This Is My Racism

In recent months, “race relations” has been in the news a lot here in America due to “racially-motivated violence”. We’ve seen videos of innocent black citizens gunned down by the police that is supposed to protect them. We’ve seen a community devastated by a terrorist attack that can only be described as pure, premeditated evil. We’ve seen numerous examples of peaceful protests turning ugly, with attendees being beaten, mocked, and abused by government representatives. As these events unfolded, I have for the most part been a spectator. What else could I be? To be sure, I’ve retweeted the requisite amount of condemnation, and penned my own 140-character expressions of grief, but this is a mere echo of a thought, too frail to stand even in aggregate against a tidal wave of injustice. And so for the most part I have remained silent, trying simply to fathom the extent of the twistedness we find ourselves in, and failing, or being distracted, even in that small effort.

Recently, it occurred to me that there is something else I can do. Something that won’t fit in a tweet or be very popular. Something that might be long, hard to deal with, or uncomfortable to read. Something that may or may not connect with any audience. But there is something that can help me, at least, plumb more of the depths of the dark cancer that gnaws at the heart of potential reconciliation in our country. I can talk about my racism. I can talk about what part I play, or have played, in this drama that we’re so shamefully writing as a society.

“Hold on a minute”, everyone who knows me will say. “Isn’t this just some kind of false humility, or publicity stunt, or exercise in link-baiting? You’re the last person I would call a racist!” And indeed, there is much to my credit, both ideologically and in my actions, with regard to love and respect for people of all races and persuasions. I live in San Francisco, arguably the least ideologically-racist city in America. I’m a software developer, working in a field that many like to think of as a meritocracy. I’m a fan of diversity, inclusion, and non-violence. I talk to everyone I meet on the street or in bars or restaurants with respect, regardless of their skin color or social position. I’m what many would consider a radical feminist, acknowledging the unjust system of male domination that has irrevocably shaped the workings of society since the beginnings of society (a system, I would argue, that has deeper and stronger roots even than racism). I lived in Kenya for almost a year, volunteering to help make the lives and prospects of African orphans better. I did my best to learn Swahili so as not to participate in the implicit colonial narrative of a white person in Africa. I became a vegetarian because the children I was with could not afford to eat meat. Ask any of my friends, and they’ll tell you that I’m an all-around bridge-building type of person. So in what crazy possible world would I be counted among “racists”?

Unfortunately, that world is all too actual. Racism is not just about our beliefs, what we would claim, or even our conscious actions. It’s much more often implicit, pre-arranged; it’s in the air we breathe. The world comes to us racist. The structures of society are set up as positive feedback mechanisms, and those of us that benefit by being on the upward spiral can easily go through life without seeing how those benefits are often powered by some form of racism or sexism. This is just the way things are set up. Of course, these structures encourage narratives that can birth a more overt form of racism as well.

I grew up in North-Central Texas, in a small town outside of Dallas. Neither of my parents were from Texas, and we didn’t move there until I was 6, so we didn’t feel very “Texan”, but I soon learned about the centuries-deep furrows that “race” had carved into the social soil. My Junior High and High School were pretty diverse, with (I think) less than 50% White students, and substantial Black and Hispanic populations. It was also highly segregated. Friendships did not easily cross racial boundaries, and while there must have been one or two, I can’t remember specifically any interracial romantic relationships. Neighborhoods were also fairly segregated. My neighborhood (predominantly White) bordered on another neighborhood (predominantly Black). I remember the first time I was driven to a house in that latter, poorer neighborhood. It was made obvious to me through what those around me were saying that this neighborhood was “worse”, that it was dangerous, and that our friends who lived there were surely only doing so because, as poor missionaries, they couldn’t afford to live in a “better” area. Why was the neighborhood worse and dangerous? There may not have been an explicit link, but it was described as being a “Black” neighborhood. As a result, I believe that my first racist feeling was one of fear. Black people were dangerous, and I shouldn’t go to this area on my own.

And so, in my experience, Black people were talked about in general as a “they”. They were a “they” because we didn’t have Black friends, and it allowed us to lump all of these people together in our minds according to this one attribute that they shared: skin color. And again, because we didn’t bother to differentiate between this or that Black person (which we could have done by making friends with Black people, for example), many negative adjectives (“dangerous”, “low class”, “aggressive”) were taken to apply not just to this category of people, but back again to individuals. This is how a stereotype succeeds in its self-sustaining reaction: the two reagents (“white” and “black”) were close enough to combust, but not close enough to forestall a meltdown.

In Junior High, I made a friend on the school bus. We both played trumpet in band, and liked to read books, and we began to sit together on the way to school. He was Black, though, and I soon discovered the awkwardness of enjoying being with him on one hand, and then on the other hand listening to my White friends making fun of him behind his back. Some of it was normal kid stuff that I also suffered—he was a “nerd”, and he had a funny last name that led to the kind of crude and cruel puns junior-highers are known for. I also had to deal with this kind of thing. But some of the mockery was about his appearance, specifically his “huge lips”, which was derogatory code for his being “really Black”. I’m deeply sad to say that, in the face of this kind of social pressure, I increasingly avoided him until we no longer spent any time together. It’s this kind of non-action, not any overt pro-action, that characterizes my racism, and much of the implicit racism in our culture. Did I personally make fun of him? No. I even said (feebly), “Hey, he’s actually pretty cool” one or two times. But at the end of the day, did I disturb the status quo for the sake of a promising geeky friendship? No. And so the train rolls on, and the wheels bite ever deeper into the grooves of the age-old carnival ride we wish we would end.

It’s not just about staying quiet while my friends told racist jokes, or when they laughed about what some “crazy nigger” did, or when they viewed a Black woman as a totally different kind of sex object than a White woman. It wasn’t just how I contributed, because of my own sharp need to be accepted by my peers, to the endemic racism in our society. It was also what I missed out on! How impoverished was I, who could have experienced so many more kinds of relationship in life! But it’s not that simple. By the time you’re a teenager in a society like this, race-driven “culture” has shaped you just as much as latent ideas about race itself. For a few weeks in a row, my family went to a nearby Black church. I’m not sure why. Maybe (let’s be generous) we were moved by a desire to see the unity of the Church crossing racial boundaries. All I can remember is being terrified—the only White kid in a sea of Black people, everyone looking and waving and Hallelujah-ing at me the whole time. I felt embarrassed both by their exuberance and then by my own cultural faux pas of not jumping and raising my hands in praise. Race aside, I found it impossible to connect with the culture of that place. I couldn’t understand or affirm the constant shouting and hand-waving. I couldn’t understand or affirm the expensive suits and showy preaching. And so on. To an introverted geek, it was a cultural nightmare.

Reflecting now, it may also have been exactly the kind of thing that my 14-year-old self needed in order to become a less withdrawn, lonely, and isolated kid, but that ship has sailed. My point is simply that living in a segregated society from early on, and the early whispered conversations about Black people as a “they”, set in motion a force very much like compound interest. By the time I was 14, Black culture was already so ineffable and threatening to me given my own cultural background that from that point on I haven’t really been able to make any Black (that is, culturally “Black”) friends. “I just don’t get the culture”, I’ve heard myself say in the past—this coming from a person who’s traveled the world, lived abroad, and studied many cultures, including in Africa!

But you know, society has conspired to keep me from having to really look at that head-on. I left Texas before my Senior year of High School, and headed to Florida, where the race dialogue was different (and I spoke Spanish, so no problems there). Then on to sunny, perfect, California for college and most of the rest of my subsequent story. I now live in San Francisco, the techno-Mecca where as a society we’ve gotten rid of everyone, like most Black people, who can’t afford to “pay to play” (except for the homeless, who from many citizens’ perspectives just haven’t had the good grace to shuffle on).

It was only recently, when White-on-Black police brutality and terrorism began to surface in the news, that I was turned on to a stream of different voices. Reading the #drivingwhileblack tweets, for example, helped me begin to understand the basic experience of life from a Black perspective, and how different that is from my own. Ultimately, it motivated me to share my own small, ugly story. Just a drop in an overwhelming sea of ugliness, to be sure, but a drop nonetheless. I have no illusions that these confessions or reflections are valid penance, or that penance is even what is necessary. Nor am I writing out of “White man’s guilt” or “White man’s shame”. Nor do I deny that I have been bullied by Black kids while growing up, in situations where it seemed to have been at least partially racially motivated. Racism, as I’ve pointed out many times, is a systemic as well as a personal issue, and it emphatically must be spoken to and about on that systemic level. But I think we have the best chance of facing the systemic issues effectively when we’ve already faced them in our own hearts, and our own bodies, and our own relationships. 20 years ago, with my Black friend on the school bus, I was not able to “speak truth to power”. Today, I might be one small step closer.

