Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 26, “The Recovery of the Promise 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.

Technology promised us liberty and prosperity, but in significant ways this has not come to pass. In the industrialized nations we are free from hunger, disease, and illiteracy, but increasingly, commodities overflow in the center of our lives and we have become shallow people. We take pride in our technological means without caring much about what they are for. We have created genuinely amazing technological devices, but being human is about more than that. We must go beyond freedom from disease (the negative freedom that technology has provided) to engaging with life.

Within the technological paradigm, the kind of life we have embarked on instead is trivial, bored, over-entertained, over-stimulated and under-engaged, surly, unimpressed, and routinized. The reform we want to see takes technology and gives it back a supporting role in the human drama. Engagement with focal things and practices, and the manifold ways such engagement graces us, is what should occupy our center. We’re not talking about returning to pre-technological life, or convincing others to be anti-technological, but rather living a life that understands the place of technology and consciously limits it for the sake of something better.

In this arrangement, focal concerns are even more beautiful than we could see in pre-technological areas, and technology attains a new nobility by supporting these concerns rather than usurping their place. What’s the fate of this imagined reform of technology? What’s the fate of technology itself? Well, we can measure the success of the reform by the degree to which focal concerns grow and flourish in our society. And of course technology itself is not going to disappear. On the potential of reform, Borgmann is not anxious, and I’ll end this series by quoting the final words from his book:

One would rightly be nervous about the possibility that a great thing may fail accidentally, that the kingdom may be lost for want of a nail. But our focal concern will languish or prosper for essential reasons. I hope it will prevail, and it sustains my hope.

[Photo: Death Valley bloom, by the author]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 25, “Political Affirmation”

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 finally to the last substantive chapter in Borgmann’s essay on technology. It also happens to be the longest, so buckle up! The question is: can the reform of technology, so vividly imagined as “wealth” defined by focal concerns in the previous chapter, be taken out of private life into the public sphere, ultimately changing the very heart of the systems that we have so little power over as individual citizens?

One option would be to press for legislating morality, arguing that technological reform is really moral reform that should be encoded in the legality or illegality of individual behaviors. This is what conservatives generally try to do in other spheres. But Borgmann points out, echoing his thoughts in Chapter 14, that “morality”, especially traditional morality, is a less commanding force in the lives of most citizens than conservatives usually estimate, even as a concept. (And of course it doesn’t help conservatives that they often undercut their moral argument by trying to outlaw certain types of supposedly immoral individual behavior while simultaneously promoting clearly unjust and immoral economic policies that have wide-ranging negative impact). In other words, this strategy would be paternalistic, harmful, and ultimately self-refuting (according to the norms of deictic discourse).

And it is in fact in the laws of the economy that Borgmann thinks we have the greatest opportunity to effect real change. What does economic reform that leads to technological reform look like? It begins with convincing the public that the “quality of life” and the “standard of living” are not one and the same. As a society our economic policies have been focused on the standard of living (as measured by the production and possession of commodities) as a proxy for quality of life, but in fact this is a bad proxy, as the previous chapter showed. We thought that “affluence” was what technology promised us, but it turned out to be hollow, a never-ending escalator of commodity consumption. Instead, Borgmann’s concept of (non-material) “wealth” is what truly leads to higher quality of life. Thus we need to convince the public to focus on quality of life at the expense of the standard of living, to argue that economic policies which promote such a view are a good trade.

How is such convincing even thinkable? How do we take the world of focal concerns (private, deictic discourse) into the world of labor and politics (public, political discourse)? We can’t impose some “national focal concern”. We can’t remake society on the model of pre-technological production; at this point there’s no getting rid of technology, in the background of production at least. Individual focal concerns could bubble up naturally through the disparate care and passion of individual citizens, but what about an actual public discourse? What will help is to bring to light the pattern of technology (what this book has been about) and talk about it. But in terms of actual change, again only deictic discourse will sway the public’s heart. And so far we’ve only seen deictic discourse effective in more private arenas, about the majesty of private pursuits like running and so on.

