Technological Investigations: Wittgenstein's Liberating Presence

Technological Investigations: Wittgenstein’s Liberating Presence

Langdon Winner

Abstract: Although Ludwig Wittgenstein did not offer a fully developed philosophy of technology, his writings contain an approach to inquiry that can be employed to explore situations in which people contend with technological devices and systems. His notions of ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’ as well as the dramatic, imaginary dialogues in his later writings offer ways to transcend the sometimes rigid theoretical frameworks in contemporary technology studies. Especially as applied to rapidly moving infusions of computing and digital electronics in contemporary society, Wittgenstein’s writings offer possibilities for fresh insight and even some practical alternatives.

Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology ISSN: 1091-8264 22:2 (2018): 296–313

DOI: 10.5840/techne2018111485

Key words: Wittgenstein, language games, technology, digital, political theory


Early in his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein describes the interactions between two persons, A and B, perhaps a builder and an assistant, situated at a worksite moving blocks or ‘slabs’ of stone. He writes:

If you shout ‘Slab!’ you really mean: ‘Bring me a slab’—But how do you do this: how do you mean that while you say ‘Slab!’ Do you say the un- shortened sentence to yourself? And why should I translate the call ‘Slab!’ into a different expression in order to say what someone means by it? And if they mean the same thing—why should I not say: ‘When he says ‘Slab’ he means ‘Slab’’? Again, if you can mean ‘Bring me the slab,’ why should you not be able to mean ‘Slab!’?—But when I call ‘Slab!’ then what I want is that he should bring me a slab! (Wittgenstein 1958, 8e–9e)

This is one of my favorite passages in all of philosophical literature, a provocative contribution I would put right up there with, say, the Allegory of the Cave in Pla- to’s Republic or Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. It first attracted my attention in an undergraduate political theory seminar in Berkeley during the mid-1960s where a group of us read and discussed Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Soon thereafter the ‘Bring me a slab,’ passage became a dialog we’d spontaneously recite in coffee shops and apartments around town where it would come to life as if it were a comic scene as if from a piece of absurdist drama—perhaps something from or Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, or Edward Albee.


“Do you mean bring me a slab?”

“Yes! And while you’re at it, how about a cup of espresso!” “Espresso?”

“Of course. Espresso! When I say ‘Espresso!’ I mean ‘Bring me an Espresso!’”

Now, I am definitely not a Wittgenstein scholar, although I have always enjoyed reading his work. Mainstream of philosophical writings that draw upon and con- tend with Wittgenstein’s thought are, in my view, typically engaged in highly focused, rigorous argument to clarify, refine, expand upon or contradict points in his writing. My own use of his work, however, follows a somewhat different pathway. For along with its other contributions Wittgenstein’s writing can be fruit- fully deployed in situations where elaborate, fixed, sometimes arcane frameworks of conceptual analysis and social science theory tend to pose a barrier to curiosity and to fruitful inquiry about the subject at hand. Following the style and spirit of his later writings, one enjoys the possibility of disruption and liberation.

1. Stultifying Frameworks

An occasion of that kind arose as I was studying kind of political science taught in U.S. graduate schools of the 1960s and 1970s. In its worst moments (and there were a great many of them) the mode of discourse and research was a weary and sometimes explicit echo of the school of logical positivism that arose in Wittgenstein’s Vienna. Using largely abstract categories to anchor their speculation, scholars built logical structures of propositions to depict patterns of social and political behavior. Upon that basis, serious inquirers were supposed to move forward to conduct ‘empirical research’ to test the theories proposed. Thus, roughly speak- ing, the kinds of philosophical thought that Wittgenstein’s later writings sought to challenge, undermine and replace bore a strong ‘family relationship’ to positivist, behavioral social science of the post-World War II decades. Logical propositions in social science theories identified states of affairs to be investigated by rigor- ous, often quantifiable, observations of socio-economic structures and patterns of political behavior.

