Interviewing Borgmann, Part 2

Author’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 4-part series in which I interview Albert Borgmann, an eminent philosopher of technology. The interview has been transcribed and published here with minimal editing. I recommend starting with Part 1 to understand the greater context!

The relativism of technological change

JL: Albert, I've been talking about your ideas with pretty much everyone that has an ear, or half an ear, to listen. It's gotten to the point where, with my group of friends and colleagues, any time a topic comes up that triggers philosophical conversation, they say "oh no, Jonathan's about to talk about technology again!"

AB: What sort of work do you do?

JL: I'm a software developer. I've worked for the last fourG years at a tech startup, a cloud software company called Sauce Labs. We provide a cloud service for testing software applications. So it's a service that people would rely on as a facility to make sure that their new software that they are releasing is high quality. I started as just a developer and I'm now in a management role so I don't do a lot of software work. All this to say, most of the people I talk to about this are programmers.

Anyway, so I talk to a lot of people and I get a lot of responses about the ideas that I communicate, which I take largely from your work. It's always a challenge to figure out how to elocute it. My initial tendency was to start at a kind of abstract level and talk about the Device Paradigm. Sometimes people get it and sometimes people don't, but the inevitable question is, "So what? What does this framework have to do with anything?" I've tried different strategies, and I've heard a number of different responses and I want to ask you about a couple of these responses that I hear, to know what you would say about some of these things. One of the most common responses I hear is a version of what I call the "Douglas Adams argument for technological relativism". He has a quote that a lot of people know. He calls this the rules that describe people's reaction to technology.

  • Rule 1: anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

  • Rule 2: anythig that's invented between when you're 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

  • Rule 3: anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things.

In other words, when people bring this kind of response up to me, it seems like they're interpreting what you're saying as simply a common reaction that old people have to new things. "Oh, that's unnatural!" When the telephone was invented, there were some old people that said, "That's unnatural", but now it's the most normal thing, and we can even talk about talking on the phone with people nostalgically. But there was a class of people at some point who said, "That's horrible, we're not going to see each other face to face anymore". So it's a relativistic argument or maybe a slippery-slope type argument that's designed to show that we shouldn't be concerned about what seems unnatural now, because it will seem natural later. So really there's nothing to be concerned about. I see your work as saying something deeper that's not really susceptible to that argument but it's hard to know how to frame that, so what would you say?

AB: The argument is bad, right? The chickens expect the farmer to feed them day after day, but one day the farmer comes and wrings their neck! So I think it's a bad argument, but a better reply is perhaps to say that technological culture had culturally detrimental impacts. This used to be easily dismissed. The reply to the criticism was exactly what your colleagues say: "So what?" But now, for better or worse, we're at a stage where the detrimental effects are just obvious, and the two are obesity (and other self-inflicted diseases, which are a terrible problem, and due to the Device Paradigm running amok) and global warming. So you can't say, "Oh, 2/3 of the people were always overweight, and most of the diseases were self-inflicted". That's just not true! And you can't say, "Oh well, nature can always absorb what we throw at it. It's resilient". Well, it's not.

JL: So we're sort of coming to the end of the line for that particular argument, where it's shown to be false by experience.

AB: Right. And the next one is going to be distraction. The inability to focus on a demanding task. And distraction I think is going to be the mental counterpart to obesity.

JL: The result of mental fast food?

AB: Exactly. And so that's just sort of breaching the wall. But then you have to go on and ask, is there something like the Good Life? Or is it just that all kinds of lives are equal? So all these stars O.D. and kill themselves; that's ok! They're going out the way they want to go out with the highest possible high. Or maybe it's their children being totally aimless and not knowing what to do. I have at one time collected all the rueful columns just in the New York Times where people say, "There are terrible things happening to my children! What I'm doing to them is terrible, but I can't help myself." So is it all OK? And the thing about moral arguments is that a person can say, "Yes!"

JL: Right, but then their blood is on their own heads, essentially.

