David Chandler will be presenting the working paper 'After the Digital? Risk, Hidden Vulnerability and the Rise of Problem-Oriented Ontology'. All staff and students are welcome to attend.

Abstract

Information is increasingly seen to be key to international policy-making and the digital revolution is touted by policy-makers as the solution to a wide range of problems interconnected in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

This presentation analyses the dynamic of this discussion towards real-time information and contextual drilling-down, suggesting that 'digital solutionism' expresses the fullest development of the modernist approach to ‘problem-solving’ and the epistemology of the digital. The limits to this approach will be analysed, suggesting that the problem of ‘access' to the marginal and vulnerable is presented as a problem of epistemology: the mechanisms and instruments are always never quite fine-grained enough to see
entities in their rich complexity, with the assumption being that this is, in theory, possible. However, the more policy-makers seek to drill-down and to develop real-time responsivities, the complexity of the problem (the dense inter-relationships of contingency and causation) becomes manifest.

It will be argued that technological advances only shift the focus of the problem downwards, constituting a problem of ontological depth. Technologies increasingly reveal the nature of the problem to be different to how it was previously imagined: they reveal communities to be much more differentiated and reveal that causal chains are often much more mediated and less linear than previously understood. The digital revolution thus catalyses rather than resolves the epistemological crisis of modernity and it is this crisis that materially underpins the ‘ontological turn'.

The presentation concludes with an analysis of the ontological turn in policy-making, working out from the problem itself rather than drilling down through the extension of digital technologies. Taken to its logical conclusion, the ontological turn potentially provides a critical alternative to modernist problem-solving, enabling problems to become once again (as Marx argued) calls for 'reworlding' (changing the world).