Making Automation Explicable: A Challenge for Philosophy of Technology

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DOI: 10.3898/NEWF:98.05.2019

This article argues for an expanded conception of automation’s ‘explicability’. When it comes to topics as topical and shot through with multifarious anxieties as automation, it is, I argue, insufficient to rely on a conception of explicability as ‘explanation’ or ‘simplification’. Instead, automation is the kind of topic that is challenging us to develop a more dynamic conception of explicability as explication. By this, I mean that automation is challenging us to develop epistemic strategies that are better capable of implicating people and their anxieties about automation in the topic, and, counterintuitively, of complicating how the topic is interfaced with. The article comprises an introduction followed by four main parts. While the introduction provides general context, each of the four subsequent parts seeks to demonstrate how diverse epistemic strategies might have a role to play in developing the process just described. Together, the parts are intended to build a cumulative case. This does not mean that the strategies they discuss are intended to be definitive, however – other strategies for making automation explicable may be possible and more desirable.

Part one historicises automation as a concept. It does this through a focus on a famous passage from Descartes’ Second Meditation, where he asks the reader to imagine automata glimpsed through a window. The aim here is to rehearse the presuppositions of a familiar ‘modernist’ epistemological model, and to outline how a contemporary understanding of automation as a wicked socio-economic problem challenges it. Parts two and three are then framed through concepts emerging from recent psychology: ‘automation bias’ and ‘automation complacency’. The aim here is to consider recent developments in philosophy of technology in terms of these concepts, and to dramatically explicate key presuppositions at stake in the form of reasoning by analogy implied. While part two explicates an analogy between automation bias in philosophical engagements with technologies that involve a ‘transcendental’ tendency to reify automation, part three explicates an analogy between automation complacency and an opposed ‘empirical turn’ tendency in philosophy of technology to privilege nuanced description of case studies. Part four then conclude by arguing that anxieties concerning automation might usefully be redirected towards a different sense of the scope and purpose of philosophy of technology today: not as a movement to be ‘turned’ in one direction at the expense of others (‘empirical’ vs ‘transcendental’, for instance) but as a multidimensional ‘problem space’ to be explicated in many different directions at once. Through reference to Kierkegaard and Simondon, I show how different approaches to exemplification, indirection and indeterminacy can be consistent with this, and with the approach to explicability recommended above.

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98: Automation Anxiety