I don’t think the conversation in America should be about whether so-and-so is racist, or even asking the question, “am I racist?” I think we need to readily acknowledge that we are racist, and quickly move on from there to ask the harder, more revealing, and more powerful question: “what does my racism look like?”. We need to go from denial to doubt to admission to finally getting our hands dirty with the realities of our individual racisms. The amazing thing is, if we can deal with this, I think we’ll be able to see more clearly how racism is just one species of otherism, the fundamental pushing-away and dehumanizing of those who aren’t “like me”. I think we’ll be more willing to see, then, our own (and society’s) fundamental misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc… I sincerely hope that one day I can live in a world where my own brokenness (as I’ve described above), or the brokenness of the system, or even the brokenness of someone who is doing me wrong, don’t mean that I’m forever closed to the way someone else sees the world. In that scenario, we all lose.

I am not here to heap guilt and condemnation on someone who’s not ready to acknowledge what lies in their own heart. I am here to engage in an act of public confession, hoping that it will lead, not to others’ similar confessions, but to my own redemption. What I’m doing now takes infinitely less courage than to face the murderer of one’s family and say, “Since Jesus forgives you, I also forgive you”. But I hope it is an incremental step in my own journey of becoming more courageous to act and speak in situations where an individual or a system threatens the personhood of one of my fellow human beings, especially when that fellow human being is difficult for me to understand or to love.

The antidote to my—indeed, our—racisms is not for us to become “color-blind”, but rather for us to hear the stories, and acknowledge the realities, of people of all colors, to allow their Otherness to penetrate through the scars of our own wounds and suffocate the worms of fear, guilt, and shame, fertilizing with their decomposition a new soil in our hearts. Only then will we see others with respect, and only then will we be able to be something more than a land void of racism. Then will we enter the promised land that Dr. King foresaw, a land defined not by the absence of hate but by the presence of love.

[Photo: a street in the author’s Texas hometown]
[Edit: Some discussion is happening on Hacker News]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 22, “The Challenge of Nature”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

This chapter is a sort of case study or example of something we might start deictic discourse (the subject of the last chapter) about in a fruitful way. Borgmann thinks that, in North America, nature (specifically as “wilderness”) is possibly the most obvious place to start looking for focal concerns to discourse deictically about. We’ll first start with a brief history of attitudes towards North American wilderness, then discuss previous attempts by conservationists to involve the wilderness in public discourse, and finally explore a new understanding of wilderness from within the context of our technological society.

The initial view of wilderness was that, being wild, it was a terrifying place. It was something that was not good until it could be tamed into a garden. And early European settlers (or invaders, however you see them), after a brief flirtation with the idea of the New World as a beautiful Eden, eventually saw it as an empty land, waiting to be wrought into shape. Of course, the land wasn’t “empty” by any stretch, nor was it unsettled or uncultivated; civilizations and centuries-long relationships with land already existed, in the form of the Native Americans.

Anyway, while this view of wilderness as a chaotic void waiting to be tamed was pre-technological, it was certainly amenable to the technological approach once that came on the scene. The technological paradigm sees nature as something to be shaped, something to be used as a mere means, as a raw material. And this indeed became the mission, not so much of the pioneers, but of early American industry: to subdue the wilderness and turn it into something that could become part of the production of goods that benefit humankind. Whereas in the Old World there were much more long-lasting ties between humans and the lands they dwelled in, this more instrumental view of nature in the New World did not encourage such ties.

On the other hand, in the Old World, nature was much more often cultivated than not; relatively speaking, there was much less true “wilderness” left in Europe. Thus the American wilderness can be seen as providing a unique challenge to the technological paradigm, in two senses: first, it can be a challenge within the framework. In this sense, wilderness is something to be overcome by technology. It might prove at first unyielding to technology; for a long time we lacked the ability to blast holes through mountains, for example. Technology overcomes this challenge through the outworking of the paradigm, applying scientific insight with the aim of deconstructing natural resources for us. Second, wilderness can be a challenge to the framework of technology itself, for example by highlighting necessary conversations about domination vs respect and conservation. If the technological paradigm in and of itself must take a dominating stance to nature, then the existence of the wilderness could be seen as a counterexample to that paradigm.

Technology does have within itself some resources to meet this kind of challenge, however. Recreation and human enjoyment is one of the avowed ends of technology, and it could be argued (from within that framework) that we should therefore preserve some wilderness so that humans have access to that particular kind of pleasure. Borgmann points out that this kind of argumentation is not what he means by deictic discourse, and thus ultimately not the kind of talk that brings the real issues to the fore. When conservationists use these kinds of arguments (arguments according to practical rationality), they give up the possibility of speaking movingly and eloquently about this thing (the wilderness) that has so deeply affected them.

In other words, feeling the need to give a justification for conservation gives the game away before it starts, because it is then always an open move to rank the wilderness against some other supposed human benefit (like safety, or convenience). It fails to disclose nature to us as something other, something that has value in its own right outside of human instrumentality. As Borgmann says, “Discourse of nature can hope finally to be successful only if it abandons the conceptual outposts and bulwarks and allows nature to speak directly and fully in one’s words” (187).

Early analyses of technology vis a vis nature talked a lot about the intrusiveness of technology. The loud and brash steam locomotive, for example. There was a sense that technology was constructing a “machine in the garden”, so to speak. More recently, as Borgmann’s book is trying to show, technology has been shaping our lives more concretely precisely when it is less intrusive, precisely when it is the hidden backdrop of all our actions. A city suburb, for example, is a technological device through and through: a conglomeration of commodities procured by hidden machinery. Thus, “the advanced technology setting is characterized not by the violence of machinery but by the disengagement and distraction of commodities” (189). The balance has shifted. Now nature is the island, the garden in the machine, not the other way around.

On one hand, this feels defeating. Has nature been fully conquered? Borgmann wants us to take a more positive view: these islands can be sources of challenge for the technological paradigm, sacred spaces where technological distractions can be (in virtue of their conspicuous absence) be seen for what they are, viscerally. Borgmann’s not saying that we should turn nature into religion or that it’s the only way of accessing the divine, but it is a clear starting point for this kind of thing.

How does this work, exactly? How does nature have the possibility of bringing these issues up for us in this “sacred” way? We could look at some oppositions between life in technology and life in the wilderness.

  • Technology annihilates time and space (in bringing everything and everyone closer in both dimensions, until space has no more meaning). Wilderness restores it to us. The sun is our compass, the land delineates clear boundaries with its physical features. A day in the wilderness is marked by the rhythm of the various activities necessary for survival.
  • Technology bespeaks human creation; nature speaks to us as an another, outside the human world. It speaks as something in its own right, which devices never do.
  • Technology takes a shallow view of objects, and turns them into commodities. Nature is eminently deep. An animal in the eyes of technology is a machine that produces such-and-such amount of meat and other materials that are worthless and must be discarded. In the wilderness, the animal is a focus of nature, a distillation of the land itself and the bounty that it can support. In the wilderness, we are not consumers or conquerors, but engaged guests. We can, in a different way even than the animal, gather and focus (like a prism) the beauty and meaning around us.

Of course, these days the wilderness is always bounded by or mediated by technology. We drive to the mountains. We see jet contrails while backpacking. These slight intrusions remind us of the troubled relationship between nature and technology. They call us to be less egotistical, less anthropocentric in our treatment of the world. We also recognize that in our wilderness expeditions nowadays, it is the blessings of technology that keep us warm, well-fed, and safe. Our technical clothing, footgear, lightweight tents, dried food, and so on. But wait a minute! Is it not contradictory with the spirit of Borgmann’s analysis to want to enter the wild in safety and ease? Maybe it is to some extent, but Borgmann acquiesces that it would be foolish to court death in the wilderness. We have to have a mature recognition that the need to risk our lives in nature has been done away with. Still, this doesn’t mean that we can simply let the wilderness vanish; in fact the opposite is even more true. Our position of technological safety in the wilderness highlights nature’s fragility and need for protection. In a way, we as the children of nature have grown up, and are now “old” enough (technologically advanced enough) to see the frailty and complexity of our parents. This situation should move us to compassion and care, not extortion or abandonment.

In other words, the wilderness can help us acknowledge our need for technology, the fact that we fundamentally rely on it now, and there’s no going back. At the same time, nature helps us acknowledge our need to limit technology. On its own, technology neither needs nor wants limits, but engagement with focal things (or practices) like nature can help us outline that more mature and humble engagement with technology. Focal things are not just forlorn, pre-technological bygones; they can have a new and deep splendor, even in the technological world, so long as we heed their call to a mature and appropriately limited technology.

