Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 9, “The Device Paradigm”

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.

With chapter 9 we come to one of the most important chapters of TCCL. In it Borgmann elucidates the Device Paradigm, which is his way of explaining technology by reference to paradigmatic examples of it. The idea is that through a careful analysis of several obvious examples of technological devices, discussed in contrast to the pretechnological situation, we will begin to see the pattern which heretofore was invisible, hidden as it was behind the veil of being taken for granted.

As we have seen, Borgmann claims technology seeks to provide liberation and enrichment, i.e., to make these qualities available. Availability is therefore a big part of technology. Technological availability has four essential qualities (which Borgmann explores via the contrast between a central heating system and a wood-burning stove). For something to be technologically available, according to Borgmann, it must be:

  1. Instantaneous: The fire in a stove is not instantaneous because wood is not instantly available in burnable form. It comes in the form of trees which must be chopped down, cut up, etc… On the other hand, a central heating system procures heat instantaneously, with the sliding of a switch or dial.
  2. Ubiquitous: A wood fire is not ubiquitous because it does not heat a given area evenly; a stove typically only heated one room of the house. A modern heating system, however, pumps heat wherever it is needed without any extra effort.
  3. Safe: Wood fires are not safe, since one might be injured while cutting wood, or burned by flames, or the house itself might burn down. Central heating systems are much more safe and reliable.
  4. Easy: All the work required to produce and maintain a stove fire clearly rules out its being easy. The central heating system, on the other hand, requires no work at all on the part of beneficiary of the heat.

These contrasts help to sharpen the outline of an important distinction: the distinction between things and devices. Let’s first understand the concept of ‘thing’. A ‘thing’ is inseparable from its context. Its world is therefore inseparable from our engagement with it, and this engagement is always a bodily and social one. Because of this inherent embeddedness, things always provide more than one commodity. Take the example of the wood-burning stove—it furnishes much more than mere warmth. It is first of all a focus for people, a center for activity. Its status reflects the stage of the day (from embers to flames and back again). It assigns to different family members different tasks (gathering sticks, chopping wood, stoking the fire, etc…). It provides bodily engagement through forcing one to go outside, to interact physically with trees and wood, and so on. It requires exertion and the learning and passing on of skills. Larger social contexts are sustained by and focused in things (meals, celebrations of major life events, etc…). As Borgmann says:

Physical engagement is not simply physical contact but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body. That sensibility is sharpened and strengthened in skill. Skill is intensive and refined world-engagement. Skill, in turn, is bound up with social engagement—it molds the person and gives the person character (42).

A ‘device’, by contrast, procures a good without the world of relationships we just saw exists with ‘things’. “A device such as a central heating plant procures mere warmth and disburdens us of all other elements. These are taken over by the machinery of the device. The machinery makes no demands on our skill, strength, or attention…” (42). Devices therefore have a tendency to shrink or background themselves to the point of becoming invisible, since all that matters is the commodity they are procuring, and the less a device burdens us, even visually, with the machinery that does the procuring, the better. The only physical properties which are important are therefore those which relate to the specific function of the device. (Borgmann defines a ‘commodity’ informally as “what the device is there for”, i.e., warmth in the case of a heating system, music in the case of a stereo, a meal in the case of a microwave dinner, etc…)

It follows from all this that any device can have many functional equivalents, since a device is defined functionally in relation to the commodity it procures. Take the example of a TV: old, bulky sets were eventually reduced to picture-only flat-screens. The commodity (i.e., the moving picture) was maximized and the machinery minimized. There have also been vast improvements in availability (in terms of time, place, and variety of content): first video cassettes, then cable, then DVR technology, and finally Netflix-style programming, available instantly from any connected device. The point is that this radical division between means and ends is one of the hallmarks of a device. In practice, the ends (e.g., warmth, or a moving picture) are stable, whereas the means are free to vary in any way that improves delivery of the commodity. Borgmann points out that this encourages a concealment (or backgrounding) of the means (which to the consumer are irrelevant and burdensome) and a prominence (or foregrounding) of the ends. “A commodity is truly available when it can be enjoyed as a mere end, unencumbered by means” (44).

