Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 18, “Leisure, Excellence and Happiness”

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.

We come now to one of the longest and, in my opinion, most interesting chapters of TCCL. The counterpart to the subject of the previous chapter (labor in technological society) is leisure. We recall that the splitting of life’s occupations into two distinct modes (labor and leisure) mirrors exactly the working of the Device Paradigm. Labor becomes the hidden machinery and leisure the surface, the commodity we are fundamentally “about” in life. Borgmann points out in this chapter that critiquing technological labor (what we have done in the previous chapter) is therefore only one side of the story: even proponents of technological society would readily admit that technological labor may not be the most fulfilling or most meaningful aspect of technological life. But the reason we accept the kind of work available in technological society is because it opens the possibility of leisure, of happiness—this is what the work is for. Surely technological society’s most compelling argument is to be found in the supposed fruits of technology, a life of leisure.

What are these fruits exactly? They come in two varieties: the first has a negative, disburdening character. Freedom from disease, for example. The other is more about consumption, which is what we normally associate with “leisure”. Technological visionaries took the negative form for granted; it was the positive form that conveyed the true promise of technology. But how has this actually been cashed out? As Borgmann says, “the fear that the positive and shining goal of technology has after two centuries of gigantic efforts remained distant and may even slip from sight leads a note of urgency if not panic to the pronouncements of those who urge that we continue to promote technology” (125). He quotes Isaac Asimov for context: “Robots will leave to human beings the tasks that are intrinsically human, such as sport, entertainment, and scientific research”. Here we begin to get to the heart of the issue. The promise of technology has always been that of a supremely enriched life. A life free of disease and premature death, certainly, but it is the positive character of the technologically liberated life which has inspired the speeches and rhetoric of technology’s proponents. It’s therefore eminently important to ask what exactly this positive character is supposed to be, and whether we see it actually taking shape in our lives.

There’s a problem in getting started with this question, unfortunately, and it has to do with the way that liberal democracy shields its inner workings from critique. Within this paradigm it’s inappropriate for us to discuss particularities of the ends individuals pursue; we can only ensure that those ends are left open. Borgmann wants to challenge this aspect of liberal democracy directly, and reopen a public discussion of the good life, but that particular argument awaits us in Part 3. For now, we have something else to work with, namely the concept of “excellence”. Borgmann argues that what is most clearly in view, both in the ideals of liberal democracy (what it hopes its citizens will aspire to) and in the promise of technological leisure, is something very much related to traditional notions of “excellence”. Borgmann sees excellence (inherited from the classical world with some Judeo-Christian influence) as consisting of 4 attributes:

  1. World citizenship (understanding the structure and coherence of the physical and social universe, being politically and socially knowledgeable and engaged)
  2. Gallantry (intellectual and physical valor and refinement)
  3. Facility in music and the arts
  4. Charity (the power to give, forgive, help, and heal)

Of course, these traits were perhaps only ever explicitly pursued by a non-working elite, but in the modern period there have existed analogues that all of us can readily relate to regardless of class. Assuming that something along these lines is implicitly or explicitly what proponents of technology like Asimov mean by “tasks that are intrinsically human” (i.e., the tasks we aspire to engage in with the leisure time afforded us by technology), we can straightforwardly evaluate whether our society is becoming “excellent” in this way by asking two questions: first, are people actually achieving these qualities in themselves? And second, whether or not they are achieving these qualities, how much of their available time and effort are they spending in pursuit of them?

I don’t think many will argue when Borgmann claims that the answer to the first question is a resounding “no”. Political disengagement is the norm, as is obesity. The arts are in decline, the foreign policy of the US can only be described as heavy-handed, and charity is rarely observed on the streets of our cities or in the laws we promulgate. We also have some data when it comes to answering the second question about how much time we spend pursuing activities that could reasonably lead to excellence as defined above. But before we answer that question, it is important to note that just because technological devices provide more free time, we don’t necessarily adopt it as leisure. We can also choose to engage in more labor (say to make more money and pursue a higher standard of living). That in fact is what we as a whole have consistently chosen, at least since WWII. We’ve chosen bigger houses and more commodities instead of more time to pursue “leisurely” ends. But what of the time that we do have for such ends? Borgmann goes into some detail on this, and with various qualifications, we can conclude that we spend about 4 times as much of our free time on TV as on excellence-promoting activities (sport, reading, political engagement, music, etc…). [And remember that Borgmann wrote TCCL three decades ago. Anecdotally, every statistic I’ve seen since childhood has only shown an increase in time devoted to TV and eventually Internet-based media.]

It’s likely that none of this is surprising, but Borgmann insists it should be disturbing to proponents of technology, who for hundreds of years have used something like the promise of excellence-filled leisure to inspire gargantuan efforts in the service of a technological reshaping of the world. Of course, it’s always open for a proponent of technology to let slip the moorings of traditional excellence, and claim that a technological age has its own inner logic that early advocates simply could not articulate. In fact, the Device Paradigm is one such formulation of technology according to its own inner workings: it says that the technological enterprise succeeds not when everyone is pursuing excellence but when every thing is technologically available (in the sense defined in Chapter 9). But does technological availability lead to happiness? Another way of putting the foregoing discussion about leisure is to say that technology has always held high the promise of happiness.

Happiness is of course hard to define a priori, and it’s no less of a moving target when defined from a technological perspective. But, it’s not difficult to ask people how happy they feel. If this kind of avowed happiness is any indication, technology is doing quite poorly; as technology has reshaped more and more of everyday life, professed happiness has decreased, at least since WWII. What explanations are there for this? Some (e.g., Scitovsky) warrant that while technological ends like watching TV are not inferior to the ends of traditional excellence, they tend toward comfort rather than pleasure (which Scitovsky argues involves some discomfort). Thus if we could manufacture the right neurochemical triggers, we could solve the problem of happiness by inducing constant pleasure. Clearly this is a position that leaves excellence by the wayside, and I don’t think Borgmann’s argument will appeal to someone who takes this strong view.

Another explanation for technological unhappiness comes from Hirsch. He argues that there are fundamentally three types of goods: (1) commercial goods or commodities, (2) positional goods (ones that clarify a person’s position in society, like a PhD or perhaps an expensive car), and (3) public goods (like clean air, trust, and open spaces; things that we either all have in common or none of us does). Hirsch’s critique of technology is then that technological society excels at bringing us goods of type #1, but not the other types. An expensive car, which used to be a positional good, once commoditized and made more available, ceases to be one. Or the introduction of freeways and extensive parking spaces rids us of clean air and public parks, thus vitiating public goods. And on Hirsch’s view, happiness is correlated with positional goods. While Borgmann appreciates in general this types-of-goods analysis, he doesn’t agree with Hirsch’s explanation of our dissatisfaction with technological society. According to Hirsch, we should be much more dissatisfied than Borgmann claims we actually are; on Borgmann’s view, as long as the escalator of commoditization keeps moving, positionality is maintained, and thus that can’t be the deepest source of our unhappiness.

