Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 13, “Technology and the Social Order”

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.

This chapter is the first of four on the relationship of technology to social and political issues. Borgmann is trying to argue that we should conceive of and judge society and politics in the light of technology, and that it is in social life or politics that the device paradigm must finally be discussed, since these areas of life are those that receive the most attention. Unfortunately, the fundamental modus operandi of technology is not yet recognized in this sphere.

What is recognized is what we might call the problem of orientation, in other words the widespread feelings of disorientation, ungroundedness, and directionlessness prevalent in modern society. Technology has rendered all points in space and time equal (determined by consumptive intent and consumptive potentiality). This itself flows from the abstract, objective viewpoint of modern science—science might be able to describe all the places and events with which we interface, but it cannot tell us which is “home”; it cannot locate meaning for us in a privileged place or time. Of course, this is not a critique of science in general. Rather, it is technology as a social strategy which redraws human experience in this world with no guideposts.

The way people address this widely-recognized if poorly-understood malaise is often to, in Borgmann’s terms, “raise the value question”. In other words, it is thought that what is needed to reorient our society is a clarification and perhaps reprioritization of “values”. According to Borgmann, however, (and laying aside the issue of the multiplicity of values), this strategy is futile in unmasking the device paradigm and showing it for what it is. The problem is that, very often, our discussion of values presupposes the means/ends distinction which is operative as a result of the technological paradigm; from this assumption, technology itself will never be able to be brought into clear relief (as we saw in earlier chapters). In modern education, the ends are what are seen as stable, and the means as radically interchangeable. Thus we have undergone a shift from education as passing down customs or “ways of doing things” to teaching goal-formulation and practical reason, with the result that tools and practices become mere means rather than vessels of orientation, used in a web of pre-existing meaning.

Ultimately, in this environment, the values we most want to bring to the fore will forever be impossible to formulate. When commoditization potential becomes the measure of whether the means are leading to the ends, the non-quantifiable “values” will start to dematerialize. As Borgmann puts it, we can measure the number of Big Macs sold, or the number of times a family eats out. But how are we to measure the value of a family meal, prepared with care and celebrated with conversation? So-called “focal things”, which we encountered earlier as those things which are a source of full-facultied human engagement, cannot be argued for in the “values” conversation, when it continues to presuppose the paradigm of technology.

In this chapter, Borgmann also considers a Marxist critique of modern society, to see whether it fares any better in bringing to light the working of the device paradigm. Ultimately, he disregards the critique as too shallow. On the Marxist story, there is always a definite class with undue power, influence, and wealth. What is really necessary is to divest this class of their privilege and distribute their benefits more equally. (There are of course totally capitalist versions of this thesis, and Borgmann goes into some interesting detail on how this a big part of the social theory underlying much of the latent political understanding in the US.) The problem here is not just that it is questionable whether there is really a definite class who can be thus Robin-Hooded. It is that technology and the device paradigm can be used quite happily towards this goal of “equality”, all the while continuing the trend of commoditization and disengagement. As long as technology operates in a free and equal manner, the Marxist has no more to say about it; and of course, this disburdenment and equality is part and parcel of the very promise of technology.

So, it appears we need more tools or insight to bring an actual discussion of technology into the political and social arena. We begin this task in the next chapter by looking at the concept of “liberal democracy” (the kind of social theory Borgmann claims is actually operative in the US political system).

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 12, “Paradigmatic Explanation”

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.

One of the foundational aims of Borgmann’s whole book is the attempt to actually give an explanation for technology. Hence we discussed what counts as an explanation in the scientific realm in earlier chapters. In this middle section of the book, Borgmann is concerned to substantiate the notion of the Device Paradigm, not just as a feature of technology but as a way of explaining technology and everything that goes along with it.

This chapter is therefore about “paradigmatic explanation”—we have this “device paradigm”, but what does it mean for this concept to be an explanation of technology? Borgmann begins by summarizing one type of explanation: “apodeictic” explanation, or the kind used in science. And of course, it is the physical sciences which in our society provide the standard for explanation. But science, Borgmann argues, fails to provide a theory, “in the sense of a steady and arresting view of our world” (69). Scientific laws may tell us what is possible, but they do not tell us what is relevant. There is, in other words, an overabundance of “givenness”, of things we could pay attention to or bring into focus or care about. Science itself does not and cannot set that vision for us.