Part of the problem again lies in how the pattern of liberal democracy is set up. Public deictic discourse would expose the world to some kind of moral critique or evaluation, and liberal democracy is organized so that such critique is kept out of the public sphere. The legal system is idealized as amoral, like a technological device, at least in terms of how it understands itself (of course, it smuggles moral considerations in through the back door by tacitly specifying a concrete vision of the good life, as Borgmann discussed in earlier chapters). So we come back to the earlier question: how could economic reform be possible, given the challenges inherent in public deictic discourse?

Without getting into the professional economic implementation details, we can say that it begins with the philosophy of economics, which is currently complicit with the technological paradigm in its singular focus on the “standard of living” or affluence (paralleling the Device Paradigm’s focus on “availability”), falsely narrowing the scope of the good life. Lester Thurow has said, “Man is an acquisitive animal whose wants cannot be satiated. This is not a matter of advertising and conditioning but a basic fact of existence” (231). Thus the justification of acquisitiveness as the fulcrum of economic philosophy. But Borgmann points out that this doesn’t accord with what we actually know of the greater part of human history, where, once basic needs were satisfied, time was spent in non-acquisitive activities like play or celebration.

In reality, our society has a lot of economic margin to consider reform. We’ve proved this by enduring recessions and spending exorbitant amounts of money on military activities, all without substantially reducing the standard of living (at least in aggregate; of course the burden of recessions falls disproportionately on the poor). What could convince us to scale back our rabidly consumptive spending? Focal practices! As we saw in the previous chapter, focal practices subvert the individual’s race to affluence. (This is the deictic discourse of “wealth” vs “affluence” in general, not a discussion of this or that focal practice.)

So it seems possible to engage the public in this way. But do people actually want reduced affluence to attain “wealth” in Borgmann’s sense? Studies do suggest a general willingness to cultivate a “simpler” lifestyle, but maybe this is purely aspirational. What we need is a “collective affirmation” on a societal level, like we have in cultural norms of politeness (on the invisible end of the spectrum) or in the Constitution (on the formal end of the spectrum). Borgmann thinks we already have a sense of the tension between “quality of life” and “standard of living” in the form of the tension between considering public goods to be indicative of economic success in our country versus a standard of measurement like the GNP. Here, “public goods” parallels “quality of life”, and “GNP” parallels “standard of living” (a much simpler financial measure, to be sure, than the value public goods like infrastructure, water, parks, public spaces, etc… provide).

Transitioning to a model of economic success built on top of the quality of life would inevitably entail a certain shrinkage of the technological machinery at the heart of our industrialized society, but not by orders of magnitude. Many people would still work in the maintenance of said machinery, or would perhaps have no work at all. But what about work, which has been the cornerstone of meaningful engagement with the world up until the Industrial Revolution? We already see people who don’t strictly have to work returning to artisan-style pursuits—bakers, potters, metalworkers, etc… And Borgmann sees in this an opportunity for the institution of a two-sector economy.

We already have a two-sector economy, really: mega-corps on one hand and small businesses on the other. They represent two systems: the “planning system” and the “market system” respectively. The planning system operates basically according to the technological pattern of availability, and so they grow in tandem, taking over more and more of the market system. Borgmann wants to see us create space for those who do “engaging work”, even if people choose that work because their previous roles have been made redundant by technical automation. Engaging work is not about eliminating technology entirely, but about technology moving to the background so that the work itself can be in the center:

Engaging work is largely dependent on [technology] for tools, machines, energy, materials, transportation, and communication. But it will not adopt technological devices indiscriminately. The criterion will be whether a device is helpful or detrimental to a worker’s skill and to the focal depth of the work.” (239)

So we want to see a two-sector economy where the production of certain goods like food, furniture, clothing, health care, education, arts instruction, etc…, is entrusted to local, labor-intensive industries (where “engaging work” happens). The “planning system” or a centralized industrial economy would then take care of infrastructural goods like transportation, utilities, communication, as well as the tools and materials required by the other sector, insurance, finance, and R&D. Technology would live on here as the context for the former sector, not the center of our lives. We would encourage this economy not by imposing quotas or embargoes on the planning system, but rather by giving tax credits or breaks to the local, labor-intensive sector so that they become competitive in the market for their goods. Of course, there are lots of potential problems with this sketch, but the basic ingredients are there, as long as we are willing to accept a reduction of overall affluence to subsidize these quality-of-life improvements.