Instead, Borgmann thinks that it is the divided character of technological goods themselves which renders us unsatisfied. As he says, “what distinguishes technological life is not surliness but its division into surfaces, rough or pleasant, and concealed, inaccessible substructures. Perhaps it is this divided character of our lives that leaves us unhappy”. In other words, the Device Paradigm puts part of life into these concealed substructures, taking them out of our grasp, along with any possibility of relationship with them. The Device Paradigm explains how a thing is divided into its function (or commodity) on one hand and its machinery on the other. A fireplace, a hearth, is turned into (1) a heating apparatus that delivers (2) warmth. But a hearth was never a free-standing element. It was always embedded into the fabric of social life, embedded deeply into family rhythms and the organization of the home. So by making a break down the middle of the hearth, technology not only divides the hearth, but it lifts it out of its context, “dis-embedding” it. If the former break is a “horizontal” break (dividing the hearth into say an “upper” commodity and a “lower” machinery), then a knock-on effect is the creation of “vertical” tears in the fabric of life of which the hearth was a part. As more and more “things” are reanalyzed as “devices”, these rifts become more concrete and distinct. The end result is a sea of free-floating devices, tastes, and commodities, which can be put together and arranged in a multiplicity of ways. This is what we now do as moderns when we build our “lifestyles” out of the variety of options made available to us through advertisements. But an infinitely-rearrangeable collection of commodities is vastly different from what we have been calling the “fabric” of life, where that word is chosen to convey an essential unity.

It is this fundamental distinction that Borgmann sees underlying our unhappiness with technological society, and why he believes that the resources for resolving that unhappiness cannot be found within technology itself (since the Device Paradigm is the constitutive pattern of technology’s operation). But we’ve only been examining one kind of technological good—the positive kind that most inspired technology’s early proponents. We’ve seen that technology has some deep difficulties in actually keeping the promises it’s made with regard to happiness. But what about the other kind of good, the negative, “defensive” goods like vaccinations, snow removal machines, etc…? Do they not provide happiness of a more lasting and solid kind than “mere” commodities? Borgmann maintains that the answer to this question is also “no”. Of course, upon their introduction into our lives, these goods provide a burst of happiness in the form of relief, and many (vaccines, for example), genuinely increase health in an appreciable way. But we quickly come to regard these as the status quo, and they no longer become noticeable except in their absence. Ultimately, comfort is a deadening force that attenuates our experience of the world to close to nothing. Work in technological society is a matter (for most people) of pushing buttons rather than engaging with true skill. And as a society we look for more and more minor inconveniences to wipe away with the magic wand of technology, only deepening our numbness with greater comfort.

So why do we stand this? Why have we as a society not recognized this source of our unease and done something about it? Borgmann points out that while these negative or “defensive” goods can only solve so many problems before becoming completely banal, there is another stream of technological good that is unlimited, namely entertainment. Borgmann defines “entertainment” as commodities we can eat, see, and hear, and these are all things which have by now become totally available in a technological sense. The classic example of entertainment is TV (though now it should perhaps be online media). Borgmann’s problem with TV is not so much that it actively harms society as that it prevents other, genuinely good things from occurring. TV, and now the tablet device, have become the pre-eminent parenting tool for modern children, who grow up under a flood of missed parenting opportunities. The fact that TV and the Internet also prevent us from pursuing activities that lead to our avowed societal and individual goals of excellence is another example. And a TV, of course, is the perfect example of the Device Paradigm, split perfectly into a magical commodity (TV screens these days are just about 100% viewing area) and ineffable machinery. Borgmann thinks that all of this can perhaps explain our unhappiness in a deep way: we all know the quality of TV programming is not that great, and that it doesn’t in general promote an excellent life to watch it. But at the same time we can’t let go; “it provides a center for our leisure and an authority for the appreciation of commodities” (143). As a limitless form of entertainment, it is a palliative for our unhappiness even as it perpetuates it.

Clearly, this picture of modern life is bleak. If we agree with Borgmann, we’ll want to be asking the question of how we can reform such a condition. That’s where Borgmann goes in Part 3 of TCCL. But before we explore the reformation of technology, we have to ask how stable the condition we’ve just described is. How stable is the technological paradigm? This is what we’ll discuss in the next chapter!

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 17, “Work and Labor”

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.

The previous 16 chapters have sufficed to give us a good sketch of the character of technology, outlining it and delineating it in various ways. But now Borgmann is concerned to give the picture some depth, some attachment to the world that we all live in so as to impress upon us the seriousness of our current social predicament and how the Device Paradigm now typifies the structure of something so essentially quotidian as work. There are of course many other clear examples of the impact of technology in our world, in science, the military, etc… But work and leisure are concepts with which every citizen is intimate, and so showing the radical effect of technology in this sphere is a good way to implicate each of us in its operation.

Borgmann’s basic thesis is that “work” as a concept and praxis has split down the middle into “labor” and “leisure”, showing the characteristic rift of a technological device (the rift between ends and means, at the deepest philosophical level). This situation is, he claims, unique to the modern era, and should be interpreted as a direct result of the expansion of the Device Paradigm into more and more areas of human life. So what are “labor” and “leisure”? Leisure he defines as the “unencumbered enjoyment of commodities”, whereas labor is “devoted to the construction and maintenance of the machinery that procures the commodities” (114). So there is an interesting recursive or circular nature to the equation, where work is relegated from the status of something significant in and of itself to a means to the end of leisure. This chapter is dedicated to understanding the concept of labor just described (“technological work”), in technological society. The next chapter will be devoted to the concept of leisure.

Why do I say that work has been “relegated” or “degraded”? Borgmann takes for granted that, in pre-technological eras, work was, in at least some contexts, fulfilling and ennobling. He doesn’t claim that all pre-technological work is in this category, but rather that there are concrete existential proofs of this fulfillment. So we can at least ask whether, in our technological society, there is the possibility of fulfilling and ennobling work—whether labor as the means to leisure can be put in this category. Borgmann clarifies that “technological work” is not the specialization of labor (an ancient practice indeed) or the dividing of the work process into discrete chunks (a common strategy for any craftsperson). What’s unique about work in the era of technological society is the division of the work process into the smallest possible pieces, and making a single piece the entire responsibility of a single class of worker. This is what distinguishes the artisan from the assembly line worker: the artisan who makes a hundred objects might divide the work process into distinct stages and tackle each stage for all products at once; but she is at the end of the day responsible from start to finish. The assembly line worker, on the other hand, is responsible for only a tiny piece of the finished product, a piece which has been removed from its context and which makes it difficult for the worker to self-identify as an owner or craftsperson.

So why did we move to an assembly-line model? What are its advantages? Adam Smith and other early proponents of a (proto-)technological approach to labor thought that being responsible for just one small task would enable a worker to perform that task with the highest degree of dexterity. This in turn would promote an emphasis on the twin values of reliability and productivity (part and parcel of the concept of technological “availability” discussed earlier). Reliability and productivity are at their highest when so many “human” elements (individual judgment, mood, energy, attitude, etc…) are eliminated from the production process. In the limit, of course, this means doing away with the human as producer entirely (which we’ll get to in a moment), but before robotics was a viable solution, it meant narrowing the window of responsibility for the individual human worker to something small enough that that person’s individuality could not impress itself upon the final product. Of course, whether this actually promotes “dexterity” depends on what you mean by that word. As Borgmann says, if you mean trained ability of bodily timing, strength, and overall care and precision, then the assembly-line model actually eliminates dexterity.

In addition, dividing labor in this way, in every instance where it springs up, always comes to replace an existing societal structure, splitting that structure into the twins of production and commodity. Borgmann gives the example of insurance—before financial instrumentation became sophisticated, securing oneself against the vicissitudes of life involved a network of neighbors or guildmates who, to a greater or lesser degree, ameliorated the pain of individual loss. As security has now become technologized and commoditized, it can be had much more reliably, plentifully, and without the social awkwardness of asking for help; it can be had with cash. But in this way we have also of course lost something hard to define—a sense of community or trust in one’s fellow creatures, perhaps.

