Philosophy Technology

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.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

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

Glad you’re blogging about these vital topics Jonathan.

I wonder though, are abstraction and concealment really proper to technology? Aren’t they more a function of social relationships (those who know and those who don’t), in which case we’d need a social critique and a new way of organizing ourselves? Deeper still, weren’t abstraction and concealment even the means of the mystic, who aspired to the highest, deepest knowledge, but always, if he was honest, confessed his ignorance and limitation?

I ask because, yes, tech seems to have its many alienating and mutating effects, but I wonder whether these were not already in the mind in the first place, and our enhanced tech only enhances their effects – the striving for distance from the mess, control over the senses, division and compartmentalization of consciousness. And if so, should we not be throwing the mirror on ourselves rather than our devices?

Along these same lines, you may be interested in Jaron Lanier’s manifesto You Are Not a Gadget:

Alex! I’m happy you’re joining the discussion. I checked out your book recommendation and it looks great—I’ll definitely read it when I’m done with this project.

Your question is a good one. Throughout TCCL Borgmann does talk of concealment and abstraction as characteristic of technology, but I can’t remember whether he says these features are unique to it. Personally, I’m inclined to accept the idea that humans are generally willing to trade concealment/abstraction for perceived incremental life benefits. In other words, maybe you’re right that the tendency to forego focal concerns has always been latent in human consciousness. However, I think Borgmann is onto something in seeing modern technology as different from ancient mysticism (however cryptic). It really does make “magic” available to the masses, at a cost. Of course the human reaction to it is going to be part of human psychology (which may not have itself changed fundamentally over the last few millennia); maybe what’s novel is an environment that our psychology has never been prepared to handle.

I do think the point of Borgmann’s work is to “throw the mirror on ourselves” rather than simply explicate the device paradigm—in the later parts of the book he gets all up in politics and definitions of excellence and so forth, and that to me is where the precise discussions of what devices are bear fruit. So stay tuned! And keep the thoughts/reactions coming, please.

Nice post. The premise that Borgmann certainly holds up is the concealment and abstraction of technology — and that this can come at a cost (and possible gains too).

A big question that keeps coming up in this chapter is what is missed as a result of this concealment and abstraction? What is ignored? What is the failure of focus?

Is the device paradigm this concealment and abstraction? Or is it the ongoing struggle with technology that can both help and harm?

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