In the next chapter, we’ll dig even more deeply into the concept of “focal things and practices”, and move from nature to a number of other examples and how they might be patterns for us to move forward and find yet more in our own lives, about which we can speak deictically and effectively.

[Header photo by the author; Joshua Tree in 2009]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 21, “Deictic Discourse”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

We turn now to the chapter wherein Borgmann finally goes into detail about the kind of discourse he actually thinks can have an impact on the current state of technological society: deictic discourse. Deictic discourse is discourse guided by specific focal concerns. It’s hard to know exactly what that means, or why it’s especially effective, and this chapter unpacks its relevance.

The context for these considerations is our earlier discussion about society and the good life. The liberal democratic tradition thinks it has left the question of the good life open in a good and fruitful way, but Borgmann would say that it’s not actually as open as it looks. In fact, we live our lives according to a relatively constrained set of possibilities defined by the technological paradigm. Recognizing that this is the case is of course the first step to doing something about it. But this recognition and any ensuing conversation is actually a pretty rare thing. How come? Well, as a society, the only real public conversations left to us are in the realm of politics, and thanks to the ideals of liberal democracy, political debate is kept fastidiously free of any real moral discussion (for reasons enumerated in previous chapters, e.g., that questions of the good life are to be answered by individuals and not society). The irony is, again, that these questions haven’t been left open; we have chosen a definite way of life as a society, only we’re not allowed to acknowledge it as part of our public discourse. This is part and parcel of “the catastrophe of liberalism which overturns the traditional order without being able to institute a new one” (170).

It is deictic discourse that re-opens the possibility of that conversation. Crucially, it doesn’t strive for pure philosophical cogency (and by cogency Borgmann has in mind a style of argument that compels assent), but rather “points” (hence the term deictic from Greek deiknumi) to something in our common experience which might be able to make a claim on us in virtue of its focal nature (i.e., in virtue of its capacity for sustaining and orienting human experience and significance).

But hold on a minute. Is it really true that there is no “moral” discourse in our political debates? In a sense, Borgmann allows that there is. There are discussions about responsibility, honesty, accountability, and fair dealing, but by and large these fall within and are defined by the technological paradigm, and the explicit and banal goal of maximizing resources and profit. In that context, yes, it is objectionable for an operator to exhibit greed—but the moral force of our reprehension has little to do with the inherent moral vice of greed and more to do with the inappropriateness of that action in hindering the smooth working of the economic engine. Or occasionally some genuinely “moral” movements might spring up from political or religious motivations, but these usually end up simply promoting the expansion of technology to population segments that don’t have it yet. Finally, there are sometimes “purely moral” discussions that have to do with the death penalty, abortion, pornography, etc…, which are increasingly incomprehensible by a technological society and often just do a lot of harm.

The one thing that’s never actually on the table is the explicit goal of technology, namely consumption. Consumption comes pre-justified (unless it harms someone else). Someone might be considered frivolous for buying a car in a mid-life crisis, but it would be “his business to spend his money how he wants”, not an opening for an ethical conversation. But this sweeps off the table whole areas of life that used to be squarely within the field of ethics! Now these issues just get a free ride, without any possibility of moral critique.

Consumption, of course goes against a positive notion of freedom, i.e., the promise of technology for self-improvement, which is ironically removed even further from us when the self is realized via consumption. Borgmann believes that, deep down, we all feel this: “I believe that what shows itself in the vacuity or arbitrariness of most private moral discourse is neither ethical pluralism nor ethical chaos but complicity with technology” (173). In other words, what we consider with pride to be a good sort of liberal ethical pluralism is in fact a very definite, non-pluralistic kind of morality based around consumption. What we need is for this fact to take center stage as a moral issue.

For any moral issue to be genuinely discussed will be hard, however, because of the ghosts of dogmatistm, bigotry, superiority, etc…, not to mention that traditional morality holds no sway with modern society. But the most difficult aspect will be that deictic discourse lacks, according to Borgmann, “cogency and procurability”, which are now the standard requirements of any discourse, presumably because of the privileged place of science in explanation (never mind that people don’t actually understand how science works). Borgmann points out that this is actually a feature of deictic discourse, but in the context of our modern expectations of cogency, it is a challenge nonetheless.

But why be so quick to give up cogency? Why deictic discourse and not some other more airtight form of philosophical reasoning? As Borgmann points out, there’s a long history of philosophers trying to start with little and end with much, but just as in real life, this never actually works. Usually it turns out that stronger assumptions were smuggled in somewhere, and the dramatic conclusion is mere philosophical legerdemain, rather than a genuine proof. For example, JS Mill claims that, in most cases, focusing on one’s own happiness will lead to the greatest good for the most people (here the weak starting assumption is “just focus on your own happiness”, and the strong conclusion is that this will set society as a whole on the best path). Pascal’s Wager would be another example (it’s better to assume that God exists because that’s the bet that’s most likely to pay off, therefore…. God exists?). Borgmann’s point is that in each case the argument compels not because of its rational character but because of the strong, hidden starting assumptions, which are precisely where deictic discourse begins and ends. Only, it does so honestly, without pretending to be something other than it is.

Ultimately, if there’s going to be a successful critique of the social malaise inculcated by technology, it has to come through deictic discourse. So what could its impetus be? Borgmann says that it needs to begin with the inner experience of something of ultimate significance (i.e., a focal thing or practice) that’s threatened by technology, and it must be fueled by regard for our fellow human beings. What, then, are some of the characteristics of this kind of discourse? It has three descriptors:

  1. It is enthusiastic: it is filled by the greatness of the thing that I’m disclosing, its potential for solace and delight. In other words, it springs out of a real and genuine (even transcendent) encounter with something.
  2. It is sympathetic: it is tempered by concern for the integrity of the person I’m talking with. It cares more about that person than their allegiance to what I’m disclosing. In fact, I’ll prevent their agreement if it looks like it would injure their agency.
  3. It is tolerant: it recognizes that violence or aggression will automatically nullify what I’m trying to disclose, and cause more harm than good. Violence and force are never worth it.

This is why Borgmann says that deictic discourse lacks cogency in a positive way: it simply discloses the good as an opportunity, as an open door that one may walk through, and the land through which I have experienced myself to be good. Deictic discourse is a witnessing or appealing kind of communication, not an expository kind of communication, or even a persuasive/rhetorical kind of communication. Borgmann says that this kind of discourse is what our democracy needs (and I heartily agree). Of course, liberal democracy must be opposed to deictic discourse since deictic discourse presumes to communicate a concrete aspect of the good life, and liberal democracy is committed to leaving the good life “open”. In other words, it believes that it has created an environment of true tolerance. The reply is as before: liberal democracy only claims to have left the good life open; in fact it hasn’t done so: “The question of the good life, as said before, cannot be left open. What remains open is not whether but how we will answer it.”

Deictic discourse has two modes, corresponding to its character of witnessing on one hand and appealing on the other. As a witness’s testimony, it becomes poetry. And as a strong appeal, it becomes politics. In fact, deictic discourse must be the ground of all real political action. Apodeictic discourse (the kind that comes by scientific or philosophical reasoning) can demand assent, but only in the narrow sphere of its own definitions. To connect it to action there must always be a deictic component. Deictic explanation is the only kind that can fill the is-ought gap.

A final critique of deictic discourse is that what is a focal thing or practice for me, what is of ultimate concern for me, is merely my imposition of significance. This is supposed to disqualify my appeal from generality, but Borgmann doesn’t dodge the critique. It is true, and irrefutably so. On the other hand, it’s inconsequential. Deictic discourse doesn’t aim to show that something is generally significant, or universally true. Its strength comes from precisely the opposite: it is grounded in the dirt of my own specific experience. It is unapologetically personal; it puts the question of significance to the interlocutor in a way that raises the question of her own experience as well. It says, in sum, “come and see”.

And thus ends Borgmann’s powerful explanation of deictic discourse. To drive the point home further, in the next chapter he will give an example of something about which deictic discourse is eminently suited: our natural environment and our relationship to it.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 20, “The Possibilities of Reform”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

This is the first chapter of Part 3, “The Reform of Technology”, where we are going to consider how focal things and practices can amount to a solid reform of technology. We have some difficult topics to cover: how have attempts already been made to reform technology? How can we use language, itself patterned and conditioned by technology, to speak of reform? What exactly are these vaunted “focal things and practices”? If reform is even possible, how can it be extended to the national/international dialogue? Ultimately the goal here is to repair society to that it can recover and re-appropriate the initial hopes and promises of technology.