These claims about technology’s dulling effect on the character of work are not intended to be universal: technology does provide extremely satisfying work… but primarily for those involved at the forefront, the leading edge of the technical enterprise. The engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs who uncover a technological solution to a problem follow a challenging and rewarding path to that solution, a path often full of energy, vigor, and the sense that one’s capacity is being tested, enlarged. But in our wake (and I say our for I’m such a technologist professionally) we leave a “wasteland of divided labor”. The skill taken to divide a kind of work into its smallest manageable components is interesting and rewarding, but for those who are left with those bite-sized chunks of labor as their livelihood, the satisfaction is greatly lessened. Work that was previously done by an artisan can now be done by the combination of machine and unskilled worker (or eventually, entirely by machine).

Borgmann points out that this situation should be really embarrassing for liberal democracy, which as we saw in an earlier chapter lists the maximizing of human potential and fulfillment as its chief aim. But like social injustice, as a society we are content to bear the degradation of work for the technological promise of liberation. And so we readily believe that yesterday’s work force is “outdated” or must be “upgraded” to adapt to the digital age (rather than asking whether these “upgrades” actually give greater satisfaction to those whose work is radically altered by them). Or we claim that the greater length of education reflects a higher degree of training necessary for working in the modern world (rather than allowing that it might be artificially lengthened by the generally decreasing need for labor—education as labor’s “waiting room”). Or we ignore that it is an ever-shrinking pool of technological elites that provide the driving force of technological progress.

So far we’ve argued that we do mask the ongoing degradation of work, even in a liberal democracy that strongly believes in the dignity bestowed by work. But this doesn’t explain why we’ve done that. How was it ever possible? In fact it was a long and sometimes violent process to mold workers into assembly-line worker bees. Convincing craftspeople to give up ownership of the entire production process was a hard sell, at first. And it would be easy to find blame with early entrepreneurs or capitalists, who sometimes viciously forced workers into this new cast. But Borgmann sees the deepest answer in the promise of the Device Paradigm itself—the promise of liberation and enrichment. And we as a society have been happy to pay the price for this. We’ve traded in satisfaction in work for the lessening of burden and the promise of leisure, implicating ourselves in this rift between “labor” and “leisure”. (And I don’t think I need to quote American TV-watching statistics for you to have an understanding of what “leisure” typically means in our culture).

This trend is only going to continue. Borgmann, writing over three decades ago, looks ahead to the “microelectronic revolution”, which has long since ascended to the status quo. Devices have become so compact and complex that only a small group of experts can truly tell you what’s going on inside. Fixing an individual microchip by hand is of course out of the question. But devices built around these ineffable-to-us constructs form an ever-greater portion of our daily lives. The current revolution, that of software (which was crowned king by the Internet), pushes things further in this direction. The fad in the San Francisco startup culture where I am embedded is all about “disrupting” existing markets and ecosystems—and of course, pre-software or pre-Internet ways of life. Ultimately what we are disrupting is work itself; through a combination of robotics and software engineering, it will be eliminated entirely. So what then? Will we develop respectable and enjoyable modes of unemployment (which heretofore has been a social standing lacking in dignity)? Will our “work” essentially become “busywork”, with no real value? Or will work be redistributed across available workers so that average work time is reduced, and leisure time increased?

And in any of those scenarios, the crucial question becomes: what will we do when we’re not working? And will it be worth doing? For that, we’ll have to await the next chapter: “Leisure, Excellence, and Happiness”.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 16, “Political Engagement and Social Justice”

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 is the last chapter in the section on technology and its relationship with the political aspect of society. One of Borgmann’s primary insights here is that technology is a good explanation for the social and political apathy that is so prevalent, yet so disturbing in a nation like the US whose founding ideals are very much linked with political engagement.

The primary reason for this state of things is that politics has become the “metadevice of the technological society” (107). By this Borgmann means that the political system has itself taken on the characteristics of the Device Paradigm—procuring certain commodities for us while relegating to obscurity its own inner workings. And it is a “metadevice” because what it is now primarily concerned with procuring is the smooth functioning of technology in society! Government has become the servant whose purpose is to keep the technological machine humming, because this machine is what society now generally feels is the key to fulfillment and equality.

It is easy to see the “deviceification” of government at work. Its bureaucracy is Byzantine, and as citizens we hardly know how it works other than that our taxes go in and various social services and protections come out. The human and personal are not at home in a system like this (as an anecdote, I called the California DMV earlier this week, and was greeted with a customer service representative’s bored voice: “Hello, this is <muffled> 478, how may I help you?”). Huge governmental structures have been built up with the sole purpose of eliminating disturbances in how we go about procuring commodities. With this as the primary goal, it’s no surprise that citizens have no particular reason to be engaged—unless our ability to live out the aims of technological availability become threatened.

This doesn’t mean that technology has blocked all possibility of genuine political engagement, but for most of us it’s a moot point. We’ve become apathetic essentially out of contentment. But this raises some important questions. What about the energizing democratic ideal of equality? Surely no one would say we’ve obtained full equality in our society. Shouldn’t technology through its equalizing tendencies spur on political engagement around this ideal? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Despite what Borgmann calls technology’s “weak” tendency towards equality, there is a deeper process at work. We tend to measure inequality quite bluntly from the perspective of income (which is itself defined in terms of technology—essentially as the rate of commodity acquisition available to us), rather than many of the other qualities we could choose to measure.

Clearly, there is great inequality in our country when it comes to income. A number of explanations have been given for this, most unsatisfactory. Some failed hypotheses:

  1. Income reflects work; the more you work, the more income you have. Thus it all boils down to how hard one works.
  2. Inequality incentivizes work, so it’s a good thing we have inequality to help kickstart the economic engines.
  3. People are just in the dark when it comes to inequality, so it sticks around.

None of these claims are true. Borgmann’s explanation is that inequality gives a clear indication of what the stages of technological availability are, and therefore a promise of what a given individual will be able to procure in the future. What the wealthy upper classes have access to today, through the gifts of technology will be available to the middle classes in 10 years and the lower classes 5 years after that. Thus in a technological society inequality is constant, but quality of life is like a moving escalator—just wait 5 years and you will be able to have the kind of quality of life that higher-income individuals have now. We have a good reason, as lower- or middle-class society, then, to suffer this inequality. If the upper classes drive the development of technology that only they can afford, it will certainly be available to us at some point in the future—we have just to wait.

Technology is therefore embedded deeply but subtly into the hopes and goals of our economic reality. True to form, it stays in the background unless threatened. In fact, most actual political energy (despite the recent moral debates in our country) is around maintaining the proper function of this escalator. Substantial inequalities that don’t impinge on the ability to continually procure successively more impressive commodities are ignored or back-burnered. As long as the escalator functions, our focus and energy will be on attaining the next level, on consuming tomorrow what the classes higher than us are consuming today. Thus technology contributes a sort of political numbing effect, a deep disengagement with civic responsibility except where the technological machine threatens to break down. It goes without saying that this makes true political discourse—discussion about matters of the common good and indeed what the good life of society is—impossible.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 15, “The Rule 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.

In this chapter, Borgmann is interested in answering the question of how people actually relate to technology in our society, regardless of the role technology plays in the political theories that undergird society. Looking at empirical sociological data is difficult, because so many interpretations can be given to, e.g., survey data. So he acknowledges that we have to come to the data with a bit of a guiding premise, which the previous chapters have provided.

