Interviewing Borgmann, Part 4

Author’s Note: This is the last 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!

On-demand apps and the sharing economy

JL: We've already talked about the Internet of Things, so I think I'll skip that question. There's this other hot area in technology, which is the rise of on-demand goods and services applications where anything that we want, whether a good or a service, is wrapped up into an app designed to get us that thing as instantly and reliably as possible. You might have heard of Instacart or Uber or all these apps which are replacing the traditional mechanisms for procuring things, in a way which makes them more available. It's the Device Paradigm. But to me it's interesting that it's being splintered into each good or commodity having its own app or service. It's this kind of very clear picture of the fragmentation that you were talking about in your book. People love these apps; people whose lives are busy, for whom going grocery shopping is a chore that takes them away from quality time with their family or the little time that they have after work, or an app that can get a maid to your house in 10 minutes to clean and you never have to see them and it just charges your credit card and it's just so convenient and it frees you up. There's this disburdenment. It's all very Device Paradigm in essence. What would you say to somebody who is really feeling the benefit of that? How could you convince them that maybe this is taking something away, or would you?

AB: Well again there are special cases where these things are a godsend, and so fine.

JL: If you're a starving person a Big Mac is a godsend.

AB: Right. It's an iteration of the unkept promise of technology. So it saves people time. What for? It's Marx's remark, you know, all these wonderful things [that come from] free time. It just never happened. Free time—what for? Either to work more, or to indulge in consumption that is the antithesis of engagement and the Good Life.

JL: So it's hard because at any given point, disburdenment feels disburdening. But then it becomes a moving target and if you choose to work more or consume more you don't realize that you're putting yourself in a position where you're going to choose more disburdenment later, rather than choose another path entirely which would have kept you from the subseqent need for that disburdenment.

AB: And as you know, when it comes to liberty (you know people make a distinction between liberty from and liberty for)… the question is never asked "disburdenment from?" Great, what for? Oops!

JL: It's just the assumed good that nobody questions.

AB: So there's always this utopian notion, we'll read Shakespeare and play an instrument. We'll take our kids to the park.

JL: But instead we'll catch up on e-mail and stick an iPad in front of our kids' faces.

AB: Right.

A way forward for the promise and reform of technology

JL: Yeah, OK. So with this blog series that I've been doing on your book, I know that a small handful of people have been reading it, and hopefully more in the future. So the question is, what would you say to those of us who've read these articles from my blog or who've read your book itself who are "literate laypeople" who've powered through the book, struggled through, whatever. What's next? What should we be aware of or concerned about? These possibilities of reform for technology that you mentioned, have they changed, have they expanded, have they shrunk? I sometimes look at the future and I see this polarization of this rabidly technological culture or this rabidly Luddite culture that completely disconnects. Is that what you see happening? Do you see a different way forward that's more productive?

AB: Well, as you know I think there always has to be a technological substructure to our lives.

JL: You can't get away from that anymore.

AB: No. So I think the hopeful things, inspiring things, are where people understand this and then within the framework of technology are able to find celebration, which is easier, and then work, which is harder. So the food industry, the "foodies", is a very hopeful thing. We had a conference here on food and there was a table with books and I couldn't believe how many wonderful books there were. And these people use technology. They use the Internet, they use cars of course. They use sprinkler systems… As you also know, the focal reality is not just traditional, it has a new kind of splendor. So the things that they grow have a sort of force in their own right as they come out of their drip systems or whatever they use to grow them. To come back to the earlier point: one title that I use in the book which I think is still appropriate is "local, labor-intensive industries". Whatever comes under this heading. You know, Matt Crawford's first book talks about his shop for motorbikes. Those are the wonderful things that give me hope. As I said, the crucial thing you have to look for is that they enforce coherence and assert themselves.

JL: And be a unified front which people see as distinct from the dominant mode.

AB: Right. And to the extent that these people are tech-savvy, that's a big plus. Because they're not Luddites. The terms Luddite and neo-Luddite are used loosely. So in one sense they are. But they don't destroy things. They use them, but they are able to subordinate them to reality in some way.

JL: It was interesting living in San Francisco, because there is a big foodie culture, a big artisan culture, and a focus on local things, but also it's the global epicenter of the many aspects of the Device Paradigm. So I see a large tension between these two things and I think there's a dissonance there, but a lot of people seem not to notice it in their own lives. They work for 15 hours a day at their tech startup with no grounding and no free time, but then they go and enjoy the foodie scene and order only local and organic things. So they appreciate it as a cultural phenomenon but it doesn't seem to be inspiring them to reflect on other aspects of their lives. Is that what you're talking about where you hope that there can be a greater force for these things, more of a voice in some way?

AB: Yeah. I once counted how many philosophers, professional philosophers, there are in this country. Many thousands. What the people in San Francisco need is a theory, and a theory tells them how things fit together in a stable and sustainable way. That they're not just saying, "oh yeah it's romantic, this restaurant". But of course that's not the culture, or sometimes as you say they're conflicted. Should I give up my job and teach high school? A theory should allow people to see the hope. What the good things are, and the bad things are, and how the good things fit together in an intellectually defensible and practically sustainable way. And philosophers just aren't doing that. Philosophers are… I mean, when it comes to free will, you won't believe how many different schools there are! So it's not just one school that deals with free will. There are all these factions and they just love fighting each other. So philosophy is really remiss in its social responsibility. I'm not saying that people shouldn't do analytic philosophy, it's just that not everybody should do it.

JL: It shouldn't be the gold standard of philosophical debate, because people need as you were saying something to help them live their lives, and philosophy's not giving it to them.

