follow are also inspired by Simon’s discussion but they take a more specific departure from the four pillars of modern natural science. Artificial science can be described as an alternative to the objective, methodological, and well documented, search for general laws, of natural science. We will take the pillars in reverse order.

5. Artifacts are accidental rather than essential

The natural sciences coming out of the scientific revolution inherited their idea of science from the Greeks. Being well ordered by general principles, nature is possible to understand. Science will uncover essences, identify fundamental and simple principles, and produce taxonomies, dividing the world into “levels,” and science itself into “disciplines.”

Nature, or the universe, we now think, is the result of a process of construction. From the Big Bang until today, fundamental elements and forces of nature have combined into ever more complex substances and configurations. This common origin give to the sciences of nature their characteristic generality, as long as they examine those fundamental elements and forces.

Our artificial world is different from nature in the haphazard, provisional, contingent nature of its construction. There is no real common origin, except locally, properties are often less than universal, and “artificial laws” are local design solutions rather than universal principles. Projects of classification seldom make sense, since there is no real order in the artificial realm—except, again, locally. The sciences of the artificial ought to make a virtue of the lack of generality characterizing artifacts rather than struggle with this lack in a forlorn attempt to imitate the sciences of nature. This difference is mainly a temporal difference: it is the speed of artificial construction that produces its haphazard variety and it is the slowness of natural construction that makes nature hang together as well as it does.

To get to the order of nature it is important to idealize and simplify, to disregard disturbing factors, to use the ceteris paribus clause, to see the essential properties in a substance or process, and abstract from the accidental. Such simplification is necessary if we shall ever reach a general theory, since superficially nature is chaotic, changing, complex and varied. Science is interested in the world of ideas, wanting to leave as quickly as possible the world of sense. In the artificial world we are interested in the exceptions as well as in the rule. Really, the rule is rather uninteresting compared to the exceptions: the deviants, the risks, the accidents, the rule violations, and so on. In engineering we are interested in predicting accurately rather than explaining satisfactorily. If it works it matters less if we understand it or not. The engineer prefers to be stuck in the world of sense.

6. Artifacts are constructed rather than documented

Science produces knowledge as an abstract commodity. The process of obtaining knowledge has to be documented, since knowledge can only be obtained by the use of method. We can of course be lucky and hit on a good theory, the truth, but only by going through the process defined by the method will we, and others, be able to tell if it really is knowledge or not. This idea of documentation, of making things explicit, of keeping a protocol, plays a great role, of course, in modern society. Objective phenomena are reported in objective documents for everyone to see.

In natural science we aim for knowledge, but in engineering our ultimate goal is design. The differences between these two ends are deep-going. In Simon’s words: “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are….Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artifacts to attain goals.” (p. 58f). In science you are judged on the basis of your documents: publish or perish! In engineering we accept as evidence only a successful construction; it is the quality of technology that matters: patent or perish! This difference is one of degree, of course, but when it comes to fundamental attitude it is a distinct difference. Engineers often take lightly the demand for documentation for the obvious reason that documentation plays a secondary role in engineering, and so can be taken more lightly.

7. Artificial science has heuristics rather than methods 

Science is defined by its method, the scientific method. With methods the investigation, or whatever it is you are doing, becomes systematic and exact. That it is systematic ensures both that it is safely productive, that it will not waste its time on accidents, and that it is open to control. The method thus ties in with the three other traits and comes to play something of a central role. But this emphasis on methods turns science into the bureaucratic administration of ideas, leaving unaccounted its creative aspect. Creativity is viewed as something less than rational, something necessary, but not quite housebroken. In engineering, on the other hand, creativity is at center stage, since our business here is design. Heuristic rules of thumb, intuition and tacit knowledge, experience and tinkering, and plain common sense will be more openly accepted in engineering.

The idea of science is wonderful and it is wonderful outside as well as inside science. This idea lies at the heart of modern Western civilization. It is our idea of rationality: of keeping to the subject, not straying into irrelevancies, of respecting evidence and reasons, of striving for objectivity, and getting down to business in a methodical fashion. This idea is as important in police investigations, in court, government, education, medical care, industrial production as it is in science. This idea can be summarized, as the philosophers of the Frankfurt school want to summarize it, as an ideal of instrumental rationality. But then one has to remember that underlying this ideal, and more important than this ideal, is a belief in the order of the universe. The universe is a clock work.