The first helpful question we can ask in regard to the chapter’s theme is: how do people take responsibility for technology? Do they do so at all? Do they engage in active choice? This line of questioning is interesting because it gets at the heart of the character of technology, highlighting the substantive and instrumental positions that would give different answers about what that character is. On a substantive view, people have essentially no responsibility—technology as a thing in its own right has overpowered us and we are now unable to choose against it. This is a kind of determinism. The instrumental view would argue the opposite: that we remain free agents and are always in fact choosing for or against technology; the fact that we almost always choose for it is therefore purely our responsibility. Borgmann isn’t a fan of either of these positions, and points out that we’re not likely to come to a philosophical agreement on free will vs determinism that could help adjudicate between them.

Answering the question empirically is fraught with conceptual problems, too. Technology isn’t presented to us as a choice, but rather a basis for other choices, in which a vote for the technological paradigm is already implied (in the same way that a good salesperson will ask a client which of a variety of services will meet the clients needs best, not whether the client needs any services at all). A choice against technology is therefore kind of odd—it would seem paternalistic and totalitarian, a vote for remaining in squalor when so much opportunity is at hand. Thus technology disappears at the very moment of choice, and becomes the ground for choice rather than its object.

But, we can ask a proxy question: to what amount do people engage with focal things and practices, and to what amount do they disengage with them in favor of technological substitutes? This would give us a good idea of how people are actually choosing in regard to technology even when it remains in the background. From this perspective, we gain a lot of information when we observe, say, a family choosing to eat out rather than prepare a meal at home. Or when we observe young professionals moving from city to city for the sake of career advancement rather than choosing a life of being rooted in one place. Or when we observe children being gifted with limitless amounts of music on their mobile devices instead of being given a musical instrument.

Borgmann is clear that these choices are not necessarily conscious. The whole idea of the paradigm of technology is that it is the fundamental operating pattern of our society; choosing according to this pattern is therefore the normal, the obvious thing to do. Technology is not an overtly oppressive overlord that visibly threatens our freedom, rather freedom is its promise. All this to say, it doesn’t require conscious choice to move in the direction of lesser engagement with focal things and practices, but these are still choices, however deeply patterned. Borgmann calls this being “implicated” in technology. We already exist within its paradigm, and so without conscious choice we will continue to choose according to the pattern of technology.

But what moves us to take the first step in this direction, however “normal” it is? Relief (at the thought of not having to prepare another meal when one is already tired). Hope (of the procurement of nicer things made more available through technology). Impatience with the obstinate nature and slow pace of non-devices. The desire to see children given opportunities to grow as quickly and painlessly as possible. But there is often a nagging feeling that comes with trading in focal things and practices because of these motivations. When that is (at least initially) present, Borgmann sees us not just as “implicated” in the world of technology, but “complicit” in it.

With this framework in hand, we have an idea of how to evaluate sociological data, for example, a survey of people’s attitudes towards technology. The survey that Borgmann highlights asks about respondents’ attitudes towards three statements:

  • “People have become too dependent on machines”
  • “Technology has made life complicated”
  • “It would be nice if we would stop building so many machines and go back to nature”

The published results highlighted that there was “considerable ambivalence” towards technology in responses, and that people exhibited contradictory understandings of what technology actually is. That being said, it was clear that in general technology was viewed favorably. Further exploration of motivations unveiled that, despite ambivalence in attitude, people look to technology to provide higher and higher standards of living and leisure. That is, while respondents were on balance convinced that technology increased their general happiness (which has been shown in other studies not to be the case), they were unsure about the positive effect of technology on overall standards of living (which is remarkable given that it be clearly shown that technology has indeed advanced global health and living standards). In other words, what people wanted from technology was not just a certain standard of living, but a constantly increasing standard of living.

These results, Borgmann points out, mesh very well with the definition of “complicity” he gave earlier. While there is some sense that we are losing something in turning to technological solutions, we continue to look to them for increased quality of life. While on one hand we are simply choosing technological modes because they are the default, on the other hand we know in some sense what we are doing and why; in that sense we are free, and therefore “complicit” or responsible. The question Borgmann does not yet ask is whether we acknowledge that responsibility and what our attitudes are towards it. Do we affirm and own these choices, or do we sweep them under the rug?

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 14, “Technology and Democracy”

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.

We now continue our discussion of technology and the political arena. This chapter in particular is about the theoretical dimension of politics, i.e., how people have formulated the ideas behind our political system and how they interact with technology. We in the US and many other places exist within what is broadly known as the “liberal democratic tradition”. It can be defined succinctly as the intersection of the values of liberty, equality, and self-realization. More than anything else, liberal democracy wants to leave the question of the good life (what is it to live well as a human being?) open, because it believes the individual self must determine its own answer to that question.

What Borgmann is concerned to argue here is that it is only the paradigm of technology which allows liberal democracy to achieve its three-fold aims, and thus technology becomes the hidden engine, pushing this political system forward while the system itself fails to acknowledge that, clothed in the tidings of liberal democracy or not, the pattern of technology comes with a concrete and definite vision of the good life. In other words, there is a deep contradiction in the heart of the theory: what it wants it can only get (via technology) at the cost of what it holds most dear.

Echoes of this theorizing can be found as early as JS Mill: “The grand, leading principle…is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity” (86). Since then, debates (between scholars like CB Macpherson and Ronald Dworkin) have focused on what constitutes this moral idea of “human development”. Is it that everyone is equally free to realize her potential? Is it some more positive form of opportunity? Ultimately, it has become clear that no agreement on that point is forthcoming. For Dworkin, this situation is to be expected, for “to arrogate the determination of the good life for others is to practice paternalism” (88). The responsibility of the theory is merely to provide justification for self-determination.

This plays very conveniently into the multiplicity-of-ends philosophy that undergirds and is encouraged by the technological paradigm. And so we see that same paradigm at work in politics: electoral debates become about how to secure the conditions of the good life, not what that good life is. (Of course, some theorists are not content to provide space for self-determination and explicitly conform their theories to the promise of technology; “utopian democracy”, for example, aims to procure radical availability (precisely the promise of technology)—essential possessive equivalence, without a class structure).

But in general, what we have is a theory of liberty (freedom, equality, and self-development) defined negatively, telling us purely what to do to create space for a theoretical infinitude of possible ends. And this (despite all the practical impossibilities around creating that kind of negative equality) is beginning to sound exactly like a system of devices. Moreover, it hides the deeper question: what is the nature of opportunities we say are essential for “equality”? There is a spectrum of answers here, and Borgmann names three points along it: first, we have the “constitutional” or “formally just” society, where society is given (in technical terms) freedom to pursue their own ends, but not the means by which to do it. Then we have the “fair” or “substantially just” society which provides freedom and some kind of means by which to pursue individual goals. Finally, we could think of a totally “good” society, which provides in addition to freedom and means a direction, a set of centering and orienting goals—a vision of the good.

Borgmann then argues that it’s impossible in any of these types of theories to avoid the concept of goodness or centering/orienting goals. Even in the merely “constitutional” or “fair” society, the nature of opportunities is going to be present in some pattern, in some definite shape; in liberal democracy, that shape is the pattern of technology. But because this definite shaping is anathema to the spirit of liberal democracy, which aims to keep itself out of the good life, it ends up sweeping under the rug the intrusion of the vision of the good defined by technology. Liberal democracy denies us a vision of the man behind the curtain because it is so damaging to the purity of the theory. Think about even basic structures in our society like roads or television. It could be argued that networks such as these are value-neutral, mere equality-and-opportunity-producing mechanisms—a road being built does not force you to drive on it! On the other hand, as Borgmann puts it, “a mountain valley split by a road is no longer a place for solitary hiking” (96). The point isn’t that roads are bad, it’s that it is disingenuous to assert that even basic infrastructure is “mere” means, and doesn’t arrogate itself as an end. It does, even if by just restricting the kinds of life available to us! The systems of our society may be indifferent when it comes to how we consume commodities, but they don’t really give us the option of not engaging with commodities in the first place.