At the time many young political scientists in the making came to believe that the prevailing conceptual and theoretical frameworks for the study of politics were flawed, inadequate at a fundamental level. Looking at prospects for democracy, for example, the discipline would describe, measure and theorize about pluralistic structures—interest group formations and interactions and the like. But, strangely enough, such elaborate, precise models recognized no living presence for the activities and experiences of citizenship in what were ostensibly democratic societies. Yes, there were interest groups interacting, elaborately scripted elections, and labyrinthine bureaucratic fixtures of public administration. But aspirations to achieve conceptual and methodological rigor within the science of politics had ultimately produced a kind of rigor mortis. The intellectual frameworks that the discipline so scrupulously mapped turned out to be lifeless structures.

2. Wittgenstein and Political Theory

At Berkeley at the time a key person who offered an alternative to the dominant social science models was political theorist Hannah Pitkin. Her seminars and book Wittgenstein and Justice offered ways to engage Wittgenstein’s thinking to enliven central questions in political thought. While the details of Pitkin’s approach are too elaborate to summarize here, a general sense of her enterprise is clearly expressed in this sentence from the book:

The meaning of ‘justice’ is not—or not primarily learned by observing the shared characteristics of those phenomena called ‘just’ but by observing the shared features of speech situations in which the family of words is used, their verbal and worldly contexts. (Pitkin 1972, 179)

While much of Pitkin’s work involves close examination of the language of political theory and of important strands of contemporary political discourse, one of the book’s crucial illustrations comes from the dramatic dialogue between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic on the question, ‘What is justice?’ She writes:

Socrates speaks from within the framework of what is supposed to be true of phenomena called ‘just,’ namely that they must involve having and do- ing what is appropriate to him. He accepts the intention, the conventions, of the word at face value, and reaffirms them. Thrasymachus rejects these, or ignores them, and looks independently on his own at the common features of phenomena other people call ‘just.’ (Pitkin 1972, 170)

Of course, as Pitkin notes, Thrasymachus’s view that ‘justice’ is nothing more than ‘the interest of the stronger’ is outrageous, precisely because it reflects an understanding contrary to what the word clearly means in everyday speech and what such meanings reveal. “He is not formulating a phrase more or less synonymous with the word ‘justice’ but making a kind of sociological observation about the kinds of things which people call ‘just’ or ‘unjust.’” (Pitkin 1972, 170) She argues that careful inquiries into the use of crucial terms in moral and political discourse—both in ancient Greece and today—need to take into account how they are sometimes used in misleading, befuddled, hypocritical, mendacious, and otherwise highly problematic patterns of expression. In that light, concepts and questions that involve freedom, obligation, power, community, citizenship, government and the like can be fruitfully studied with the help of the later Wittgenstein’s understanding of language and its attention to the colorful peculiarities of everyday speech.

For better or worse, in insight or ignorance, what I took from Wittgenstein and Pitkin was a way to break through elaborate, weighty intellectual frameworks that are perhaps more a hindrance than help in moving forward with one’s inquiries. An obvious point of contrast in political theory was John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice, a very fine piece of work in many ways, but one that ultimately seeks its insights through creating and applying an intricate, abstract framework of concepts—the ‘veil of ignorance’ and such like to illuminate its topic. The friendly counsel I took from Wittgenstein via Pitkin was that rather than theorize about important questions and concepts—justice, liberty, community, authority, representation, and so forth—in an abstract, logical, detached, top/down manner, one could follow Wittgenstein’s advice to observe what people are doing, listen to what they are saying and launch one’s philosophical and theoretical inquiries from there. The playful, imaginary, sometimes even bizarre dialogues in his writing shed light on his thinking on language games, language domains, the grammar of words in actual use and their role in recurring patterns of activity—‘forms of life.’ This orientation in political theory involves its own kinds of diligence and rigor, especially in the study of language used to talk about social and political experience. But its hallmark involves attending carefully to how words are used in everyday speech rather than trying to impose meanings from an elevated, privi- leged, well buttressed position in quest of an exquisite clarity. Very briefly, that is the approach I recommend here.