But the artificial world is no clock work. The artificial world is a haphazard, accident prone, collection of artifacts. The artificial world is not ordered; if there are fundamental principles that a scientific foundation for engineering could go hunting for, they would be very different in nature from the ones sought and found in the natural sciences. In the artificial world we are interested in the “accidents” rather than in the essence for the simple reason that we are not primarily interested in understanding the artificial world but in living in it.

8. Artificial science is engaged rather than disinterested

The scientific attitude is one of objective detachment. As a neutral observer of events you minimize the risk of being prejudiced by your interests. Science becomes possible when you can make a clear distinction between yourself and the object you are investigating. As long as you experience yourself as one with the world, when you are engaged in it, your theory will be biased by paying particular attention to what is useful.

In the artificial world we are not interested in objectivity; we have to interact with our artifacts, and we are not interested in just looking at them. Artificial science is value oriented. This is true of applied science as well, but since artificial science is a science of design, values come to play a more important role in how you choose what to actually work with. Artificial science is more openly politicized than the natural sciences.

The scientific attitude to nature objectifies nature, leaving behind the close interaction between man and nature typical of life in traditional society. Generalizing from science, we have adopted such an objective attitude to our environment, nature and artifacts. We are alienated from them. It is one of the aims of an artificial science to restore the interactive engagement, that has only been suppressed, between man and his environment, artifacts and nature.

6 Science and Fiction

Simon seems to take for granted that a general science of design will share the values of traditional science. But if the two major reasons to ask for an artificial alternative to traditional science (differing from both natural science and mathematics) are, as Simon says, an appreciation of the accidental nature of the artificial world and a discontent with the role traditional science has played in engineering, then it is difficult to see how a science sharing those traditional scientific values could do the job. What we seem to need is an artificial science that takes seriously both the distinctive nature and role of artifacts and the task of designing good technology, the values of engineering. But won’t such a “science” be so different from traditional science that it may not be wise to call it science at all?

Simon’s own view of the sciences of the artificial are strangely conservative. With an extremely general notion of design, Simon turns his design oriented science of the artificial into a general theory of problem solving, adhering to the values of traditional empirical science, rather than following up on his very radical introduction. The view of the sciences of the artificial just outlined is, in comparison, much more radical, even if it only draws out the implications of Simon’s initial identification of the nature of the world we live in and how to study it.

The sciences of the artificial are design oriented. Such disciplines will strike a balance between traditional scientific values such as essential truth, documentation, objectivity, and the use of method, on the one hand, and values of engineering such as risk awareness, success, engagement, and the use of heuristics, on the other. Exactly how such a compromise between truth and successful implementation will turn out will vary, but the result will be very different from traditional science, or so I would argue.

Ever since natural scientists were geographical discoverers, we have had a view of science as developing by struggling through the jungle of the unknown, collecting facts and charting the territory. Reaching a hill, the view will clear and the mighty scientist will discern another hill, defining new challenges, new problems to be solved. There is no direction to science other than that given by the territory, and the way those hills look when glimpsed from afar. Some scientists may prefer to follow rivers, others to climb mountains, others again to venture out on the oceans, but it is the nature of the terrain that gives true, objective science its direction. When technology is viewed as applied science, as the material spelling out, or implementation, of scientific findings, then there is no direction to technology either, except that given by the territory of the unknown. So, we will get atom bombs and laser guns, gene manipulated tomatoes and formula one automobiles, six lane highways and cross mountain bike knee protection gear, rather than solar energy plants and artificial limbs, ecological cultivation and electric automobiles, meeting places and comfortable shoes, just because those things were there in the terrain and those other things were not.

Rubbish! If anything, science is applied technology rather than the other way around. Technology provides the instruments, the ships, telescopes, thermometers, and computers, needed for the expeditions and the nature of the instruments will give the expeditions their general direction as well as determine what can be discovered. Technology will also provide science with its subject matter, producing in chemical laboratories, accelerators, and on the workbench, the very nature to be investigated. Once it is clearly seen how the evolution of science and technology are human enterprises, it becomes obvious that scientists and innovators can no longer hide behind a silly view such that they only go where the terrain takes them.