Specifically, Chapter 20 examines proposals for technology’s reform that are already on the table. True understanding is always a prerequisite to effective reform, and that has been the goal of TCCL so far. We also need to understand the space of possibilities for reform. Many people feel the need for a reform of technology, but the pains and frustrations that prompt this desire are various, and flow out of different analyses of the technological situation. Ultimately, the best reform will flow out of the best analysis of technology: if the analysis is superficial, so too will the reform be.

The main distinction Borgmann wants to make is between reforms within the paradigm of technology and reforms of the paradigm. Ultimately, he argues that what we need is the latter, but most of the reforms on offer fall into the former category, so that is what takes up most of the discussion for this chapter.

We’ve already met various suggestions for reform along the way in TCCL, in Part 2. Typically these take the form of calling for a return to the founding promise and hope of technology to make us better and to create the possibility of general liberty and prosperity. One example of such a call for reform is to “raise the value question” (as we discussed in Chapter 13), i.e., to bring to light society’s fundamental values and suggest that we examine them. The problem here is that technology is, on this picture, seen as a mere means, and so is ultimately compatible with whatever values society ends up adopting. The Device Paradigm can survive that kind of shift, and will continue to work itself out in the debilitating labor/leisure split we talked about in the last few chapters.

Other thinkers are disturbed by the kind of life technology fosters, but again call for change within the paradigm. The problem, it is thought, is that the machines aren’t doing their jobs well enough, or their value is not distributed equally enough. We need better machines, better software, and above all more human involvement and participation in the processes that lead to technical artifacts. While laudable and reasonable, these sentiments again don’t take the repatterning of technology as seriously as necessary. As we saw in Chapter 15 and Chapter 16, technology is too stable to respond to issues of social justice that don’t themselves threaten the paradigm, and is quite happy, perfectly-designed machines and all, to coexist with a variety of negative social arrangements.

Another large class of reform wants to see us take technology as a genuinely new development in human history, and to find meaning and inspiration in technology itself. Borgmann sees this brand of thinking as flowing out of “functionalism”, which we met without calling it such in Chapter 11 (in the guise of the idea that splitting things into their component “form” and “function” gives us insight about a thing’s essence; it is truly the “function” that matters). On this view what we need to do is to treat technological marvels as feats of human inspiration and genius, the way we see the great cathedrals of Medieval Europe. We should find in ourselves the same awe and sense of grandeur when contemplating the scope and intricacy of a particle accelerator as we do when viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Borgmann argues that we will struggle in vain to achieve this, however, since the cathedrals of Europe were not just feats of construction and artistry; they presented and embodied a unified Medieval vision of the world that was accessible to all (even though the finer points of theology and art were not). The cathedrals formed a part of community ritual, and were present during every mode and season of life, through birth, death, and all kinds of other celebrations. Borgmann is not arguing for the Medieval view of the world, simply pointing out that cathedrals had a “comprehensiveness, unity, accessibility, and enactment” (160) to them that modern technological wonders don’t.

Borgmann has something similar to say (and at length) about Robert Pirsig’s classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book’s main thrust is that careful attention to technological objects (like a motorcycle) can be as spiritually rewarding as as following traditional disciplines or contemplating natural objects. Ultimately Borgmann is just not convinced, and not least for the reason that the Device Paradigm is rendering our ability to truly understand even motorcycles obsolete. With the trend towards more complex machinery and simpler surfaces, we are rapidly departing the era where a motorcyclist might be able to truly understand the bike, tune it, repair it and so forth. What does it mean to contemplate an iPhone? We can’t take it apart, we can’t fiddle with it, we can’t get to know it, we can’t truly make it our own. All we have access to is the shiny surface and what developers are able to do with the predetermined APIs.

There are yet other types of reforms within the paradigm of technology, some of which are more mundane. We tacitly ask for reform whenever we want our software or our medicine to do a better job for us. But these “piecemeal” reforms are certainly without much in the way of insight. This is true for a number of reasons, but Borgmann calls out one in particular: it’s hard for technology to draw the line between serious contribution to humanity and frivolity or banality. But even if we could make this distinction, it’s not easy to see how technology could respond with its own resources, or whether a technological solution is even appropriate for the “serious” problems. As Borgmann says:

Assuming that frequent meals at fast food outlets are frivolous, should one oppose them, knowing that the burden of home-cooked meals will fall disproportionately on women? … Finally, there are unquestionably serious problems such as lung cancer and acid rain, for which, it would seem, we should try to find a technological fix by all available means. But these problems spring largely from frivolous consumption [smoking, mass production of unnecessary goods], and is it not more reasonable to prevent them from arising than to fix them technologically? (164)

In short, we can look at problems from either a technological or a social point of view, and we have for a long time been using only the first perspective, assuming that the right or best solution is technological. (This is certainly the case where I live in San Francisco, where social arrangements are constantly being disrupted by technological solutions to what are arguably social problems).

One stream of technological reform, what Borgmann dubs the “appropriate technology” movement, does acknowledge social reality to an extent. It is aware, for example, that simply dropping technological solutions on “third world” communities who have not yet had any history with technology can backfire in harmful ways. Or Ivan Tillich can talk about a “modern society of responsibly limited tools”, having in mind the absolutely admirable goal of inspiring society to consider acting within limits, and patterning our devices after that philosophy.

But ultimately, all these proposals of reform within the paradigm of technology don’t go deep enough. What we need is a reform of the paradigm itself. For Borgmann, this means that technology must be related to a “center”, instead of occupying that position de facto. By “center”, I think Borgmann has in mind a collection of things and practices that orient and sustain our lives, what he calls “focal concerns” or “focal things and practices”. Technology must be reformed so that it is arranged around those concerns, rather than occupying the center itself (and thereby eventually replacing those concerns with simulated and ultimately non-existent versions of them).

But how are we even to talk validly about these “focal concerns”? As we saw in our discussion of liberal democracy in Chapter 14, political discourse is set up in such a way that conversations about things of ultimate concern are out of bounds as topics of genuine debate. Borgmann will address how we might reclaim the validity of such discussions in the next chapter, “Deictic Discourse”.

Photo credit: Jessica Lipps 2015 (Succulent Clippings)

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 19, “The Stability of Technology”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

The point of this last chapter of Part 2 is to explore how “stable” the technological condition is on its own. We need to address this question because we’ve established that the technological condition is in need of reform. But if the whole thing isn’t very stable to begin with, then reform/revolution is easy: we simply wait for technological culture to fall apart on its own. In fact, many critics of technology take essentially this view—they believe technology is inherently unstable or has self-defeating tendencies. Borgmann disagrees with this assessment. His view is that technology has the resources within itself to solve whatever problems confront it, even the internal problems. The way that it will solve these problems is by continuing to extend the Device Paradigm into new areas, until it encompasses the whole of existence. Thus it is not a matter of technology “running out of steam” (pun intended), except accidentally or incidentally; it’s a matter of being clear about what a fully-technologized reality looks like so that we can attempt the necessary reform before it gets to that point. And that reform can’t be implemented if we misjudge the strength of the technological position.

This is the problem with many critiques of technology, Borgmann says, especially ones that begin with claims in the realm of ethics or morality. It becomes apparent in the course of argument that the proponents of technology have sufficient ways to reanalyze or respond to traditional morality, and so the critic has to retreat to saying, “well, that whole situation is not sustainable, you’ll see, it will fall apart one day” (Borgmann calls this the “unwarranted pessimism of the optimists” (145)). And indeed their pessimism seems unwarranted; however much our reality is reshaped by technology, it doesn’t appear to be falling apart of its own accord, though the traditionalists’ fears are indeed being realized. The most common claim about technology’s self-defeating character has to do with the ultimate limiting of resources. Critics argue that technology’s pace has only been sustained because we have not encountered an upper bound to the resources the technological engine needs to consume in order to continue producing new kinds of devices and commodities. But of course we will be running into that limit soon (and have already begun to feel the pinch more in the 30 years since Borgmann wrote, for example with oil). This will make the graph of technology’s effects look like an S-curve; innovation will eventually peter out.

This criticism is ultimately naive, though, because it doesn’t reflect solidly enough on the Device Paradigm. The paradigm has simply to be extended in a more universal manner, and the resource problem disappears. Once we begin to look at the Earth itself as a device (“Spaceship Earth”), we will look beyond the device to find the necessary resources to fuel the device. The challenges in doing so are “merely” technical, and surely the kind of challenges that technology is in a position to solve. Even the “political” or “moral” issues disappear once everyone is lined up behind this framework. The amount of time it took for us to go from total oblivion with regard to climate change or other negative effects of technology to radical awareness and action is astonishingly small (recognizing the fact that some powerful parties still refuse to acknowledge the issues). We’ve had this change of heart as a planet not because we’ve decided to curb our consumption in order to respect the natural limits set before us, but because we’ll run out of fuel and stall if we don’t take care. The moment we find a new source of energy to mine, we’ll proceed as before, with no greater permanent insight.