3. Technologies and Everyday Language

At about the same time I began to appropriate Wittgenstein to loosen and eventually jettison the bonds of political science positivism, my thinking began to focus upon questions about technology in human affairs. I had the strong intuition that technologies not only reflected political dynamics, but that the systems, devices and ways of thinking within the realm of technology actually contained the stuff of politics in palpable, forceful, meaningful ways. The problem was, however, that if one were to embark upon that kind of study, the existing literature and preva- lent modes of thinking at the time were of very little help. Yes, there was a large body of scholarship on the invention and development of new devices and systems processes of technological change, history of industrial society and the growth of economic prosperity. In short, most of the description and analysis directed one along well-worn paths of the classic progress narrative—stories about the grand and glorious march of material and social improvement.

Turning to philosophical discussions, much of the writing at the time depicted technologies as tools and that were fundamentally ‘neutral.’ The discussion often centered upon judgments about ‘use.’ Were the available machines and technical systems used well or poorly? Which criteria and which processes of judgment could be deployed in judging and shaping these essentially neutral technological applications? A typical example in this vein was that the same nuclear technology that had produced the possibilities for mass destruction in the atomic bomb could also ‘used’ to dig new irrigation channels in the mode of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. Although notion of ‘use,’ technical ‘neutrality,’ ‘sys- tems analysis,’ and the like were entirely serviceable at some level, they imposed severe limits upon the kinds of imagination that might illuminate inquiries about technology in human affairs. Thus, as regards the power released from splitting atoms, discussions about ‘use’ tended to obscure rather than illuminate the most urgent questions facing the community of nations (Mumford 1946).

One pathway out of this realm of intellectual strictures was to embrace radical thinkers—men and women—who cast doubt upon the prevailing wisdom about technology—Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Ivan Illich, Rachel Carson, Paul Goodman, and even Mary Shelley. That route led to my writing about Autonomous Technology, a variety of notions about Technics- out-of-Control. I asked: What are the interesting and troubling issues within that genre and how can one begin to explore them? What is revealed in widespread reports about technology run amok in science fiction, Hollywood movies and certain domains of social thought?

At the same time I was beginning to move along a parallel path, which in retrospect, seems that of what might be regarded as Wittgensteinian ‘technological investigations.’ Of course, Wittgenstein himself offers only fleeting commentaries on technology as such, which are usually marshaled in service of particular argu- ments about meaning, knowledge, judgment, and other fundamental questions. In the Philosophical Investigations he mentions machinery, locomotives, clocks, lamp, microscope, cogwheel, and dozens of other useful objects. His remarks on these matters do not offer an ambitious philosophy of technology in the man- ner that Marx, Heidegger, Marcuse, Mumford, Ellul and others have produced, although it is possible than an enterprising thinker might leverage Wittgenstein’s writings to produce a comprehensive vision of that kind. What Wittgenstein does suggest to scholars studying technology and social life, however, is a highly fruit- ful comparison of tools and words. Just before the section that contains his discus- sion of ‘Bring me a slab,’ he observes:

Think of the tools in a tool box: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screw- driver, a rule, a glue pot, glue, nails and screws.—The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (Wittgenstein 1958, 6e)

Somewhat later in the book he takes note of the fact that language is not fixed and stable, but continually involved in change—“new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence and others become obsolete and get forgotten” (Wittgenstein 1958, 11e). By implication, the items in toolbox of language could potentially be seen as similar to the artifacts in the technological realm where new devices and techniques continually appear while others fall into disuse and lose their practical and cultural significance.

A relevant illustration here is the relatively rapid turnover in techniques of sound recording and reproduction during the past century—from 78-rpm records, to small 45-rpm disks, to 33-rpm vinyl LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, eight-track tapes, cassette tapes, compact disks, today’s online music streaming in Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and other ‘platforms’ on the near and distant horizon. For each of these technical formats there are distinctive ways of talking about the devices, their common mode of operation, problems they present to users, and the music itself.

