Interviewing Borgmann, Part 2

Author’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 4-part series in which I interview Albert Borgmann, an eminent philosopher of technology. The interview has been transcribed and published here with minimal editing. I recommend starting with Part 1 to understand the greater context!

The relativism of technological change

JL: Albert, I've been talking about your ideas with pretty much everyone that has an ear, or half an ear, to listen. It's gotten to the point where, with my group of friends and colleagues, any time a topic comes up that triggers philosophical conversation, they say "oh no, Jonathan's about to talk about technology again!"

AB: What sort of work do you do?

JL: I'm a software developer. I've worked for the last fourG years at a tech startup, a cloud software company called Sauce Labs. We provide a cloud service for testing software applications. So it's a service that people would rely on as a facility to make sure that their new software that they are releasing is high quality. I started as just a developer and I'm now in a management role so I don't do a lot of software work. All this to say, most of the people I talk to about this are programmers.

Anyway, so I talk to a lot of people and I get a lot of responses about the ideas that I communicate, which I take largely from your work. It's always a challenge to figure out how to elocute it. My initial tendency was to start at a kind of abstract level and talk about the Device Paradigm. Sometimes people get it and sometimes people don't, but the inevitable question is, "So what? What does this framework have to do with anything?" I've tried different strategies, and I've heard a number of different responses and I want to ask you about a couple of these responses that I hear, to know what you would say about some of these things. One of the most common responses I hear is a version of what I call the "Douglas Adams argument for technological relativism". He has a quote that a lot of people know. He calls this the rules that describe people's reaction to technology.

  • Rule 1: anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

  • Rule 2: anythig that's invented between when you're 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

  • Rule 3: anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things.

In other words, when people bring this kind of response up to me, it seems like they're interpreting what you're saying as simply a common reaction that old people have to new things. "Oh, that's unnatural!" When the telephone was invented, there were some old people that said, "That's unnatural", but now it's the most normal thing, and we can even talk about talking on the phone with people nostalgically. But there was a class of people at some point who said, "That's horrible, we're not going to see each other face to face anymore". So it's a relativistic argument or maybe a slippery-slope type argument that's designed to show that we shouldn't be concerned about what seems unnatural now, because it will seem natural later. So really there's nothing to be concerned about. I see your work as saying something deeper that's not really susceptible to that argument but it's hard to know how to frame that, so what would you say?

AB: The argument is bad, right? The chickens expect the farmer to feed them day after day, but one day the farmer comes and wrings their neck! So I think it's a bad argument, but a better reply is perhaps to say that technological culture had culturally detrimental impacts. This used to be easily dismissed. The reply to the criticism was exactly what your colleagues say: "So what?" But now, for better or worse, we're at a stage where the detrimental effects are just obvious, and the two are obesity (and other self-inflicted diseases, which are a terrible problem, and due to the Device Paradigm running amok) and global warming. So you can't say, "Oh, 2/3 of the people were always overweight, and most of the diseases were self-inflicted". That's just not true! And you can't say, "Oh well, nature can always absorb what we throw at it. It's resilient". Well, it's not.

JL: So we're sort of coming to the end of the line for that particular argument, where it's shown to be false by experience.

AB: Right. And the next one is going to be distraction. The inability to focus on a demanding task. And distraction I think is going to be the mental counterpart to obesity.

JL: The result of mental fast food?

AB: Exactly. And so that's just sort of breaching the wall. But then you have to go on and ask, is there something like the Good Life? Or is it just that all kinds of lives are equal? So all these stars O.D. and kill themselves; that's ok! They're going out the way they want to go out with the highest possible high. Or maybe it's their children being totally aimless and not knowing what to do. I have at one time collected all the rueful columns just in the New York Times where people say, "There are terrible things happening to my children! What I'm doing to them is terrible, but I can't help myself." So is it all OK? And the thing about moral arguments is that a person can say, "Yes!"

JL: Right, but then their blood is on their own heads, essentially.