When scientists, innovators and engineers begin to really see that they shape the world for all of us to live in, they will of course take an interest in questions concerning what that world should be like. It is a little strange that it has taken them so long to realize this. Humanists, artists, and politicians, who has virtually no impact on the shaping of our world, worry about its direction, while the engineers who are busily building, seem content not to think globally at all. But that is changing now when science and technology are becoming so obviously oriented towards designing an artificial world rather than discovering the natural, when the natural sciences make way for the sciences of the artificial.

The sciences of the artificial are design oriented, and this means that they put a premium on imagination. Imagination, our capacity to think about what is absent or does not exist and to think what we perceive as being different from or more than what we see, is “an essential and transcendental condition of consciousness,” to speak with Jean-Paul Sartre (1940, chap. 5). It is our capacity to dream of things that never were that makes us human. It both introduces “negation” and “lack” into the world—and with lack “values”—and is the very foundation of human freedom. It is imagination, the capacity to see the world as it is not but as it could be, that makes it possible for us to change the world. Imagination gives us alternatives and makes us see the lack in the world as it is. The world will always be lacking as long as we remain human. Human consciousness is by its very essence an “unhappy consciousness.” It is from that unhappiness that human beings draw their strength to act, to change the world, t o design a better world. And it is that unhappiness that is the raison d’être for the sciences of the artificial.

By stressing the importance of imagination, the artificial sciences will make explicit the important role played by fiction in our search for knowledge. For what is it we do when we draw up a design document, be it for an electrical installation, an in formation infrastructure, an organization, or a research project? We produce fiction. We use our experience and imagination to describe something that does not (yet) exist. The only principal difference between such design fiction and literary fiction is that our ambition normally is to turn our design fiction into fact. Design is future oriented. And yet much design fiction is produced more in order to examine what is possible than in order to actually have it implemented. Thus, design is an important element in planning, decision making, learning and most other cognitive activities.

With an explicit appreciation of the artificial sciences, design will be understood as an important scientific method, but if design is taken seriously enough then this will introduce a new scientific orientation. Our traditional understanding of science can be saved, in the way suggested by Simon, by viewing design as a method to investigate the boundaries of the possible. Thus, the possible is only the other side of the real. But my suggestion is, contrary to Simon, that we take artificial science to aim at examining the possible, in its own right, rather than as a means to determining what is real. Then we are interested in what is within the space of possibilities, rather than in the boundaries of that space, and design will introduce fiction as a major product of science, in addition to truth. But then, perhaps, we will prefer not to call such a design oriented research, with fiction as its product, science after all. Perhaps, we will prefer to reserve the term “science” for research into facts and truth, rather than into fiction and possibilities. Or, perhaps, we will say it is exactly because artificial science is interested in fiction rather than in truth that we call it “artificial”? For what are artifacts when compared to nature, if not fictive, i.e., products of imagination?

It is a common observation that we learn more about life from novels than from the social sciences, but why is it so? Is it because novelists are more imaginative, more creative, have more wisdom, than social scientists or is it because career demands in the sciences have favored book-keeping and sneered at imagination and wisdom? Why is it that in psychology we learn more about short term memory than about life?

There is room for imagination in science, of course, but it is an imagination that is rather severely restricted. Science shuns away from fiction, from story telling and makes that one of its defining traits. Science deals in facts not in fiction. And yet, everyone agrees of course that all cognition is loaded with imagination. So when fact is opposed to fiction, it is not imagination that is negated, but only the way imagination is let loose in fiction. Scientific imagination is always interested in implementation, realization.

Positivism, as a general ideology, in the sciences and elsewhere, has often been welcomed as a healthy antidote to idle speculation, bringing science back to basics, back to facts. But a positivism that restricts science to a pedantic collection of data, leaving no room for interpretation, will soon be abandoned (only to come back again, of course). It cannot help us understand what goes on in modern quantum mechanics with its flights of imagination producing both charming quarks and black holes. Nor does it explain the widespread penchant in science for the illuminating metaphor, the paradigmatic example, the good story.

An interest in the factual, in what is real, does not have to restrict itself to already existing facts. An action oriented culture is of course more interested in possible facts than in already existing, and it needs a systematic knowledge of those possible facts, a science with the space of possibilities as its subject.