Borgmann closes the chapter by exploring two concrete political issues as examples of how we could engage on a political level to help the cause of technological reform: the plight of large cities and social justice. He shows how the technological pattern has been instantiated in these parts of life to detrimental effect (the urban/suburban distinction mirrors the labor/leisure distinction, for example), and how a public focus on quality of life rather than affluence would serve to forestall the disintegration of civic life and the reduction of social justice. He wants to see public structures “opened up”, i.e., made intelligible and inviting for us to engage with. The artifacts of our technological substructure like dams, power plants, office buildings, etc…, could be redesigned so that they are not opaque, intimidating, or lifeless, and instead invite curiosity and understanding. Likewise we need memorable places in the sense of places that allow engagement, not just passive enjoyment (cf. the fate of churches or cathedrals in so many European cities). We need, as he says, an “enactment of culture”—spaces designed for the focal concerns of sports, music, arts, worship, and work.

Social injustice is a more visible problem. Borgmann laid out the problem in Chapters 13 – 16: liberal democracy has allowed the broad middle class to tacitly specify a definition of the good life that is actually complicity with technological consumption. Social injustice has become the hidden injustice that allows that consumption to continue. If the middle class were to care more about quality of life than the standard of living (affluence), and is able to seek after wealth of engagement via focal concerns, then that wealth is open to everyone in a way that affluence was not. There is no more need for the moving escalator that keeps classes forever divided. And of course letting go of affluence as the end goal means that there is more likelihood that money, the means by which the lower classes might achieve a basic quality of life, won’t just pool together, locked in the upper echelons.

In sum, Borgmann thinks that the path to political affirmation of the reform of technology is this: deictic discourse leads to collective affirmation, which leads to a two-sector economy focused on quality of life and engaging work, which can lead to a reform of the cities and bring about greater economic justice. At that point we’ll have begun a true and lasting reform of technology—not eliminating it, but putting it in its place as the servant of the good life.

[Photo: Athens, by the author]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 24, “Wealth and the Good Life”

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.

As we saw in the last chapter, Borgmann thinks focal things and practices (gathered together under the heading of ‘focal concerns’) are central to the kind of reform of technology we need. In this and the next chapter, he wants to (a) defend focal concerns from any philosophical worries, and (b) show how focal concerns constitute the kind of reform of technology that we need. This chapter looks at focal concerns on a personal level, and so connects them up with a reform of technology in our personal, more than our public, lives. This is why the name of this chapter is “Wealth and the Good Life”: focal concerns constitute “wealth”, and lead to the much-sought-after “good life” that technology has been promising to us but failing to deliver.

The main philosophical worry about focal concerns as presented in the last chapter is their plurality. I take it that Borgmann sees two potential problems under this heading:

  1. We have to ask: is it even possible to figure out what all the focal things and practices out there have in common? Is there, in other words, some kind of necessary and sufficient definition we can give of what focal concerns are? If not, then it appears on the surface that Borgmann’s idea of focal concerns may not be formulated clearly enough to bear the weight of technological reform.
  2. What about the sheer diversity of focal concerns? Doesn’t this bring up issues around which concerns are to be considered more or less focal? If my focal concern is so grounding and enriching in my life, won’t I be forced (out of genuine sympathy) to attempt to convert others away from their focal concerns and over to mine? How can a bunch of varied practices (even if we can answer the first problem above) present a unified front when it comes to technological reform?

