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.