The same kind of explanations are sought in the social sciences as in the physical sciences. Borgmann shows a set of pairs that typify this distinction:

is ought
fact value
theoretical practical
analysis advocacy
empirical normative

Scientific, apodeictic, subsumptive modes of explanation focus on the first column. But there must then be other kinds of explanation that focus on the second column or the whole picture. Borgmann therefore introduces the concept of “deictic” explanation, which answers the question “What is significant?” rather than the question “What is?” But is there yet a third possibility? Borgmann believes there is: paradigmatic explanation.

Borgmann defines paradigmatic explanation as “explanation by elucidation of a predominant pattern”, and says that, compared to apodeictic and deictic modes, this would be considered “paradeictic” or “quasi-deictic”, since it does not shy away from looking at patterns that bleed into the second column above, patterns that are used as a guide to sort out the world. Combined with the concept of a paradigm, we are talking of using concrete examples of patterns to prove the existence of a larger, overriding pattern.

So the Device Paradigm, as paradigmatic explanation, is designed to bring into relief the force that “more and more detaches us from the persons, things, and practices that used to engage and grace us in their own right” (76). From a historical perspective, this is the story of life being seen as toil, poverty, and suffering, and technology entering the scene as natural science promising to transform our experience and liberate us. The deep irony is then that disburdenment becomes disengagement.

So what examples can we use as paradigms to bring to light the pattern above? Well, we have already considered many of them. A fireplace becomes a central heating system. A wagon becomes an automobile. A meal becomes a TV dinner. The pattern here is of Things (objects which have depth as a result of being part of the web of human significance) becoming Commodities (wherein the main benefit they provide is stripped from the thing itself and made available).

When we build up from these paradigm cases, Borgmann claims, and if we are at all concerned about the disengagement characteristic of modern life, then the Device Paradigm provides an extremely clear explanation for how technology serves as an “implicit guiding pattern for the transformation of this world”.

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.

Election Night

A poem I wrote after watching the election coverage last night. There was a lot of happiness and heartbreak for two political parties. But who are the real winners and losers in this hyped-up sporting event for “the greatest country on Earth”? Who stands outside the door while we spend billions lionizing/demonizing politicians?

Bring me your tired and your poor
    But not too close.
Stand just there and watch
The winds of freedom dance
    Through our summer party

Our honored guests arrive on time
    One lion, one demon
Which will we choose this year?
Let's play the fool's charade
    As if it mattered

For edging down the knife of time
    Is hard enough sober
And lions and demons exchange
Their masks so rapidly
    Who dares even try?

Now the winds stir the leaves
    The debt of freedom
A hint of invisible winter
But the show must go on!
    Shut eyes, dance faster

Laughter turns to drunk dismay
    Freedom's angry flood
The pitiless pitied above all
Drink and life sunk below memory
    The outcasts looking on.
    But not too close.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 10, “The Foreground 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 explores what he calls the Foreground of technology. This is essentially the world of the use (i.e., consumption) of technological devices, rather than the world of their construction or operation. As we are all aware, technology results in a large set of commodities, and the “Foreground” is the world of their consumption. The Foreground is invoked, Borgmann says, when conversation turns to the topics of “leisure, consumption, or the standard of living” (48).

The Device Paradigm is key to understanding the Foreground, since it explicitly describes the delineation between Foreground and Background through the distinction between a piece of technological machinery and the commodity that machinery is designed to produce. Interestingly, it is not just in “machines” that we see this pattern operating, but also in nature, culture, and other areas of human life. Wine, for example, has been slowly converted to a device, according to the definition of a device under the Device Paradigm. Rather than being something which is an unanalyzable whole, inseparable from its physical and cultural context, we now think of wine dualistically. One on hand it is the collection of chemicals which constitute its physical structure. On the other hand, it is a collection of color, odor, viscosity, and taste properties. What Borgmann claims is that because of the technological advances in winemaking, we are free to focus on one (the commodity, or foreground, of wine-stimuli) as consumers, while ignoring the other (the particular physical characteristics of the wine, which can be tweaked just so in order to provide the desired commodity). It used to be the case that a particular wine would “open up” a world—the world of its soil, its country, its experiences, etc…—but when features of wine are free to vary independent of context, that world is no longer opened up. We are experiencing the mere commodity, at that point, of a technological device.

