Some brief thoughts about digital social ontology

A few years ago I sat in a publishing workshop in London listening to a presentation about ontology. My confusion grew as the presenter continued to make all manner of claims about ontology that I didn’t understand. As someone who had two degrees in philosophy before turning into a theoretically inclined sociologist, I thought I had a pretty confident grasp of what ontology was and how it was discussed. Yet I had no idea what on earth she was talking about. It eventually clicked that ontology meant something very different to publishing & information science people. I’ve been thinking about that experience recently, as I’ve been making plans for the digital ontology symposium that the Centre for Social Ontology is holding in London this July.

The idea for the event is to bring together people from web science, media sociology, science & technology studies, social informatics and complexity with a shared focus on digital data and digital technology. My hope is that digital social ontology might bridge the gap between these different forms of ontology: understanding taxonomies as (re)produced and transformed, mediated by the material constraints & enablements of technological artefacts, through human activity within a social context and in turn exercising causal power in relation to happenings within that context, as mediated through digital artefacts & infrastructure.

This would be a crude overview of a realist approach to digital social ontology but my broader point is about the need to incorporate these three areas of ontological discourse (social context & activity, technical artefacts & infrastructure, relational & conceptual taxonomies) into one overarching frame of reference. This isn’t new: I’m aware that software studies & STS have, in different ways, done this already. Plus I’d appreciate anyone pointing out other instances I might not have encountered! But I’m suggesting that a meta-theoretical conversation across disciplinary and paradigmatic boundaries could help structure a broader domain of ‘digital social ontology’ with practical transdisciplinary relevance.

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