Much of Chapter 9 is devoted to a case study, from the turn of the 20th century. The data comes from English wheelwright George Sturt, who wrote with surprising clarity of the changes underfoot as a result of industrialization. One of his most captivating passages is on the changing relationship of the craftsperson to nature. His was a philosophy of cultivating, adapting to land, in contrast to the more destructive industrial methodology. Wheelwrights, Sturt says, had a “relationship not of domination but of mastery” (44), echoing Borgmann’s statements about skill and engagement, and presaging an all-too real future where domination became the norm. Unfortunately, it would be too much for this entry to dive into those interesting passages more fully!

Back to Borgmann’s claim: it is that, given the clear distinctions we have been able to draw between things and devices, devices “dissolve the coherent and engaging character of the pre-technological world of things” (47). In other words, in the pre-technological world, commodities were never procured without some kind of engagement. Devices blast through this bond and deliver commodities with fewer and fewer modes of engagement with anything other than the ends (commodities) themselves. Borgmann considers two objections to this claim.

The first objection is that the ‘concealment of machinery’ we see with devices is really due to ignorance on the part of the consumer, or maybe technological illiteracy, and not to the character of the device itself. In fact, Borgmann says, many technological devices are made specifically so that they cannot be engaged with by their consumers, either in the case of discardable products (made to be thrown away), carefree products (such as plastic or stainless steel, made so that no harm can come to them), or in the case of highly complicated devices like computers, where their precise realizations are too complicated and/or in flux to be known by very many people.

The second objection is that, wait a second, people are actually engaged with the machinery of devices, and not just their ends, aren’t they?. Don’t people drive cars? Don’t they use computers to install software? Don’t they program remote controllers? Borgmann’s response is that these are not examples of engagement in a skillful, bodily, or social way. Programming a remote control is an entirely cerebral excercise: it admits of no skill, care, or bodily engagement.* It is furthermore anonymous, in that it does not disclose anything about its creator (or manufacturer) or reveal an orientation in nature, the way that a hand-carved chair reveals something both about the craftsperson who made it and about nature, through the specific qualities of the wood and its form.

Borgmann claims that, while everyone in a technological society understands that the means are important, they can and do spend their time enjoying the ends quite independently of them. And here Borgmann sees a tight connection with a modern understanding of labor and leisure, where labor is equated with the machinery or means of the good life, and leisure is seen as the ends which are to be enjoyed and which define that good life. But for a discussion of society, labor, and the good life, we will have to wait for the second half of Part Two!

*My own personal view is that some technological pursuits, like certain kinds of computer programming, do allow skillful engagement in a deep way, even though they are entirely cerebral (being perhaps analogous to writing stories).

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 8, “The Promise of Technology”

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 begins Part 2 (The Character of Technology), the first half of which (chs 8-12) aims to describe and articulate the paradigm of technology, and the second half of which (chs 13-16) aims to ask how we have come to terms with technology politically and socially. The thesis which Borgmann will be following throughout is that technology, as the characteristic way we engage with the world, is guided by a basic pattern. This pattern, however, like many deeply ingrained patterns, can be impossible to see. This is essentially the observation that the features of our worldviews which are fundamental (in the “background”, so to speak) are themselves not open to our introspection without some serious effort.

That effort for Borgmann is put to use in returning to the first articulations of technology. They go back to the founding event of modernity: the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was the original modern liberation movement, and thus technology (as a liberating force) is usually seen as a corollary of it; Borgmann claims, to the contrary, that technology is a primary current in that stream. Descartes, for example, calls out technology as an obvious tool of intellectual liberation, describing its potential for self-determination (making us “masters and possessors of nature”), for freedom from labor, and for freedom to enjoy one’s faculties.

The proper grounding of this vision was not seen until the middle of the 19th century, however. Before that, machines and efficiency multiplied, but with a corresponding degree of toil and misery. Eventually, industrialized nations saw the fruits of the new technological order, and strong arguments indeed can be made for the disburdening character of technology (disburdening us from disease, hard manual labor, etc…).

