To be in control or not to be in control, that’s the question!

Three worlds

We as human beings like to be in control. This is probably grounded in our deep desire to be godlike.  The control thought is unsurpassed applied in the engineering discipline through skillful design of mechanical, electrical and chemical systems that all work very well (most of the times) and helped us all to live a comfortable life.

Engineers used to model everything, also the human factor. In computer science and information systems the human factor is modeled into the abstract concept of ‘the user’, in machinery and mechanics it is ‘the operator’ or ‘the driver’ and in architecture it is ‘the owner-occupier’.  They all share a common treatment as being reduced into a manageable entity with steady and controllable variables. Today the technical imperative is no longer predominant. In IT, the user is now in control of devices and networks and he or she creates his or her content through apps, games and social networks. In industrial design the user experience is now a central paradigm to create new products. In electronics we are experimenting with immersive technologies and we try to capture human emotions and feelings through innovative sensors.  However, as soon as humans are involved in systems, things are becoming harder to predict and to explain. Why? Because human situations (a human working with a computer, a person living in a house,…) are very complex and cannot be treated as rational. There is no universal law of human behavior. The validity claims that we make of human situations must imply the acceptance of any form of subjectivity. This conflicts with the rules of the natural sciences. However reductionism and natural science are so dominant present in our way of thinking that we fail to make sense of a lot of systems.

There is also good news. Objectivity and subjectivity are related. A lot of researchers did a good job of searching for an umbrella perspective. One of most compelling examples is the concept of an organization. Organizations, be it commercial businesses or not-for-profit organizations strive through a complex set of rules and procedures for reaching their formulated objectives. However it is almost impossible to observe from an external point of view how an organization will attain their goals.  To fully understand what happening in the machinery of an organization we should become part of it. The researcher has to immerse in the problem to make sense of it. In doing so we interfere with the ground rule of natural sciences that reality is external to the individual. This should not be an obstacle when we adopt another epistemological stance. However this cannot imply that we assume a unadulterated subjective perspective. The proper paradigm is here interpretivism.  The best way to understand the interpretive paradigm is through the work of K. Popper and J. Habermas and is illustrated in next figure. Both philosophers stated that (scientific) knowledge can be gained and used in more than one way.   The use the metaphors of three different worlds.

The first world is the objective world of material things and the state of affairs. It is in this world that natural sciences are predominant. In world 1 we search for truth and efficacy. It is the binary world in which something is true or not. World 1 is ruled by mathematics and variance theories. World 2 is the subjective world of mental states of personal experiences and beliefs. It is an intersubjective world based on a shared understanding and a consensual form of social coordination. The validity claims is about sincerity and truthfulness. The interpretive paradigm is valid in world 3, which is an objective but abstract world of man-made entities. It is a social world of normatively regulated social relations. The validity claims here ore legitimacy and justification. Something is right. Something is not right. If A happens, then B may happen or it may not. Hard to understand for engineers. However theories in world 3 are much more process theories with change and time as important constructs and not so much variance theories in which cause-effects are noticeably.

To be still in control of man-machine artifacts will imply that we at least move into world 3, without neglecting world 1 and world 2 to gather knowledge. However full control will still be a difficult attainable goal for researchers.

It is a pity that the engineering education is so strictly divided into compartments or silos of knowledge all centered around one area of specialism but all of them strongly embedded in a positivistic paradigm. This way of doing is of course understandable in our ever specializing world of technical systems, but it is the main reason why we are still not in control of our systems.  It should be mandatory for engineers designing artifacts to get familiar with the interpretive paradigm. The rigor so typical for the hard-educated and mathematical trained engineers should be also applied in the more interpretative oriented inquiries. This could give the necessary credibility that now is often lacking the interpretative researcher.


About jangdevos
I'm an IT/IS professor, a late Baby Boomer, married with Ann and father of Hélène and Willem, a Stones fan and interested in almost everything. I work at the UGent (campus Kortrijk), Belgium. My research domain are: IT Governance in SMEs, IT/IS Security, IT Management, IT Project Management, IT Trends and IT/IS failures.

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