There are also colorful metaphors that spread from the techniques of musical re- cording into everyday speech society at large. Very often the commonplace terms, metaphors and ‘language games’ from one period of time often do not transfer to later ones. Today if one used the once common phrase ‘It’s in the groove,’ most people younger than a certain age simply would not know the specific technical context of reference and possibly not even understand what the term means in a metaphorical sense.

I recall an argument I had with the noted jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, a men- tor for many of us in the early days of Rolling Stone Magazine. Bemoaning the excessive power the record companies were gaining at the time, I argued that these behemoths could sell just about any piece of musical trash to LP-buying audiences. Gleason replied, “No, not at all. The hits are in the grooves!” In other words, if the musicians were making music of genuine quality, it would be present right there in the small circles on the physical vinyl disc—the grooves—spinning on one’s turntable, regardless of any subsequent manipulations by corporate advertisers and promoters. While Ralph and I ultimately did not agree on the economic issue we were debating, his metaphor shed light on a key point of contention.

An early opportunity to employ my barefoot Wittgensteinian perspective in technology studies came in a research group headed by political scientist Todd La Porte whose field of study was organization theory, and whose questions cen- tered upon large scale socio-technical systems, especially those that involve serious risks and absolutely ‘must not fail.’ To further research of this kind, we set out to study ‘complexity.’ The basic idea was that one needed to develop elaborate theoretical models of complex systems and then study them through careful observation—once again, the positivist, behavioral social science method at work.

At a certain point I decided that, as my part of the project, rather than think and write in a manner that would abstractly and analytically stipulate what complexity means, I would just listen to and informally observe what people say when confronted with complex phenomena. I did not explicitly say to myself, “I’m shad- owing Wittgenstein here,” but looking back, that’s pretty much what I was doing. Eventually I came to conclude that people often use the word ‘complex’ within a language game, as it were, the purpose of which was to offer an excuse, an apology for stopping the conversation. People would say, “That’s a very complex question.” Or “That’s too complex to go into now. I’ll come back to it later.” In contrast, my colleagues on the project assumed that ‘complexity’ was the name, a noun, for an extensive set of observable socio-technical configurations. The word suggested a need to begin modeling and explaining systems with numerous parts and pieces and a wide variety of interconnections. That was the path to clarity and understanding. Their hope was to advance a project within social science focused upon rigorous studies of ‘organized social complexity.’

I countered that one might also notice that ‘complex’ is an adjective that signals a psychological state that often shuts down discussion and inquiry—complexity as perplexity. Perhaps the relevant ‘form of life’ involved could be called ‘coping’—dealing with the everyday experience of large, complicated, artificial, man/machine systems. One could begin to understand such predicaments by noticing the language games and grammars widely associated with them. My contribution to the collection of articles, Organized Social Complexity, explored ideas along those lines (La Porte 1975). The essay was written (I’m almost embarrassed to say) using a string of numbered paragraphs in the style of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (Winner 1975).

I take no credit for it, but eventually this dimension of complexity as the psychological experience of perplexity did emerge prominently in social scientific and technical studies of complex risky systems. For example, in his report on the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, sociologist Charles Perrow calls attention to the debilitating confusion spawned by devices meant to warn workers of trouble in the system—several loud buzzers going off, rows of flashing lights and other visual displays that gave readings that said basically, “Oh, oh. We’re in a lot of trouble now,” all of which forcefully presented the first task for the technicians in charge, namely how to shut down those damned sonic and visual alarms so the technicians might begin to focus upon how to address the emergency at hand. Reports of this kind emerged in Perrow’s interviews over the years with workers at various sites where technological and organizational breakdowns had occurred. In his book Normal Accidents a prominent piece of advice is to design socio-technical systems in ways that anticipate and seek to minimize the experiences of anxiety and panic as accidents emerge (Perrow 1984).

In this light, a helpful Wittgensteinian inquiry applied to technology can begin by paying careful attention to what people are saying and when they say it, which language games are in play and which patterns of activity—forms of life—are involved (Winner 1986). This is an alternative to assiduously laboring to impose an elaborate theoretical framework to shape and constrain one’s inquiries. As a comment in one of Wittgenstein’s notebooks concludes, “The method of philosophy is to listen to all voices” (Wittgenstein 1995, 87).

