Algorithm objects: people are the things they do

Alex Reid, Digital Digs, Oct 13, 2015
Commentary by Stephen Downes
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This post dusts off an old concept in philosophy and presents it in shiny new computer clothes. But if it convinces people to reconsider their understanding of what makes a thing a thing, or what makes an object that type of object, then it is performing a valuable service. "Algorithms," writes Alex Reid, "are objects persisting in and dependent upon an information-media ecology that is not simply digital but is also material and economic, legal, and living." What are we? We are the things we do - or perhaps more specifically, the formulae expressing the things we do. The philosophical theory evoked here is called functionalism, and it defines objects (like people) not according to their nature, essence or composition, but instead, by their purposes, objectives, functions or actions. When we are trying to define what is, as happens so often in edcucation, we are more often presupposing an essentialist definition of object, when we should really be invoking a functionalist definition.

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