The deeper question in all this, of course, is: what does it mean for us to live in a device, a “ship” that requires “fuel”, floating in a vast, endless sea, rather than a familiar home, a mother, or any other of the more local conceptions of our planet? How does that alter our understanding of our own existence? How does it alter our respect for life for its own sake? And so on.

Ultimately, if the technological paradigm goes unchallenged, Borgmann believes the following situation will obtain:

  • We will reach a “physically homeostatic equilibrium”, first for the technologized nations then eventually everyone. In other words, change and disruption will be a thing of the past. The “availability” of technology will be made to encompass our entire experience, so that everything is safe, secure, reliable, ubiquitous, instant, easy, and so forth.
  • We will experience continued scientific discovery within whatever physical limits we’ve reached. After that, we will still have a limitless variation of commodities, not least of which will be around entertainment, which can mine culture (and via feedback, itself) in a self-perpetuating fashion ad infinitum.

Sound banal and dulling? The proponent of technology has to say that this picture isn’t getting imaginative enough about the possibilities of further technological developments. “Just wait!” she says, with regard to the upcoming “microelectronic revolution”. (Well, 30 years have passed, and we’re perhaps just now entering into the season that visionaries had in mind when they talked about the “microelectronic revolution”—what we would now perhaps call the “Internet of Things”). A fanciful blurb from Newsweek (when Borgmann was writing):

Welcome! Always glad to show someone from the early 80s around the place. The biggest change, of course, is the smart machines—they’re all around us.

It goes on to describe the various ways that “smart” devices around the home will make our lives easier and richer. You’d be familiar with all the examples: voice-controlled TVs and lights, kitchen appliances that mix cocktails perfectly, smart phone systems that know whom to screen, doors we unlock with our voice or fingerprint, etc… The question Borgmann wants to ask about this rhetoric is, “is this it?” Technology was initially propounded with such magnificent promise of lives enriched beyond measure, full of all the things that ultimately make existence significant. Has the promise been reduced to robotic mixologists and other devices that save us from the minor inconvenience of dealing with tasks and people? Perhaps not: there are still some authors, like Daniel Bell, who see technology as truly benefiting culture, making us all “more literate and educated”, as well as “culturally and politically attentive”. There are also of course all the “negative” benefits of technology, things like freedom from disease and so forth. But Borgmann’s main point is this: we have all either stopped caring about the deeper promises of technology, or not come to grips with the fact that those promises have not been realized, but have been co-opted by an endless progression of entertaining but meaningless paraphernalia. The promise of technology has been tied too strongly to the pattern of technology (the Device Paradigm). Can we recover the powerful vision (that spurred on technology’s early drivers) of our lives being transformed in genuinely good ways? Can technology be transformed?

If so, Borgmann says that:

It must be a way of finding counter-forces to technology that are guided by a clear and incisive view of technology and will therefore not be deflected or co-opted by technology. At the same time, such counter-forces must be able to respect the legitimacy of the promise and to guard the indispensable and admirable accomplishments of technology. (153)

Here we get a clear (if rare) statement that Borgmann is not opposed to the promise of technology or to recognizing its massive positive achievements. But the promise of technology must ultimately be grounded in something other than technology’s characteristic way of operating. We must not be asleep at the helm while the ship steers itself. And what exactly can ground technology in such a way is the subject of the next and last Part of TCCL: The Reform of Technology.

Photo credit: Jonathan Lipps 2008 (La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona)

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 18, “Leisure, Excellence and Happiness”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

We come now to one of the longest and, in my opinion, most interesting chapters of TCCL. The counterpart to the subject of the previous chapter (labor in technological society) is leisure. We recall that the splitting of life’s occupations into two distinct modes (labor and leisure) mirrors exactly the working of the Device Paradigm. Labor becomes the hidden machinery and leisure the surface, the commodity we are fundamentally “about” in life. Borgmann points out in this chapter that critiquing technological labor (what we have done in the previous chapter) is therefore only one side of the story: even proponents of technological society would readily admit that technological labor may not be the most fulfilling or most meaningful aspect of technological life. But the reason we accept the kind of work available in technological society is because it opens the possibility of leisure, of happiness—this is what the work is for. Surely technological society’s most compelling argument is to be found in the supposed fruits of technology, a life of leisure.

What are these fruits exactly? They come in two varieties: the first has a negative, disburdening character. Freedom from disease, for example. The other is more about consumption, which is what we normally associate with “leisure”. Technological visionaries took the negative form for granted; it was the positive form that conveyed the true promise of technology. But how has this actually been cashed out? As Borgmann says, “the fear that the positive and shining goal of technology has after two centuries of gigantic efforts remained distant and may even slip from sight leads a note of urgency if not panic to the pronouncements of those who urge that we continue to promote technology” (125). He quotes Isaac Asimov for context: “Robots will leave to human beings the tasks that are intrinsically human, such as sport, entertainment, and scientific research”. Here we begin to get to the heart of the issue. The promise of technology has always been that of a supremely enriched life. A life free of disease and premature death, certainly, but it is the positive character of the technologically liberated life which has inspired the speeches and rhetoric of technology’s proponents. It’s therefore eminently important to ask what exactly this positive character is supposed to be, and whether we see it actually taking shape in our lives.

There’s a problem in getting started with this question, unfortunately, and it has to do with the way that liberal democracy shields its inner workings from critique. Within this paradigm it’s inappropriate for us to discuss particularities of the ends individuals pursue; we can only ensure that those ends are left open. Borgmann wants to challenge this aspect of liberal democracy directly, and reopen a public discussion of the good life, but that particular argument awaits us in Part 3. For now, we have something else to work with, namely the concept of “excellence”. Borgmann argues that what is most clearly in view, both in the ideals of liberal democracy (what it hopes its citizens will aspire to) and in the promise of technological leisure, is something very much related to traditional notions of “excellence”. Borgmann sees excellence (inherited from the classical world with some Judeo-Christian influence) as consisting of 4 attributes:

  1. World citizenship (understanding the structure and coherence of the physical and social universe, being politically and socially knowledgeable and engaged)
  2. Gallantry (intellectual and physical valor and refinement)
  3. Facility in music and the arts
  4. Charity (the power to give, forgive, help, and heal)

Of course, these traits were perhaps only ever explicitly pursued by a non-working elite, but in the modern period there have existed analogues that all of us can readily relate to regardless of class. Assuming that something along these lines is implicitly or explicitly what proponents of technology like Asimov mean by “tasks that are intrinsically human” (i.e., the tasks we aspire to engage in with the leisure time afforded us by technology), we can straightforwardly evaluate whether our society is becoming “excellent” in this way by asking two questions: first, are people actually achieving these qualities in themselves? And second, whether or not they are achieving these qualities, how much of their available time and effort are they spending in pursuit of them?

I don’t think many will argue when Borgmann claims that the answer to the first question is a resounding “no”. Political disengagement is the norm, as is obesity. The arts are in decline, the foreign policy of the US can only be described as heavy-handed, and charity is rarely observed on the streets of our cities or in the laws we promulgate. We also have some data when it comes to answering the second question about how much time we spend pursuing activities that could reasonably lead to excellence as defined above. But before we answer that question, it is important to note that just because technological devices provide more free time, we don’t necessarily adopt it as leisure. We can also choose to engage in more labor (say to make more money and pursue a higher standard of living). That in fact is what we as a whole have consistently chosen, at least since WWII. We’ve chosen bigger houses and more commodities instead of more time to pursue “leisurely” ends. But what of the time that we do have for such ends? Borgmann goes into some detail on this, and with various qualifications, we can conclude that we spend about 4 times as much of our free time on TV as on excellence-promoting activities (sport, reading, political engagement, music, etc…). [And remember that Borgmann wrote TCCL three decades ago. Anecdotally, every statistic I’ve seen since childhood has only shown an increase in time devoted to TV and eventually Internet-based media.]

It’s likely that none of this is surprising, but Borgmann insists it should be disturbing to proponents of technology, who for hundreds of years have used something like the promise of excellence-filled leisure to inspire gargantuan efforts in the service of a technological reshaping of the world. Of course, it’s always open for a proponent of technology to let slip the moorings of traditional excellence, and claim that a technological age has its own inner logic that early advocates simply could not articulate. In fact, the Device Paradigm is one such formulation of technology according to its own inner workings: it says that the technological enterprise succeeds not when everyone is pursuing excellence but when every thing is technologically available (in the sense defined in Chapter 9). But does technological availability lead to happiness? Another way of putting the foregoing discussion about leisure is to say that technology has always held high the promise of happiness.

