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]

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 jonathanlipps.com for more.

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