Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 26, “The Recovery of the Promise 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.

Technology promised us liberty and prosperity, but in significant ways this has not come to pass. In the industrialized nations we are free from hunger, disease, and illiteracy, but increasingly, commodities overflow in the center of our lives and we have become shallow people. We take pride in our technological means without caring much about what they are for. We have created genuinely amazing technological devices, but being human is about more than that. We must go beyond freedom from disease (the negative freedom that technology has provided) to engaging with life.

Within the technological paradigm, the kind of life we have embarked on instead is trivial, bored, over-entertained, over-stimulated and under-engaged, surly, unimpressed, and routinized. The reform we want to see takes technology and gives it back a supporting role in the human drama. Engagement with focal things and practices, and the manifold ways such engagement graces us, is what should occupy our center. We’re not talking about returning to pre-technological life, or convincing others to be anti-technological, but rather living a life that understands the place of technology and consciously limits it for the sake of something better.

In this arrangement, focal concerns are even more beautiful than we could see in pre-technological areas, and technology attains a new nobility by supporting these concerns rather than usurping their place. What’s the fate of this imagined reform of technology? What’s the fate of technology itself? Well, we can measure the success of the reform by the degree to which focal concerns grow and flourish in our society. And of course technology itself is not going to disappear. On the potential of reform, Borgmann is not anxious, and I’ll end this series by quoting the final words from his book:

One would rightly be nervous about the possibility that a great thing may fail accidentally, that the kingdom may be lost for want of a nail. But our focal concern will languish or prosper for essential reasons. I hope it will prevail, and it sustains my hope.

[Photo: Death Valley bloom, by the author]

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 jonathanlipps.com for more.

3 thoughts on “Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 26, “The Recovery of the Promise of Technology””

  1. We’re done 🙂

    What a pleasure to read the book and your comments. I’m now a smarter person!

    “One wants to elevate the machinery to the central and crucial position and reduce the so-called ends to mere obstacles and occasions for the development and celebration of technological devices” (247).

    I love this quote because it is something that I’ve been trying to fight in my field for a long time. There is a line of research called Design Science Research. It is premised fundamentally on the idea that there is a problem and we develop systems to solve those problems (facepalm). Systems analysis, design, and development is an insanely complex engagement that involves people, resources, attitudes, strategies, coffee consumption, lack of sleep, weather, you name it.

    Answer this question: What problem does Linux solve? It is clearly a technology that would reside in-between a problem and a solution. But what problem? What solution? What a silly question that would be.

    Overall, very compelling book. Excellent read. Now onto writing a paper between the correlate between this book and the changing nature of OSS work!!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and engage with all of these, Matt! I think you’re the only person to have done so 🙂 I look forward to reading the results of your research and thinking. Please do link here if you get something up online for others to see as well.

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