Interviewing Borgmann, Part 3

Author’s Note: This is Part 3 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 promise of technology

JL: Sometimes I'm talking to people about your work, and, maybe as in the case of the conference I went to, people were familiar with it, but held a common misunderstanding that you are fundamentally opposed to technology or are really negative about technology. But based on some of the things you wrote (and you can tell me if I'm getting it wrong) it sounded like you were really affirming some of the original promise of technology…

AB: Absolutely!

JL: …But really want to caution us not to trade what's meaningful and central in our lives for the sake of availability. And so how would you respond to someone who claims you're anti-technology or anti-progress?

AB: I sympathize with these people. You have to pigeonhole writers, otherwise you just get lost! They just put me in the wrong pigeonhole, that's all. I think it's just that these people haven't read the book; that's obvious. They've just heard about it, or they might have read excerpts. I mean, one of the later chapters (I'm not sure you have blogged it yet), mentions "the recovery of technology". To recover! There is something genuine in this promise of liberation and enrichment. I think focal things and practices help us to recover that promise. Think of an example I use: you go running on a cold, rainy, muddy day and you come back and you're shivering and you think, boy a shower is wonderful. Whereas a shower every morning..? Or hunger: if you allow yourself to get hungry, if you're totally spent and hungry and then there's a Big Mac… well that's a great thing. It's just this super-saturation with commodities that makes us ungrateful. And there's a tragedy, I think, in technology, and it's probably haunting your work too, Jonathan, and that is that information technology is just a marvel of ingenuity and cooperation. Physically, conceptually: it's amazing! Totally amazing. And how did it happen? Through cooperation. It wasn't Edison who did it, or Neumann, the mathematician, or whoever. It's thousands and thousands of people who contribute their little part. Something like this is a marvel. And you can't help but be full of admiration. And so the ingenuity, the devotion, the intelligence, the self-sacrifice that goes into it is amazing. And then what is it used for? What's this thing used for? All my students as soon as they get out of class…

JL: Instead of elevating us it's distracting us.

AB: So there is this terrible asymmetry between the ingenuity that goes into the means and the stupefaction that it largely has. And again, of course, you have to acknowledge the possibilities and limited actuality of people using an iPhone to stay in touch with their children, or staging a revolution, or… if iPhones were used for just that… I think they sold 13 million of their new iPhone 6?

JL: The 6S that was just released?

AB: They wouldn't sell them if there weren't all these teenagers looking at their smartphone.

JL: …who already had the previous revision of the iPhone anyway!

AB: So I think the problem is not that technology needs to be scolded and condemned and vilified. It needs redemption! We have to recover a sense of how wonderful it is and I don't think that's going to happen without a grounding in something that's not technological. Sometimes I just have to shake my head. People say, "Borgmann doesn't allow for the fact that devices can be engaging!" I have examples of engaging devices. Fine downhill skis that allow you to do things that with the old wooden boards you weren't able to do.

JL: Yeah I like what you were talking about in some of the chapters on nature. There are two things I appreciate. One is you acknowledge the reality that a nice pair of trail running shoes in a sense is a device, but in a sense one shouldn't refuse them on the grounds that it's not traditional. At this point, going off into the wilderness without the appropriate gear is just courting danger and disaster in a way that's irresponsible. The truth is that we don't have to do it the way the early pioneers did it anymore. There's sort of a mature acquiescence to that, saying we no longer have to put ourselves in that much danger to go outside. But we can still go outside, and in a way, like maybe with the example of these downhill skis, technology can be used not to take us away from that engagement, but to give us an ability to experience it with fewer barriers. So a nice pair of trail running shoes enables you to have the feeling of moving through the woods like a wild creature in a way that a heavy pair of leather hiking boots from 100 years ago would not give you the ability to do.

Virtual reality, videogames, and technological "art"

AB: Exactly. The requirement is that devices be transparent to reality. And of course virtual reality is the opposite. It's the exact opposite.

JL: Sheer opacity.

AB: Videogames are an example. Are they the successor of nineteenth-century novels? Works of art that should be appreciated? Again I think it's an empirical question. What is it doing to people? What are they doing to people, videogames? Virtual reality is still facing technical problems…

JL: It's coming along. Things like Oculus and whatnot, they're moving to mass production pretty soon.

AB: And then again you have to be an empiricist. Are there virtual reality experiences that people come away from the way they come back from, I don't know, watching a Greek tragedy, or Beethoven's 9th or something like this?