Technology, the Good Life, and happiness

AB: In a more recent book I say that you have to put people in (I forget how I phrased it) a benevolent, disinterested position. Benevolent: they're people of good will. Disinterested: you're not talking about them, because then they're defensive. And how do you get them into that position? It's when you ask them as parents, "What do you want for your children?" What kind of life? And then I make it a little more concrete by having a fairy godmother appearing and then asking questions, and then develop the notion of the Good Life following the traditional virtues of wisdom, courage, and friendship. Wisdom: knowledgeable, understanding the way the world works. Courage: physically active, at ease with their bodies. Friendship: warm, sustaining relationships. So would anyone say "Oh no, not my kid! I want my kid to be obese like everybody else! I want them to be ignorant!" You know? Google it if you want to know! And then you're able to move people into a position that's a little less flip and a little more thoughtful. They got sort of a glimpse of what the Good Life is, and then there's good social science research that supports it… Have you heard of Martin Seligman? The book Authentic Happiness is a great convergence of social science and virtue ethics. When it comes to wisdom, education is a good thing for happiness. Then physical activity is good for happiness, and then of course warm and enduring social bonds are crucial to happiness.

JL: I think I see what you're saying. He's actually using data from social sciences to support a kind of virtue ethics perspective on the Good Life, and you see that as a good trend in that kind of research.

AB: Yeah, I think if you're in the philosophy of society and culture you have to pay attention to the social sciences. You may just be wrong about claims that you make.

JL: You have to look at what's actually happening in the world to inform your philosophy about what's good for people or not good for people.

AB: The social scientists never ask exactly the questions you'd like them to ask, so you have to draw inferences and then of course you have to be critical of the social sciences. They're often mistaken. But people definitely know when they're miserable! So it's not as though you can tell a person who's terribly depressed, "You're not really depressed."

JL: Some people try, but they know.

AB: This gets us into complex issues. Professed happiness, avowed happiness. How valid is it? But social scientists have ways of establishing validity and reliability. And so if people say, "Yeah I'm happy", then you go out there, ask their neighbors, look at them, see how they're doing. You correlate their avowed profession of happiness with how they actually live. You know, there are kinds of happiness where people make distinctions between enduring happiness and momentary happiness and the sum of lots of momentary happiness is not the same as enduring happiness.

JL: Similar to the reaosn why hedonism has never made sense to me as a personal philosophy even though it's the philosophy that pretty much everyone around us in San Francisco professes to follow, because 'happiness' is an empty category. It means whatever you want it to mean, so how can it be a guide to life? Basically everyone ends up saying you define pleasure in whatever way you want. Long-term, short-term. But I find it to be a meaningless guide to the Good Life in that sense.

AB: Right.

The possibility of focality in technological devices

JL: OK. I want to get back to some of these responses. Another response I hear after talking about some of your ideas with people, even if they'll agree with the basic points, is that they view technological devices as having a lot more promise within themselves for meaning, for human meaning. Many of my colleagues believe that technological devices could become focal things or practices, so people talk about having more 'real' experiences with online communities than in their local physical environment, or getting extremely skilled at a video game that demands a lot of actual engagement and quasi-physical-but-intellectual skill. You think that chess might be a focal practice, so why not this video game? Or kinds of artistic expression that you can have with digital media that you couldn't have with other kinds of things. Even in some of the research that I did for the paper I gave at the conference [SPT 2015], talking about the open source software community in its early incarnation exhibiting some more "focal" features that then lessened as that community evolved. So what would you say about these possibilities for focality within something that we might in a large picture view as a technological device? Are these possibilities real? How do they compare to the kinds of focal things and practices in your book, like running and so on?

AB: It's an empirical question, so we have to find out what the case is. The next thing is you have to distinguish between possibility and actuality. Possibilities instantiated anecdotally? Well great. But actuality is measured by what I would call "social causality". What's the broad impact of devices? There we depend on the social sciences. So what's the broad impact of the availability of seductive, tempting food? You can say, "Well some people sit down with a Big Mac and for them it's just a feast!" Fine. But what's the broad impact?

JL: So you can acknowledge that possibility of that sacred experience with the Big Mac, but then you look at the broad strokes of what that does to culture, and it's a different picture.

