How is technology use shaped by the wider culture?

“How we use technologies is shaped by the games and forms of life that are already in place “before’’ we use them. There is already a “grammar’’ of technology. Of course there is also a “grammar’’ in the sense of “syntax’’: specific rules how to put together different parts for instance, or specific operating instructions. But there is also a grammar in a wider, more social and cultural sense: there are already particular activities and ways we do things, there are already games, and the technologies are part of those games and their use is shaped by the games.”

– Mark Coeckelbergh

The philosopher Wittgenstein compared language-use to picking the right tool from a toolbox*, an analogy Coeckelbergh turns on its head to propose the concept of “technology games” through which we can interpret technology as “forms of life” (see earlier discussion) and a pre-determined structure of use (“grammar”) in a holistic and historical manner.

From Language…

There are two key aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language that are particularly applicable to Coeckelbergh’s approach:

Firstly, Wittgenstein situates the meaning of words in their instrumental use, hence the tool analogy which gives the notion of language-as-technology.

Secondly, Wittgenstein’s view of language is holistic – it is not something separate from the activities of daily life, to be understand separately. Instead, language is a type of game which is negotiated and developed by its participants who give its utterances meaning. What things mean is contextual.

The third plank of Coeckelbergh’s approach is a Kantian method of interpreting Wittgenstein which places “language games and forms of life [as] transcendental conditions of language use and meaning in particular situations” (p. 5). Or as a grammar as Coeckelbergh defines it: “a particular use of language is made possible by words but also by a grammar that is given, that is already there before a particular use of language” (ibid).

The Kantian use of the term ‘transcendental’ is meant to express a structure which makes other things possible. For Kant, space and time were the built-in conditions of our experiencing the world. The phenomenal world of experience is thus constrained by the mental structure which situates objects in temporal and spatial position. Controversially, space and time are not something out there but within us.

Coeckelbergh supports this interpretation with Wittgenstein’s own words:

‘yet our investigation is directed not towards phenomena, but rather, as one might say, towards the ‘possibilities’ of phenomena. […] Our inquiry is therefore a grammatical one.’ (PI § 90)

With further support from Wittgenstein’s distinction between ‘surface grammar’ and ‘depth grammar’:

“In the use of words, one might distinguish ‘surface grammar’ from ‘depth grammar’. What immediately impresses itself upon us about the use of a word is the way it is used in the sentence structure, the part of its use – one might say – that can be taken in by the ear. – And now compare the depth grammar, say of the verb ‘‘to mean’’, with what its surface grammar would lead us to presume. No wonder one finds it difficult to know one’s way about.” (Wittgenstein 1953, § 664, pp. 176e-177e)

The crux of the argument here is that language use isn’t shaped merely by the rules of language but also by the deeper structures of forms of life and language games.

This use of ‘transcendental’ is very much open to confusion. The intent is not to say grammar transcends usage, i.e. is a thing apart from the activities with which language is connected with. It is in fact, very much grounded in usage and subject to development, i.e. slow change over time.

This appeal to Kantian terms in trying to talk about the criterion of what makes certain language use correct takes on too much philosophical baggage for little apparent gain. For one thing, grammar is generally well-understood as being the structure by which correct language use is possible but it is also well-understood that grammar is a guide, not a criterion of the possible. Grammar develops in usage and ‘bad’ grammar can still convey meaning. Whilst grammar is developed within forms of life, there are overlapping grammars and it is possible for two different modes of usage still to make themselves understood, to convey meaning, despite this. It seems to me, the ambiguities of grammar are best explored on their own terms without the additional interpretive complexities of Kantian transcendentalism attached.  The concepts do not align well-enough to make such an interpretation seem useful. I cannot, for example, see how a developmental approach to grammar fits with the fixed logical structures of Kant’s categories, including space and time.

It seems where Coeckelbergh wants to make use of transcendentalism is primarily in the normative aspect of grammar:

“The rules of games and the meanings and values that are part of a form of life are not only descriptive; they are also normative. They tell us what to do: they tell us how to use language and how to do particular activities. If I utter a sentence, I have to follow grammar (surface grammar); I cannot compose my sentence as I wish, my composition is not entirely optional. There are grammatical rules, rules of syntax. However, there is also a ‘depth’ grammar which is not so easy to formalize. In my use of language there will be also normative meanings ‘‘slipping in’’ that are part of the game and part of our culture.” (p. 6)

The final aspect of Coeckelbergh’s approach is the importance of the historical plasticity of language use, games and forms of life. He develops from Wittgenstein the inherited nature of language use and uses the analogy of a river cutting new banks, slowly over time. This doesn’t preclude more rapid change, as seems evident by language use in new mediums such a social networks. Only that typically, grammars change slowly and not necessarily at the same pace as language games and forms of life.