We might say that these are the ‘philosophical’ and ‘practical’ problems of plurality for focal concerns.

Let’s take the ‘philosophical’ problem first. What could philosophically tie focal concerns together? Borgmann examines what he takes to be the most likely candidate, in the form of John Rawls’ ‘Aristotelian Principle’, which says that the excellence of our life is determined by the complexity of the faculties that we develop. In other words, the more complex skills we cultivate, the more we partake of ‘excellence’ (something Borgmann definitely cares about as well in the context of focal concerns). Could this principle suffice to capture what we mean by ‘focal concerns’? Let’s examine a few examples: on this view, people should prefer chess to checkers because chess is more complex and demanding. Likewise people would prefer checkers to watching TV, for the same reason.

So far, so good. But when we come to examine technology, it seems the principle loses some of its bite: complexity is in no way a counterforce to technology. Couldn’t technological devices (like highly targeted workout machinery) be more ‘complex’ than their analog equivalents? Isn’t a machine that allows individual muscle groups to be sensed and worked with precision more complex than the simple act of walking or running? So it appears the Aristotelian Principle as it stands does not capture what is essential about the difference between technological devices and focal concerns. Could it be extended, though? Let’s take the contrast between a great chef or a great runner and a fast food junkie or a treadmill enthusiast. What is different between the two sets? Well, the difference is engagement. The chef and the runner are fully (mentally, physically, perhaps even spiritually) engaged with their activity, whereas the fast food junkie is merely consuming, and the treadmill runner is merely using their body for some extraneous end (fitness). So perhaps ‘engagement’ can replace ‘complexity’ as the philosophical essence of focal concerns?

Unfortunately, we run into problems here as well. Borgmann envisions a fan of computer games arguing that their games are just as engaging as something Borgmann takes to be a paradigmatic focal practice, e.g., fly-fishing. And nowadays, thirty years after TCCL was published, we would in some cases find ourselves hard-pressed to deny this (take for example the meteoric rise of eSports and the high level of training, dedication, strategy, and teamwork involved in professional video gaming). So our problem is this: it seems on the surface at least that ‘engagement’ can be technological, but all along we have said that focal concerns are meta-technological.

One way out is to say that technological engagement is only apparent, not real. We could argue that they are one-dimensional in that they don’t connect us to the wider physical universe of which we are a part. A computer game does not (in the way other mental practices like musical composition or poetry do) gather together some meaningful aspect of reality and present it to us in a new and engaging way. The reply to this would then be that games do help us connect with a deeper reality—the reality of the computer world. Borgmann thinks this is disingenuous in that he sees being at home in the ‘computer world’ as equivalent to being at home with the device paradigm’s pattern of commodity consumption. But what about computer engineers themselves? Aren’t they in touch with something deeper than their users might be? Indeed hardware or software engineering is often practiced as art for art’s sake (something I know full well, being a software engineer myself). And Borgmann grants that, “inasmuch as computers embody and illuminate phenomena such as intelligence, organization, determination, decidability, system, and the like, they surely have a kind of focal character, and a concern with computers in that sense is focal as well.” But he goes on to say, “the focal significance of work with computers seems precarious to me and requires for its health the essentially complementary concern with things in their own right. Otherwise the world is more lost than comprehended” (217). In other words, focal things in the computer world are not strong enough to grace us in their own right, something we appreciate in the more traditional kind of focal things and practices Borgmann has discussed so far.

On this point, Borgmann does ask in passing this important question: can a device ever become a focal thing, “one that, whatever its genesis, has taken on a character of its own, that challenges and fulfills us, that centers and illuminates our world?” We can’t know for certain, he says; we will have to wait and see. But for the time being that is no reason to abandon the focal things that are still in front of us! Anyway, it appears that we have exhausted the search for a philosophical unity behind focal concerns that truly captures what is distinct about them. What about the other problem, the ‘practical’ problem of focal concern plurality?