AB: Then you have to ask yourself, why that broad impact? What is it in the culture that makes the impact of engineered food so detrimental? And then I think you come to the conjunction of disburdenment and enrichment that is so seductive and still propelling the culture. What makes that kind of disburdenment and enrichment possible? It's some sort of machinery. If people didn't have the Device Paradigm writ large and instantiated in so many ways, that disburdenment wouldn't be possible. Every person would have to have 1,000 slaves, and that's not a culture we could accept. So these are the stages. The first is possibility vs actuality. And then, what's the actuality? And then, why does it have this broad impact?

Continued in Part 3

Interviewing Borgmann, Part 1

Author’s Note: In October 2015, Jessica and I drove across the western United States. When we passed through Montana, we had the opportunity to meet Albert Borgmann, my favorite philosopher of technology, at his home. Over the past half-decade, I have blogged chapter-by-chapter through his book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (see the Overview to check out that series). It was a rare gift to be able to sit with this gracious and wise human being for several hours and ask him all the questions that arose from my study of his work. The following is a barely-edited transcript of that interview, ranging across a variety of philosophical and cultural topics. Because of its length, the interview is separated into several parts.

Intro & Reception of TCCL

Jonathan Lipps: Technology and the character of contemporary life. It's a very long title, and hard to say! So I say "TCCL". I thought it was an extremely profound book, and I'm curious as a newcomer to the field in the last 30+ years since you wrote it, what has its reception been, and what kind of debate has it generated?

Albert Borgmann: Well, there is actually a book titled Technology and the Good Life? which is a reflection of the early reception. It's an anthology of comments. That was done by three young people who got excited about it, and since then it's been… you know, people who write about philosophy of technology consider TCCL a book they should know. Of course you get pigeonholed after a while. The pigeonhole replaces detailed engagement with the book. I think the most rewarding and perhaps important impact was with people like you. Who's Jonathan, you know? How did he come across that book? It's widely scattered. For a while there was, as one of the contributors of the anthology said, sort of a Borgmann "school". It's still being read. It pops up in various places, among people who are not philosophers. So that's very rewarding of course to find out. But in the large sense it didn't make any difference to the culture. I can't think of a book that has. Perhaps Michael Harrington, How the other half lives, something like this. That supposedly inspired the war on poverty.

JL: So you're saying books generally don't impact culture very much?

AB: No they don't. There's sort of the melancholy example of John Rawls's Theory of Justice. This is one of two really important books of American philosphy in the 20th century. It took the academy by storm. The bibliography is probably 200 pages by now! In the last book that he supervised (although he was too ill to edit it himself) the editor says that John Rawls realizes that the country has been moving in the opposite direction from what he recommended. So if this fantastic book, so important and magisterial, didn't make a dent in the culture, then all we can expect is that we sort of sow some seeds, you know, and it germinates here and germinates there. We should be grateful if that much happens.

JL: That sounds like a mature perspective!

JL: This is bringing up another question: who did you originally write it for? Who was the first audience you had in mind?

AB: Fellow philosophers. As you can tell having read it, it uses philosophical terminology, and I never wrote a book in that style again. I'm always surprised that people like you actually work their way through it. The books that i've written since are much more accessible.

JL: Well it took me a long time. And I have philosophical training.

AB: And what is your training?

JL: I got a bachelors and a masters in philosophy. So I was familiar with the terminology, but even so there was enough meat there that even being familiar with the terminology it took a long time to digest. It's a short book but it probably took me a year or a year and a half to read through. I could only read in bits at a time.

AB: But it's still I think the most widely read and most influential book of the ones that I've written. So that's always surprised me. Even at the time when I wrote it, when I still tried to impress my colleagues (which I no longer do).

Affirmations and Retractions?

JL: So, again kind of looking at the expanse of time from then to now, you've obviously had a lot of time to reflect on the ideas that you put forth then. I imagine that some things you would say, yes, I continue to affirm this, maybe I affirm it even more. But what would you say has stood the test of time? Are there any things you would instead revise or rephrase?

AB: I unfortunately got it right the first time! You must know Hilary Putnam? Hilary Putnam glories in his changes. "What is Hilary thinking now?" people ask themselves. But if you got it right the first time, you can't say "I changed my mind."