This promise of technology (of self-determination and freedom) is reiterated constantly in all kinds of social and political rhetoric. The implication is that the mature technology of an advanced industrial society is continuous with the liberating technology which, for example, helped more and more people survive and do business in North American winters. Borgmann doesn’t take this for granted, and offers modern advertising as an example of the macabre and seemingly trivial ends to which technology is now put. Marketers selling us “world-class cuisine” without leaving home (through the use of the microwave) seems somehow hollow when put next to vaccinations of serious diseases.

So, we can ask several questions about the promise of technology. Can technology be successful in delivering this promise, even on its own terms? Will it impose new burdens to replace the old (a pernicious irony which can be seen quite clearly in the traffic jam, for example). Can it fulfill its promise in a just way, without merely sweeping toil under the rug of the developing nations? And finally, is the promise well-conceived and worth keeping to begin with?

The promise presents the character of technology in broad outline. It is essentially “the general procurement of liberty and propserity in the principled and effective manner that is derived from modern science” (39). But is this outline too broad? Does it allow for technology to descend into meaningless “improvements”? As Borgmann says, “Initial genuine feats of liberation appear to be continuous with the procurement of frivolous comfort” (39). If this is the case, it is perhaps worrying.

At any rate, Borgmann agrees that we could spend much fruitful time looking at the history of the promise of technology (through e.g. Heidegger), but in this book we’ll be moving on to the contemporary analysis. This will begin in earnest with the next chapter, “The Device Paradigm”, which is one of the central chapters of the book. Until then…

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 7, “Science and Technology”

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.

At this point in our exploration of the relationship between modern science and technology, what can we say with confidence? First, that modern science shows us that the world exists in a large matrix of possible states of affairs. The space of these possibilities is defined by the world’s initial conditions: given some physical state of affairs in the past, our world is one of its possible subsequent states. Technology can then be seen to “[reflect] a determination to act transformatively on these possibilities” (27). In other words, science tells us what’s physically possible and through technology we decide to act on them in order to change the world. In these roles, both science and technology share a problem: there is no principled way, using only their own resources, to decide what to explain or what to transform.

To illustrate this, we can return to our example of winemaking. Modern science makes the process of fermentation more and more perspicuous, more clear to our understanding. With that clarity we can see which parts of winemaking are laborious, which chemicals lead to bad taste, and even how harmful byproducts might be introduced. This knowledge opens the door to a technological intervention—we might, for example, choose to use tools which speed up the fermentation process or which reduce harmful byproducts. But where should we draw the line in modifying the traditional process? At what point does technologically optimized wine stop becoming wine?

Borgmann says that the general public, though it has limited understanding of science and of the details of technological transformation, intuitively grasps at least what we have been saying so far: science illuminates possibilities of dealing with the world, and through technology we make them actual. But some people go further and argue that modern science in its explanatory slide has actually ushered in a new worldview. Those who agree with this claim differ in whether it’s a good or bad thing, but Borgmann wants to call the premise into question. There are three arguments he sees for this thesis that science itself has ushered in a new worldview:

  1. Science was in historical fact a liberating event (from superstition to true understanding, etc…), therefore it has delivered a new and concrete way of engaging with the world.
  2. Scientists are held to unparalleled standards of correctness and achievement, therefore what is active is a new worldview.
  3. The chaos in our world comes from a failure to follow scientific ideals through completely, therefore science must embody a distinct worldview.

Of the three arguments, he only considers the first (which he considers to be the strongest) in detail. It is true that as scientific theories advance, real and well-documented clashes occur. When these clashes are against the powers of the day, the clash is seen as a revolution and science is typically on the side of liberation. But, as Borgmann points out, science in this role is always a liberation from, not a liberation for. What he means is that by casting sufficient doubt on established ideas, science can provide incentive to revolt, but it can never produce a substantive framework of its own, out of its own resources.