Ever since Wittgenstein observed that, in the Tractatus, “ein Bild hielt uns gefangen,” and introduced a richer understanding of language, there has been an evolution, in philosophy and in the social sciences, towards a more narrative understanding of social reality. But that is not what I mean by going from science from fiction. I do not see science being replaced by story-telling. On the contrary, what I try to sketch is an artificial science that uses the scientific tool box, with concepts and distinctions, classifications and definitions, to describe our possibility space. To the extent that narratives play an important role in social life, and they do of course, they will be part of the subject, but this does not mean that artificial science itself has to use narratives as its means of presentation.

Artificial science is, like engineering itself, the use of imagination to design. It is a design oriented imagination with an interest in construction and implementation. But it is not only the artifact that is designed, but its context of use as well. And that is why I use archeology as model for some of the aspects of artificial science. In archeology we find an impressive use of imagination to paint the context of use from a few scraps of artifacts.

7 Archeology of the Future

Information technology is today changing both public debate, business strategies, and political agenda by increasing our interest in the future. This may prove to be a fad, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that if so, it is a fad that will last for a while. One indication of this is the way information technology has changed the relations between science and the rest of society. Academic research is now becoming integrated with the rest of society in a way reminiscent of the situation in countries at war. Information technology has managed to mobilize the scientific community in a major social change effort. There is no question any longer but that science has to participate actively in designing the future information society. In this way, science changes its fundamental knowledge interest and begins to change into an institution for reflections on the future.

The 19th century interest in history was an interest in the big picture, in world historical trends, mythical pasts, and heroic deeds. It was an interest in history as edifying fiction rather than factual book-keeping. It took an elevated view with ideal, spiritual subjects such as heroes, nations, elites, classes, and cultures as the agents of history. The 20th century is dominated by a down to earth, material interest in facts and figures. History is replaced by science, and instead of elaborating our mythical past, we subject the minutiae of our everyday present to close and careful scrutiny. Historical story tellers have been replaced by statistical bureaucrats.

Our interest in the future is again redirecting our attention from facts to interpretation. Even if that interest began, in the 1960s, as a defensive reaction to apocalyptic warnings about atomic wars, chemical pollution, and nuclear meltdowns, and to a large extent has been reactionary, in the way it has expressed itself as attempts to stop or abandon certain technologies, it has also led to a more constructive interest in scenarios of the future. Even if “sustainable growth” is not itself a particularly creative view of the future, the discussion of material resources, uses of technology, and environmental hazards, has slowly turned people’s attention to the possibility space of the future.

With information technology this defensive interest to “save the future” has begun to be combined with a more optimistic interest in how to shape the future. Riding on a wave of interest in information technology, busily trying to contribute to that wave, futurists of all sorts easily make their fortune in media today, predicting and preaching the blessings of information society. Such discussions of trends and details of information society often seem to be interpretations of the use of information technology, reminiscent of the way archeologists try to reconstruct the past from the artifacts found. I therefore use the term “future archeology” to characterize such attempts at investigating the future, and I think it is possible to make that occupation at least as academically respectable as archeology itself.

Archeologists have to do their cultural studies solely on the basis of material artifacts, and a haphazard collection of remnants at that. This does not mean that they cannot draw on ethnographical studies of cultures still using those artifacts, in their attempts at interpretation, nor that they cannot make use of experimental methods in actually trying to recreate the details of ancient artifact use. And yet, whatever they will be able to say about the cultures they study will rely on a material conception of what a society is. To archeology, a society is a technology, a way of organizing the use of that technology, and ideas about, or derived from, the technology and its use. There is a lot speaking in favor of this definition, and it is not as narrow as one might first think.

Like other historical disciplines, archeology was established in the 19th century (Trigger 1990). In the 20th century it becomes a major industry, being called in to check for ancient dwellings, whenever industrialization wants to perform major surgery on the landscape. Sometimes its perspective is applied to the present, as in material culture theory, an approach to social and cultural studies looking carefully at the material infrastructures of contemporary life. Having moved archeology from the past to the present, it becomes easier to get used to the idea of an archeology of the future. Similarly, after having moved ethnography from the exotic tropics to our everyday neighborhood, it will not be too difficult to conceive of an ethnography of the future.