Ultimately, Borgmann wants to bring a discussion of this hidden pattern out into the open. It is only once we have acknowledged that we all come to the table with ideas about the public, shared good life (whether we like it or not) that we can have a productive conversation in the political arena about issues more substantial than the continued production of commodities.

Next up: we move from theory to practice and look at how people in our society have in fact come to terms with the technological paradigm.

Internet of Nothings

I gave a talk today called Internet of Nothings: Technology and Our Relationship With the Things in Our World at LXJS, a JavaScript conference in Lisbon, Portugal. I’m excited to have been given the opportunity to talk about the philosophy of technology! There’s an embedded video of the talk below, and I’ve included the slides, the slightly-edited text of my notes, as well as the lyrics to the song I performed. If you’re new to my blog and this topic, I recommend checking out my Blogging Borgmann series, where I’m blogging chapter-by-chapter through a book on the philosophy of technology by Albert Borgmann. Enjoy!

Talk video

Thanks to @aca_video for the video!


Talk notes/transcript

Hello everyone! Good morning! I’m Jonathan Lipps, @jlipps on Twitter, and I work for a company called Sauce Labs. I’m in charge of our Ecosystem & Integrations team, which means I help take care of the open-source ecosystem around Sauce Labs and automated testing. Mostly I work on a project called Appium, which I talked about at LXJS last year. I’m really proud that Sauce is sponsoring LXJS again! And I want to thank the organizers for the amazing job they’ve done making this a remarkable conference for the JavaScript community. Last year, with their support and encouragement, I had the most fun I’ve ever had giving a conference talk, and I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to hang out with you guys a second time.

This year, I don’t have a crazy software robot music demo. Instead, I want to engage you guys with some questions I think are important for us to wrestle with. Something I love about the JavaScript community is that we take the time to talk about more than programming. We don’t always have a perfect dialogue about cultural issues, but I’m heartened that it exists. There are many industries out there you’d be hard-pressed to find the barest recognition that its community is made up of people, not just “professionals”. I like that the JavaScript community, and this conference, recognize that we are human beings first and foremost, even though we are gathered here because of a shared love for programming and JavaScript. So here’s my attempt to engage that human aspect of our technological adventure.

I think what I have to say is best digested as a conversation, not a series of bullet points, and I want these 20 − 30 minutes to be merely the first words of that conversation. I hope you’ll listen to what I have to say, evaluate it critically, and find me sometime this weekend to continue the dialogue.

OK! Enough preamble. I want to talk to you guys about the philosophy of technology. Philosophy and technology are both long-term loves of mine, but it’s only recently that I was made aware that you could put them together. Of the two, technology came first for me. Let’s take JavaScript specifically since we’re at LXJS: I wrote my first JavaScript code about 17 years ago when I needed a scrolling ticker for a welcome message on my website. Sounds like exactly the sort of thing you’d use JavaScript for back then, right? And when I say “wrote”, I mean, “copy and pasted”. It wasn’t until 12 years ago that I wrote my first JavaScript program from scratch myself—a supremely customizable, JS-only drop-down menu script. I even made it “open-source”, though I had no idea what that really meant!

When I got to university, instead of studying computer science as I originally intended, I chose to pursue philosophy, because I was curious about the biggest questions it was possible to ask: questions about God, the nature of reality, the nature of science, how we truly know things, and so on. Of course, there’s not a lot of job opportunities as a philosopher, so I ended up becoming a programmer by trade anyway.

One thing I learned from philosophy is how to approach questions. Another thing I learned, which any of you who’ve had a philosophy course can corroborate, is that there are always more questions to ask. It can start to feel disorienting, when you’ve asked so many questions, like the rabbit hole goes on forever, and we might as well get back to doing Real Work (like programming, maybe).

Sometimes, this otherwise praiseworthy pragmatism can leave important issues unexamined. And as we know from Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living”. So, what have we left unexamined in the pursuit of our technological careers? What has the world left unexamined in its wholehearted and wholesale adoption of technological solutions to nearly every problem? Quite a lot, I’d argue! But now I just want to focus on two areas of modern technology, two buzzwords which are familiar to us in our community: the first is the Internet of Things, and the second is the Quantified Self.

What is the Internet of Things? In my understanding it’s the concept that everyday objects, things which have not traditionally been considered computers, can and should be connected to each other, networked in order to enhance the benefits they provide. Another way of looking at it is to say it’s the process of turning “things” into “devices”.

Now’s a good time to introduce my favorite philosopher of technology, a professor at the University of Montana, Albert Borgmann. Part of Albert Borgmann’s take on on technology is that there is a deep and significant divide between “Things” (Capital-T), and “devices”. This distinction is so important that for him, that for him, technology itself is characterized by what he calls the Device Paradigm. I’ll explain the Device Paradigm in a moment.

A central question in the philosophy of technology is whether technology should primarily be thought of as a content-less tool, which gains significance purely through the intentions we as the tool-users give it, or whether it has a character of its own, independent of how it is intended to be used. In other words, is technology more like an axe—a tool which can be used for the beneficial purpose of chopping firewood, or the horrible purpose of murder—or more like capitalism or socialism—systems which shape and color every action that takes place within their paradigms, no matter the intent behind those actions? Most people like to think of technology as a tool. We can appropriate it for good purposes or bad, but technology itself is neutral; it has no character outside of the purposes we put it to. But Albert Borgmann has a strong argument that this isn’t the right way to look at technology, and it involves the Device Paradigm that I mentioned earlier. Borgmann claims that technology can best be understood and explained by looking at canonical examples (i.e., a “paradigm”), and noting what they have in common.

What they have in common is the attempt to make a certain good available in a non-burdensome way. What I mean by “good” in this case is just something that’s necessary or desirable for human life. Food, drink, safety, entertainment, etc… And what I mean by “available in a non-burdensome way” can be cashed out in terms of four requirements. Let’s take an example to explore these requirements more concretely. Let’s say the good is heat. For many parts of the world, some form of non-naturally-occurring heat is an essential part of daily existence, especially in winter. Now we can think about different ways of procuring this good of “heat”. A pre-technological way would be to light a wood fire in a stove, whereas a technological example is the kind of electric- or gas-powered central heating systems most of us probably have in our homes.

It’s probably obvious that a fire is not available in a non-burdensome way, when compared with a central heating system. But let’s go through the four aspects of “availability” to see why. For something to be truly “available” in this sense is for it to be, first of all, instantaneous. A wood fire is definitely not instantaneous. Wood is not instantly available in burnable form; it has to be chopped and gathered, which is a hard and time-consuming process. A central heating system, on the other hand, begins to provide heat as soon as you flip a switch or move a dial.

Secondly, perfect availability requires that a good be ubiquitous, meaning it must be available everywhere. A wood fire does not meet the standard here, in that when it provides heat, it does so unevenly, only in the vicinity of the fire itself. A central heating system uses a combination of ducts and vents in order to ensure that the entire house benefits equally from the heat.