Here Borgmann draws upon the idea of deictic resources (world-articulation, rather than world-explanation): “Withdrawal of scientific endorsement forces a worldview back to its deictic resources” (29). If that worldview has no deictic resources, it may very well perish (as we have seen with alchemy). But strongly deictic disciplines such as poetry and art do not, predictably, disappear with the advance of science, since they are not in the business of world-explanation. For this reason Borgmann declares the scuffle between science and theology to be pointless—science is not satisfyingly deictic enough to warrant the discarding of theology, which can provide concrete orientation for our lives.

The main point is that science as a sociological phenomenon cannot guide us from within its own center (i.e., its laws and theories), but must lean upon external resources for leadership. That doesn’t mean, however, that science cannot rise in power without those guiding resources. And this approach, like a car with the driver asleep at the wheel, can have disastrous consequences. We might engage technology as the inevitable outgrowth of a science that sees reality as an infinite manifold of pure, moldable substance, begging us to transform it. Borgmann is not quite so pessimistic, however, and reminds us that it is possible to distinguish the scientific method (i.e., the heart of science’s laws and theories) from the worldview just expressed. This enables us to separate science from technology and find a place for science without viewing technology as necessarily having the same privileged status (a status which flows from true explanation). Science is a necessary precursor to a technological age, but it is not a sufficient condition for it.

How then can we explicate technology if not as a necessary consequence of science? Borgmann believes we need to begin by looking at the fundamental pattern of technology. We will do that when we transition to Part 2, which begins with the next chapter, “The Promise of Technology”.

Relay: Interesting Stuff From the Last Month

Last month has been busy, and I haven’t figured out how to blog anything original. But that’s ok, because I have a bunch of links for you! These are things I found interesting, provocative, inspiring, or funny in the last month. I’m even going to categorize them for you:

Science

  • Honeybees are found to interact with quantum fields – a researcher noticed that bee dances trace a 2-dimensional projection of formulas of some kind of quantum math. Bee dances seemed pretty arbitrary before, and now this researcher claims that bees may be ‘in touch’ with quantum fields. If true, this would be interesting and awesome.
  • Scientists find evidence that many universes exist – I’ve always thought that “many universes” is a contradiction in terms, but hey. It turns out that our particular ‘universe’ may be just one of many ‘cosmic bubbles’ colliding around in some vast ‘multiverse’. I don’t believe this yet, and won’t until people define their terms better.
  • Thunderstorms generate anti-matter – powerful thunderstorms can generate crazy gamma ray bursts scientists think may be accompanied by anti-matter. That would be anti-awesome.

Philosophy

  • Albert Einstein writes on science and religion – some good stuff in here, especially about the awe and surprise of finding that nature has rational foundations. Also other general philosophy of science points. I still disagree with his overall statement, which is that the historically-bound bits of religion should be discarded, since he appears to take for granted their fundamental falsity.
  • Minimalism works – apparently, someone on the Internet made fun of minimalism. The article I linked is a rebuttal which I found concise and useful. Yay minimalism!

Culture

  • Suburban sprawl sucks – and it’s bad for you too. I confess this was too long for me to read completely, but I did get that the author is an advocate of getting rid of zoning laws. I, too, advocate thus.
  • The dangers of externalizing knowledge – this is a favorite topic of mine. What happens when we stop learning everything except how to Google? It’s possible that that is indeed the one skill which leads to success in life, and therefore will encourage social evolution to continue in the current trend. I’m just afraid that learning is a holistic process of shaping the entire person, body and soul. What happens when we postpone this shaping until we load Wikipedia? What will our unshaped minds do with that information, anyway? I could go on. Nice to see this on TechCrunch.
  • Caring for your introvert – this guy makes some rather grand statements concerning introversion. Given that I’m an introvert, I’m inclined to agree with the whole ‘introverts are superior’ thing, except I know it’s false. Good article anyway, despite being overblown. I also think the Enneagram could account for a lot of what he is describing, without as much polarization (or arrogance, for that matter).

Theology

  • Agnostic Christianity – doubt isn’t bad. In fact, it’s an unavoidable part of faith. Embrace and respect it!
  • The Seven: not exactly deacons – what happens when the Apostles decide they’re too important to wait tables? God uses the waiters instead. Or something like that… some good potential pastor-skewering in these passages.