An archeology of the future is just as scientifically respectable as an archeology of the past or present. The artifacts that we bring back from the future are really no less, or more, reliable as data than those we dig out of our past. When I hold up the new mobile phone or net computer and begin to expound on the kind of everyday habits of a culture dominated by this sort of technology, I am really in a much better situation than the traditional archeologist. I cannot tell, until there are more models on the market, and the sales are beginning to take off, that the net computer will ever play an important role in shaping our everyday existence. But neither can the traditional archeologist. Finding an artifact is one thing, determining that it once played an important role is a whole different matter.

Ethnography, except to the extent that it really is archeology, cannot really claim to study the future in a scientific way. Relying on interviews and detailed behavioral observations, as it does, it finds it difficult to do empirical studies of the future. But that does not mean that ethnographers cannot play an important role in developing scenarios of future social life. To the extent that the social sciences develop theory, that theory can be used as a framework to be filled in with possible forms of life. And, to the extent that ethnographers learn about the wide variety of past and contemporary life forms, they will be invaluable in a discussion of possible future ones.

8 Artificial Science in Practice

The scope of artificial science is enormous, encompassing as it seems everything from literature studies and political philosophy to engineering and chemistry. With such a scope, the idea will be useless unless we make very clear what it is in all these diverse activities that we want to single out when we describe them as artificial. What is it that characterizes the way we do literature studies or engineering when we approach our subject matter as artificial scientists?

The modern idea of a science of nature, as formulated in the 16th and 17th centuries, was motivated by an ambition to control our natural environment. In a period of geographical expeditions, expanding industrialization, and increasing communication, knowledge of nature meant power to control nature. Similarly, the idea of an artificial science is based on an ambition to control our artificial environment. The motivation is basically one and the same. It is only beacuse we were so successful as natural scientists that we now have to change. If technology once could be viewed as a benefit reaped from an independent study of nature, technology now has gained central stage with natural science as subordinate.

The natural sciences have themselves participated in this process of change. The distinction between science and technology has lost its usefulness. But we can still distinguish between, what we might call, a traditional natural science approach and a more modern artificial science approach to research. The traditional approach with its ambition to chart and understand the processes of nature continues to attract. That this approach becomes secondary to the very different project to shape our artificial world, secondary to an artificial science approach, may only help us in making its distinguishing nature clearer.

An engineering motivated by an interest in the use of technical artifacts will direct its design interests toward developing useful technology. This will include traditional engineering tasks with their close relations with natural science and mathematics, but it will also include an interest in the context and conditions of use. The latter sort of interest can stop at questions or ergonomy and usability, studying human-machine interaction, but it can also extend into an examination of the place and role of the particular technology in the social organization for which it is destined, as well as its impact on society as a whole. There has to be division of labor within this broad spectrum of tasks, of course, but the artificial science approach to engineering will keep the whole spectrum of tasks in mind as it concentrates on one or the other.

In the 20th century, the social sciences have struggled to establish themselves as ideologically neutral, while yet supplying knowledge useful for social and political reform. With an artificial science orientation they don’t have to give up their ideological neutrality, but they will take more active part in suggesting and discussing particular reforms. They will be more artifact oriented, and worry less about universal, natural properties of social organization. This does not mean that they have to deny the importance of natural constraints on socialization and social organization, but that they will develop a more explicit design orientation rather than trying to “naturalize” their disciplines. This will also mean, of course, that the social sciences will increase their interest in the role of physical artifacts in building social organizations, acknowledging a simple, but long neglected social fact.

An artificial science approach will make engineering more like the social sciences and vice versa. While engineering will take a more active interest in the social contexts of technology use, social scientists will become more interested in designing rather than just observing and analyzing social organizations. When engineers study existing technology they typically do so with an eye towards improvement, finding alternative, more efficient and elegant solutions. There is still very little of this sort of thing in traditional social science research, even in such fertile areas as business administration and education. Instead, there has been a strange division of labor between research and consultancy.

In the humanities there are disciplines with a clear artifact orientation, and sometimes one finds examples of established traditions of design oriented artifact discussion, like in the various branches of criticism. Works of art, be they novels, operas, movies or music, are thoroughly examined by an impressively vocal and influential corps of critics. But there is no comparable technology criticism. Consumer reports are still at the level of checking spelling and revealing the plot, of assessing rather narrowly functional aspects of artifacts.

Art criticism has its basis in aesthetics, the philosophical discipline enquiring into the nature of art. In aesthetics you have an ongoing discussion about what constitutes good art: its emotional impact, its authenticity, its imitative success, its formal perfection, and so on. Why is there no corresponding discipline—we could call it “aretics” using the Greek word for well functioning—asking about “good technology”?

