views updated May 21 2018


Instrumentation refers to the use or application of instruments or specialized technologies for observation, measurement, control, or production. In the last sense one even speaks of the instrumentation of a piece of music, meaning its adaptation to being produced or played by a particular set of musical instruments. Technologies in the form of instrumentation have also played a crucial role in the production of human knowledge science prehistory. In all these senses, instrumentation calls for general philosophical reflection, including ethical reflection.

Instrumentation, Ancient and Modern

The usual story about the origins of science cite ancient Greek philosophical speculations such as the prescient hypothesis of Democritus (460–370 b.c.e.) that there must be ultimate small bits of matter, which he termed "atoms," that constitute the most basic things of the world. Plato (428–347 b.c.e.), in opposition, developed an alternative hypothesis of a finite set of ideal geometrical forms into which the universe fits, a finite number of polyhedron shapes or Platonic solids at the base of things. Yet neither Democritus nor Plato produced any concrete, verifiable knowledge about the physical universe through their speculations. It was not until the later Hellenic period of Greek antiquity that heirs to the intellectual tradition initiated by Democritus and Plato began to produce lasting scientific knowledge of physical phenomena by developing measuring instrumentation.

When Robert Crease (2003) asked physicists to identify what ten experiments in the history of science were the most "beautiful," number seven turned out to be the measurement of the circumference of the Earth by Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 276–c. 194 b.c.e.). Combining a shrewd set of assumptions with a simple instrument, a gnomon or variation on a sundial, and mathematical measurements, Eratosthenes made a reasonable estimate of planetary size. Assuming a spherical Earth and a Sun at great distance, when the shadow of a gnomon was vertical at Syene he instrumentally measured its angle some 800 kilometers away at Alexandria; then using angular geometry he calculated the curvature necessary to account for such a difference, and extended this to reach an estimate of the circumference that remains respectable to the present day.

The vote that confirmed this as a "beautiful experiment" should come as no surprise, because it simultaneously validates popular belief in the genius of the Greeks, confirms human nostalgia for this particular history, and emphasizes the geometrical thinking that characterizes what later became modern science. But this experiment neither stands alone, nor is it even close to being the most ancient example of knowledge production embodied in technological instrumentation. A multicultural survey of almost any pre-historic set of peoples would show that instrumentation played a role in the knowledge of natural processes that in the early twenty-first century would be called astronomy or even cosmology. Virtually all larger cultures of the past were sky-watchers and developed often deep knowledge of celestial motions, solstices, seasons, moon cycles, eclipses, sometimes parallax, and other complex astronomical phenomena. These were recorded upon calendars, some of which were superior to calendars within Western traditions until very recent times. Moreover, although sometimes simple, most such observations were made through instrumental mediations. Indeed, archeoastronomy, the study of ancient astronomies, has led to the recognition that many of the stone circles of antiquity and prehistory had instrumental uses for establishing solstices, moon and sun cycles, and the like. Examples include Stonehenge, Mesoamerican equivalents, and even ancient North American sites in the Mississippian cultures. Calendar signs of moon cycles can be recognized on antler markings that go back to the last Ice Ages of more than ten millennia ago. Thus technologies have been incorporated into the production of what would now be called "scientific" knowledge from pre-history and within multiple cultures, all using instruments.

Within what some would term the Western master narrative, much is made of a seventeenth century "scientific revolution" as the turning point of early modern science. Yet it is possible to reframe this episode in the accelerated production of scientific knowledge as a second high point in the crucial development of instrumentation as well. Its predecessors were the Renaissance, itself a revival of ancient knowledge, much of it developed and conveyed by Islamic cultures that had perfected instruments and preserved ancient texts, thus creating an instrument-saturated and instrument-fascinated epoch.

Instrumental Perception

Instruments embody measuring perceptions. Those previously mentioned entail visual sightings, using some stable feature (the instrument) to make repeated observations. Of course the motivation and human contexts for performing such practices differed across cultures. Edmund Husserl (1970) recognized that a simple geometry arose out of the lifeworld practices of re-measuring agricultural fields after the annual floods of the Nile in Egypt. In other contexts, the annual renewal of kingships (as in ancient Sumeria) called for accurate dates and times. Islamic cultures needed accurate instruments to identify directions to Mecca, instruments such as the astrolabe and world maps with mathematical grids allowed such measurements, but later were also applied to navigation in the age of exploration. In the early 2000s, with space exploration such as that of the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, much more precise instrumentation is called for.

Measuring perceptions are not restricted to visual perceptions. Auditory perception has also been mediated through a variety of instruments. Listening tubes, later stethoscopes, amplify the capacity of auditory perception to determine interiors, including voids and shapes. More complex and later acoustic devices, including early sonar, remained auditory but gave way to a preference for visualization in scientific culture. Contemporary radar and sonar produces visual imagery on screens.