The problem, again, is that fly-fishing and running can’t both matter in the most ultimate sense. In pre-technological times, this was not a problem because it was only the religious life that mattered in the most ultimate sense—every other focal concern was arranged underneath it. But eventually the primacy of the church’s control over our understanding of reality was dissolved, in the course of various reform movements, the scientific revolution, the rise of democracy, and finally technology itself. We have begun to see the actual world as one out of a great range of possible states of affairs.

Borgmann’s first response to the issue of plurality of focal concerns in this regard is to say that perhaps this isn’t so much a problem for the theory as it is for us. The fact that George Sheehan’s focal practice is running rather than music implies not a deficiency in music enthusiasts but in Sheehan himself! As he says: “When a musician tells me Beethoven’s Opus 132 is not simply an hour of music but of universal truth, is in fact a flood of beauty and wisdom, I envy him. I don’t label him a nut” (213). We must understand that no one person can realize everything we as humans are capable of when it comes to focal experiences. But by cultivating our own focal practices we can join with the rest of humanity by contributing our own experience. In other words, we can see this plurality of concerns positively rather than negatively.

Ultimately, Borgmann thinks the plurality problems are not really problems for focal concerns. Still, it would be nice to be able to discern affinities between them, not as a way of describing a cogent philosophical umbrella per se, but as a set of ‘family resemblances’ that help us to say, with regard to a particular thing or practice we are considering, “Aha! Now that looks like a focal concern!” (Likewise, religion is still available as an umbrella concern, and no doubt for many people it is very effective in ordering their other focal practices, but Borgmann assumes for the time being that we will not find a generally-accepted umbrella concern like this that can serve as the basis for public reform of technology, given the fundamental pluralism of religious views in our country.) What we can say regarding focal concerns is this: “A focal practice, generally, is the resolute and regular dedication to a focal thing. It sponsors discipline and skill which are exercised in a unity of achievement and enjoyment, of mind, of body, and the world, of myself and others, and in a social union” (219). So, how does this understanding of focal concerns lead to a reform of technology (remembering from previous chapters that what we need is a reform of the paradigm, not a reform from the paradigm)?

Well, on one hand, it would not look like a restructuring of the Device Paradigm itself. The Device Paradigm can’t really be restructured because it is already perfectly architected according to the terms it takes to be valid. I.e., the process of taking goods and making them progressively more ‘available’ (in Borgmann’s technical sense) can’t be improved upon. Any failure is deemed to be a failure of availability, and that is precisely what the Paradigm is constantly working to achieve. On the other hand, it would also not look like the dismantling of technology itself. But what it would look like is the “recognition and restraint of the paradigm,” restricting it from access to the sphere of focal concerns. Technology becomes no longer the dominant, unrecognized, default way of being, but one that we can take up and put down in a new maturity.

How does this look in practice? Well, someone whose focal practice is running might still acquiesce to using a car to drive to work; i.e., they would not insist on running everywhere. And, consonant with the Device Paradigm, they would want their car to be safe, fast, and so on (in addition to being as environmentally-friendly as possible, given their love for the outdoors, etc…). But when it comes to the focal practice itself, they would leave the car behind. Engagement with running would not take place on the terms of the Device Paradigm. In other words, focal practices engender a selective attitude with regard to technology, not a wholesale adoption of it. Technology is relegated to a place of lesser importance in our lives, and only judiciously allowed into the foreground. People whose focal things have radiated out from their surroundings and into their lives might appear quixotic or quaint to others, and this must be accepted, in the face of a culture that values mainly the display of commodities.