Engineering needs its critics, who can explain why artifacts and our artificial world are the way they are, who can analyze those artifacts in all their many dimensions: functional, economical, aesthetic, historical, symbolic, social, ethical, political, and existential. We need a technology criticism that can make technology comprehensible to us, more than we need literary criticism. To understand the modern world and what it means to live in it, you have to understand its technology, and you will learn very little about it by reading novels.

All of the disciplines in the humanities have a distinct historical orientation. With an artificial science approach you will, of course, define history as series of design and redesign projects. You will use an explicit design orientation to formulate the choices made by historical agents, and the routes taken. But you will also use such an orientation to look closer at the routes discarded, discussing and criticizing like they do in the more artifact oriented human disciplines.

In the 20th century we have finally begun to understand what Nietzsche could have meant by saying “God is dead”. We are no longer the inhabitants of a created world. We are the creators. Our major task can no longer be to understand the world we find ourselves in, but to build a better, artificial world. When we make this task our fundamental motivation, we have an artificial science approach. We can be doing engineering or literary criticism, organizational consulting or ethnographic work studies. We can even be advocating going back to nature, relying on a more simple craftlike technology. But we will agree that the world we live in, the world that shapes our lives, is a world of our own making, an artificial world in which technology, the use of technology, the organization of this use, and ideas about technology and its use, are the major building blocks. And we will agree that it is our task to contribute to the design of a better world, and that whatever else this means, it does mean that we will be actively exploring the possibility space of socio-technological design.

But what does this mean in practice? It means that rather than stressing such natural science values as careful documentation and reasoning, methodological acumen, knowledge of the field, the quest for abstract, fundamental principles, universal truths, the scientific community will begin to stress problem relevance, human interest, imaginative scenario building, and good ideas. It means that academic researchers will gradually turn away from the never ending task of reporting, in greater and greater detail, what goes on in the world, and, in particular, what goes on in the world of scientific publication. It means that there will be a growing framework of future archeological explorations of the socio-technical possibility space, providing a context for physical and social engineering design efforts, and a source of knowledge for decision makers of all sorts.

After Science

Bo Dahlbom

Every society has its institutions for reflection. When societies go through major changes those institutions change too. Industrialization brought us science, replacing the religion of traditional societies. Moving into information society, we may expect a new institution for reflection to replace science. And, looking around, there seems to be such an institution in the making, an institution for reflecting on our social possibility space as part of a more deliberate effort to design our future.

1 Going to the Future

Institutions of reflection are servants of the institutions of action. In the 20th century, politicians and business men, generals and healers, have turned to science for support and advice. But science is severely inadequate in this role. The specialization of the sciences makes it difficult to use their advice in real life complex situations. The sciences do not help you with a longer perspective on your actions. Science tells you what the world is like, it is up to you to draw the consequences for how to build a new world. As long as this is being done with the ideologies of the 19th century, there is a least some general advice on what to do. But when those ideologies lose their applicability and credibility, you really have very little use for science.

The idea of social engineering, particularly the experimental, piecemeal version, advocated by Popper (1961) is the idea to use science as a basis for political reform. But, piecemeal engineering presupposes that the fundamental structure is all right and relatively stable. In a time when the foundation of society is undergoing revolutionary change, and there no longer is a stable infrastructure, then piecemeal engineering seems like a waste of time. When industrial society is changing into a service society, when factories cease to be the model for rational, human activity, be it information work, education, care, or entertainment, then society will begin to change in so radical a fashion that piecemeal engineering becomes hopelessly inadequate. Instead of scientifically informed, social engineering, making sure to have adequate information about the current situation in society, we will have to use methods like future archeology and the ideas of artificial science to develop a more future oriented examination of the space of social possibilities.

People have always created institutions for reflection. Farmers have their religion and industrialists have their science. We can understand how these institutions develop and why they do what they do. We can study how reflection in such institutions stagnates and becomes bureaucratic. And, we can see that today it is time to create a new such institution, an institution for reflection on the future, a sort of seminar of the future—but how we best go about creating such an institution is not so easy to see.