Further, various animal-analogues became technologically produced, one example being the development of thermal imaging. Thermal perception is common with reptiles, particularly snakes, which can even sense the shapes of prey through thermal awareness. Thermal awareness in the human case does have a moment in Western science. William Herschel (1792–1871), experimenting with a prism, detected warmth beyond the edge of the red end of the spectrum and correctly inferred the radiation that became known as infrared. Thermal imaging in military instruments has become highly sophisticated. But again, the tendency is to translate the thermal image into a visual one, such as obtains with certain types of night-vision instruments (other night vision instrumentation amplifies ambient light).

Tactile instrumentation plays especially important roles in medical practices. The setting of broken bones traditionally employed direct physical, bodily manipulations, and even with early instrumentation, the trained surgeon could "feel" what he was doing through the instrument. In dentistry, for example, the tools used to examine teeth reveal the cracks, soft areas, and cavities that are of dental interest. These perceptual experiences are mediated through the instruments, or the instruments are embodied by the practitioner. Contemporary instruments, however, often change previous practice. For example, laparoscopy, or even more extremely, distance surgery, entails practices that more resemble video games than earlier forms of surgery. Here miniscule tubes outfitted with imaging devices and connected to microsurgical tools are operated by the surgeon through skilled eye-hand coordination to perform the operation (sometimes called "Nintendo surgery").

Instrumental Hermeneutics

To this point, instrumentation has been described in relation to the way in which bodily-perceptual capacities are amplified or magnified. A different set of instrumentations, again going back to antiquity, relates more obviously to the human capacities for making and reading inscriptions, that is, instrumentation that engages interpretive or hermeneutic practices. Inscriptions found on reindeer antlers, dated as much as 30,000 years ago, have been found with twenty-eight cycle patterns, thus likely signifying a lunar cycle. Abstract hatch marks and other inscriptions have been found alongside the highly isomorphic or "realistic" depictions of animals in the cave regions of France and Spain have also been found (18,000 to 15,000 years ago). With early modernity, calculating machinery began to be employed, usually with counters inscribed with numbers or letters and driven by complex gearing. Dials, gauges, readable panels, all are forms of instrumentation engaging "reading" or hermeneutic skills.

The recognition of perceptual patterns, particularly as images, and the recognition of inscriptions in number-like (counting) or letter-like (reading) form, are both instrumental. The philosopher of science Peter Galison (1997) calls these the image and logic traditions that dominate late modern physics. But the data-to-image-to-data inversions are also a newly dominant form of instrumentation in contemporary science.

Technoscientific Instrumentation

Contemporary science is technoscience—that is, a science thoroughly embodied in its technologies and instruments. Only since the middle of the twentieth century has astronomy broken the bounds of both ancient "eyeball" and then early modern optical instrumentation. First, with the breakthrough provided by radio astronomy (associated with the development of radar), then through forms of spectroscopy that range from very short gamma-waves to very long radio-waves, has the limitation of optical wave frequencies been exceeded. In the early twenty-first century, slices of the microwave spectrum, such as x-ray imaging, can show pulsars in action, or map the dark emissions of the radio spectrum. In a parallel fashion, medical imaging, ranging from photography through the x-ray devices from 1895, to MRI and PET scans since the 1970s, perform the same function with respect to imaging the human body.

These processes are made possible through: (a) the data-image conversions possible through computer tomography and computer-aided technology (CAT) processes, (b) modeling and simulation techniques again employing computations, and (c) the algorithmic projection of imagery such as may be instanced in fractal patterning. Thus contemporary imaging may be either processed as data (numbers, counting, calculational) or as imaging (picture-like), and each form is transposable to the other. More important, however, is that the range of phenomena detectable through contemporary forms of sensing may not only be remote, but it exceeds all ordinary bodily perceivability, as has been analyzed at length by Ernesto Mayz Vallenilla (1990).

Yet, indirectly or in the form of new mediations, such instrumentation translates its results into countable/readable ones. Contemporary Mars and Saturn missions image the surface of Mars or the rings of Saturn, close up, and return these to the earth-bound observer for perceivable, close-up results. Or in the case of the Chandra X-ray source, images of the explosive nebulae through "false color" depictions can be perceptually grasped in human visual form. Instrumentation provides science with its own sensorium.

Popular Instrumentation

While the above overview of instrumentation has been focused upon various science practices, the same or similar types of instrumentation have more common manifestations. Some have said that the twenty-first century will be the century of one big and one little technology. The big technology is the home entertainment and work center, containing a high-definition screen for television, computing, and communicating, and a multimedia, multi-tasking station that incorporates the Internet, word processing, communications, and entertainment. The small, mobile technology that incorporates digital photography, mini-screen, for everything from cell phoning to email to reading barcodes for purchases is the other extreme of the big/little technofantasy. This is a not unrealistic extrapolation from extant technologies that are also social-cultural-economic instruments.

In one sense, these technologies are the same as those noted in science. Each transforms the texture of human experience. If contemporary astronomy produces near-distance with its images of multi-billion-year-old galaxies, so does electronic communication make near-distance of every electronically accessible spot on the globe. If the technologies are state-of-the-art audiovideo ones, then any online place can produce conference interchanges. Or if lapsed time is used, as in videos, cinemas, or Internet technologies, then the result is even more like the galaxy example, and lapsed-time phenomena are made into present-time phenomena. Academic experience is illustrative: Many first time contacts are electronic, by email, or telephone. Arrangements for conferences, lectures, travels, are almost always arranged electronically—including air tickets. First person contact may or may not follow, and when it does, the follow-up reverts to the electronic instrumentation. Academic globalization is already electronically embodied and actual.