JL: There are no more books you can write!

AB: I've tried to expand and elaborate it, and that's essentially what I've done. In some ways it's dated, the philosophy of science that I use. But I think I wouldn't take anything back. One thing that might have been good is to use the term "commodification". I talk about it, and I may have used "commodifying", but "commodification" makes a good link to things that worry people. And so it's a good entry, but that's a very minor thing.

JL: It was on point enough for me to read it nigh on 30 years later and find enough in my experience to say, "this is something I'm going to pay attention to". So I don't disagree! But wanted to give you the opportunity to elaborate.

AB: Well, I didn't foresee… I talk about computer technology which was just sort of beginning.

JL: Yeah, you talked about "the coming microelectronic revolution"

AB: Yeah, right. I think something that needs philosophical examination or articulation is the uncanny influence that ICT has on the culture. That something would have that pervasive and in many ways insidious force, I didn't foresee. One thing I was sort of too optimistic about, and I would take back, is global warming. As you may remember, I extend the Device Paradigm to "spaceship Earth" and I say, people take care of their cars, they'll take care of spaceship Earth! But they're not. They may yet. And clearly, if they do, I think the major impetus will still be the Device Paradigm. So it's not the people who want to go back to reality, who say let's solve the problem by doing less and less and less by way of conquering and modifying and shaping.

JL: Yeah, now it's more like, let's figure out how to do more of that to save ourselves!

AB: There are people like that, and I think that's the most hopeful development that I see. The problem is that all these hopeful developments in farmer's markets, the craft industry, little shops like this that buck up against Starbucks, furniture makers, the bicycle people…

JL: The whole artisan movement.

AB: Yeah. It's not getting critical mass culturally and politically speaking. And so it is boxing under its weight. I'm sort of waiting for that! Why don't these people see that they're doing the same thing at bottom and then assert their cultural, economic, and political power? But to get back to global warming and the Device Paradigm, it's the people who have sort of bought in to the Device Paradigm who will continue to dominate the discussion. An interesting illustration of what happens is what happened to the term "sustainability". That was sort of the purview of the environmentalists. And the Brundtland Report (she was the Prime Minister, I think, of Norway)… It's another report on dangers and drawbacks of technology, and that we have to have sustainability. And the environmentalists got really angry because they felt that the term was co-opted, subverted. So that's an illustration. As you know, technology never says "no, we're not going to do that". Rather technology always says "ok, what's the problem? We'll solve it". So the tendency unfortunately is that technology will co-opt the forces of reform and renewal. That's a good thing. We'll be better off if the Device Paradigm serves or aids in reducing or stopping (eventually) global warming than not.

JL: But it doesn't mean that we won't do the same thing with some other planet that doesn't have the same problems. What I'm hearing is that it's always in response to a problem that can be defined rather than proactively thinking about forestalling a problem in the first place.

AB: Well, who knows what's going to happen. There are three scenarios. The worst is we'll just continue like this. And leave your and my distant offspring a terrible, terrible planet. That's the worst. The second best and second worst is that people will continue the way they live except they will use little electric cars instead of SUVs, but they'll still be riding around, isolated…

JL: We'll increase efficiency so we'll have the same lifestyle with less cost.

AB: Exactly. That's the second worst and the second best. If that happens, even a person I greatly admire like Barack Obama, that's sort of the way he sees it. Fine. Great. It's a lot better than the worst. But the best would be that people would say, we have to do two things. One, save the planet, and also lead a better life.

JL: To have a sort of spiritual, cultural revolution.

AB: Right. And my hope is that that will happen. And of course it doesn't have to be one or the other.

JL: So ultimately, going back to our entree into this rabbit trail, you were saying you were maybe a little bit too optimistic that we were going to be following that best option, and now you're wondering if maybe that's not as realistic?

AB: Well, I advocate for it, I hope for it, and devoutly wish it's going to happen that way. But as you remember there's one thing I called the "unwarranted optimism of the pessimists". Things might have to get so bad that people have to be good. Technological structures might have to collapse. And I don't think that's going to happen. So we can't predict, with a sort of satisfaction, that "people will come to us".