Whatever way we choose, we need to create an institution for discussing the future, and I am not speaking about an institute for future studies at the margin of the scientific community, but about an institution that can take the place of science as we leave industrial society behind. But we have to be careful when criticizing institutions for reflection. Such criticism is often misinterpreted as an attack on reflection, when it is only the subject matter and objective of the reflection that is questioned. Religion gives us comfort and science gives us knowledge—and we need them both. But in a constantly changing society we also need ideas about where to go and how to get there, and such ideas we cannot find in either religion or science (or art for that matter).

Nor does politics seem such a good place for the kind of reflection on the future that I am asking for. In politics, the daily issues dominate, and the administrative competence needed by contemporary politicians doesn’t seem to go well with ability and interest for reflection. The questions about our future are not such that one can answer them once and for all. Instead, they indicate major investigations into what is valuable and what is possible and what it takes to make the valuable possible.

An institution for reflection examining the possibility space of world design will borrow much from traditional science and history, but it will also change those institutions giving them a more future oriented, artificial inclination, pointing to the important role played by imagination and fiction in both science and history. Such a future oriented artificial science will grow into an advanced intellectual institution, an academy like the universities of the industrial era. But it will, hopefully, not stray too far from the realities of everyday social life. Like its predecessors it will strive to gain the ear of politicians and it will keep its doors open to the public, if only at appointed hours.

Every day, we spend more time discussing what to have for dinner than discussing what the world should be like in fifty years. But perhaps we could spend at least two hours every Sunday on the future? Spend them in a sort of seminar for the future rather than in mass or in a popular scientific lecture? Rather than going to church or a popular lecture on Sunday, we could be going to the “Future.”

2 A Taxonomy of Questions

What then will we be doing in the Future? Let me end by giving some examples of big questions about the role of technology in shaping our society, that could be used to initiate a discussion about the future. There are questions about the relations between our form of life and technology, about the role of change and stability in a good society, about the idea of progress, about complexity and an incomprehensible society, about the trade-offs between ethics and technology, about fundamental forms of social organization, about where to live and what to do in an affluent society, and so on. We can make a simple taxonomy to organize these questions into different categories.

General Questions

Some questions concern the more general phenomenon of technology and social change. A fundamental question is that of technology control. If technology is a major social change agent, how do we learn to control it? Technical evolution changes our lives. With machine technology we leave the country and move to the cities, to a life in the factories. With information technology we move again, from the cities to the net. Do we have to go where the technology is taking us? If we have carefully chosen a form of life, acquired habits with which we are happy, constructed institutions and organizations making a good life possible—why would we give them up just because a new technology was beckoning us to move on?

Another aspect of technology control concerns the very way that technology is developed in the midst of our societies. We have no reason to believe that technical evolution will slow down. We can expect further changes in our form of life. Perhaps we could make change itself a form of life? Turning life into an adventure, society into an experiment? But do we really want to live in a society which is an on-line test site for new technology ?

Making change itself our form of life would be to let the conditions of technical evolution rule our lives. But, even if we accept the fact that technology is a dominating framework in our form of life, we may still hesitate to fall flat on our faces in front of technology. We use technology for many purposes, but if we look at technology itself, its internal purpose is technical functionality, efficiency. And, it is efficiency that makes possible the amazing productivity of industrial societies. Technology makes us rich. No wonder efficiency becomes such an important value in modern societies. But, do we really want a society in which efficiency is the highest value?

With technical evolution, the world becomes more complex. Evolution is diversification and integration (Spencer). People feel at home in a simple environment they shape themselves, but the technical evolution makes the world complex and strange. So, why do we continue to increase the complexity of our world? Are we thoughtless children with much too powerful tools? Or is the increasing complexity worth its price?

Such questions are all examples of how to handle the more general phenomenon of technology and social change. As such they presuppose an understanding of the powerful role played by technology as a social change agent, and they invite us to develop institutions for technology control, for democratic, professional, control of the evolution and diffusion of technology. They also invite us to question fundamental values, such as efficiency, complexity, and change, pressed upon us by technology.

Domain Questions

General questions concern the democratic control of technology as a social change agent. Domain questions go into the details in areas that change because of the use of new technology. All aspects of human life can come under the influence of technology, and the change can often be dramatic. To accept the new technology is to accept the change, unless we take explicit measures to restrict the influence of the new technology. Let me give a few examples from different domains.