Ethics of Instrumentation

This communication-entertainment-information instrumentation also entails complex ethical-political, cultural-economic dimensions. Especially in the area of medical instrumentation, a primary question concerns safety. In the area of communications instrumentation more generally, a primary issue is privacy.

But more generally still one can examine the social justice of who has access to the whole communication-entertainment-information instrumentation complex. Is the globally interconnected world merely another elite? Is the trajectory centralist or decentralist? Many have noticed the extreme irony of the Internet—originally designed to be a fail-safe mode of communication for a military-university elite, it has become a diffuse, world-connecting instrument for everything from spam, electronic scams, and virtual romances to instant political dissemination of news and politics—and a new mode of campaign financing. No one knows if the outcome will be more democratic or more totalitarian. Yet by virtue of both the unpredictability and the indeterminacy (or, better, underdetermined) qualities produced by these new instruments, new opportunities have clearly come into being.

While prognosis is ambiguous, in part because all technologies display multiple possible developments and uses, the human-instrument relationship exhibits its own multiple dimensions. Many contemporary instruments are complex and characterized as "high tech" machines, implying the need for a highly skilled, technically informed set of users—technocrats and technically trained individuals. But although some subset of technically proficient persons is needed for the infrastructure of such technologies, a different set of skills is required for instrumental uses. For example, generational differences are often remarked upon in that young children quickly become computer literate whereas older people often display reluctance or "technophobias" regarding these technologies. Yet the child is not so much a technician as a skilled user. One need not know computer programming to play a video game, any more than one needs to know physics to ride a bicycle. Yet it is also interesting that the emergence of both many software developments and the location of much worldwide hacking and virus development is associated with countries once thought to be underdeveloped or under-technologized.

Instrumentation, whether in knowledge production, communication, commerce, entertainment, and much of the full range of human activity, is a means by which human perceptual and interpretive activity is embodied. As the above examples show, instrumentation may be very simple (a gnomon) or very complex (Internet), but the diffusion, adaptability, and spread of instrumentation technologies is more dependent upon the easy adaptability into human use practices—which then change—than the degree or type of complexity built into the technology. Historically, photography, radio, cinema, and television all were rapidly diffused, whereas modern agricultural and transportation technologies were not, or took much longer to be adapted. One possible reason for this may be the ease with which bodily-perceptual actions are quickly and without much technical training brought into play. To hear a radio and recognize a voice, to see a movie, to recognize a photograph is an almost immediate phenomenon. Contrarily, to transfer a set of agricultural practices or ship building skills is much more complex. Instrumentation, in the very contemporary sense, entails both kinds of complexity. The evening news, or the Cassini image of Saturn's rings, both involve large, complex infrastructures and global or even interplanetary connections—but both yield perceivable results as focal outcomes of instrumentation.


SEE ALSO Body;Experimentation;Scientific Review.


Crease, Robert P. (2003). The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science. New York: Random House. Robert Crease, philosopher of science and historian for the Brookhaven National Laboratory, discusses the history and science of ten historical experiments in Western science.

Galison, Peter. (1997). Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Mallinckrodt Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, Peter Galison is particularly noted for his philosophical style which more deeply incorporates the role of technologies into science practice. This book shows that two traditions, imagers and counters, pervade late modern physics.

Husserl, Edmund. (1970). The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. This "classic" of phenomenology, the last major book published by Husserl, introduces the notions of Lifeworld and science arising from practices now more common in science studies.

Ihde, Don. (1990). Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. This systematic philosophy of technology introduces the roles of different human-technology relations, cultural hermeneutics and contemporary trajectories to philosophy of technology.

Ihde, Don. (1991). Instrumental Realism: The Interface Between Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. The first English language book to relate philosophy of technology to the "newer" technologically sensitive philosophers of science.

Mayz Vallenilla, Ernesto. (1990). Fundamentos de la meta-técnica. Caracas: Monte Avila. A Spanish language philosopher of technology is one of the few to deeply appreciate and work with contemporary instrumentation in science. English translation: The Foundations of Meta-Technics, trans. C. Mitcham, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004.


views updated May 18 2018

in·stru·men·ta·tion / ˌinstrəmənˈtāshən; -men-/ • n. 1. the particular instruments used in a piece of music; the manner in which a piece is arranged for instruments: Telemann's specified instrumentation of flute, violin, and continuo. ∎  the arrangement or composition of a piece of music for particular musical instruments: an experiment in instrumentation.2. measuring instruments regarded collectively: the controls and instrumentation of an aircraft. ∎  the design, provision, or use of measuring instruments.


views updated Jun 27 2018

instrumentation. Writing of mus. for particular instrs., especially referring to composer's knowledge of what is practicable on various instrs. Also used in sense of orchestration.