The third requirement is safety. For a good to be perfectly available, it must be provided in a perfectly safe way. A wood-burning stove is definitely not safe. Working with the tools required to chop wood can be a source of serious accidents. And the fire itself of course is very dangerous, potentially causing death and destruction if not tended appropriately. A central heating system, on the other hand, is relatively safe. We can leave it on for months or years without worrying that it will burn down our house.

Finally, for a good to be truly available it must be delivered easily, without a lot of physical or cognitive effort. It definitely takes a lot of effort to prepare, use, and clean a wood-burning stove, never mind the effort to chop and stack the wood in the first place. It takes mental effort to remember to check the stove and keep it heating optimally. Central heating, on the other hand, is so easy to use, many of us forget that it’s even a part of the house. We can set it on a program that matches our heating needs and not think about it ever again, unless it breaks down.

So, this is the foundation of the Device Paradigm: the process of making goods available in a non-burdensome way. And indeed, this has been precisely the promise of technology since Descartes dreamed about what control of the physical environment would allow humanity to achieve—the elimination of the burdens and dangers that made life disagreeable and unpleasant. This sounds like a reasonable, laudable goal, right? I won’t argue that it’s not. But it’s important to realize two things about it. First of all, this is the very DNA of technology. It’s a philosophical stance at the very core of the technological enterprise. Everything technology touches is going to be shaped according to this philosophy. In that sense, it’s not true that technology is just a neutral tool. It has a definite character, and that character is the continuous attempt to make goods available in a non-burdensome way.

Secondly, and more importantly, this focus on availability leads inevitably to a rift down the middle of things themselves, a division of a thing into a mechanism and a product. Let’s go back to the example of heating. In pre-technological eras, it wasn’t possible to distinguish a good from the way that good was procured. In the middle of a cold winter, it wasn’t possible to have heat without fire. And it wasn’t possible to have fire without firewood. And it wasn’t possible to gather that firewood without going through the laborious process of chopping up trees. So staying warm was inextricably tied up with this direct physical investment of time and energy.

But once we have enough control of nature, we can produce heat without firewood. We can begin to think of heat as a commodity, as something independent of the way that it is produced. And once we do this, we can begin to care progressively less about the way that it is produced, until we wind up with the current situation, where we enjoy central heating in our homes without having any idea how it actually works. And it doesn’t matter. If central heating technology changed tomorrow to use a completely different method of heat production, and someone installed it in our house without telling us, we would never notice. What matters to us is the commodity, the good that is produced.

Let’s look at another common device as an example: a television. What is the good or commodity that a television provides for us? Well, embedded in a larger cultural system, it’s entertainment or information. But purely as a physical object, the good that it produces is clarity of representation of a moving picture. What we would predict then, on the basis of the Device Paradigm, is that the physical construction of a TV might change radically over the years, while the screen—the part that is most directly related to providing the good (clear representation of a moving picture)—would change in basically one way: becoming even clearer and more prominent. And this is exactly what we find. Early TVs were mostly bulk, with a small, distorted, black-and-white screen. And through a variety of vastly different picture-producing mechanisms, we have gradually evolved to where we are today: Large, flat TVs where it is almost not possible to see anything other than the amazingly-clear screen. We don’t care that our TV set uses liquid crystals rather than vacuum tubes, and if the technology changed tomorrow to something cheaper or easier to manufacture, hardly anyone would even notice.

The point that I’ve been trying to make is that devices don’t have a single essence. They have a divided essence: two aspects, or layers. One aspect is the thing the device does for us: its commodity, good, or function. The other aspect is the physical stuff of the device itself: the arrangement of silicon and metal, or whatever, that enables the device to live out its function. Another way of looking at it is that there’s a distinction between means and ends in devices themselves. What the device is for, and how it does what it’s for. This all might seem obvious and natural to us, given that our world is full of devices. But this distinction, this way of looking at things, is actually radically new in the history of humanity. In the pre-technological era, you couldn’t have heat without a stove or fireplace in your room. You couldn’t have music without a musician and an instrument. You couldn’t enjoy a dramatic performance without the actors there in front of you.

OK, so what? What’s wrong with making the ugly parts of a TV less prominent, and the screen more prominent? And the answer is: nothing. Nothing’s wrong with it. The sole purpose of a TV is to provide a full, clear picture, and so the ideal TV is pure picture and nothing else. The problem comes in when we use technology to make goods available to us which were once delivered through a deep engagement with the natural world or society, and which often brought along intangible or unquantifiable goods with them as part of the process. Let’s go back to the example of the wood-burning stove. It certainly had all the drawbacks that I mentioned before in terms of availability. Compared to a central heating system, chopping wood and keeping it burning in one room of the house is an awful lot of wasted energy and work. But along with the tedium came some benefits. Gathering and chopping wood served as part of the daily rhythm that oriented, that served as a reference point for the rest of the day’s activities. The fact that the heat from the stove was available in only one room of the house meant that the entire family or community would gather in one place for the evening, would experience together whatever that evening held, whether it was reading, music, or discussion.

Or let’s take another example, that of food. Food is certainly a good that we would like to be more available in the sense I talked about before, and indeed we can make it technologically available to our societies. A frozen TV dinner is probably the easiest example to think about. The promise of a frozen TV dinner is to deliver the twin goods of nutrition and a flavor reminiscent of an actual freshly-prepared meal, but without the inconvenience of growing, harvesting, and cooking the food yourself. It is food turned into a device, instantly available. But of course for most of human history, enjoying the good of a meal was inextricably linked to engagement with the earth through farming, engagement with the community, engagement with the tradition of the culinary arts, and finally celebration and conversation with the others who were also at the table. For the sake of availability, these less quantifiable goods have been replaced by the technological mechanisms that make it possible for TV dinners to exist—industrial agriculture, chemistry, food science, etc…

Through technological innovations like central heating and instant food, we have figured out a way to deliver to ourselves what we thought we always wanted in terms of the goods of heat and food, but as a result of them becoming technological devices, we have ripped them free of the things and practices that used to be necessary for us to enjoy them. And it turns out that some of these things and practices, like manual labor, engagement with and knowledge of the natural world, the skill of cooking, or the celebration of a community, are really important for us as humans.

This isn’t the fault of technology, as if technology were some person out there trying to destroy human significance. But the Device Paradigm encourages us to think more and more in terms of means and ends rather than unified wholes, more and more in terms of devices rather than things, more and more in terms of quantifiable commodities rather than qualitative or unquantifiable goods, and more and more in terms of individual consumption rather than collective creativity.

So let me bring it back to the Internet of Things. Am I saying that the things in our lives shouldn’t be more connected, that we should stop writing JavaScript to control physical hardware, otherwise we’ll ruin society? No! I’m simply trying to get us to recognize that the driving force of technology, the Device Paradigm, entirely ignores the hard-to-define unquantifiable goods that make up human significance. I want us to ask a few questions before we wave our magic technology wand over something that looks like a problem, to make sure that in solving it, we’re doing so in such a way that leaves us just as human as we were before.

Speaking of being human, let’s talk for a minute about the Quantified Self. The technologist Jaron Lanier has a great book called You Are Not a Gadget that I think addresses this topic in a much better way than I can. All I want to say is that I fear the Quantified Self movement will lead to treating human beings as devices rather than persons, rather things in ourselves, and, historically, treating humans as anything other than persons has disastrous consequences. Don’t get me wrong; I love data as much as the next nerd, and I was initially inclined to jump on board this bandwagon. Track my runs so I can create reference points and understand my progress? Track my sleep so I can adjust my life to get better quality rest? Absolutely! And I think these things really are positive. The danger here is that it encourages us to think of ourselves in terms of statistics, in terms of quantifiable information that can be neatly categorized, filtered, and sorted. But we’re not like that. And it encourages us to think of others in that way as well, opening up infinite opportunity for unhelpful and meaningless comparison.