Information technology gives us unbelievable possibilities for behavioral regulation with technology rather than with social norms. With a widespread use of this technology, we can look forward to a society in which human relations and norms have becom e technical. But, do we want such a society? Do we really want to substitute respect, solidarity, honesty, compassion, responsibility, and the like, for technology?

Information technology dissolves the boundaries of factories and lets the market into our organizations. Bureaucracies change into networks and marriages become affairs. A society that is like a cocktail party may have its advantages, but there is something to be said for commitments “for better and for worse” as well. If information technology favors the market alternative that does not necessarily mean that we have to do so.

Just as we once left the farms in the country and moved to the factories of the city, information technology now makes us leave the city and move out on the net (Dahlbom 1998). In the country we worked on farms. Those farms were our homes, a base that we would always return to, a center to our lives, providing us with roots. In the cities we work in factories and live in apartments. Even if we have tried to retain a home, the apartments eventually become nothing but a place to sleep (and watch television), and no longer play the role of homes. In information land, we become even less dependent on a base, on a home. We can do whatever we want to do wherever we are, as long as we are logged in. So, perhaps we become nomads again, leaning our head on some anonymous pillow when the screen begins to flicker and we are overcome by fatigue. But, maybe we would like to have a home even in the future?

With information technology we create a global market, and to make it on that market, some people become frantic nomads, living their life in airports. Others stay behind in the country surrounding the airports, making their living by supplying the airports with goods and services. In this dual society the differences between these two worlds will increase and tension will grow. If we don’t want this to happen, is there nothing we can do to avoid it? But what would that be? Global politics?

Institutional Questions

When there is a social revolution, the ruling order is questioned. What used to be disparate activities mix and dichotomies lose their power. Leaving the factories of industrial society behind, we begin to mix working hours and leisure, work and entertainment, public and private, children and adults, men and women. Boundaries move and dissolve, new ones come instead. The old order is disappearing, and a new one has to be created. But, even if we want this revolution to come, would it not be a good thing to be a bit better prepared for the different options available? How can we make ourselves prepared?

When we enter service society, working becomes talking. People in talk society want entertainment and variety in an increasingly hectic world. Zapping between stations, surfing on the net, and chatting in the bars, we realize ourselves at a quickening pace. But we seem to have drifted into this life style without much conscious deliberation. Technology has made us rich. We can live in abundance, but we have only rudimentary ideas about how we would like to live, now that we don’t really have to work. How could we form such ideas? Now that we know enough about designing hair and clothes, homes and computers, how do we learn life design? Where is that school?

Science has nothing to say about the future. But if there is something to be known about the past, the future ought to be equally accessible. In order to turn the design of the future into a rational enterprise, we have to chart it, in order to determine what our possibilities are. We need to develop an institution for studying the future.

3 Epilogue

Institutions for reflection have their dark sides. Bigotry and nuclear bombs are examples of the ill effects of such institutions. What will be the ill effects of future? Directing human creativity into the design of possible worlds may end in horror, when experts on the future go on to implement their designs. We have seen some of this in the influence of the Bauhaus school in architecture on the design of the modern city. Creativity is by its very nature irresponsible, and I for one would prefer to live in a boring bureaucracy rather than to participate in the happenings of artists turned world designers.

One might object that such ill effects of possible world making are encouraged by the choice of name for the new institution of reflection. Why call it “future,” if really what is meant is an institution for reflection on possible artificial worlds? Why talk of an “archeology of the future,” when an “archeology of the possible” would be more apt? Why invite the misunderstanding that it is the future we are investigating, when really we are only trying to determine what our possibilities are? If we want to strike a blow for fiction as distinct from truth, why not choose a name that makes this clear? Why not use the very term “fiction” when naming the new institution for reflection? From science to science fiction?

The answers to all these questions should be obvious. It is precisely because I want fiction to play an important role in shaping the future, rather than in just being a silly pastime, that I have chosen the name. It is because I want researchers and engineers to become aware of their responsibility that I want to remind them of the fact that they are busy shaping our future. If this has the effect that some of them become megalomaniac, and really get going, it is a price we have to pay, and a problem we have to deal with. Only when those who play such an important role in shaping our future, understand that this is what they are doing, will our societies wake up from their technological somnambulism.


I am grateful to the Swedish Council for Planning and Coordination of Research for financial support.


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