Borgmann points out that this state of affairs is not a result of modern science. As noted in a previous chapter, science renders physical phenomena clear and more knowable, but it does not by itself provide a pattern for action. The pattern which is responsible for the shift in our approach to wine is a result instead of the Device Paradigm. Of course, science is necessary for all of this to take place, but it is not the root cause of it. Borgmann sees the new situation with wine as an example of a general trend, that from a taste for ‘things’ to a taste for ‘commodities’. We are, essentially, focusing on the pleasing surface elements of things while disregarding everything else, which paves the way for those things to be replaced by devices.

Another clear example is that of frozen meals—they are essentially aggregates of commodities, not things connected to specific places, people, seasons, times, and experiences, the way meals unavoidably were in pre-technological settings. Interestingly, they are presented to us as though they were connected in this way, which brings up a major aspect of the Foreground of technology, namely advertisement. It is such a part of our age that Daniel Boorsin has called it “the characteristic rhetoric of democracy” (52). Borgmann is careful to say that our consumer culture isn’t the effect of advertising, but the other way around: advertising is necessary for a consumer culture, and that in turn is simply the outworking of the promise of technology (i.e., consumption is the natural mode in an abundance of commodities). Borgmann quotes several authors who discuss precisely what advertising is, making interesting points along the way about the nature of commodities. Borgmann himself wants to be clear that what makes something a commodity is not a psychological fact (i.e., how a certain person approaches something like a TV dinner), but rather an ontological fact (i.e., the product’s construction and structure, or how it conforms to the Device Paradigm).

Advertising is then a classically Foreground activity, since it is designed to make us aware of the commodious aspects of devices. It does use traditional modes of engagement as a kind of fuel, in order for the surface aspects of the commodity to connect with our desires or, commonly, nostalgia. Thus the pictures on the boxes of TV dinners show the meal presented in a traditional context, on a table, surrounded by fine dining implements or fresh vegetables, even though the actual product is completely dissimilar to that picture. Borgmann asks the question of how tenuous these links can become before the fuel of tradition is exhausted. It’s a question not so much of similarity or dissimilarity but of how much we end up caring about things vs commodities. Another way to look at the question is to ask whether a completely simulated experience which differs in no way from the “real” equivalent is any less desirable than the real thing. Increasingly, the attitude in our culture is that there is no difference. As Borgmann says on p. 56:

What is philosophically remarkable and evident even now is that there is a widespread and easy acceptance of equivalence between commodities and things even where the experiential differences are palpable. People who have traveled through Glacier Park in an air-conditioned motor home, listening to soft background music and having a cup of coffee, would probably answer affirmatively and without qualification when asked if they knew the park, had been in the park, or had been through the park. Such people have not felt the wind of the mountains, have not smelled the pines, have not heard the red-tailed hawk, have not sensed the slopes in their legs and lungs, have not experienced the cycle of day and night in the wilderness. The experience has not been richer than one gained from a well-made film viewed in suburban Chicago.

If the ends are all that matter, and if the ends result in equivalent mental states, then it will indeed be increasingly difficult to find any reason to have a “real” experience over a commoditized or simulated one. There are, Borgmann points out, counter-movements, among which he lists “voluntary simplicity”, “arts & crafts”, and, interestingly, “running” (which, when he wrote in 1984, was much less of a cultural fad than it is today!). Almost 30 years after he wrote, I think we can see even more clearly the distinction between these two types of movements, along with various interesting ways people have tried to combine them (e.g., the fascination with ‘local’ foods and products, but the simultaneous application of industrial, technological viewpoints to their growth and adoption via social media or other means).