AB: Right.

The history and trajectory of the philosophy of technology

JL: OK, so speaking of philosophy, the philosophy of technology: as far as I know you've been in the field as long as anybody. So how do you see it having evolved over time, in terms of the questions people ask? It sounds like you already answered this saying it's gone in this analytic direction, but could you maybe give a couple exemplar questions or debates that in the last 50 years would have changed?

AB: Well, it began in '74 or '76 with the conference at the University of Delaware. The great founders were Paul Durbin and Carl Mitcham. Those are the two. And you must be familiar with Thomas Kuhn. So it was a pre-paradigmatic period. People were saying all kinds of different things. The thing didn't have any shape. And then out of this conference came positions. Don Ihde at SUNY Stonybrook, is one of them. Paul Durban's sort of activist model, and Langdon Winner with a kind of political version of it. And so amazingly the people got together, and they wrote their books! And gave the thing shape. So there were distinct positions that emerged. Paradigms in the Kuhnian sense. And all of them had often an implicit but always a very strong moral and social force to them.

JL: I can see that having met Langdon and Carl. Very strong in that sense.

AB: And so that continued into the 80s and 90s and then the Dutch took over, and they're spending enormous amounts of money institutionally on philosophy of technology, bless their hearts. They're doing some good things in response to the first stage but what then sort of arose from outside of philosophy is the social studies of science. Latour. Bruno Latour. And there were some British guys who did this, and they sort of took over the field of technology and science and merged the two into technoscience, which I think was a disaster.

JL: Well it's not very interesting work to read from my perspective.

AB: But it was sort of sexy.

JL: Because you could claim it as a science? Or why was it attractive?

AB: If you have a choice between interesting but false and true but trivial, everyone goes for interesting but false. And false sort of gets concealed for a while. So these people came up as revolutionaries, and they're often… there was always this tendency to appease the humanist and social scientists about physics. "That's just a way of talking". And that's an easy way of dealing with physics, other than learning quantum physics, which is hard. Or just special relativity, which is fairly hard. Do I want to go back and learn calculus again to understand? No, it's just "we talk this way, they talk that way". So just like Derrida in the study of the literature, people felt sort of great. They were in charge and they showed those scientists! So they took over for a while and Don Ihde to some extent bought it. Do you know Don Ihde?

JL: He wasn't there so I didn't meet him but his work was referenced a lot.

AB: He sort of bought in on this. Not totally, but largely.

JL: Is that the stuff about world-something…?

AB: Well multi-stability is his big thing, and then mediation theory and stuff like that. That I think was one way towards self-absorption. Who wants to read Latour? And some of it is just sexy terminology without anything really new. So the "agency of things". A speed bump, for example—it talks to you and says, "slow down!" Well big deal! And then the Dutch were enamored with the rigor and precision of analytic philosophy. And rigor and precision are admirable things, but the price for precision is impoverishment. The richer the phenomenon, the less it submits to rigor and precision. That's just the way it is. Modeling is a good example. You must know that well! Models get so complex finally there's no insight at all. You just hope the thing's gonna work. So rigor and precision in one sense have to be left aside to make the thing work. Rigor and precision are dangerous tools because the impoverishment often creeps in unnoticed.

JL: You're following the rules and doing the things and coming up with these what are essentially tautological conclusions, so it feels like you're doing work for a while.

AB: Well, finer and finer distinctions. And again, I'm not against it. It's just the displacement of more substantive work. So I think the philosophy of technology in one thing just failed spectacularly because in 1976 we all thought, what's the big thing today? It's philosophy of science. So what's next? It's gotta be philosophy of technology. But within the overall profession, it's totally marginal. Less than marginal. Efforts were made to give it mainstream respectability, but I think we should just give up on it. The way that some of the Dutch try to gain respectability for it… it's just the death of its cultural and social significance.

JL: So this is something that's relevant for me personally. I would love to see it revived in a more practical and connected way that is doing what the original call of philosophy was, which is sort of what you pointed out: giving people tools for thinking that connect with the way that they're living their lives and help them understand what they're doing.

What the philosophy of technology needs

AB: I think one has to be careful not to do this in a sort of procedure- and method-oriented way, you know, "I want philosophy that's like this and like this". But rather be content- and substance-oriented. What is it out there that cries out for philosophical illumination? And it's the impact of ICT! What is it doing to people? As far as influence is concerned: Kant says about happiness, don't pursue it. It's a wil-o-the-wisp. What you can pursue and should pursue is being worthy of happiness. The same thing with influence. Don't beat the bushes and… write something that's worthy of being influential. And then you have to leave it up to the culture, whether it responds or not. But clearly there's something out there. As I said it should be worthy of influence in the sense that if David Brooks—do you know him?—if he read it, he would say, "Oh my God, yes. That really allows me to talk about things in a way that I've been struggling to talk about".

JL: Like you were pointing out with New York Times articles. I read op-eds that show this cultural need where people are aching for the ability to talk about something, and there's books like Matthew Crawford's books, and Sherry Turkle… there's a lot of pop culture stuff coming out that's all sort of throwing a random splash of paint here and here, and it's not really pulling it all together in a philosophically compelling way, but it is showing that that's where the need is, instead of where philosophy of technology currently is, where people are talking about the philosophy of science oriented processes of how technologists work and technology works.

AB: Right.


Author's note: At this point time was up and the interview concluded. I am deeply grateful to Albert for his conversation and hospitality! And I recommend checking out his works, particularly TCCL. Once again, for an overview of that book, refer to my blog series which covers it.

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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