4. Google Mind and Phaedrus

Over the years I have used my probably naïve Wittgensteinian approach to explore ‘technologies as forms of life’ within variety of technology related topics educational technology, engineering ethics, and similar matters. A recent excursion of this kind played with the language games characteristic of today’s obsession with ‘innovation’ (Winner 2017). What are people talking about as they go on and on about ‘innovation?’

I’ve also found this approach useful in my interactions with professors of various branches of engineering and with students preparing for careers as technical professionals. In a program on Design, Innovation and Society where I some- times teach, I occasionally employ Wittgensteinian rhetorical moves to disrupt a particular understanding of the sources of creativity—the view that inventors and designers are a special breed of person equipped with a certain idiosyncratic brilliance that the vocation of design can cultivate and eventually realize in practice. One can compare this belief to the ancient Greek myth that Athena was born when she popped out of the skull of Zeus fully formed and ready for action. As regards their own creativity, my students and colleagues in engineering and disciplines of design often embrace something close to this vision—the idea of Athena springing full born from the godhead. From that point of view the basic tendency is to go more deeply inside oneself to discover the magic of creativity within one’s own skull.

In contrast, I suggest that a project in design might begin by observing a site or situation, noticing its features, equipment, social interactions, and problems. Notice what people in a particular situation are doing and, especially, listen to what they are saying, the distinctive grammar, the language games, in their conversations. Upon that basis one can begin speculating about what some key problems are and which improvements or inventions might be offered in response. Among other contributions, this approach can help dispel an unfortunate tendency among some designers and architects—a penchant for self-absorption that distracts them from noticing the textures of everyday human activity relevant to their projects. To some extent what I’m advocating is similar to those who practice user-centered, ethnographic methods in design.

As regards thinking about technologies and forms of life in the present moment, a very large, significant domain of interesting developments in the sphere of digital devices and systems, the Internet, social media and the like. This is a zone of activity and expression ripe for a great many Wittgensteinian technological investigations, ones akin to the ethnographic approaches sometimes used in technology studies these days. The inquirer proceeds by noticing what people are saying and claiming about the technical devices they develop and put to use, which problems arise in these interactions, and so forth.

A significant example today involves people’s involvement with digital net- works and the basic software that shapes everyday patterns of individual and social interactions. Imagine that you are in a classroom or in a conversation on campus or around town, and a fairly difficult question comes up. A common first response is—“Let’s Google it!” Out comes the laptop, tablet or smart phone and the search engine goes to work. College students are especially adept at this and always seem pleased when an answer suddenly appears. Of course, there is a vocabulary and grammar associated with this practice, terms such as ‘clickthrough,’ ‘keyword,’ ‘auto-tagging,’ ‘exact match,’ ‘quality score,’ and so forth. Perhaps my judgment is unfair, but it appears that a good many people (especially young people) have grown utterly dependent on the computer and Google’s fabulous algorithms.

If I ask my students to offer a thoughtful comment upon a piece of reading assigned for class that day, they often feel the need to consult their laptops to find the answer. If I ask: “What comes to mind? What does that passage say to you?” A good number of them simply tend to blank out. It appears that to some extent memory, thinking, imagination, and conversation have been replaced, perhaps even crippled, by excessive reliance up the search engine. Of course, for an educator, it’s distressing. An appropriate name for this phenomenon might be ‘Google Mind.’ The forms of inquiry fundamental in an education are supplanted by a relationship to powerful algorithms and knowledge on the Net. In my worst moments, I fear that if I were to ask, “What is 7 times 9 on the multiplication table?” the answer would likely be, “Wait a minute. Let me Google that for you.”

The problem and dilemma here is far from new. In fact, it mirrors the ancient controversy in Plato’s dialog Pheadrus where Socrates offers a stinging critique of the uses of the invention and use of a practical art—that of writing. Summarizing a story from an old Egyptian legend, he argues: “If men learn this [that is, reliance on writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but from external marks.” Continuing with the story, Socrates insists that a teacher’s disciples who learn from the written word “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, will be a burden to their fellows” (Plato 1963, 275 a–b).

