Relay: The Divided Brain

I felt compelled to break into the normal Blogging Borgmann schedule to share this wonderful video from the RSA (who puts on some amazing talks and sometimes has them animated in creative ways). It communicates a new perspective (from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist) on the meaning of the left/right hemisphere division in the brain. As someone who is slowly recovering in life from the left-brain myopia McGilchrist describes, while trying to retain a (more integrated) view of what my intense focus and categorization of reality have to offer, I found this video very resonant.

In particular, I hope ideas like this allow for greater freedom for the right-brained people who tend to get lost or squashed in the system as it has historically evolved. And I hope that recovering left-brain myopians like myself can recognize the beauty and life available outside of our frameworks, especially when it comes to the people who just don’t make sense to us. But enough of me; watch the video, and let me know your reactions!

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 2, “Theories 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.

Chapter 2 of TCCL consists of an overview of several existing theories of technology that Borgmann wants to use as partners in dialogue, in the process of constructing his own theory. The pre-theoretic, simplistic view of technology is pragmatic: science and technology have proven their validity and usefulness through the effective solutions they boast to real problems. Since it is obvious that technology has indeed solved such problems, any more nuanced theory will have to be presented with the utmost precision and care. (Here I think Borgmann is justifying the level of detail he will be going into in this section of the book).

In the simplistic “default” view, technology is basically “applied science and engineering” (8). By this Borgmann is saying people generally think of technology merely as what happens when scientists and engineers do work in the world. He claims this leaves technology too narrowly defined: there is no room for fruitful inquiry into technology’s deeper essence if it is defined purely functionally. So a real theory of technology would offer a more engaging perspective.

Borgmann sees three broad approaches to developing a theory of technology:

  1. The substantive approach. On this view, technology is a force in its own right. It isn’t understood as a personal force, but just something which is not reducible to other principles. In other words, it’s a basic element of modern existence, rather than something which is explained by reference to other elements. As a matter of practice, most substantivists tend to portray this force as negative (and so are called anti-technologist or Luddite).

    While Borgmann lauds the simplicity of this view (technology simply is) and the fact that technology as a basic force is seen to have its own characteristic essence, he thinks substantivists do not adequately meet the challenges posed by the apparent success of technology in meeting the world’s problems. Stridently declaring technology evil does not deliver the requisite insight!

  2. The instrumentalist approach. This is perhaps the most common theoretical position; it sees technological devices as the evolution of the simple tools humans have been using since the dawn of our species—there is fundamentally no difference between a hammer and a computer. On this approach, Borgmann notes that the primary question concerning technology becomes: what ends are these tools used for?

    This division between ends and means finds a congenial home in our liberal democracy (by which Borgmann means this kind of democracy), wherein “it is the task of the state to provide means for the good life but … to leave to private efforts the establishment and pursuit of ultimate values” (10). In other words, the state is free to make available any kind of technological development, but not to say what kinds of ends are appropriate for their use.

    Borgmann admits that instrumentalism is on one hand true (technological devices and tools are indeed analogically related, and the distinction between ends and means is indeed a real part of our current experience), but claims it misses several important points. The first is that the distinction between ends and means itself is a novel thing which did not exist in pre-technological society. Secondly, technological “ends” consistently find their realization in supporting a ruling elite and exploiting the poor, which suggests there is something more complicated going on than the use of tools.

  3. The pluralist approach. Borgmann defines this perspective rather vaguely (in my opinion), describing it basically as the position that there can be no comprehensive approach to technology; at the end of the day, all we have are anecdotes about society’s engagement with machines, and there is no discernible underlying pattern. While this approach can (technically speaking) handle every observed fact or situation, Borgmann claims it does so at the cost of failing the test of reality: technology does have a character which runs through all the instances of its use, and it moreover has a real effect on the world. As he says, “in modern technology the face of the earth is transformed in a radically novel way” (11)—I leave it to the reader to imagine all the ways the earth has been literally transformed by machines.