Happiness is of course hard to define a priori, and it’s no less of a moving target when defined from a technological perspective. But, it’s not difficult to ask people how happy they feel. If this kind of avowed happiness is any indication, technology is doing quite poorly; as technology has reshaped more and more of everyday life, professed happiness has decreased, at least since WWII. What explanations are there for this? Some (e.g., Scitovsky) warrant that while technological ends like watching TV are not inferior to the ends of traditional excellence, they tend toward comfort rather than pleasure (which Scitovsky argues involves some discomfort). Thus if we could manufacture the right neurochemical triggers, we could solve the problem of happiness by inducing constant pleasure. Clearly this is a position that leaves excellence by the wayside, and I don’t think Borgmann’s argument will appeal to someone who takes this strong view.

Another explanation for technological unhappiness comes from Hirsch. He argues that there are fundamentally three types of goods: (1) commercial goods or commodities, (2) positional goods (ones that clarify a person’s position in society, like a PhD or perhaps an expensive car), and (3) public goods (like clean air, trust, and open spaces; things that we either all have in common or none of us does). Hirsch’s critique of technology is then that technological society excels at bringing us goods of type #1, but not the other types. An expensive car, which used to be a positional good, once commoditized and made more available, ceases to be one. Or the introduction of freeways and extensive parking spaces rids us of clean air and public parks, thus vitiating public goods. And on Hirsch’s view, happiness is correlated with positional goods. While Borgmann appreciates in general this types-of-goods analysis, he doesn’t agree with Hirsch’s explanation of our dissatisfaction with technological society. According to Hirsch, we should be much more dissatisfied than Borgmann claims we actually are; on Borgmann’s view, as long as the escalator of commoditization keeps moving, positionality is maintained, and thus that can’t be the deepest source of our unhappiness.

Instead, Borgmann thinks that it is the divided character of technological goods themselves which renders us unsatisfied. As he says, “what distinguishes technological life is not surliness but its division into surfaces, rough or pleasant, and concealed, inaccessible substructures. Perhaps it is this divided character of our lives that leaves us unhappy”. In other words, the Device Paradigm puts part of life into these concealed substructures, taking them out of our grasp, along with any possibility of relationship with them. The Device Paradigm explains how a thing is divided into its function (or commodity) on one hand and its machinery on the other. A fireplace, a hearth, is turned into (1) a heating apparatus that delivers (2) warmth. But a hearth was never a free-standing element. It was always embedded into the fabric of social life, embedded deeply into family rhythms and the organization of the home. So by making a break down the middle of the hearth, technology not only divides the hearth, but it lifts it out of its context, “dis-embedding” it. If the former break is a “horizontal” break (dividing the hearth into say an “upper” commodity and a “lower” machinery), then a knock-on effect is the creation of “vertical” tears in the fabric of life of which the hearth was a part. As more and more “things” are reanalyzed as “devices”, these rifts become more concrete and distinct. The end result is a sea of free-floating devices, tastes, and commodities, which can be put together and arranged in a multiplicity of ways. This is what we now do as moderns when we build our “lifestyles” out of the variety of options made available to us through advertisements. But an infinitely-rearrangeable collection of commodities is vastly different from what we have been calling the “fabric” of life, where that word is chosen to convey an essential unity.

It is this fundamental distinction that Borgmann sees underlying our unhappiness with technological society, and why he believes that the resources for resolving that unhappiness cannot be found within technology itself (since the Device Paradigm is the constitutive pattern of technology’s operation). But we’ve only been examining one kind of technological good—the positive kind that most inspired technology’s early proponents. We’ve seen that technology has some deep difficulties in actually keeping the promises it’s made with regard to happiness. But what about the other kind of good, the negative, “defensive” goods like vaccinations, snow removal machines, etc…? Do they not provide happiness of a more lasting and solid kind than “mere” commodities? Borgmann maintains that the answer to this question is also “no”. Of course, upon their introduction into our lives, these goods provide a burst of happiness in the form of relief, and many (vaccines, for example), genuinely increase health in an appreciable way. But we quickly come to regard these as the status quo, and they no longer become noticeable except in their absence. Ultimately, comfort is a deadening force that attenuates our experience of the world to close to nothing. Work in technological society is a matter (for most people) of pushing buttons rather than engaging with true skill. And as a society we look for more and more minor inconveniences to wipe away with the magic wand of technology, only deepening our numbness with greater comfort.

So why do we stand this? Why have we as a society not recognized this source of our unease and done something about it? Borgmann points out that while these negative or “defensive” goods can only solve so many problems before becoming completely banal, there is another stream of technological good that is unlimited, namely entertainment. Borgmann defines “entertainment” as commodities we can eat, see, and hear, and these are all things which have by now become totally available in a technological sense. The classic example of entertainment is TV (though now it should perhaps be online media). Borgmann’s problem with TV is not so much that it actively harms society as that it prevents other, genuinely good things from occurring. TV, and now the tablet device, have become the pre-eminent parenting tool for modern children, who grow up under a flood of missed parenting opportunities. The fact that TV and the Internet also prevent us from pursuing activities that lead to our avowed societal and individual goals of excellence is another example. And a TV, of course, is the perfect example of the Device Paradigm, split perfectly into a magical commodity (TV screens these days are just about 100% viewing area) and ineffable machinery. Borgmann thinks that all of this can perhaps explain our unhappiness in a deep way: we all know the quality of TV programming is not that great, and that it doesn’t in general promote an excellent life to watch it. But at the same time we can’t let go; “it provides a center for our leisure and an authority for the appreciation of commodities” (143). As a limitless form of entertainment, it is a palliative for our unhappiness even as it perpetuates it.

Clearly, this picture of modern life is bleak. If we agree with Borgmann, we’ll want to be asking the question of how we can reform such a condition. That’s where Borgmann goes in Part 3 of TCCL. But before we explore the reformation of technology, we have to ask how stable the condition we’ve just described is. How stable is the technological paradigm? This is what we’ll discuss in the next chapter!

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 17, “Work and Labor”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

The previous 16 chapters have sufficed to give us a good sketch of the character of technology, outlining it and delineating it in various ways. But now Borgmann is concerned to give the picture some depth, some attachment to the world that we all live in so as to impress upon us the seriousness of our current social predicament and how the Device Paradigm now typifies the structure of something so essentially quotidian as work. There are of course many other clear examples of the impact of technology in our world, in science, the military, etc… But work and leisure are concepts with which every citizen is intimate, and so showing the radical effect of technology in this sphere is a good way to implicate each of us in its operation.

Borgmann’s basic thesis is that “work” as a concept and praxis has split down the middle into “labor” and “leisure”, showing the characteristic rift of a technological device (the rift between ends and means, at the deepest philosophical level). This situation is, he claims, unique to the modern era, and should be interpreted as a direct result of the expansion of the Device Paradigm into more and more areas of human life. So what are “labor” and “leisure”? Leisure he defines as the “unencumbered enjoyment of commodities”, whereas labor is “devoted to the construction and maintenance of the machinery that procures the commodities” (114). So there is an interesting recursive or circular nature to the equation, where work is relegated from the status of something significant in and of itself to a means to the end of leisure. This chapter is dedicated to understanding the concept of labor just described (“technological work”), in technological society. The next chapter will be devoted to the concept of leisure.

Why do I say that work has been “relegated” or “degraded”? Borgmann takes for granted that, in pre-technological eras, work was, in at least some contexts, fulfilling and ennobling. He doesn’t claim that all pre-technological work is in this category, but rather that there are concrete existential proofs of this fulfillment. So we can at least ask whether, in our technological society, there is the possibility of fulfilling and ennobling work—whether labor as the means to leisure can be put in this category. Borgmann clarifies that “technological work” is not the specialization of labor (an ancient practice indeed) or the dividing of the work process into discrete chunks (a common strategy for any craftsperson). What’s unique about work in the era of technological society is the division of the work process into the smallest possible pieces, and making a single piece the entire responsibility of a single class of worker. This is what distinguishes the artisan from the assembly line worker: the artisan who makes a hundred objects might divide the work process into distinct stages and tackle each stage for all products at once; but she is at the end of the day responsible from start to finish. The assembly line worker, on the other hand, is responsible for only a tiny piece of the finished product, a piece which has been removed from its context and which makes it difficult for the worker to self-identify as an owner or craftsperson.

