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)

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit for more.

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