After this brief review, Borgmann describes the kind of theory of technology he wants to build in TCCL. It should make bold and radical claims, it should explicate the character of technology (i.e., make it easier to observe and understand), it should on one hand reflect common-sense intuitions while on the other hand avoid superficiality, and finally it should emerge from an observation of actual events and situations (i.e., it should have empirical grounding).

As we move into the next chapters, Borgmann will lay out the ground rules for developing and substantiating such a theory. For example, we’ll engage in some philosophy of science (“What is a theory, and what makes a theory good?”). We’ll also look at the relationship between technology and science—is it as close as we normally assume? We’ll begin to explore that question in Chapter 3.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 1, “Technology and Theory”

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 the first chapter of TCCL, Borgmann makes it clear that we need a theory of technology, not just an understanding of the practices involved in it. He says moreover that this study is going to be “philosophical”, especially in the sense of prompting “considerations of a radical and reflective sort” (7). (This was certainly my experience in reading the book). The reason we need a theory is that problems in technological societies such as ours are often seen to be extrinsic to technology. People claim that “they stem … from political indecision, social injustice, or environmental constraints” (3). According to Borgmann, this is a mistaken view. There is in fact a definite pattern to the fabric of our technologically-driven lives which elucidates the “hopes, confusions, and frustrations of the modern period” (3)—and it is intrinsically tied up with technology.

(Philosophers have historically fared no better than others in discerning this pattern because, Borgmann suggests, they often overlook the everyday foreground of our lives; and it is precisely here where the paradigmatic pattern of technology dominates.)

We need a theory of technology, and much of the book will be devoted to delivering one. So let’s begin. What is technology? It is, in sum, the dominant characteristic approach to reality in the modern world. It is seen most concretely in “devices” (TVs, cars, etc…), and showing how such devices are paradigmatic of technology is a major aim of the book.

We can give one initial example of a device: a stereo set. The reason a stereo set exists is obvious: its goal is to provide music. Of course, people who gather with instruments and play bluegrass also provide music, but a stereo set provides music (a) at any time, and (b) of any kind. A stereo set, within the boundaries of its technology, is infinitely more versatile than a group of humans with instruments, but this comes at the cost of extreme abstractness (the form of the stereo set has nothing to do with the kind of music it provides, whereas the shape and material of a fiddle has everything to do with it) and concealment (the inner workings of a stereo set are an inscrutable collection of microchips and small electronics hidden behind a plastic veil). These two features, abstractness and concealment, will be major themes in elucidating the device paradigm.

Differences like these between live musicians (pre-technologically the only way to procure music) and a stereo set flag important questions of the gains and losses of the technological approach, which will continue to provide an interesting arena for discussion.

Apart from establishing the device paradigm as a good theory of technology, the other main aim of TCCL is to discuss “focal things and practices”, in order to understand the fatal flaw in present technological rule (this is where we can see the philosophy becoming truly radical, in the sense of calling accepted sensibilities into question). What are focal things and practices? In short, they are things/practices that “center and illuminate our lives” (4). As Borgmann says, “Music certainly has that power if it is alive as a regular and skillful engagement of body and mind and if it graces us in a full and final way” (4).

A core critique of modern society, for Borgmann, is that it fundamentally lacks appreciation for the centrality of focal concerns, not to mention the tendency for technology to diminish them. (This is true even among philosophers and sociologists who study the modern era). It’s a testament to the cogency of the book, then, that this techno-junkie found deep insight in Borgmann’s claims that the device paradigm is inherently arrayed against focal concerns. But we’ve finished with chapter 1. See you next time for chapter 2, “Theories of Technology”!

PS: Some evidence that some part of Borgmann’s theory of technology resonates with technologists’ understanding of it can be found in this interesting post by Jean-Baptiste Queru on the complexity of a simple task like visiting a web page. A relevant quote which emphasizes the ‘concealment’ aspect (and the corresponding inability for most of us to diagnose and fix technological problems):

Once you start to understand how [our] modern devices work and how they’re created, it’s impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that’s involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy’s law says that they simply shouldn’t possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all. That is the reason why many people can find computers so frustrating to use: there are so many things that can possibly go wrong that some of them inevitably will, but the complexity goes so deep that it’s impossible for most users to be able to do anything about any error.