So why did we move to an assembly-line model? What are its advantages? Adam Smith and other early proponents of a (proto-)technological approach to labor thought that being responsible for just one small task would enable a worker to perform that task with the highest degree of dexterity. This in turn would promote an emphasis on the twin values of reliability and productivity (part and parcel of the concept of technological “availability” discussed earlier). Reliability and productivity are at their highest when so many “human” elements (individual judgment, mood, energy, attitude, etc…) are eliminated from the production process. In the limit, of course, this means doing away with the human as producer entirely (which we’ll get to in a moment), but before robotics was a viable solution, it meant narrowing the window of responsibility for the individual human worker to something small enough that that person’s individuality could not impress itself upon the final product. Of course, whether this actually promotes “dexterity” depends on what you mean by that word. As Borgmann says, if you mean trained ability of bodily timing, strength, and overall care and precision, then the assembly-line model actually eliminates dexterity.

In addition, dividing labor in this way, in every instance where it springs up, always comes to replace an existing societal structure, splitting that structure into the twins of production and commodity. Borgmann gives the example of insurance—before financial instrumentation became sophisticated, securing oneself against the vicissitudes of life involved a network of neighbors or guildmates who, to a greater or lesser degree, ameliorated the pain of individual loss. As security has now become technologized and commoditized, it can be had much more reliably, plentifully, and without the social awkwardness of asking for help; it can be had with cash. But in this way we have also of course lost something hard to define—a sense of community or trust in one’s fellow creatures, perhaps.

These claims about technology’s dulling effect on the character of work are not intended to be universal: technology does provide extremely satisfying work… but primarily for those involved at the forefront, the leading edge of the technical enterprise. The engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs who uncover a technological solution to a problem follow a challenging and rewarding path to that solution, a path often full of energy, vigor, and the sense that one’s capacity is being tested, enlarged. But in our wake (and I say our for I’m such a technologist professionally) we leave a “wasteland of divided labor”. The skill taken to divide a kind of work into its smallest manageable components is interesting and rewarding, but for those who are left with those bite-sized chunks of labor as their livelihood, the satisfaction is greatly lessened. Work that was previously done by an artisan can now be done by the combination of machine and unskilled worker (or eventually, entirely by machine).

Borgmann points out that this situation should be really embarrassing for liberal democracy, which as we saw in an earlier chapter lists the maximizing of human potential and fulfillment as its chief aim. But like social injustice, as a society we are content to bear the degradation of work for the technological promise of liberation. And so we readily believe that yesterday’s work force is “outdated” or must be “upgraded” to adapt to the digital age (rather than asking whether these “upgrades” actually give greater satisfaction to those whose work is radically altered by them). Or we claim that the greater length of education reflects a higher degree of training necessary for working in the modern world (rather than allowing that it might be artificially lengthened by the generally decreasing need for labor—education as labor’s “waiting room”). Or we ignore that it is an ever-shrinking pool of technological elites that provide the driving force of technological progress.

So far we’ve argued that we do mask the ongoing degradation of work, even in a liberal democracy that strongly believes in the dignity bestowed by work. But this doesn’t explain why we’ve done that. How was it ever possible? In fact it was a long and sometimes violent process to mold workers into assembly-line worker bees. Convincing craftspeople to give up ownership of the entire production process was a hard sell, at first. And it would be easy to find blame with early entrepreneurs or capitalists, who sometimes viciously forced workers into this new cast. But Borgmann sees the deepest answer in the promise of the Device Paradigm itself—the promise of liberation and enrichment. And we as a society have been happy to pay the price for this. We’ve traded in satisfaction in work for the lessening of burden and the promise of leisure, implicating ourselves in this rift between “labor” and “leisure”. (And I don’t think I need to quote American TV-watching statistics for you to have an understanding of what “leisure” typically means in our culture).

This trend is only going to continue. Borgmann, writing over three decades ago, looks ahead to the “microelectronic revolution”, which has long since ascended to the status quo. Devices have become so compact and complex that only a small group of experts can truly tell you what’s going on inside. Fixing an individual microchip by hand is of course out of the question. But devices built around these ineffable-to-us constructs form an ever-greater portion of our daily lives. The current revolution, that of software (which was crowned king by the Internet), pushes things further in this direction. The fad in the San Francisco startup culture where I am embedded is all about “disrupting” existing markets and ecosystems—and of course, pre-software or pre-Internet ways of life. Ultimately what we are disrupting is work itself; through a combination of robotics and software engineering, it will be eliminated entirely. So what then? Will we develop respectable and enjoyable modes of unemployment (which heretofore has been a social standing lacking in dignity)? Will our “work” essentially become “busywork”, with no real value? Or will work be redistributed across available workers so that average work time is reduced, and leisure time increased?

And in any of those scenarios, the crucial question becomes: what will we do when we’re not working? And will it be worth doing? For that, we’ll have to await the next chapter: “Leisure, Excellence, and Happiness”.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 16, “Political Engagement and Social Justice”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

This is the last chapter in the section on technology and its relationship with the political aspect of society. One of Borgmann’s primary insights here is that technology is a good explanation for the social and political apathy that is so prevalent, yet so disturbing in a nation like the US whose founding ideals are very much linked with political engagement.

The primary reason for this state of things is that politics has become the “metadevice of the technological society” (107). By this Borgmann means that the political system has itself taken on the characteristics of the Device Paradigm—procuring certain commodities for us while relegating to obscurity its own inner workings. And it is a “metadevice” because what it is now primarily concerned with procuring is the smooth functioning of technology in society! Government has become the servant whose purpose is to keep the technological machine humming, because this machine is what society now generally feels is the key to fulfillment and equality.

It is easy to see the “deviceification” of government at work. Its bureaucracy is Byzantine, and as citizens we hardly know how it works other than that our taxes go in and various social services and protections come out. The human and personal are not at home in a system like this (as an anecdote, I called the California DMV earlier this week, and was greeted with a customer service representative’s bored voice: “Hello, this is <muffled> 478, how may I help you?”). Huge governmental structures have been built up with the sole purpose of eliminating disturbances in how we go about procuring commodities. With this as the primary goal, it’s no surprise that citizens have no particular reason to be engaged—unless our ability to live out the aims of technological availability become threatened.

This doesn’t mean that technology has blocked all possibility of genuine political engagement, but for most of us it’s a moot point. We’ve become apathetic essentially out of contentment. But this raises some important questions. What about the energizing democratic ideal of equality? Surely no one would say we’ve obtained full equality in our society. Shouldn’t technology through its equalizing tendencies spur on political engagement around this ideal? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Despite what Borgmann calls technology’s “weak” tendency towards equality, there is a deeper process at work. We tend to measure inequality quite bluntly from the perspective of income (which is itself defined in terms of technology—essentially as the rate of commodity acquisition available to us), rather than many of the other qualities we could choose to measure.

Clearly, there is great inequality in our country when it comes to income. A number of explanations have been given for this, most unsatisfactory. Some failed hypotheses:

  1. Income reflects work; the more you work, the more income you have. Thus it all boils down to how hard one works.
  2. Inequality incentivizes work, so it’s a good thing we have inequality to help kickstart the economic engines.
  3. People are just in the dark when it comes to inequality, so it sticks around.

None of these claims are true. Borgmann’s explanation is that inequality gives a clear indication of what the stages of technological availability are, and therefore a promise of what a given individual will be able to procure in the future. What the wealthy upper classes have access to today, through the gifts of technology will be available to the middle classes in 10 years and the lower classes 5 years after that. Thus in a technological society inequality is constant, but quality of life is like a moving escalator—just wait 5 years and you will be able to have the kind of quality of life that higher-income individuals have now. We have a good reason, as lower- or middle-class society, then, to suffer this inequality. If the upper classes drive the development of technology that only they can afford, it will certainly be available to us at some point in the future—we have just to wait.

Technology is therefore embedded deeply but subtly into the hopes and goals of our economic reality. True to form, it stays in the background unless threatened. In fact, most actual political energy (despite the recent moral debates in our country) is around maintaining the proper function of this escalator. Substantial inequalities that don’t impinge on the ability to continually procure successively more impressive commodities are ignored or back-burnered. As long as the escalator functions, our focus and energy will be on attaining the next level, on consuming tomorrow what the classes higher than us are consuming today. Thus technology contributes a sort of political numbing effect, a deep disengagement with civic responsibility except where the technological machine threatens to break down. It goes without saying that this makes true political discourse—discussion about matters of the common good and indeed what the good life of society is—impossible.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 15, “The Rule of Technology”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

In this chapter, Borgmann is interested in answering the question of how people actually relate to technology in our society, regardless of the role technology plays in the political theories that undergird society. Looking at empirical sociological data is difficult, because so many interpretations can be given to, e.g., survey data. So he acknowledges that we have to come to the data with a bit of a guiding premise, which the previous chapters have provided.