Of course, this attitude could also lead to an overzealous self-sufficiency or insistence on a do-it-yourself methodology, wherein life becomes so full of the preparation for focal things that the things themselves and their enjoyment are not to be found. Imagine people who are constantly buying backpacking gear but never going outside, or constantly remodeling their home but never enjoying it. At some level, Borgmann says, we must, while holding on to our criticality, allow technology to do its job of disburdening us, to “allow celebration and world citizenship to prosper in the time that has been gained” (222). Our lives can benefit from the fruits of technology while not being ensnared by the deadening commoditization that the Device Paradigm brings, or by the endless cycle of labor for leisure’s sake. Focal practices allow us to put technology in its proper place. And this is where we get the idea that they constitute ‘wealth’ for us:

Such a life is centrally prosperous, of course, in opening up a familiar world where things stand out clearly and steadily, where life has a rhythm and depth, where we encounter our fellow human beings in the fullness of their capacities, and where we know ourselves to be equal to that world in depth and strength. (223)

This is very different than ‘affluence’, the possession of many commodities. This kind of wealth will be connected with politics and economics in the next chapter, but for now we connect it to the private sphere, with the traditional concepts of ‘excellence’ (cashed out in terms of world citizenship, gallantry, musicianship, and charity), and ‘family’.

  • World citizenship: within the technological paradigm we learn about our world from a firehose of too much information, shredded into colorful bits of data and delivered in as entertaining a way as possible. We need a center from which to appropriate the world; we cannot comprehend it from the disembodied ‘nowhere’ that is the Internet. Focal things can help give us that grounding.
  • Gallantry: Borgmann defines ‘gallantry’ today as the fitness of our bodies for greatness and for responding to the playfulness of the world. Technology has co-opted the depth of this idea and turned physical fitness into something which is sheer surface: the cultivation of a perfect body in appearance, achievable by science, diets, conforming to norms of fashion, etc… Focal practices can help us rediscover what it is to be fit, not for the sake of appearance or according to an external standard, but as a way of engaging with the world through running, hiking, etc…
  • Musicianship: this virtue has survived somewhat unscathed in the transition to a technological world, and retains connections with traditional excellence. However, technology commoditizes it, makes it available in a way that cheapens the practice of making music. So wealth in this area will look like reminding ourselves of the treasure that music actually is, restraining our consumption of it so as to appreciate the focal practice that results in transcendental live performances in the company of others.
  • Charity: our technological society is depressingly self-oriented, and we have by and large lost touch with the virtue of charity. Focal practices can help us encounter life in a more raw way, one where we are not simply given what we want, which helps us to grow in empathy. Technological citizens are so disengaged as to be calloused by default. Deliberately choosing to live more simply would put us in touch with the plight of others, whom technology does not benefit as it has us.
  • Family: as we discussed in Chapter 18, the modern family has been disintegrated by technology. One consequence is that it has left parents with nothing to do in the service of raising their children. Focal practices allow families to share in an engaging pursuit and form traditions. They give the parents something meaningful to impart. And of course they enable the possibility of enjoyable shared experiences.

This was just a sketch of how this life of ‘wealth’ generated by focal concerns can begin a reform of the technological paradigm, not by destroying technology or banishing it out of our lives, but by refusing to let it take the place of what is ultimately meaningful for us. In the next chapter, we will carry these ideas forward into the realm of politics, the public sphere of engagement, and see how a reform of technology in that sphere would benefit not just us as individual persons but society as a whole.

[Photo: Badlands, taken by the author]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 23, “Focal Things and Practices”

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 chapter took Nature as an intuitive source of helpful challenges to the technological paradigm. But Borgmann’s insight, spelled out in his concept of “focal things and practices”, is that what is true about Nature can be explored in a more general fashion. Moreover, Borgmann actually thinks that technology, while it can be a challenge to what we find meaningful in life, for that very reason heightens its beauty. We therefore don’t need to be pessimistic about its survival; we just need to pay attention to how and where we can cultivate focal things and practices despite the challenge that goes along with such effort.

So, what is a focal thing or practice? First of all, what is ‘focus’? We can find two senses of it: the first is from the Latin word for ‘hearth’, where we can see a focus as that which gathers social reality and arranges it around itself. The other sense is later, meaning the “burning point of a lens or mirror”, in other words, where optical lines converge. As Borgmann says, “Figuratively they suggest that a focus gathers the relations of its context and radiates into its surroundings and informs them. To focus on something or to bring it into focus is to make it central, clear, and articulate” (197).