In the next chapter, we’ll take a step closer to the Background of technology and examine devices and machines more philosophically.

Summer of Rock 2012

Summer-of-Rock-2012In 2006, I started a tradition with myself of making a summer of music compilation for my friends, called Summer of Rock. Every year for four years I collected my favorite, most sunny, most rocking new songs, and mixed them with a good dose of love into these compilations. The last few years, life was crazy, and the task of finding new music too daunting, to continue the tradition. I’m happy to say that this period of drought has ended, and I’m excited to offer for your listening pleasure Summer of Rock 2012.

It wasn’t easy to create this year’s compilation. Pressure to find really awesome music has built up over the last few years, and I felt I had to make sure each song deserved a spot in your summer mix. Moreover, my desire to not repeat artists from previous editions of the compilation kept some obviously awesome tracks out of the running. So much of my new music is from artists I already know and love, it was difficult to leave all of this out of the record. Then there are the other emotional and philsophical problems any music compiler must face. What is the theme of this compilation? (Well, “Summer”, obviously…). If it’s called Summer of “Rock”, can I include “pop” music? I was a bit distressed to find that, in fact, this album might more accurately be called “Summer of Indie Pop”. I’m not wild about such a title, however, and in keeping with the hipster spirit of Indie Pop, we could pretend to use the word “Rock” with a healthy dose of irony. That being said, I think there are enough moments of rock here to get your head banging a little bit. Anyway, let’s keep in mind the main point: awesome music to go along with your summer memories and to make road trips more exciting.

All of the foregoing duly noted, waste no time in getting the album:

Download Summer of Rock 2012 (or, if you prefer Spotify, check out the playlist).

To listen, just drag the unzipped folder into iTunes, and it will add it as a compilation to your library.

The track listing for this summer’s mix, which I had great pleasure in arranging, is as follows:

  1. “Diversity”, by Family Of The Year (from Loma Vista)
  2. “Little Talks”, by Of Monsters and Men (from My Head Is an Animal)
  3. “We Are The Tide”, by Blind Pilot (from We Are The Tide)
  4. “Deer In The Headlights”, by Owl City (from All Things Bright And Beautiful)
  5. “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.”, by Noah and the Whale (from Last Night on Earth)
  6. “Here We Are”, by Patrick Park (from Everyone’s in Everyone)
  7. “All Arise!”, by The Decemberists (from The King Is Dead)
  8. “Face It”, by Old Canes (from Early Morning Hymns)
  9. “Don’t Try and Hide It”, by The Dodos (from No Color)
  10. “Santa Fe”, by Beirut (from The Rip Tide)
  11. “Down In The Valley”, by The Head And The Heart (from The Head And The Heart)
  12. “Evelyn”, by Gregory Alan Isakov (from This Empty Northern Hemisphere)
  13. “Ho Hey”, by The Lumineers (from The Lumineers)
  14. “Some Nights”, by Fun. (from Some Nights)
  15. “On Top Of The World”, by Imagine Dragons (from Continued Silence EP)
  16. “We Went Wild”, by Lord Huron (from Into The Sun EP)
  17. “Bury Us Alive”, by Starfucker (from Reptilians)
  18. “Naked Kids”, by Grouplove (from Never Trust A Happy Song)
  19. “Stuck (Inside My Head)”, by The Graduate (from Only Every Time)
  20. “A Pound of Flesh”, by Radical Face (from The Family Tree: The Roots)
  21. “Anna Sun”, by Walk the Moon (from Walk The Moon)
  22. “Voyager Reprise”, by Surfer Blood (from Tarot Classics)

Is this your first exposure to Summer of Rock? Feel free to download the last installment as well: Summer of Rock 2009.

Legal notice: these songs are provided for you to listen to as a trial only—if you find yourself liking the music, please go out and buy these albums, either directly from the artist or through your favorite music store. Happy listening, and happy Summer!

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 9, “The Device Paradigm”

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.

With chapter 9 we come to one of the most important chapters of TCCL. In it Borgmann elucidates the Device Paradigm, which is his way of explaining technology by reference to paradigmatic examples of it. The idea is that through a careful analysis of several obvious examples of technological devices, discussed in contrast to the pretechnological situation, we will begin to see the pattern which heretofore was invisible, hidden as it was behind the veil of being taken for granted.