Food

  • A coder’s guide to coffee – I am a coder and I love coffee. Therefore, I love this article. I just need to find a way to roast my own beans in Oxford…
  • L-Theanine in tea and not coffee – apparently this amino acid enables our bodies to use caffeine in a much more zenly awesome way. Where is it naturally found? Not coffee (damn!) but tea. If I used coffee as a mind hack, maybe I’d switch to tea. Unfortunately, I drink coffee because (a) it tastes really good, and (b) I’m physically and psychologically addicted to it. Oh well.
  • A hacker’s guide to tea – If I were to switch this is the guide that I’d use! One thing I particularly liked: camomille is not real tea! Ha, I always knew camomille sucked.

Random

  • Trimensional – a 3d scanner for the iphone. I haven’t tried it, but… really cool idea! I’m also not sure what I’d do with a 3d model of my face. I’m also not sure why they used the guy they did for the screenshots. Yikes!
  • How to draw an owl – Click through and see the picture. Hilarious. And also a good prompt for discussion. So often, what is left out of how-to guides is: “now, practice x for thousands of hours”.

Relay: Dead Downwind Faster Than The Wind

A few weeks ago, I came across the description of an extremely inspiring engineering project at Kimball Livingston’s blog (pictures and videos taken from there). Basically, conventional wisdom in wind propulsion is that, whatever the wind is propelling, that object can’t actually go faster than the wind unless it uses up some kind of stored energy (fuel, rowing, etc…). Rick Cavallaro thought otherwise, put his ideas out there for how it might work to go dead downwind, faster than the wind, and was roundly ridiculed by pretty much everyone.

Instead of being disheartened, he put together a team to build the strange propellor-shaped sails that he thought would carry a vehicle faster than the wind. They crafted their land-boat to precise yet hand-made specifications (even using a bicycle wheel!), and set out to test Cavallaro’s crazy theory. Here’s an initially slow-paced video of the attempt:

Ultimately, they clocked the craft at 2.8x the speed of the wind! This is what I would call ridiculously awesome, and a reminder that physics, if we needed a reminder, is really interesting. I also admire the story of the iconoclastic scientist whose theories were at first mocked and then, not simply proved theoretically possible in a mathematical equation or a lab, but tested out on the salt flats with a guy in a helmet sitting in it! I guess the point is that there are plenty of good ideas out there that just haven’t been tried—and that’s something I think I often do need a reminder of.

Check out Livingston’s blog post for a detailed story of what happened. There’s also a Discovery Channel video with interviews, etc…

Spore

Steggy, my first Spore creationA few years ago, I wrote a post detailing my personal gaming history, wherein I also looked ahead to the future at a computer game that was shaping up to be extremely interesting. That game was Spore (you should really go to their site and watch the introductory video). Under development for half a decade, it was finally released a little over a week ago. Of course, I went out and bought it immediately, and have spent way too much time enjoying it recently.

Basically, Spore delivers. From the purely creative elements involved in putting together your very own creatures, vehicles, buildings, or spaceships, to the very strategic ones involved in maintaining a galactic empire in a quest for the Ultimate Answer, to the delight and wonder that spark the imagination upon seeing a coherent, procedurally-generated universe, replete with stars and supernovae and black holes and UFOs and alien creatures and planets and… the list goes on.

I have to admit that there was some initial disappointment with the depth of gameplay at earlier levels (Spore is divided into Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization, and Space stages). The first three stages in particular felt too easy, and went by very quickly without much in the way of challenge. Once I hit the Space stage, however, all that changed. It seemed everything I’d learned about using Spore in the earlier stages was now a set of essential skills I needed to use with strategy and alacrity if I was to stay on the board. It took me probably 6 hours to get from the Cell stage to the Space stage, and I’ve spent at least that long in this last stage, without progressing that much closer to the center of the galaxy (which is the goal of Spore). Part of my challenge at the Space stage may be due to choices I made in earlier stages, though – I chose to be a very warlike civilization, which gave me certain benefits, but also made it much more likely that I would be attacked in the Space stage.

