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.