Awareness of a possible growing dependence of Internet users upon the Google search engine and how it affects memory has recently emerged as a topic for psychological research. A summary of findings in such four studies concludes that “when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about com- puters and that when people expect to have access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall for where to access it” (Sparrow et al. 2011). Some of my own misgivings about technology and social life at present concern impressions of a wider authority that spring from digital systems. At a deeper level young people may be learning that, beyond the specific marvels of Google, Big Data is the real magic and that The Cloud holds the key to all knowledge. A number of university educational and research programs now seem to have that premise at their very core. One might ask: Does the Cloud have politics? If so, could it be an emerging politics of passivity, a ‘form of life,’ in which power resides deep with the network of servers but remains essentially inaccessible to those trying to leverage its practical advantage?

5. Forms of Life and Digital Devices

Another interesting site for Wittgensteinian technological investigations could be the growing presence and use of the smartphone in today’s society. Through the wonders of microelectronics one has the power of a camera, powerful computer, music player, video player, web browser, GPS system, and much more. Increas- ingly prominent in directing such power are the applications or ‘apps,’ many of which seek to reorganize and recode everyday practices that used to be done in different ways in different places. On the list of everyday activities involved in reshaping of this kind one finds making agreements, negotiating social arrange- ments, looking for work, evaluating people, products, and services, solving small and larger practical problems, and hundreds of other undertakings configured on the Net. “Oh, there’s an app for that,” people often say, almost without regard to the need at hand.

As one example, there are now a good many ingenious babysitting apps— Bambino, Bubble, UrbanSitter, and others. These have begun to replace reliance upon nearby networks of grandparents or neighborhood teenage and girls and boys who offered their help as caregivers for small children while the parents were away. In Uber-like style one can now book a total stranger—well screened, pre- sumably safe and certified—to work for several hours taking care of one’s kids. As the owner of the RockMyBaby app observes, “These parents are using their phone or tablet for everything else, so why not childcare?” (Reidy 2017) Sure, why not?

For those who ponder the reweaving of social activities and relationships in this period of history, the inquiries in Wittgenstein’s later writing offer a philo- sophical ethnography useful in interpreting new ‘forms of life’ as they arise and comparing them to earlier varieties of cultural practice. Researchers have begun to study a wide range of patterns of online sociability mainly through the use of surveys and focused interviews. Thus, in recent years the Pew Research Center has tracked evolving patterns of dating and romance mediated by smartphone apps and websites of various kinds. While the Pew reports offer broad scale results from polling data, e.g., that “15% of U.S. adults have used online dating sites or mobile dating apps,” far less attention is paid to what people actually have to say about these experiences—how they describe and interpret the pleasures, problems and dilemmas experienced within and around the online realm (Smith 2016a). What a well-tuned Wittgensteinian inquiry might contribute in such cases is an ability to listen carefully to what people are saying and take note of what emerging patterns in ordinary language reveal about social changes taking shape. Survey results from Pew Research and similar organizations will sometimes include brief quotes from the people they have interviewed, a way to add color to the raw data in the charts and tables. Thus, one Pew study quotes some teenage Net users:

“Like the best thing about texting is that you can think about what you’re going to say. And if you don’t like it, you can always get rid of it until the end. With talking, you can’t really do that.”

“You might be catfished.”

About the best ways to respond to photos on Instagram another teen ex- claimed: “Like all of them. Like, like, like, like, like all the pictures. You’re the right cute factor.” (Pew Research Center 2015)

Seldom among Net researchers, however, is there much close attention to or prob- ing of the ways that turns of phrase, neologisms, and creative slang accompany the use of the digital devices and systems as they infuse social and cultural practice. When I say “Catfished!” I mean . . . (For the record, ‘catfished’ indicates that one is being lured into a relationship by means of a fictitious online persona.)