Well, there’s much more to say about a game that has innovated so greatly on technical and conceptual levels, but that’s all for now. You should check out the game yourself! It should run on any computer (Windows or Mac) with a decent graphics card. I’ll leave you with a set of creations from my current Spore game. Clearly, only a very special game could allow me to create such cool and unique models! And, if you’re a Spore player yourself, I believe you can download these images and import them directly into Spore to use them in your own games.


Tyraxin, my creature for this game (from planet Teraxius)


The city hall for the Civilization stage on Teraxius


The ground vehicle for the Tyraxin


The Tyraxin air vehicle


My spaceship!

The iPhone Era: Technological Adaptation and the Future of Human Evolution

When the original iPhone was released a year ago, I wanted one. The promise of being constantly connected to all the various sockets of the Internet into which I have plugged myself (news, e-mail, chat, social networks, information gathering, etc…) was seductive. Being able to work while not standing by a computer, or to keep tabs, in an up-to-the-second fashion, on my virtual communication stream – how exciting!

I didn’t get an iPhone then because of my imminent move to Kenya (where it would have been a bad idea to flash one of those around, even if it functioned), but with the recent emergence of the iPhone 3G, I decided to take the plunge, and see if this device was as life-changing as it was cracked up to be. Turns out, it is! But I’m beginning to wonder at what cost.

It’s no secret that technology changes us. A few years ago I reflected on the iPod’s effects on culture, and earlier this month, Melissa raised similar questions, with respect to Google. I had an interesting experience today, however, which proved that these changes can insinuate themselves into deep parts of our cognition.

I was walking down the street with some friends, looking for Los Hermanos, a great burrito place. I was in the general vicinity of it, I thought, but wasn’t quite sure of the cross street, and I was confused that I hadn’t seen the restaurant thus far on my walk. Well, I said to myself – that’s what I have an iPhone for! So I fired it up, Googled the restaurant, and had a street address in under a minute. 2026 Chestnut. “OK, what’s the address of this store here? 2016… OK, that means that Los Hermanos should be…” At which point, I looked up from my phone and noticed the large, brightly-colored sign hanging above the business not more than 15 feet from where I was standing. Yep, it was Los Hermanos.

It was very interesting to me that my first instinct, upon finding myself in a place where I expected to see one thing and saw another, thereby needing more locational information, was to use the Internet rather than my eyes. My eyes, having evolved to perform precisely the task I needed done (namely the gaining of local spatial knowledge) were passed over in favor of technology. Which meant, of course, that the more dangerous trade – my memory for Google – was implicit.

But why not trust to the skills that were bestowed upon us via our natural adaptations? Have we truly passed into an age where our environments are changing far more rapidly than our bodies can adapt? It certainly seems like it. But perhaps the more interesting question is, what will that do to our bodies? When we learned how to cook food our jaws decreased in size. When we learned how to wear clothes, we lost our hair (depending on your view of this adaptation). When we learned how to live in cities, we lost our natural keen sensitivities to natural phenomena. When we learned how to use dead plant matter to propel ourselves in metal canisters across the earth, many of us lost the proper functioning of our legs and other muscles. When we taught ourselves that interesting content can be delivered in the time span of a short video clip or a 3-minute radio single, we infected ourselves with A.D.D. while simultaneously dulling our senses to anything not flashing or brightly-colored.

… And I could go on.

So, what will happen when we learn how to never need to remember anything again? What will that do to our brains? What will it do to our ability to survive without our newfangled devices? (Imagine trying to survive these days without clothes, fire or tools!) What species will we become, with essential parts of our existence scattered around the world in metal boxes on fragile hard drives? No longer homo sapiens, the thinking human, but homo technologicus, the equipped human. And so we have to ask ourselves, do we want to evolve in this way? The benefits of ubiquitous and distributed memory are immense, but what are the costs? What will happen to our ability to spend time in Nature qua natural beings, qua creatures?

Maybe that’s what we should be thinking about when buying our new iPhones (and yes, mine is very shiny) – but either way, it’s certainly not what is being advertised.