… to Technology

Armed with this “use-oriented, holistic, social, historical, and transcendental view of language” (p. 7) from Wittgenstein, Coeckelbergh turns around the toolbox metaphor and applies it to technology.

Firstly, he asserts that without use, technology is meaningless, following Idhe in claiming technological objects become what they are through their use (see here for more Idhe’s multistable view of technology).

Secondly, he situates technologies in the activities of use and the broader forms of life. What he dub “technology games” runs parallel to Wittgenstein’s language games except for the added dimension of transcendental conditions which provide the structure and limits of their use. These grammatical conditions of technology use place technologies as lived artefacts which are part of a bigger context of social and cultural interactions which must exist prior to the introduction of the technology. He provides a compelling examples in how we might use a robot:

“Their may be operating instructions for using the robot. But there is also a much “deeper’’ or “wider’’ kind of grammar, which has to do with the way we do things, with our games and our form of life. The use of, and interaction with, the social robot is connected to particular activities and games, such as meeting someone, drinking coffee, talking about one’s health, asking a pet to do something, cuddling a pet, and so on, which each are (part of) social games with particular rules and know-how that come with them. Our interactions follow the rules and grammar of social relations and social games. Without such social games, the very use of a “social’’ robot would not be possible; the games constitute a transcendental condition. At the same time, the transcendental conditions and the grammar do not exist outside of the concrete uses and practices (i.e. as if there was a thing “culture’’ separate from use, activities, etc.); it is concrete use, activity, and practice that give life to the grammar. It is in concrete use that the transcendental conditions play out.” (p. 10)

It seems to me quite right to say that technology-use is negotiated within the boundaries of existing activities, as defined by the forms of life, encompassing both social-cultural and also, technological structures. But once again, I am left wondering what work ‘transcendental’ is doing in this way of talking about it. It seems a very odd thing to say, for example, that the Internet or social-democracy are the transcendental conditions for say a health care app. There must surely be a way of putting this without so much baggage.

However, leaving aside difficulties with the use of certain philosophical nomenclature, it seems there is an important insight here about the kind world-making which is possible based on the application of a Wittgenstein’s insights of language to technology. The insight that “technology games are also language games” (p. 11) and vice vera strikes me as deeply profound.

“The social life almost always involves the use of words and the use of (other) tools. Language and technology interconnect and are entangled in their use and in games. Moreover, these activities and games are in turn part of a larger form of life/culture/world, which shapes the often implicit meanings that govern the games. Technologies are part of a form of life, part of what we do and how we do things; they are part of what we are.” (p. 11)

Coeckelbergh develops this insight into a consideration of the normative aspect of technology-use, i.e. what we come to expect of how technology should be used. This set of expectations is a type of implicit knowledge which enables our technology-use, a type of know-how that transfers from one specific technology to another.

Not only do we have expectations that are fulfilled in technology use but these expectations are an outgrowth of the wider context of normative rules. This leads to an interesting insight about our intuitive reaction to scenarios of misuse of technological objects:

“When someone kicks a robot (consider for instance the case of robot dog Spot who was kicked by its developers) and some people respond that this is wrong, then both the kicking and the response may be puzzling at first sight, given that the robot is supposed to be a “thing’’ or a “machine’’. But with the approach proposed here, we can try to make explicit the normative structures that shapes particular uses. Here for instance it may be argued that this interaction and this response is structured and made possible by grammars of human-animal (and maybe even human-human) relations, which are already there before this happens. There is a form of life, which has a history, including violence towards (non-)humans and empathic responses to such violence. The same can be said in cases when robots are treated as “slaves’’: both the use of the word “slave’’ and the use of technology as “slave’’ are embedded and made possible by a form of life in which slavery made (makes?) sense and was (is?) practiced.” (p. 12)

Going further, this normative aspect shows technologies are not merely situated within forms of life but can help change them both by substituting for human beings, robots for slaves / wage-earners, but also in focusing attention on the form of life, i.e. the way we live whereby we contract out the inconveniences of life to, often invisible, others.

In all, Coeckelbergh’s technology games and general approach offers key insights that develop on prior efforts. However, I am less convinced about talk of a transcendental aspect as being particularly useful.

* “Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects. (And in both cases there are similarities.)” (Wittgenstein 1953, in Coeckelbergh, 2017, p. 3)


Coeckelbergh, M. (2017) ‘Technology Games: Using Wittgenstein for Understanding and Evaluating Technology’, Science and engineering ethics [Online]. DOI: 10.1007/s11948-017-9953-8.

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