As we have seen, Borgmann claims technology seeks to provide liberation and enrichment, i.e., to make these qualities available. Availability is therefore a big part of technology. Technological availability has four essential qualities (which Borgmann explores via the contrast between a central heating system and a wood-burning stove). For something to be technologically available, according to Borgmann, it must be:

  1. Instantaneous: The fire in a stove is not instantaneous because wood is not instantly available in burnable form. It comes in the form of trees which must be chopped down, cut up, etc… On the other hand, a central heating system procures heat instantaneously, with the sliding of a switch or dial.
  2. Ubiquitous: A wood fire is not ubiquitous because it does not heat a given area evenly; a stove typically only heated one room of the house. A modern heating system, however, pumps heat wherever it is needed without any extra effort.
  3. Safe: Wood fires are not safe, since one might be injured while cutting wood, or burned by flames, or the house itself might burn down. Central heating systems are much more safe and reliable.
  4. Easy: All the work required to produce and maintain a stove fire clearly rules out its being easy. The central heating system, on the other hand, requires no work at all on the part of beneficiary of the heat.

These contrasts help to sharpen the outline of an important distinction: the distinction between things and devices. Let’s first understand the concept of ‘thing’. A ‘thing’ is inseparable from its context. Its world is therefore inseparable from our engagement with it, and this engagement is always a bodily and social one. Because of this inherent embeddedness, things always provide more than one commodity. Take the example of the wood-burning stove—it furnishes much more than mere warmth. It is first of all a focus for people, a center for activity. Its status reflects the stage of the day (from embers to flames and back again). It assigns to different family members different tasks (gathering sticks, chopping wood, stoking the fire, etc…). It provides bodily engagement through forcing one to go outside, to interact physically with trees and wood, and so on. It requires exertion and the learning and passing on of skills. Larger social contexts are sustained by and focused in things (meals, celebrations of major life events, etc…). As Borgmann says:

Physical engagement is not simply physical contact but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body. That sensibility is sharpened and strengthened in skill. Skill is intensive and refined world-engagement. Skill, in turn, is bound up with social engagement—it molds the person and gives the person character (42).

A ‘device’, by contrast, procures a good without the world of relationships we just saw exists with ‘things’. “A device such as a central heating plant procures mere warmth and disburdens us of all other elements. These are taken over by the machinery of the device. The machinery makes no demands on our skill, strength, or attention…” (42). Devices therefore have a tendency to shrink or background themselves to the point of becoming invisible, since all that matters is the commodity they are procuring, and the less a device burdens us, even visually, with the machinery that does the procuring, the better. The only physical properties which are important are therefore those which relate to the specific function of the device. (Borgmann defines a ‘commodity’ informally as “what the device is there for”, i.e., warmth in the case of a heating system, music in the case of a stereo, a meal in the case of a microwave dinner, etc…)

It follows from all this that any device can have many functional equivalents, since a device is defined functionally in relation to the commodity it procures. Take the example of a TV: old, bulky sets were eventually reduced to picture-only flat-screens. The commodity (i.e., the moving picture) was maximized and the machinery minimized. There have also been vast improvements in availability (in terms of time, place, and variety of content): first video cassettes, then cable, then DVR technology, and finally Netflix-style programming, available instantly from any connected device. The point is that this radical division between means and ends is one of the hallmarks of a device. In practice, the ends (e.g., warmth, or a moving picture) are stable, whereas the means are free to vary in any way that improves delivery of the commodity. Borgmann points out that this encourages a concealment (or backgrounding) of the means (which to the consumer are irrelevant and burdensome) and a prominence (or foregrounding) of the ends. “A commodity is truly available when it can be enjoyed as a mere end, unencumbered by means” (44).

