Carving Reality at its Digital Joints: The Role of Philosophical Ontology in Designing Future Sociotechnical Systems

Speaker:  Giancarlo Guizzardi – Bolzano, Italy
Topic(s):  Information Systems, Search, Information Retrieval, Database Systems, Data Mining, Data Science


We live much of our lives immersed in the world of made up structures that we call Social Reality.  In other words, much of our lives are governed by socially constructed (and, hence, to a certain extent fictional) entities such as money, citizenships, service offerings and agreements, real state ownerships, employments, enrollments, marriages, presidential mandates, awards, international treaties, legal liabilities, criminal records,  stock options and derivative transactions, etc. 

In the past, these entities were traditionally grounded in physical counterparts such that, for instance, in a certain context a colored piece of paper or an engraved piece of metal could count as money.  However, with the massive advance of information technology in the past decades, much of social reality  is now purely grounded in a world of symbolic manipulation of digital representations.  Moreover, much of this digital existence is scattered in a number of independent information silos  that were created in different organizational cultures, through independent engineering processes,  in different moments in space and time. In this new reality, for example, banks move from being institutions  that print and store money into IT companies that deal almost exclusively with information representation and processing. 

In such a scenario, a number of fundamental questions arise. For instance, how is it the case that certain digital representations count as marriages, citizenships, stocks, employments or money? In other words, how do we collective build this new social reality by constructing and manipulating digital symbols? Furthermore, how can we create a unified view of social reality by  putting together pieces of information that now reside in independent information silos, each of which carve out reality  in potentially different ways? To use a simple example: is a particular entity (e.g., a person) represented in an information system (e.g., a social security system) the very same entity as the one represented in another system (e.g., the national health system)? If not one of identity, what is the relation between these two entities and what kind of inferences the knowledge of such a relation can afford? 

In this talk, I intend to argue that modern information systems engineering cannot succeed without the support of the 2400 years-old discipline of Ontology in philosophy, a discipline devoted to the systematic investigation of what exists in a given systems of representations.

About this Lecture

Number of Slides:  60
Duration:  60 minutes
Languages Available:  English, Italian, Portuguese
Last Updated: 

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