We “quantify” ourselves for the sake of software these days in a lot more ways than tracking our bio metrics. Every time we select a choice from a select box on a social networking site, we’re choosing to present a squared-off, low-fidelity version of ourselves. I don’t need to tell you that the common task of choosing a gender from a select box can be an extremely self-limiting experience for many people. But computer programs ask us to circumscribe ourselves in many more subtle ways. Just because it’s convenient for computers to think in terms of binary or mutually exclusive categories, just because it’s convenient for database queries to filter based on pre-set options, doesn’t mean this is a good way to model human identity or relationship. But humans are really good at adapting, and we’ve been really good at adapting to what has been technologically feasible or technologically easy. The result is that we have grown more like computers in our self-understanding and self-description, rather than the other way around. Did it have to be that way? No, I don’t think so. I have hope that once we stop lowering our standards to deal with computers, we’ll develop apps that we’ve put a lot more humanity into, so we can remain human while using them.

OK. In wrapping up this part of my talk, I want to reiterate that I am a technologist. From the time I was young I was impressed by the power of technology to change the world, and the possibilities for creative expression it opens up, and I still am. I loved writing code to play music on mobile devices last year! I’m not trying to get you guys to stop hacking on connected devices or social networks. What I’m trying to do is to get this community to start looking at technology, not just as a tool, not just as the obvious solution to the world’s problems, but almost as an entity in its own right, that has its own characteristic way of operating. We need to know ourselves before we engage with technology, or we will find ourselves and our creations unwittingly reshaped by it. We need to decide for ourselves what it means to live well as a human being. This is one of the classic questions of philosophy: what is the good life? I’m certainly not going to talk more about it here! I gave some hints along the way of what I think might be involved, and I’d love to engage you all in further conversation about it, but the point is that we need to go down that rabbit hole for at least a little bit if we want to answer the questions I raised about how we go about developing technologies that augment and ennoble human persons, rather than diminishing and demeaning ourselves and our neighbors.

I wanted to leave you with a concrete experience to accompany the very philosophical nature of this talk. The most symbolic thing I could think of to do was to play a new song for you guys. It’s a song I wrote with the theme of this talk in mind. I wanted to capture the idea that there is something unique about a shared physical experience, especially when it comes to music. Maybe in the future I’ll record this song, and through a number of takes maybe I’ll capture a “perfect” performance. But I think the minor variations and even missed notes in a live performance can combine themselves into an unrepeatable perfection of a totally different kind. That’s what I’d love for you to experience.

I wrote this song on an instrument I’ve barely ever played before—a Russian instrument called a Domra. Maybe some Russians in the audience can verify that this is actually a Domra! It was given to me as a gift from my dad when I was young, before I even knew how to play guitar, and I never really figured out what to do with it. I got it out a few months ago, and it has a soft, gentle sound that made me want to play it for you guys.

I’m going to do something a little different during this song. I’m putting a URL on the screen, and I’d love for you all to go there now on your laptops or on your mobile devices. It’s a mini app that asks you to enter one word that describes how you’re feeling (notice that it’s a text field and not a select box!). I thought we could try an experiment together, to make this experience even more unique. As I play the song, submit the words you’ve chosen, and the words will be animated on the screen up here in real time. You can update them in real time as well, so the words can change over the course of the song. I have two simple requests: first, please be honest. Second, please don’t be a troll. I know anonymity on the Internet almost guarantees someone will want to write something obscene, but I have higher expectations of this community. I’d love to have you experience this with me.

[Song, working title: Planned Obsolescence]

My eyes falter, drop their gaze
Doubt enfolds me in its haze

When will you come to me?
When will I know your name?
When will I feel that this is real?

All I have are shreds of faith
These simulations I have made

I need a solid truth
Planted in solid ground
Something I can’t exchange for

A newer model wrapped in a box
Planned obsolescence in my soul, so

There is life in our difference
Bringing out what I cannot know of myself
But the mountains have been laid low
And all Others are gone from experience

There was a meaning here I swear
But I can’t see it any more

I’m just putting one last slide up with some resources you might want to take a look at if this topic interests you. A couple books I mentioned, as well as my blog, where I write about this stuff periodically. Also, the little Meteor app I created for the live experience is open-source, up on GitHub. Take a look!

Have a great rest of your conference everyone.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 13, “Technology and the Social Order”

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 the first of four on the relationship of technology to social and political issues. Borgmann is trying to argue that we should conceive of and judge society and politics in the light of technology, and that it is in social life or politics that the device paradigm must finally be discussed, since these areas of life are those that receive the most attention. Unfortunately, the fundamental modus operandi of technology is not yet recognized in this sphere.

What is recognized is what we might call the problem of orientation, in other words the widespread feelings of disorientation, ungroundedness, and directionlessness prevalent in modern society. Technology has rendered all points in space and time equal (determined by consumptive intent and consumptive potentiality). This itself flows from the abstract, objective viewpoint of modern science—science might be able to describe all the places and events with which we interface, but it cannot tell us which is “home”; it cannot locate meaning for us in a privileged place or time. Of course, this is not a critique of science in general. Rather, it is technology as a social strategy which redraws human experience in this world with no guideposts.

The way people address this widely-recognized if poorly-understood malaise is often to, in Borgmann’s terms, “raise the value question”. In other words, it is thought that what is needed to reorient our society is a clarification and perhaps reprioritization of “values”. According to Borgmann, however, (and laying aside the issue of the multiplicity of values), this strategy is futile in unmasking the device paradigm and showing it for what it is. The problem is that, very often, our discussion of values presupposes the means/ends distinction which is operative as a result of the technological paradigm; from this assumption, technology itself will never be able to be brought into clear relief (as we saw in earlier chapters). In modern education, the ends are what are seen as stable, and the means as radically interchangeable. Thus we have undergone a shift from education as passing down customs or “ways of doing things” to teaching goal-formulation and practical reason, with the result that tools and practices become mere means rather than vessels of orientation, used in a web of pre-existing meaning.

Ultimately, in this environment, the values we most want to bring to the fore will forever be impossible to formulate. When commoditization potential becomes the measure of whether the means are leading to the ends, the non-quantifiable “values” will start to dematerialize. As Borgmann puts it, we can measure the number of Big Macs sold, or the number of times a family eats out. But how are we to measure the value of a family meal, prepared with care and celebrated with conversation? So-called “focal things”, which we encountered earlier as those things which are a source of full-facultied human engagement, cannot be argued for in the “values” conversation, when it continues to presuppose the paradigm of technology.

In this chapter, Borgmann also considers a Marxist critique of modern society, to see whether it fares any better in bringing to light the working of the device paradigm. Ultimately, he disregards the critique as too shallow. On the Marxist story, there is always a definite class with undue power, influence, and wealth. What is really necessary is to divest this class of their privilege and distribute their benefits more equally. (There are of course totally capitalist versions of this thesis, and Borgmann goes into some interesting detail on how this a big part of the social theory underlying much of the latent political understanding in the US.) The problem here is not just that it is questionable whether there is really a definite class who can be thus Robin-Hooded. It is that technology and the device paradigm can be used quite happily towards this goal of “equality”, all the while continuing the trend of commoditization and disengagement. As long as technology operates in a free and equal manner, the Marxist has no more to say about it; and of course, this disburdenment and equality is part and parcel of the very promise of technology.