Technology, the Good Life, and happiness

AB: In a more recent book I say that you have to put people in (I forget how I phrased it) a benevolent, disinterested position. Benevolent: they're people of good will. Disinterested: you're not talking about them, because then they're defensive. And how do you get them into that position? It's when you ask them as parents, "What do you want for your children?" What kind of life? And then I make it a little more concrete by having a fairy godmother appearing and then asking questions, and then develop the notion of the Good Life following the traditional virtues of wisdom, courage, and friendship. Wisdom: knowledgeable, understanding the way the world works. Courage: physically active, at ease with their bodies. Friendship: warm, sustaining relationships. So would anyone say "Oh no, not my kid! I want my kid to be obese like everybody else! I want them to be ignorant!" You know? Google it if you want to know! And then you're able to move people into a position that's a little less flip and a little more thoughtful. They got sort of a glimpse of what the Good Life is, and then there's good social science research that supports it… Have you heard of Martin Seligman? The book Authentic Happiness is a great convergence of social science and virtue ethics. When it comes to wisdom, education is a good thing for happiness. Then physical activity is good for happiness, and then of course warm and enduring social bonds are crucial to happiness.

JL: I think I see what you're saying. He's actually using data from social sciences to support a kind of virtue ethics perspective on the Good Life, and you see that as a good trend in that kind of research.

AB: Yeah, I think if you're in the philosophy of society and culture you have to pay attention to the social sciences. You may just be wrong about claims that you make.

JL: You have to look at what's actually happening in the world to inform your philosophy about what's good for people or not good for people.

AB: The social scientists never ask exactly the questions you'd like them to ask, so you have to draw inferences and then of course you have to be critical of the social sciences. They're often mistaken. But people definitely know when they're miserable! So it's not as though you can tell a person who's terribly depressed, "You're not really depressed."

JL: Some people try, but they know.

AB: This gets us into complex issues. Professed happiness, avowed happiness. How valid is it? But social scientists have ways of establishing validity and reliability. And so if people say, "Yeah I'm happy", then you go out there, ask their neighbors, look at them, see how they're doing. You correlate their avowed profession of happiness with how they actually live. You know, there are kinds of happiness where people make distinctions between enduring happiness and momentary happiness and the sum of lots of momentary happiness is not the same as enduring happiness.

JL: Similar to the reaosn why hedonism has never made sense to me as a personal philosophy even though it's the philosophy that pretty much everyone around us in San Francisco professes to follow, because 'happiness' is an empty category. It means whatever you want it to mean, so how can it be a guide to life? Basically everyone ends up saying you define pleasure in whatever way you want. Long-term, short-term. But I find it to be a meaningless guide to the Good Life in that sense.

AB: Right.

The possibility of focality in technological devices

JL: OK. I want to get back to some of these responses. Another response I hear after talking about some of your ideas with people, even if they'll agree with the basic points, is that they view technological devices as having a lot more promise within themselves for meaning, for human meaning. Many of my colleagues believe that technological devices could become focal things or practices, so people talk about having more 'real' experiences with online communities than in their local physical environment, or getting extremely skilled at a video game that demands a lot of actual engagement and quasi-physical-but-intellectual skill. You think that chess might be a focal practice, so why not this video game? Or kinds of artistic expression that you can have with digital media that you couldn't have with other kinds of things. Even in some of the research that I did for the paper I gave at the conference [SPT 2015], talking about the open source software community in its early incarnation exhibiting some more "focal" features that then lessened as that community evolved. So what would you say about these possibilities for focality within something that we might in a large picture view as a technological device? Are these possibilities real? How do they compare to the kinds of focal things and practices in your book, like running and so on?

AB: It's an empirical question, so we have to find out what the case is. The next thing is you have to distinguish between possibility and actuality. Possibilities instantiated anecdotally? Well great. But actuality is measured by what I would call "social causality". What's the broad impact of devices? There we depend on the social sciences. So what's the broad impact of the availability of seductive, tempting food? You can say, "Well some people sit down with a Big Mac and for them it's just a feast!" Fine. But what's the broad impact?

JL: So you can acknowledge that possibility of that sacred experience with the Big Mac, but then you look at the broad strokes of what that does to culture, and it's a different picture.

AB: Then you have to ask yourself, why that broad impact? What is it in the culture that makes the impact of engineered food so detrimental? And then I think you come to the conjunction of disburdenment and enrichment that is so seductive and still propelling the culture. What makes that kind of disburdenment and enrichment possible? It's some sort of machinery. If people didn't have the Device Paradigm writ large and instantiated in so many ways, that disburdenment wouldn't be possible. Every person would have to have 1,000 slaves, and that's not a culture we could accept. So these are the stages. The first is possibility vs actuality. And then, what's the actuality? And then, why does it have this broad impact?

Continued in Part 3