An even more consequential sphere in which digital electronics affects ev- eryday human relationships and communications has to do with the fascinating, even troubling, collection of developments presented the coming of Artificial Intelligence, robots and automation. A steady flow of inquiry on issues of this kind, including research at Oxford and MIT, points to the distinct possibility that one third to one half or more the workforce will soon be replaced by algorithms, robots and ‘smart’ mechanical devices of various kinds (Frey and Osborne 2013). Recent opinion surveys indicate that everyday people are aware that such changes are on the horizon but tend to believe (for whatever reason) that their own line of work will not be affected (Smith 2016b).

As one reads the various reports, surveys and projections about A.I., robots and the future of employment, it’s revealing to ask: Who’s involved in conversation and thinking about employment and the new technologies? What are they saying? How are they talking about it? At present the conversation about the issues appears to be limited to those in research labs, high tech firms, and university computing centers. Almost never do conversations about these widely anticipated transformations involve every day working people. Instead we ‘round up the usual suspects’: Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steven Hawking, Silicon Valley CEOs, as well as business school big wigs, and solicit their erudite views (Larson 2017). But the populace most likely to be affected—millions of present-day workers along with young people preparing to enter the workforce—is almost never asked to reflect or comment upon the jarring social earthquakes that could arise in the not too distant future. This is particularly evident in the U.S.A. where labor unions have been driven nearly to extinction during the past forty years, leaving no organized channels to give voice to the concerns of ordinary workers. The everyday life experiences, language domains, language games, and accustomed forms of life of such people are seldom brought into focus.

An interesting possibility recently discussed in forward looking technology sites on the net is that the elimination of full time jobs in the economy and their replacement by A.I., robots, automation, and part time work—the so called ‘gig economy’—is already strongly related to patterns of living (forms of life?) in which video games become not a mere diversion in one’s off hours, but the primary focus of experience, activity fulfillment in a person’s life. In other words, one manages to scratch together enough income through whatever means to support oneself at a minimal level, while one’s primary reality becomes the excitement, certainty and satisfaction of a novel form of life—gaming. As online writer and devoted gamer Frank Guan comments: “For all the real and purported novelty of video games, they offer nothing so much as the promise of repetition. Life is terrifying; why not, then, live through what you already know—a fundamental pulse, speechless and without thought?” (Guan 2017).

6. Beyond S.T.S. Frameworks

One way to appreciate possible applications of the later Wittgenstein in studies of technology is to notice that they offer a helpful pathway for inquiry within the field of discourseanalysis, onethat focuses onwhatpeople say anddoastheyinteractwithof technicalthings. Somewhatcomparabledomainsofinquiryincludethediscoursean- alytical methods in linguistics, rhetoric, cultural studies, gender studies, media stud- ies, and other fields of scholarship all of which have made important contributions ( Tannen et al. 2018). A notable and welcome development in recent years is that serious philosophical applications of Wittgenstein study of discourses about tech- nology have begun to emerge. The writings of Mark Coeckelbergh, among others, now exercise a leavening influence in technology studies, a scholarly field long dominated by sociologists and anthropologists (Coeckelbergh 2017; Coeckel- bergh and Funk 2018).

As I’ve indicated, my own pathway is primarily that of political theory and its central questions, ones about order, justice, power community, and the like, especially in the Western tradition. Taking aim on the relevance of technology for such questions I sometimes employ Wittgensteinian probes as a way to clarify my thinking or to engage in occasional disruptions when it seems that important discussions have gotten too rigid or simply stuck. An example here concerns widely echoed claims that the Internet has become a fertile seedbed for the revitalization of democracy (Benkler 2006). While this conclusion seemed fairly plausible in the early days of the twenty-first century, it is now vexed by mounting evidence that Net platforms have fallen under the dominance of media monopolies and the power of billionaire oligarchs who control them. Beyond that are increasing signs that the communication of everyday people on the Net are infected by a wide range of discourse pathologies. Widely reported symptoms include: a preference within social media for repeating ‘fake news’ over verifiable facts; ‘computational propaganda’ targeted in ways that undermine communications basic to national elections (Howard et al. 2018); excesses of flaming, trolling, bullying, and other forms of speech that seem more far more compatible with authoritarian politics than with the reasonable debates and deliberations of a healthy democracy (Har- ris 2016). In short, the language and social practices of the Net have become a fertile domain for techno-political Wittgensteinian research and diagnosis. What are people saying, in what settings and to what effect? Why is so much of today’s Internet discourse openly, politically toxic?