So, it appears we need more tools or insight to bring an actual discussion of technology into the political and social arena. We begin this task in the next chapter by looking at the concept of “liberal democracy” (the kind of social theory Borgmann claims is actually operative in the US political system).

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 12, “Paradigmatic Explanation”

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.

One of the foundational aims of Borgmann’s whole book is the attempt to actually give an explanation for technology. Hence we discussed what counts as an explanation in the scientific realm in earlier chapters. In this middle section of the book, Borgmann is concerned to substantiate the notion of the Device Paradigm, not just as a feature of technology but as a way of explaining technology and everything that goes along with it.

This chapter is therefore about “paradigmatic explanation”—we have this “device paradigm”, but what does it mean for this concept to be an explanation of technology? Borgmann begins by summarizing one type of explanation: “apodeictic” explanation, or the kind used in science. And of course, it is the physical sciences which in our society provide the standard for explanation. But science, Borgmann argues, fails to provide a theory, “in the sense of a steady and arresting view of our world” (69). Scientific laws may tell us what is possible, but they do not tell us what is relevant. There is, in other words, an overabundance of “givenness”, of things we could pay attention to or bring into focus or care about. Science itself does not and cannot set that vision for us.

The same kind of explanations are sought in the social sciences as in the physical sciences. Borgmann shows a set of pairs that typify this distinction:

is ought
fact value
theoretical practical
analysis advocacy
empirical normative

Scientific, apodeictic, subsumptive modes of explanation focus on the first column. But there must then be other kinds of explanation that focus on the second column or the whole picture. Borgmann therefore introduces the concept of “deictic” explanation, which answers the question “What is significant?” rather than the question “What is?” But is there yet a third possibility? Borgmann believes there is: paradigmatic explanation.

Borgmann defines paradigmatic explanation as “explanation by elucidation of a predominant pattern”, and says that, compared to apodeictic and deictic modes, this would be considered “paradeictic” or “quasi-deictic”, since it does not shy away from looking at patterns that bleed into the second column above, patterns that are used as a guide to sort out the world. Combined with the concept of a paradigm, we are talking of using concrete examples of patterns to prove the existence of a larger, overriding pattern.

So the Device Paradigm, as paradigmatic explanation, is designed to bring into relief the force that “more and more detaches us from the persons, things, and practices that used to engage and grace us in their own right” (76). From a historical perspective, this is the story of life being seen as toil, poverty, and suffering, and technology entering the scene as natural science promising to transform our experience and liberate us. The deep irony is then that disburdenment becomes disengagement.

So what examples can we use as paradigms to bring to light the pattern above? Well, we have already considered many of them. A fireplace becomes a central heating system. A wagon becomes an automobile. A meal becomes a TV dinner. The pattern here is of Things (objects which have depth as a result of being part of the web of human significance) becoming Commodities (wherein the main benefit they provide is stripped from the thing itself and made available).

When we build up from these paradigm cases, Borgmann claims, and if we are at all concerned about the disengagement characteristic of modern life, then the Device Paradigm provides an extremely clear explanation for how technology serves as an “implicit guiding pattern for the transformation of this world”.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 11, “Devices, Means, and Machines”

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.

The point of this chapter, according to Borgmann, is to provide more rigor around what has thus far been an intuitive account of the device paradigm. He begins with the question of whether there are any competing analyses of it on offer. In fact, critiques of what might be considered technology have been around since the time of, say, the introduction of the steam engine. For critics of this period, the symbol of technology was the “machine” they saw altering the landscape around them. The steam engine was ambivalent: it was powerful and convenient, but also “ravenous”, consuming land, resources, and quiet. Writers of this persuasion, Borgmann claims, framed their arguments in terms of a means/end imbalance, where the danger was that our technological means (the machines) might unwittingly become our ends. (The solution would then be to correct this balance.)

A more recent critic, Hannah Arendt, criticizes technology on the basis of a different distinction than means vs. ends. She counterposes two perspectives on the story of human life: the first is characterized as “work and action”, and the second as “labor and consumption”. What “work and action” means is a bit vague, but the point is that both work and action are noble and humanizing pursuits. What is available to us in our technological age, however, is “labor and consumption”, that is, the essence of work as unpleasant toil which merely provides the resources for a consumptive existence. Both halves of this second mode contribute to a lack of meaning and are dehumanizing.

Borgmann’s reaction to Arendt is measured; he appreciates the argument but thinks there is a better distinction to be had, one based on the technological goal of “disburdenment”. I take it that he means there is a distinction between two perspectives on life: one (the technological) based on the idea of continual and progressive disburdenment, and another (Borgmann’s) based on some other paradigm (yet to be disclosed).

Borgmann’s reaction to the means/end arguments is somewhat more lively, in that he repudiates it as granting too much ground already. Modern proponents of this kind of argument claim that our technological means have not so much become our ends as overrun our ends, bringing about what Borgmann calls “reverse adaptation”, wherein the technological possibilities are so expansive we adapt our ends to the shape they give reality, rather than vice versa. While not false, framing the discussion in this way leaves it open for the thoughtful technologist to respond that yes, this is a problem, and what is needed is simply a clarification of our ends! What goes unnoticed here is that everyone is inclined to view the state of affairs from within this distinction of means vs. ends, which itself is in fact new, and is itself a product of the rise of technology. One way of talking about the device paradigm on this view is that technology is also in the business of radically redefining our goals or ends. But Borgmann goes beyond this and quotes Thomas Carlyle to the effect that we actually do violence to things when we divide them into means and ends.

And unfortunately this is precisely what the device paradigm encourages us to do: “We must recognize that the reduction of the fullness of phenomena in technological measurement and assessment is no more alarming than the common attenuation of the depth of things to commodious surfaces” (61). In other words, this classification of means and ends is a philosophical reflection of the overall pattern of technology, which splits things themselves down the middle, into commodious surfaces on one side and black boxes that produce the commodities on the other. This is deeply worrying, because “commodities allow no engagement and atrophy the fullness of our capacities” (62).

So, in sum, others have seen the device paradigm in action and traced its outline, but Borgmann is unsatisfied with other analyses of it, especially when they use the means/ends distinction, which itself is part of what he claims needs to be analysed. Instead, Borgmann wants to give a “paradigmatic” explanation; what exactly that means and how it works will be the subject of the next chapter.

Election Night

A poem I wrote after watching the election coverage last night. There was a lot of happiness and heartbreak for two political parties. But who are the real winners and losers in this hyped-up sporting event for “the greatest country on Earth”? Who stands outside the door while we spend billions lionizing/demonizing politicians?

Bring me your tired and your poor
    But not too close.
Stand just there and watch
The winds of freedom dance
    Through our summer party

Our honored guests arrive on time
    One lion, one demon
Which will we choose this year?
Let's play the fool's charade
    As if it mattered

For edging down the knife of time
    Is hard enough sober
And lions and demons exchange
Their masks so rapidly
    Who dares even try?

Now the winds stir the leaves
    The debt of freedom
A hint of invisible winter
But the show must go on!
    Shut eyes, dance faster

Laughter turns to drunk dismay
    Freedom's angry flood
The pitiless pitied above all
Drink and life sunk below memory
    The outcasts looking on.
    But not too close.