Paul Siemers

Paul Siemers, ‘What is the Internet of Things? An Ontological Investigation’ (PhD in the History & Philosophy of Science, 2021)

The Internet of Things is widely considered to be of major – and increasing – significance as a global socio-technical phenomenon. However, answering the question of what the Internet of Things is turns out to be surprisingly problematic. The problem is not the lack of an answer; indeed, the majority of writings on the Internet of Things seek to address this question in some manner. Rather, the problem is the range and diversity of answers that are proposed, leading to a troubling perplexity about how these answers might separately or collectively describe the Internet of Things. Resolving this perplexity is a highly pertinent challenge given the putative importance of the Internet of Things.

In addressing this challenge, I take an unreservedly ontological approach, building on recent ontological thinking in anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, and philosophy. I first identify and summarise six influential philosophical schools of thought regarding the ontology of technology: Artefact-based Ontology, Technological Essentialism, Social constructivism, Relationism, Postphenomenology and Object-Oriented Ontology. I then use an inductive method to analyse a sample of Internet of Things literature, thus uncovering common categories of ontological claims about the Internet of Things. Twelve such categories are derived, revealing the Internet of Things to be referred to variously as a technological artefact, a trajectory, a force, an idea, a business opportunity, a contested term, a social actor, something threatened and threatening, a context of use, an enchanted world, and a human endeavour. These ontological categories are then brought into dialogue with the philosophical ontologies of technology, identifying where the various categories accord with (or are in conflict with) the different philosophical ontologies.

Based on this analysis, I conclude that the Internet of Things, as reflected in the literature sample, is ontologically multiple, in the sense of having more than one way of being. The analysis also highlights limitations in how well any one of philosophical ontologies can account for the Internet of Things as it is described in the literature. In the final stage of my analysis, I consider the possibility that a single underlying ontology might be able to account for the observed ontological multiplicity of the Internet of Things. After reviewing each of the philosophical ontologies, I conclude that Object-Oriented Ontology – and in particular the theory of hyperobjects – provides the most useful underlying ontology.

Supervisors: Professor Michael Arnold (HPS), Dr Greg Adamson (Honorary, Computing and Information Systems)