Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 13, “Technology and the Social Order”

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 the first of four on the relationship of technology to social and political issues. Borgmann is trying to argue that we should conceive of and judge society and politics in the light of technology, and that it is in social life or politics that the device paradigm must finally be discussed, since these areas of life are those that receive the most attention. Unfortunately, the fundamental modus operandi of technology is not yet recognized in this sphere.

What is recognized is what we might call the problem of orientation, in other words the widespread feelings of disorientation, ungroundedness, and directionlessness prevalent in modern society. Technology has rendered all points in space and time equal (determined by consumptive intent and consumptive potentiality). This itself flows from the abstract, objective viewpoint of modern science—science might be able to describe all the places and events with which we interface, but it cannot tell us which is “home”; it cannot locate meaning for us in a privileged place or time. Of course, this is not a critique of science in general. Rather, it is technology as a social strategy which redraws human experience in this world with no guideposts.

The way people address this widely-recognized if poorly-understood malaise is often to, in Borgmann’s terms, “raise the value question”. In other words, it is thought that what is needed to reorient our society is a clarification and perhaps reprioritization of “values”. According to Borgmann, however, (and laying aside the issue of the multiplicity of values), this strategy is futile in unmasking the device paradigm and showing it for what it is. The problem is that, very often, our discussion of values presupposes the means/ends distinction which is operative as a result of the technological paradigm; from this assumption, technology itself will never be able to be brought into clear relief (as we saw in earlier chapters). In modern education, the ends are what are seen as stable, and the means as radically interchangeable. Thus we have undergone a shift from education as passing down customs or “ways of doing things” to teaching goal-formulation and practical reason, with the result that tools and practices become mere means rather than vessels of orientation, used in a web of pre-existing meaning.

Ultimately, in this environment, the values we most want to bring to the fore will forever be impossible to formulate. When commoditization potential becomes the measure of whether the means are leading to the ends, the non-quantifiable “values” will start to dematerialize. As Borgmann puts it, we can measure the number of Big Macs sold, or the number of times a family eats out. But how are we to measure the value of a family meal, prepared with care and celebrated with conversation? So-called “focal things”, which we encountered earlier as those things which are a source of full-facultied human engagement, cannot be argued for in the “values” conversation, when it continues to presuppose the paradigm of technology.

In this chapter, Borgmann also considers a Marxist critique of modern society, to see whether it fares any better in bringing to light the working of the device paradigm. Ultimately, he disregards the critique as too shallow. On the Marxist story, there is always a definite class with undue power, influence, and wealth. What is really necessary is to divest this class of their privilege and distribute their benefits more equally. (There are of course totally capitalist versions of this thesis, and Borgmann goes into some interesting detail on how this a big part of the social theory underlying much of the latent political understanding in the US.) The problem here is not just that it is questionable whether there is really a definite class who can be thus Robin-Hooded. It is that technology and the device paradigm can be used quite happily towards this goal of “equality”, all the while continuing the trend of commoditization and disengagement. As long as technology operates in a free and equal manner, the Marxist has no more to say about it; and of course, this disburdenment and equality is part and parcel of the very promise of technology.

So, it appears we need more tools or insight to bring an actual discussion of technology into the political and social arena. We begin this task in the next chapter by looking at the concept of “liberal democracy” (the kind of social theory Borgmann claims is actually operative in the US political system).

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 12, “Paradigmatic Explanation”

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.

One of the foundational aims of Borgmann’s whole book is the attempt to actually give an explanation for technology. Hence we discussed what counts as an explanation in the scientific realm in earlier chapters. In this middle section of the book, Borgmann is concerned to substantiate the notion of the Device Paradigm, not just as a feature of technology but as a way of explaining technology and everything that goes along with it.

This chapter is therefore about “paradigmatic explanation”—we have this “device paradigm”, but what does it mean for this concept to be an explanation of technology? Borgmann begins by summarizing one type of explanation: “apodeictic” explanation, or the kind used in science. And of course, it is the physical sciences which in our society provide the standard for explanation. But science, Borgmann argues, fails to provide a theory, “in the sense of a steady and arresting view of our world” (69). Scientific laws may tell us what is possible, but they do not tell us what is relevant. There is, in other words, an overabundance of “givenness”, of things we could pay attention to or bring into focus or care about. Science itself does not and cannot set that vision for us.

The same kind of explanations are sought in the social sciences as in the physical sciences. Borgmann shows a set of pairs that typify this distinction:

is ought
fact value
theoretical practical
analysis advocacy
empirical normative

Scientific, apodeictic, subsumptive modes of explanation focus on the first column. But there must then be other kinds of explanation that focus on the second column or the whole picture. Borgmann therefore introduces the concept of “deictic” explanation, which answers the question “What is significant?” rather than the question “What is?” But is there yet a third possibility? Borgmann believes there is: paradigmatic explanation.

Borgmann defines paradigmatic explanation as “explanation by elucidation of a predominant pattern”, and says that, compared to apodeictic and deictic modes, this would be considered “paradeictic” or “quasi-deictic”, since it does not shy away from looking at patterns that bleed into the second column above, patterns that are used as a guide to sort out the world. Combined with the concept of a paradigm, we are talking of using concrete examples of patterns to prove the existence of a larger, overriding pattern.

So the Device Paradigm, as paradigmatic explanation, is designed to bring into relief the force that “more and more detaches us from the persons, things, and practices that used to engage and grace us in their own right” (76). From a historical perspective, this is the story of life being seen as toil, poverty, and suffering, and technology entering the scene as natural science promising to transform our experience and liberate us. The deep irony is then that disburdenment becomes disengagement.

So what examples can we use as paradigms to bring to light the pattern above? Well, we have already considered many of them. A fireplace becomes a central heating system. A wagon becomes an automobile. A meal becomes a TV dinner. The pattern here is of Things (objects which have depth as a result of being part of the web of human significance) becoming Commodities (wherein the main benefit they provide is stripped from the thing itself and made available).

When we build up from these paradigm cases, Borgmann claims, and if we are at all concerned about the disengagement characteristic of modern life, then the Device Paradigm provides an extremely clear explanation for how technology serves as an “implicit guiding pattern for the transformation of this world”.