The first helpful question we can ask in regard to the chapter’s theme is: how do people take responsibility for technology? Do they do so at all? Do they engage in active choice? This line of questioning is interesting because it gets at the heart of the character of technology, highlighting the substantive and instrumental positions that would give different answers about what that character is. On a substantive view, people have essentially no responsibility—technology as a thing in its own right has overpowered us and we are now unable to choose against it. This is a kind of determinism. The instrumental view would argue the opposite: that we remain free agents and are always in fact choosing for or against technology; the fact that we almost always choose for it is therefore purely our responsibility. Borgmann isn’t a fan of either of these positions, and points out that we’re not likely to come to a philosophical agreement on free will vs determinism that could help adjudicate between them.

Answering the question empirically is fraught with conceptual problems, too. Technology isn’t presented to us as a choice, but rather a basis for other choices, in which a vote for the technological paradigm is already implied (in the same way that a good salesperson will ask a client which of a variety of services will meet the clients needs best, not whether the client needs any services at all). A choice against technology is therefore kind of odd—it would seem paternalistic and totalitarian, a vote for remaining in squalor when so much opportunity is at hand. Thus technology disappears at the very moment of choice, and becomes the ground for choice rather than its object.

But, we can ask a proxy question: to what amount do people engage with focal things and practices, and to what amount do they disengage with them in favor of technological substitutes? This would give us a good idea of how people are actually choosing in regard to technology even when it remains in the background. From this perspective, we gain a lot of information when we observe, say, a family choosing to eat out rather than prepare a meal at home. Or when we observe young professionals moving from city to city for the sake of career advancement rather than choosing a life of being rooted in one place. Or when we observe children being gifted with limitless amounts of music on their mobile devices instead of being given a musical instrument.

Borgmann is clear that these choices are not necessarily conscious. The whole idea of the paradigm of technology is that it is the fundamental operating pattern of our society; choosing according to this pattern is therefore the normal, the obvious thing to do. Technology is not an overtly oppressive overlord that visibly threatens our freedom, rather freedom is its promise. All this to say, it doesn’t require conscious choice to move in the direction of lesser engagement with focal things and practices, but these are still choices, however deeply patterned. Borgmann calls this being “implicated” in technology. We already exist within its paradigm, and so without conscious choice we will continue to choose according to the pattern of technology.

But what moves us to take the first step in this direction, however “normal” it is? Relief (at the thought of not having to prepare another meal when one is already tired). Hope (of the procurement of nicer things made more available through technology). Impatience with the obstinate nature and slow pace of non-devices. The desire to see children given opportunities to grow as quickly and painlessly as possible. But there is often a nagging feeling that comes with trading in focal things and practices because of these motivations. When that is (at least initially) present, Borgmann sees us not just as “implicated” in the world of technology, but “complicit” in it.

With this framework in hand, we have an idea of how to evaluate sociological data, for example, a survey of people’s attitudes towards technology. The survey that Borgmann highlights asks about respondents’ attitudes towards three statements:

  • “People have become too dependent on machines”
  • “Technology has made life complicated”
  • “It would be nice if we would stop building so many machines and go back to nature”

The published results highlighted that there was “considerable ambivalence” towards technology in responses, and that people exhibited contradictory understandings of what technology actually is. That being said, it was clear that in general technology was viewed favorably. Further exploration of motivations unveiled that, despite ambivalence in attitude, people look to technology to provide higher and higher standards of living and leisure. That is, while respondents were on balance convinced that technology increased their general happiness (which has been shown in other studies not to be the case), they were unsure about the positive effect of technology on overall standards of living (which is remarkable given that it be clearly shown that technology has indeed advanced global health and living standards). In other words, what people wanted from technology was not just a certain standard of living, but a constantly increasing standard of living.

These results, Borgmann points out, mesh very well with the definition of “complicity” he gave earlier. While there is some sense that we are losing something in turning to technological solutions, we continue to look to them for increased quality of life. While on one hand we are simply choosing technological modes because they are the default, on the other hand we know in some sense what we are doing and why; in that sense we are free, and therefore “complicit” or responsible. The question Borgmann does not yet ask is whether we acknowledge that responsibility and what our attitudes are towards it. Do we affirm and own these choices, or do we sweep them under the rug?

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 14, “Technology and Democracy”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

We now continue our discussion of technology and the political arena. This chapter in particular is about the theoretical dimension of politics, i.e., how people have formulated the ideas behind our political system and how they interact with technology. We in the US and many other places exist within what is broadly known as the “liberal democratic tradition”. It can be defined succinctly as the intersection of the values of liberty, equality, and self-realization. More than anything else, liberal democracy wants to leave the question of the good life (what is it to live well as a human being?) open, because it believes the individual self must determine its own answer to that question.

What Borgmann is concerned to argue here is that it is only the paradigm of technology which allows liberal democracy to achieve its three-fold aims, and thus technology becomes the hidden engine, pushing this political system forward while the system itself fails to acknowledge that, clothed in the tidings of liberal democracy or not, the pattern of technology comes with a concrete and definite vision of the good life. In other words, there is a deep contradiction in the heart of the theory: what it wants it can only get (via technology) at the cost of what it holds most dear.

Echoes of this theorizing can be found as early as JS Mill: “The grand, leading principle…is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity” (86). Since then, debates (between scholars like CB Macpherson and Ronald Dworkin) have focused on what constitutes this moral idea of “human development”. Is it that everyone is equally free to realize her potential? Is it some more positive form of opportunity? Ultimately, it has become clear that no agreement on that point is forthcoming. For Dworkin, this situation is to be expected, for “to arrogate the determination of the good life for others is to practice paternalism” (88). The responsibility of the theory is merely to provide justification for self-determination.

This plays very conveniently into the multiplicity-of-ends philosophy that undergirds and is encouraged by the technological paradigm. And so we see that same paradigm at work in politics: electoral debates become about how to secure the conditions of the good life, not what that good life is. (Of course, some theorists are not content to provide space for self-determination and explicitly conform their theories to the promise of technology; “utopian democracy”, for example, aims to procure radical availability (precisely the promise of technology)—essential possessive equivalence, without a class structure).

But in general, what we have is a theory of liberty (freedom, equality, and self-development) defined negatively, telling us purely what to do to create space for a theoretical infinitude of possible ends. And this (despite all the practical impossibilities around creating that kind of negative equality) is beginning to sound exactly like a system of devices. Moreover, it hides the deeper question: what is the nature of opportunities we say are essential for “equality”? There is a spectrum of answers here, and Borgmann names three points along it: first, we have the “constitutional” or “formally just” society, where society is given (in technical terms) freedom to pursue their own ends, but not the means by which to do it. Then we have the “fair” or “substantially just” society which provides freedom and some kind of means by which to pursue individual goals. Finally, we could think of a totally “good” society, which provides in addition to freedom and means a direction, a set of centering and orienting goals—a vision of the good.

Borgmann then argues that it’s impossible in any of these types of theories to avoid the concept of goodness or centering/orienting goals. Even in the merely “constitutional” or “fair” society, the nature of opportunities is going to be present in some pattern, in some definite shape; in liberal democracy, that shape is the pattern of technology. But because this definite shaping is anathema to the spirit of liberal democracy, which aims to keep itself out of the good life, it ends up sweeping under the rug the intrusion of the vision of the good defined by technology. Liberal democracy denies us a vision of the man behind the curtain because it is so damaging to the purity of the theory. Think about even basic structures in our society like roads or television. It could be argued that networks such as these are value-neutral, mere equality-and-opportunity-producing mechanisms—a road being built does not force you to drive on it! On the other hand, as Borgmann puts it, “a mountain valley split by a road is no longer a place for solitary hiking” (96). The point isn’t that roads are bad, it’s that it is disingenuous to assert that even basic infrastructure is “mere” means, and doesn’t arrogate itself as an end. It does, even if by just restricting the kinds of life available to us! The systems of our society may be indifferent when it comes to how we consume commodities, but they don’t really give us the option of not engaging with commodities in the first place.

Ultimately, Borgmann wants to bring a discussion of this hidden pattern out into the open. It is only once we have acknowledged that we all come to the table with ideas about the public, shared good life (whether we like it or not) that we can have a productive conversation in the political arena about issues more substantial than the continued production of commodities.

Next up: we move from theory to practice and look at how people in our society have in fact come to terms with the technological paradigm.