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).

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Open Source at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. Apart from being the project lead of Appium, he has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in Vancouver BC, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit for more.

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

  1. Great stuff here, particularly in what goes “backgrounded.” In principle, I think it has to be truly good that a lot of technological means are backgrounded – this leaves more time and space for us to focus on solving higher-level problems, to foreground our relationships with other people for instance – but, also in principle, we do need to take occasion to foreground these means themselves, certainly more often than we do. This is the only way we can stop to recognize the exploitations involved in manufacturing and programming our devices, the extent to which the virtues of embodiment are traded in for virtual “omnipotence,” the unexpected psychic and social phenomena emerging from mass adoption of these technologies, the traditions replaced and social texture lost in devices like Facebook. Thank you for hitting the pause button in your own way (so to speak)!

  2. Nice chapter and summary. There isn’t a whole lot that I would reiterate with respect to the thing-device relationship. I read the chapter as the same way as you presented it here.

    There is beginning to be an underlying value judgement placed on technology by Borgmann. This is fine, I just find his argument to be a bit of a straw man sometimes… an oversimplification of good and bad.

    Back to the chapter — Borgmann also points out that time and space become dissolved in the device paradigm. These are nice human characteristics that devices remove the burden of things. I loved the phrase regarding Becoming England: As people adjust to the land, the land discloses itself to the people.

    If I’m starting to think about this book in light of OSS, I need to start to position myself in a way of thinking that is informed by Borgmann. Is it that ‘technology upsets the tradition (of traditional software design) from the ground up?’ Is it that OSS commoditizes software development? How does a community provide commodities and concealment? I don’t think that these are the questions.

    I actually think that the question stems from OSS as a skillful engagement (your own footnote). This is about questioning Borgmann’s own refection on devices/commodities and consider OSS as a focal concern, not a receding commodity. This would be interesting because it would also buck the trend of a lot of academic literature.

  3. Having spoken with Borgmann personally about my OSS paper, he agreed that the way I characterize ‘traditional’ OSS as more focal than ‘commoditized’ OSS works on his scheme. It seems there can be degrees of focality, or relativized focality. What’s really interesting is that Borgmann’s story (which is not at all related to software development specifically) works when applied to this new inner world of software development. We can see the same pattern of technology (in its drive to increase ‘availability’) even _within_ a canonically technological area (OSS). To me this highlights the strength of Borgmann’s analysis of the inherent modus operandi of technology.

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