My early, naïve impression that Wittgenstein’s own carefully examined ‘games,’ language games, are often quite playful and wonderfully bizarre has found confirmation in the interpretations of scholars of philosophy and literature. Yes, they argue, the ‘Bring me a slab’ passage and similar ones in the Investigations and later writings bear a remarkable similarity to the amusing perplexities in the dramas of Samuel Beckett and playwrights in the theatre of the absurd. By the same token, the direct appropriation of Wittgensteinian dialogues and sensibilities within the plays of Tom Stoppard, e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Doggs Hamlet, Cahoot’s McBeth show a distinct resonance between philosophy and drama, namely the invocation of everyday speech and its quandaries to illuminate basic questions about the human condition. Hence, Martin Puchner argues that that Wittgenstein moved beyond notions of play in the game of chess with its narrowly bounded logic to explore playing within a far wider domains of speech and activity including those prevalent in the theatre. He writes:

His language plays are scenarios in which certain problems are staged, that is, placed in the mouths of characters during particular scenes. In these dramatic experiments, different versions of a certain problem or scene can be tried out, questions posed, and conclusions drawn. (Puchner 2015)

Puchner goes on to argue that that this avenue in Wittgenstein’s thinking is not an abandonment of his earlier concerns for logic and abstraction, but rather a differ- ent, more promising route into the very same territory:

The only difference is that it is not to be sought in theoretical statements, but rather in the simplicity of language plays. Their clarity throws light on a messy world from which it abstracts and onto which it imposes its own logic. (Puchner 2015)

My attempt here has been to suggest that Wittgenstein’s playful, dramatic approach might be applied to within today’s field of technology studies. In contrast, if one picks up a journal in science and technology studies (S.T.S.) or reads a new book or consults the catalog of topics for one of the periodic conferences what one finds these days is the significance of schools of thought—theory centered research, thinking and publishing that map out central concerns, categories and approaches within an established framework. Among these are social construction theory, cultural studies of technology, actor network theory, innovation research, and the like. At least in my reading of this material—and perhaps I am not being sufficiently generous—the emphasis in much scholarly writing in S.T.S. at present, regardless of the particular substantive topic in question, tends—first and foremost—to parade the theoretical schema, the favored specialized terms, the well branded framework in which it is pitched. From there the results that roll out are often entirely predictable. Yes, the work is sometimes interesting, credible and even valuable. But in my reading much of the effort is devoted primarily to demonstrating that the scholar is a member in good standing of a particular theory club rather than to exploring important topics in new, revealing ways. To a great extent, in my view, much the scholarship in science and technology studies has become a taxonomy factory, obscure and inward looking, replete with categories that describe ‘constructions,’ ‘networks,’ ‘actants,’ and other structural features, devoid of insights that might enliven public debate about technology or anything else (Felt et al. 2016).

Hence, to newcomers interested in studying technology and human affairs, I’m inclined to ask: What do you have to say about these matters? Are you listen- ing carefully to what others in relevant locations are talking about and seek to understand? Please don’t just tell us where your project is situated within this or that received intellectual agenda or its pedigree within a particular ‘theory’ mafia of which you are a card-carrying member. What does your own life experience, your sense of the world, your education and preparation, what you’ve what you have observed, heard, pondered and done, your vision of technology and social relations, have to offer people who might benefit from hearing your thoughts?

In sum, I’d suggest taking down the prepackaged, increasingly standardized, IKEA-like intellectual scaffoldings of today’s S.T.S., going out into the world and finding one’s own voice. For those who launch forth on journeys of that kind, the writings and spirit of Ludwig Wittgenstein are bound to be wonderful companions.


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