Examples of focal things are not hard to find, and extend beyond the wilderness: music, gardening, the culture of the table, and running constitute a few. We might intuitively understand that these are ‘focal’ in some sense, but we’d all have to agree that they are scattered and disparate, totally unlike the focal things of pre-technological times, like temples, which had a place of physical and cultural prominence (in addition to “focusing” the divinity of their surroundings into one structure).

For Heidegger, this role of the temple—gathering in and disclosing the givenness of its surroundings—is central to art and historical existence. Technology, on the other hand, is for him a metaphysical development that deals in pure conditionality—what might (or might not) be the case in whatever circumstance. Conditionality (potential realities based on lawlike extrapolations of variable states of affairs) is totally different from givenness (what truly is). Heidegger tried to recover this givenness, finding it in simple, concrete artifacts like an earthenware jug. A simple jug by its shape and purpose discloses what it means to hold as well as to give. It gathers together sky, earth, rain, and grape together in the wine it serves, revealing them to us, teaching us about refreshment and invoking the divine (via the tradition of libations, or something else).

While Borgmann is sympathetic to this way of thinking, he fears that we moderns have lost the ability to listen to earthenware jugs the same way we have discarded temples; outside of a very specific set of circumstances, a jug will just be a jug, and a temple a building. What is essential is to uncover the pattern of technology, to perceive its central emptiness, so that focal things regain a place in our ontology, where they had before been crowded out. Moreover, we need to go beyond focal things to practices, and to an engagement with society and politics, which of course is where things themselves exist. Essentially, we need through a cultivation of focal practices and political engagement to strip the gag from focal things and allow them to have a voice in deictic discourse.

Now to more examples. Nature was a good one! What about one that’s “closer to home”? Borgmann examines two in the course of the chapter: running and the culture of the table. He picks these in part because he believes that we have all experienced in some way or another the feeling of a run (or at least a brisk walk), and a simple good meal at home in the presence of good company, and that we will understand the contrast between them and sitting indoors for weeks, or grabbing a quick meal from a fast-food chain.

Unfortunately running outside and homemade meals are nowadays fleeting experiences. Philosophers, politicians, and technologists have not developed them as part of a wider discourse. Instead, practitioners (the runners themselves, for example) have been the ones who have been witnesses of the focal power of these practices. This is excellent, as far as Borgmann is concerned, for these people can actually speak deictically to us! Melville, Thoreau, Pirsig, and Maclean are all helpful. Even instruction manuals for hiking or backpacking can have strikingly deep philosophical reflection and insight.

For running, Borgmann chooses George Sheehan’s Running & Being to bear the torch. Running is different than driving. In both activities we can say we have ‘achieved’ something, but in driving it is the technological achievement of having extracted stored energy from the earth, which of course I had no particular hand in making happen. I can’t really take any credit for it even though I benefit. “I am a divided person; my achievement lies in the past, my enjoyment in the present. But in the runner, effort and joy are one; the split between means and ends, labor and leisure is healed” (202). Running engages the mind and body, which is different from “exercise”, which works the body while leaving the mind disengaged. Running on a treadmill is an efficient, disassociating kind of activity in which I use my body while doing the best I can not to be bored, often by watching TV or listening to music—a perfect example of a ‘divided person’. In outdoor running, mind and body are intimate with the world. We know the world more deeply by running through it than driving past it in an enclosed cage. Not only that, “serious running takes us to the limits of our being” (204) through encountering the pain of effort and working with our bodies.

Another example of a focal practice is the “culture of the table”, i.e., cultivating homemade meals accompanied by conversation in the presence of others. Because of our technological capabilities or our human uniqueness, we often stand over or against the world; coming into immediate contact with the world is therefore something special, and this happens in a meal: “Truly human eating is the union of the primal and the cosmic. In the simplicity of bread and wine, of meat and vegetable, the world is gathered” (204). The great meal is a focal event which gathers the family and the gifts of nature and delivers them to us in the flow of our unique culinary traditions, recollecting our ancestral research into food and our particular branch of humanity’s customs. Technological eating is divided into form and function; in a festive family meal, eating once again engages us fully.