JL: But isn't there a concern that people would say "yes", that the empirical data would show that virtual reality and videogames are like Beethoven simply because our baseline of experience is already so technologized? If all you've had in your life is a Big Mac and then you go and have a very simple home-cooked meal… I mean this was the way that I grew up, where actually for my family going out to McDonald's was a treat. For me, that's where I wanted to go on my birthday, when I could choose to go anywhere. I didn't know that it was a technological device, I just knew that I loved these chicken nugget pieces that probably weren't even chicken. For me that was an amazing experience. So if you polled me then, I would say that McDonald's was much better than Grandma's meatloaf or potato casserole or whatever. So that's something that makes me feel a little more distressed. I wonder if the more we "progress" the more we lose the ability for people to make that comparison for themselves in a meaningful way?

AB: Right. Well, I think we come back to the question of the Good Life. The question is, let's say virtual reality experiences are becoming common, and some people get really mystical about it, and claim to have mystical experiences or whatever. We just have to see what happens. If it happens that these people come back from these virtual reality experiences in a way where they seem serene, and compassionate, and resourceful… well fine! Great. Then we want to find out why it's happening and how does it compare with religious or artistic experience. I have my suspicions though…

JL: Yeah I suspect that they'll probaby come back more anxious and distracted and it will be harder to live in the real world. They may find serenity but only in the virtual world.

Evolutionary mismatch theory

AB: I think you just have to give the advocates some slack, you know, and say OK let's try it. One thing I may not touch on at all in TCCL is evolution, and one thing I've learned since is how deeply evolution fits us into the past and into reality and how complex and profound these ties are. Exactly how evolution connects with ethics is complex and interesting, but the way we're put together by nature is to be in the world in an engaged way. That's what makes us happy. That's how we evolved and learned to prosper. There is a whole field called mismatch theory—have you heard of it? It compares our evolutionary endowments and what's called the ancestral environment (sometimes called "the environment of evolutionary adaption"), which is the environment that the human family lived through for probably a million years and within which we learned to prosper. We sort of know what it was like from examples of the hunting and gathering cultures that have survived into the 20th century. And then if you articulate these conditions and then compare them with the conditions that the technological culture provides, it's a mismatch. And so people feel anxious, they get obese, they get all kinds of diseases. So virtual reality is, I think, more mismatch. That's a good guess, but I think you should never be dogmatic. You should be liabilist, falsifiabilist, and open to being shown to be wrong.

JL: Yeah, it kind of puts me in the mind of a couple examples. People who thought that theism and evolution were incompatible, or who think that theism (or Christianity) for example and life on other worlds would be incompatible. For me it's kind of a, well, if there is there is, and it may mean something about God for us or it may not. It might be relevant, but I don't think that one can look at the Bible and presume to know a universal intent around life and the shape that life would take universally. Is that the kind of openness that you're talking about? We just have to kind of see about this virtual reality thing. And we think that it will be probably not a vehicle for let's say some kind of true spirituality, but you don't know until you see how people are shaped by it.

AB: Yes, exactly.

JL: So back to this misunderstanding that you're opposed to technology.

AB: Yeah, I'm not mad at these people. Pigeonholing is a survival necessity and so I just get put in the wrong pigeonhole.

JL: Graciously allow yourself to be the straw man!

AB: Well I do respond if I come across it.

JL: I was surprised, because I was reading your book to do a blog just a week before I went to SPT and you had a sentence (it might be the same one you just referred to), which was very positive about the promise and redemption of technology. I came across some people at the conference who had this pigeonholed view of you, and I said, "no, I just read this sentence two days ago and I can assure you he's not that". So it does seem the pigeonholing has had its effect over the years.

AB: That's fine.

Meaning and significance in a perfectly available world

JL: So continuing on from there, I read you as making the claim that a perfectly safe, perfectly convenient world of availability that the Device Paradigm is geared towards is essentially one that's devoid of the possibility of a narrative for human significance. So I wanted to ask, first of all, if that's in fact what you're saying. And if so, how would you motivate that claim in a generation, my generation, that really believes this liberal democratic ideal that meaning and significance are just whatever we choose them to be? And thereby compatible with this perfectly safe, perfectly available world.

AB: The answer to the first question is yes, and to the second… The answer to the second connects with things we've talked about and that is that you have to ask people who center their life in ICT or cyberspace how they're doing. And then at a more philosophically sophisticated level you have to point out to them that people who claim that they're imposing meaning on reality are just the captives of stereotypes. It's fame and fortune! I want to be like Justin Bieber! If you're a boy. Or I don't know, Beyonce.

JL: So you're essentially saying that this belief that we can choose whatever meaning we want is sort of hollow and empty and not true in practice.

AB: Right. But there is a grain of truth to this belief and you're the perfect illustration. So Jessica [JL's wife, who grew up in a small town in Illinois] has been blessed with a grounded life, from which she can draw strength and orientation, and for you it's not the case. So it's a distinction of degree of course. You have to sort of be open to things that claim you and learn to see how they converge. It's characteristically American that every person is a point of convergence of many things, and you don't make them converge. They converge in your life, and you have to be alert to them, and of course help them to grow together into something meaningful. So running is part of your life, right? And the experience of nature that comes with it. I take it you run outside?

