From Philosophy to Information Systems
With a background in philosophy, in the late 1980s, I entered the discipline called Information Systems (IS). I was motivated by my interest in technology and social change. I had come to understand that technology is the most powerful source of social and cultural change and that, in the 1980s, information technology was rapidly becoming the most important technology.
IS in the late 1980s was defined by one use of information technology. Looking on the discipline from the outside it was easy to see how the technology was more general, more powerful, than this use indicated. As the technology developed it would go through many changes of use, and since I was more interested in the technology than in one particular usage, I was faced with a challenge, a choice between information systems and information technology.
I looked at the history of the discipline. It was founded in the 1960s when computers began to be used more generally in companies and large public organizations. Once developed during the second world war, computing machines were first used for numerical calculations. In the 1960s they were beginning to be used for managing information and the discipline was born. The first professor of IS in Scandinavia was Börje Langefors in Stockholm and he played an important role in defining the discipline, in developing the idea of management information systems.
I invited Börje to give a seminar at the department in Göteborg in 1991, and we began a collaboration which resulted in the book Essays on Infology (1995) and a festschrift The Infological Equation (1995). I was very much impressed by Börje and even more so when it became clear that he shared my view of how IS ought to change with the changes in the use of information technology.
I was critical of the discipline, because getting stuck in one use, it had distanced itself from the technology and all the changes it was undergoing. Instead it had turned to philosophy and developed into an often abstract discussion of philosophical ideas. So in my first contacts with IS I would often speak against philosophy in favor of technology. But more importantly I was urging the discipline to change, to leave the focus on information systems and take an interest in desktop publishing, networking, communication, Internet, mobile services, virtual reality, and so on.
I had two major complaints with the discipline:
First, getting stuck in one use IS had difficulties adjusting when new ways of using the technology became important. Thus, when, in the early 1980s, computing became more widespread, became personal, with graphical user interfaces, there was a need for theories and methods for human-computer interaction, but the discipline of information systems was very slow to react. Psychology had to step in, knowing nothing about the technology, sometimes in collaboration with computer science and engineering to shape the new discipline (CHI). In the 1980s the IS missed the personal computer revolution. In the 1990s it was slow to react to the importance of Internet and mobile phones. The Internet project, a collaboration between Göteborg and Oslo, summarized in Planet Internet (2000) and the Viktoria Institute in Göteborg, with its focus on mobile services, were two initiatives that were more in tune with the times.
Second, in distancing itself from the technology, the discipline had turned into an irrelevant philosophical discussion of systems, of what they were, how they should be understood. Systems thinking, soft systems, centralized or decentralized systems, were major topics of discussion. Similarly, the discussion of methods of systems development had turned into a philosophical game of categorizing methods in various ways. All of this was almost totally irrelevant to companies and organizations using information systems. Instead of practical advice they got from the discipline one or another philosophy, and often rather trivial philosophy. You fetch a few ideas from a philosopher and you apply it to information systems. It does not advance philosophy and it does not really advance our understanding of the reality of using information systems.
So, one of the first things we did, was change the definition of the discipline at Göteborg. Rather than speaking of “theories and methods of information systems development,” we began speaking of “design oriented studies of information technology use.” And we changed the name from “information systems” to “informatics”. With the change of definition we wanted to stress that here was a new sort of discipline, making technology use its subject matter. To understand that use is a demanding task and it cannot be achieved by a simple combination of psychology and computer science.
In philosophy I had been impressed by Herbert Simon’s little book The Sciences of the Artificial, and I used his ideas of an artificial science to shape the new discipline informatics. There were many ideas, but two stand out:
First, being an artificial science, informatics is a design oriented science. It is a science of artifacts (in use), an artificial science, so it is motivated by a desire to improve our world of artifacts and their use. This very practice-oriented, applied nature is nothing to be shy about. I sometimes used to formulate this idea as customer oriented research.
Second, artifacts come and go. It is important not to worry too much about the current information technology. Tomorrow it will be different. The contingent nature of our subject matter is very important to have in mind. The laws of artificial science are (temporary) design principles.
Changing the subject matter of the discipline was extremely fruitful in the way it opened up whole new fields of research from experimental application development and testing to ethnographic studies of technology use.
With my background I stressed the methodical nature of philosophy. Thinking hard about anything, asking “What is this?”, is the sign of philosophy, not one or another theory. So I wanted my students to think hard about different aspects of technology use, wanted them to develop concepts making us understand that use. Much of this work was really philosophy: developing and defining concepts, making distinctions, categorizing technology use. This is what theory building is. It is not a question of applying some grand construction from philosophy, but rather a careful work with concepts capturing important aspects of technology use, a work resulting in such concepts as networking, tinkering, communication overflow, local mobility, and so on.
Some of my students developed novel mobile services, some worked with improving interfaces on mobile phone screens, some developed and tested educational applications, or applications for use at sports events, many studied the use of mobile technology in work places, others studied the use of paper based technology in hospitals, others how teenagers use their mobile phones.
In all of this it was, of course, permitted to be inspired by philosophy, even if I did not encourage this. Myself, I had a broad interest in all kinds of philosophy. I was well read in, what used to be called, both continental and analytical philosophy. I was well acquainted with Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss, and Derrida, even if I did my serious work with Daniel Dennett in cognitive science (philosophy of mind) and the philosophy of biology.
To give only one example of how I used particular philosophical ideas, I borrowed from Lévi-Strauss the idea of tinkering, bricolage, as a way of understanding technology use. Technology will change in the hands of the users. Designing technology is not the same as designing use. With active users your role as a designer is more like that of a gardener: you cultivate organizations. I invited Claudio Ciborra as guest professor and had a great time discussing these ideas with him.
The Big Picture
Like many others, I once turned to philosophy for the big picture. And when I entered information systems I was interested in the big picture, in how information technology would change society, business, work and everyday life. I kept that interest while my many students (30 PhDs) dug deeper into the details of technology use. And, I do think it important to have that big picture of where the technology is going, where it is taking us, as a background for everyday, more detailed and nearsighted research.
I was interested in different world views, in how a traditional world view had been surpassed by a modern world view with science, technology and progress. I was interested in how within that modern world view there were two strands, the mechanistic and the romantic. In our book Computers in Context (1992), Lars Mathiassen and I used those world views as a framework to spell out a lot of the different positions in our discipline in the early 1990s.
Mechanistic thinking is material, romanticism deals with the living. In mechanistic thinking you construct systems. In romantic thinking you cultivate organizations. That distinction between construction and cultivation is simple but useful in understanding the role of technology in organizations.
That big picture is a background for the discipline. It is not really part of the discipline. What I call “archeology of the future” is not really part of the discipline, but I would like to see more of that kind of future oriented research. What will society be like when this new technology is widespread? I think it is important to see how fast technology is developing and how fast technology is changing our world. What determines the direction of change? Who is shaping the future? Today the digital giants in China and the US determine the way information technology is developing. What kind of society will they give us?