Borgmann acknowledges that in the course of any meal there is an element of sheer consumption. In the great meal, that is only part of the structure, however; there is also a moment of reflection (or prayer), a sequence of courses, memorable conversation, all clothed with the desire to respect one another and the event via the discipline of table manners. Activities are embodied in persons—the dish and cook, the vegetable and gardener, etc… This meal is not characterized by consumption and anonymity. It could even be called religious, or sacred (and many special traditional meals have that character explicitly).

In our technological setting, the great meal is necessarily understood differently than in a pre-technological one; for us, rather than it being the necessary way of things, it can become something more: a place of calm, of memory. A place where there is respite from the striving for consumption and a restoration of the depth of the world.

Engaging in focal practices like running or cultivating homemade meals is clearly possible for all of us to do (even if only because our technological society has given us that opportunity!). Everyone can run or make a meal from scratch. So why don’t we, as a society? Well, first of all, our labor—that which we spend most of our time doing—is exhausting. When we return home from it, it’s easy to say “yes” to the least burdensome diversion that approaches us (e.g., TV). And so ultimately the rule of technology, which we have been examining all these chapters, is stronger than any ad hoc willpower we might possess. The whole framework of our world validates my desire to simply kick back in the easy chair and watch a movie, beer in hand. If we care about running or making meals from scratch, the only thing that will suffice is turning them into an actual practice, not a series of one-off events we hope will be the norm. Borgmann says, “…without a practice, an engaging action or event can momentarily light up our life, but it cannot order and orient it focally… Through a practice we are able to accomplish what remains unattainable when aimed at in a series of individual decisions and acts” (207).

How are focal practices established? In pre-technological societies, they were often done so with some mythic purpose or backstory, showing how this particular practice enacts something we all know or desire to be true cosmically, for example as in the Eucharist, a practice established to commemorate not just a specific event but the cosmic reality that event signified: God giving himself for the world. Practices were established in the face of some obvious antagonist, like chaos (thinking, “if we but keep this practice it will keep chaos and disorder at bay”). Our antagonist today is the deadening effect of technology, but this antagonist is hard to see. It is the backdrop, the stage setting, not easily visible as a character itself. Unless we have seen its patterns and felt its debilitating effect on our lives, it will be hard to find energy to found focal practices in opposition to it. But if we have observed the “persuasiveness and consistency of its pattern”, we will be encouraged to engage in focal practices that restore depth and integrity to our lives.

Practices, in their recurring and faithful nature, protect focal things from being subverted by technology and from being lost because of our own frailty or natural inconsistency. Practices remind us that focal goods, far from being delivered automatically whenever we engage in the practice, are hard-won, and all the more satisfying for remaining in the practice despite difficulty or long seasons without apparent advancement. And as Alisdair MacIntyre says, a practice always contains the notion of the goods it obtains, so the technological split between means and ends is healed—the focal practice and focal good cannot be disentangled as with a machine and its product.

In sum, focal practices are essential to counteract the pattern of technology and to guard focal things from extinction. They come into being through either our explicit resolution or an implicit nurturing that becomes a solid custom. Our focal practices today will differ from those of our pre-technological ancestors. Theirs were social, public, and enshrined in buildings, public offices, roles, clothing, etc… Ours are more humble, homely, scattered, and often more private. This is a limitation of focal practices that we need to examine if, as Borgmann thinks, they can be the ground for a more widespread reform of technology that reaches into the public sphere. And so we set the stage for the next chapter, which will begin to tie together the notion of focal practices with the “good life”, and how that pushes inevitably into politics.

[Photo: breakfast at our table, by Jessica Lipps]

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!