JL: Yeah, we live in downtown San Francisco, so as much as I can. I run along the water, but I prefer running on trails, which I just don't get to do very often.

AB: And then your cuisine is probably a convergence of Mid-western cooking and Texas cuisine?

JL: Well… it's a little more complicated than that. But cuisine is important to us.

AB: Well anyway. What's your.. I forget your last name?

JL: Lipps.

AB: Is it German?

JL: Yes.

AB: So you can't say, I'm a Lipps, and the Lippses have always cooked this way! You can't say that. That would be fake. You could embrace it if somehow…

JL: If I wanted to reappropriate that ancestral thing.

AB: You could only reappropriate it if it claimed you in some sense, right?

JL: I can't reappropriate Native American traditions.

AB: Right. So these things are philosophically very interesting and subtle. I'm a determinist so I think you should think of a person as the wonderful convergence of billions of things. So the people who say you make your own meaning, they're mistaken in this activist way they put it. It should be more receptive. But they're right that the way the meaning of life comes to them does not have the homogeneity of an inherited culture. And that's a wonderful thing.

JL: So you can choose which convergences you allow to dominate your experiences of life, and there are more convergences than there were maybe 500 years ago because of the more diverse cultural context we've lived in? Is that what you're saying?

Determinism and libertarianism

AB: Yeah. Are you a determinist or libertarian when it comes to free will?

JL: I've usually been a pretty strong libertarian.

AB: Yeah, well it's incoherent, I'm sorry to say! "Free" is undetermined, is uncaused, is random. There's no way to break this.

JL: The way that I break it is countenancing agency as a fundamental universal substance.

AB: A ghost in the machine?

JL: Why not?

AB: <laughs>

JL: We can talk about it at dinner. Nobody believes it, I know.

AB: Worse than that, you can't tell how a universal agency… what are the levers that it works on, and how can it work on levers when it's not… you know it's the Cartesian problem of, I forget the name of the gland, the pineal gland, where he thought that's where the… at any rate, you're right.

JL: I'm not a substance dualist, but…

AB: Well you're courting substance dualism, aren't you?

JL: Sure. But growing up in the evangelical Christian tradition, courting substance dualism is second nature (pun intended)!

AB: Well these are the things that make philosophy fun.

JL: Well let's talk more about that at dinner, it'll be a fun conversation.

AB: Yeah. So at any rate if you're a determinist like me, what you realize is it's this wonderful situation where billions of things come together and fuse in your mind and in your brain. But they don't fuse mysteriously. They fuse both intelligbly and unreachably. There is a complexity that you understand. 86 billion neurons and trillions of synapses. So there's no way of mapping the thing. And yet, there's Jonathan, there's Jessica, there's me. We're persons! So "choosing" always needs to be rephrased and that's one of the fun challenges of philosphy. I think it's best to think of oneself as the fusion of many things and being that fusion, you're a force in your own right. You're not just effects. The effects fuse into this amazingly resourceful cause, but the basic attitude is much more one of gratitude than power.

JL: I definitely agree with that aspect of it.

AB: These are just, in a way, differences of discourse rather than differences in substance.

JL: Yeah, it sounds like the attitude we take towards it is pretty similar even if maybe there's a different philosophical basis… and maybe I'm incoherent at the end of the day, but I haven't been shown it sufficiently to agree yet.

AB: Yeah it's good to resist it for as long as you can! I was a libertarian once. I had this wonderful [friend]… I mentioned him in the introduction—John Winnie—in the acknowledgements at the beginning. He just gave me such a hard time that finally I said, John you're right.

JL: Well I don't talk to a lot of philosophers anymore so I get to just come up with whatever I want.

Deictic discourse, transhumanism, and Artificial Intelligence

JL: OK so moving on then. At the end of the day in your book you acknowledge in your later chapters that you are speaking, and people need to be speaking, "deictically" (or "paradeictically" in the case of being more philosophical), not "apodeictically" with what you call the cogency or the assent that's forced by purely scientific reasoning. So if I were to try and state this another way, it sounds to me like you're fundamentally assuming a certain mode of human essence and human flourishing, and not trying to substantiate that a priori but rather trying to live in it and reflect it, calling others into participation with it deictically.

AB: Absolutely

JL: So for me I'm very curious because of something that comes up a lot for me in conversations. I talk with a lot of people who are not necessarily transhumanist but they're kind of Singularity people and whatnot. People who'd say that the term "human" is kind of whatever we make it, maybe in a similar sense as we talked about the term "meaning" or "significance" before. So in other words, to this concept of human flourishing, which you're trying to speak about from your own kind of deep experience, I imagine someone else saying, "that's great, and that seems to be what your definition of being human is. Mine is that I would like to extend my body with these bionic implants so that I have more working memory, so that I become more intelligent according to my understanding of what makes somebody human". A lot of people say that working memory is what defines intelligence, and intelligence defines humanity, so the more working memory you have, the more intelligent you are, and the more human you are. They take this more or less mind-oriented definition. So is there anything you can say to these thinkers? Is a conversation possible? Or do you just have to accept that you're on different planets?