JL: We can't be self-righteous that everything will come crashing down and that people will see, because as you put it the Paradigm is pretty resilient, pretty strong. It seems to have the resources within itself to cope with these kind of inner stability problems.

The Explosion of the Internet

JL: OK, let's move on. Something that I think a lot about: the most obvious (to me) since the time you wrote is the explosion of the Internet, online culture. More and more our entire lives are being orchestrated using the Internet as a medium for that. So how would you extend the arguments you made in your book to apply to the Internet? Or more generally I'm interested to hear you comment on this successor to the microelectronic revolution that you talk a little bit about.

AB: Well, I think it's the intensification of the Device Paradigm. So the machinery has become totally impenetrable. The Volkswagen disaster is an example.

JL: I haven't heard about that. What happened?

AB: VW put software into their diesel cars that senses when it's being tested, and then kicks in the pollution control. But as soon as the sensor tells it you're on the road again, it's turned off! And they spew 40 times the amount of nitrous oxide. It took people 6 years to nail it, because there are proprietary barriers, and just the sophistication of the software and the way it's concealed in a chip. The opacity of the world is just tremendous. The kind of disburdenment is also tremendous. The Internet of Things is an important step because you're using ICT, but here's Jonathan, here's the ICT, and you know you're using it. But in the Internet of Things, you know, the Internet of Things would have known that you guys liked coffee, so my house, being smart, would have known that. And my house would have somehow found out that you're going to be here at 3, so it would have made coffee, and so all the little interchanges we had about how to grind it, and all that, would be gone! And for all I know it would have put the dogs in the kennel. The disburdenment is becoming so radical as to be ludicrous! You can only marvel at the force of the Device Paradigm. It just continues and continues. It looks around for the last things that can be commodified!

JL: I know! I have this question later but talking about Internet of Things… I live in a town where people are working in the Internet of Things and every day a new startup is created. It seems like an effort to proactively turn everything into a device pre-emptively. We don't even have this burden yet, we don't even know that it's burdensome, but let's go out there and pre-emptively relieve that burden before people even realize it's a burden!

AB: Right. That was Steve Jobs's genius. He had a sense of that.

JL: Before people knew what they wanted to be freed from, yeah.

The Acceleration of the Device Paradigm

JL: So yeah, thanks for that response. One other thing that struck me as you were talking about the opacity going to infinity. Also the configurability of the surfaces can be achieved nearly instantaneously. With the devices that you considered in your book, things like TVs and what not, they at least take some effort to manufacture the next generation of. But with the Internet, with a site like Facebook, it will push a new version of itself hundreds of times a day. So it's almost like this evolution that you pointed out of things becoming less burdensome, more "pure surface", less "inner workings"… It's a continual thing now because the cost to change it, with everything being software, is so low. So it feels like we've reached some point where, since we've sold the entire workings of our lives to software, it's very easy for the Device Paradigm to go as fast as it wants. Do you see that kind of thing happening?

AB: Absolutely. One thing I also see is that there is a need to articulate it in a new way… essentially the Device Paradigm 2.0. This sort of gradual, step-by-step, invisible change. The whole way that the Internet informs the way that we see the world. It's crucial that somebody articulates this and then you'd have to hope that would become part of the common discourse. Apple has come out with the iPhone 6 or whatever. The reports are invariably supportive, and if they're critical, they're not critical of the idea of an iPhone.

JL: It's just the things that aren't working quite perfectly yet.

AB: Yes. In a lot of other reporting, the economy say, the military, policies and so on, there is sort of the addition that says, "critics, however say…". That never comes!

JL: No one is a critic of technology.

AB: The critics are the columnists who sort of ruefully report on how they suffer and lose things, or aren't feeling well. It gets this sort of sporadic and anecdotal attention, but it does not have a firm place in the culture.

JL: It's a kind of rearguard action.

AB: Yes. There's a need there, and philosophers, of course, are missing in action. The philosophy of technology now is sort of veering towards analytic philosophy so it's always this intramural discussion. Little things.

JL: Yes, that was my experience of going to the Society of Philosophy of Technology conference.

Continued in Part 2