AB: The question is whether intelligence is the essence of being human, right?

JL: Well I was giving that as an example. Somebody might have picked something else. I was just trying to highlight how it seems like you're coming to the table with this understanding of what human flourishing consists in. Someone else might say (again like "meaning") that you sort of choose what human flourishing means, and then you go with it.

AB: One thing I'm unclear about. Is there a proposal in there, or is it just a skeptical question? If the proposal is transhumanism, Kurzweil-type, it's very specific, and it says the essence of humanty is an intelligence that is substance-neutral.

JL: So let's take that as the foil. That's something that people argue to me. I don't know if they would choose it themselves, but being skeptics they're bringing it up anyway.

AB: Lots of the things that were said before apply here too. It's a question of empiricism. What is the case? And the question is, how do you get people into a position such that they see what is the case? I've written a paper about this, about the Turing Test. I posit that the program passes the Turing Test—and as you know it's very far from ever doing so—so let's just assume it and then the question that I pose is, what is it that would make us find that computer to be a commanding presence? Something that we find interesting, noteworthy. So what I'm doing is arguing that we're supplying what exactly makes it a commanding presence. So we get these answers [from the computer as part of the Test], and we think, well there must be a person there. So I say let's enrich it and enrich it and enrich it. So there's not only the writing but also voice and so on. And enrich it and enrich it and enrich it and the argument finally says that at every point, if we stop at this stage of enrichment, we will not find that person to be enduringly interesting and worthy of respect.

What makes a person interesting to me is that the person has parents that I can ask the person about, and that they're real parents, not just fake parents. That the person can suffer and prevail against suffering, and if the person is just faking suffering, I'll find their "triumph" over suffering boring after a while. And then the person being capable of despair. And so the basic idea is that when you detail what it is that makes a person a commanding presence, something that you respect and turn to and hope for and call in the dark night of the soul… "Bill, you gotta come over…" The person has to be just the way we are. Someone who's capable of believing, of possibly dying and some day really dying. A person who's born, has parents… And so these computers that supposedly are just as smart as I am are just going to be boring to me after a while. Even though they can fake things…

JL: It might fool you but once you were revealed the truth it would eventually lose its commanding sense.

AB: Right. And people, unfortunately, are willing to supply this… "Her", did you see "Her"?

JL: I still need to, I've heard about it. Or the elderly people with these robots, the caretaking robots that become sources of consolation, but like you're saying it feels like they're giving the robots "personhood" so they can receive back, not because it's actually there.

AB: Yeah, they're imagining. Again, empiricism comes in. And I've heard that the person who made this dog, the Japanese outfit… they stopped making it.

JL: I forget what it was called, there was a paper on this at SPT.

AB: So again, the empirical evidence I suspect will show that people get tired of it. Of course people can live with fantasies for a long time, but again it's a social question. What's going to happen broadly?

JL: And if society is already kind of empty enough of actual relationship, then an imaginary one, or… In China I read this article there's a "girlfriend" app that is becoming really popular that will randomly text young men to make them feel as though they have a relationship. To me it's pointing out how empty the culture is such that that could be a replacement. Not how rich that is in and of itself.

AB: And more than that I think my expectation is that people will get tired of it.

JL: Right, that it's a momentary respite from despair.

AB: The sort of vacuity of the whole thing will become obvious to the persons who for a while are enchanted with it. And again we have to be careful with anecdotes. Anecdotes always dominate.

JL: Right, that's what's hard for me as somebody who's trying to voice a dissenting opinion. You might say that the facts for a lot of these things aren't really in yet. So I have the skeptical voice and other people have the very positive voice, and there's always enough positive anecdotes that you can sort of skip from one to the other while ignoring the wreckage that lies at the end of each particular trajectory.

AB: There are, as I said, cases where the accumulating evidence is telling. With food, mental health, and people's avowed unhappiness. So advocates of new technologies who take the kind of empiricist attitude I'm talking about as a concession can be countered by saying that there are lots of cases where if we didn't know the social causality, we'd still be singing a device's praises, like you with the Big Mac, right? But we no longer say that in some areas. And as I said, distraction will be the next example, then of course global warming. Although global warming is ambiguous morally speaking because as we said before it could be cured in a way that would not unhinge the Device Paradigm.

JL: It wouldn't make us better people.

Continued in Part 4

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Open Source at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Apart from being the project lead of Appium, 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 Vancouver BC, 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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