Much of Chapter 9 is devoted to a case study, from the turn of the 20th century. The data comes from English wheelwright George Sturt, who wrote with surprising clarity of the changes underfoot as a result of industrialization. One of his most captivating passages is on the changing relationship of the craftsperson to nature. His was a philosophy of cultivating, adapting to land, in contrast to the more destructive industrial methodology. Wheelwrights, Sturt says, had a “relationship not of domination but of mastery” (44), echoing Borgmann’s statements about skill and engagement, and presaging an all-too real future where domination became the norm. Unfortunately, it would be too much for this entry to dive into those interesting passages more fully!

Back to Borgmann’s claim: it is that, given the clear distinctions we have been able to draw between things and devices, devices “dissolve the coherent and engaging character of the pre-technological world of things” (47). In other words, in the pre-technological world, commodities were never procured without some kind of engagement. Devices blast through this bond and deliver commodities with fewer and fewer modes of engagement with anything other than the ends (commodities) themselves. Borgmann considers two objections to this claim.

The first objection is that the ‘concealment of machinery’ we see with devices is really due to ignorance on the part of the consumer, or maybe technological illiteracy, and not to the character of the device itself. In fact, Borgmann says, many technological devices are made specifically so that they cannot be engaged with by their consumers, either in the case of discardable products (made to be thrown away), carefree products (such as plastic or stainless steel, made so that no harm can come to them), or in the case of highly complicated devices like computers, where their precise realizations are too complicated and/or in flux to be known by very many people.

The second objection is that, wait a second, people are actually engaged with the machinery of devices, and not just their ends, aren’t they?. Don’t people drive cars? Don’t they use computers to install software? Don’t they program remote controllers? Borgmann’s response is that these are not examples of engagement in a skillful, bodily, or social way. Programming a remote control is an entirely cerebral excercise: it admits of no skill, care, or bodily engagement.* It is furthermore anonymous, in that it does not disclose anything about its creator (or manufacturer) or reveal an orientation in nature, the way that a hand-carved chair reveals something both about the craftsperson who made it and about nature, through the specific qualities of the wood and its form.

Borgmann claims that, while everyone in a technological society understands that the means are important, they can and do spend their time enjoying the ends quite independently of them. And here Borgmann sees a tight connection with a modern understanding of labor and leisure, where labor is equated with the machinery or means of the good life, and leisure is seen as the ends which are to be enjoyed and which define that good life. But for a discussion of society, labor, and the good life, we will have to wait for the second half of Part Two!

*My own personal view is that some technological pursuits, like certain kinds of computer programming, do allow skillful engagement in a deep way, even though they are entirely cerebral (being perhaps analogous to writing stories).

Observations of the Customs of a Certain Temple on a Certain Feast Day

I rise. It is a feast day, a holy day. I blink sleep away and begin to prepare a special savory treat to commemorate the end of the traditional annual fast. Outside the window I see a man walk by, his body making jerky lunges in random directions, seemingly at war with specters. His mind is shackled by some demon or other, and awareness of his prison lessens the savoriness of my treat slightly.

My wife and I have been invited to a temple where this holy day is celebrated, the day which proclaims that death is only a hiccup of our existence. We walk to the temple amidst a sleeping city which has not altered its pattern for the sake of today’s holiness. Closer to the temple, we observe disciples in expensive clothing (a tradition I do not understand) making their way to the entrance, where we are all greeted by smiling acolytes who hand us papers on which are inscribed the details of today’s ceremony. Inside is a joyous throng of worshippers, eating more savory treats, drinking a bitter, black tea, and greeting their friends. The fine clothing is impressive, but more so the beautiful faces and radiant smiles of the crowd. In stark contrast with the streets outside the temple, there are no demons to be seen here, just the medley of colorful garments and the exuberance of the end of the fast.

The ceremony begins and we hurry to find our place in the giant indoor amphitheater. Hundreds, if not thousands, have come to celebrate this holy day, and all faces are now focused on one priest on a central stage (he is dressed like a successful merchant). He lifts his hands and calls upon the divine presence, then cedes the stage to a differently-accoutred priest holding an instrument like a lute. This second priest leads various musicians as well as the gathered audience in songs written for this annual feast. But for the words which are sung and the clothing of the audience, I would struggle to know whether I am in a temple or a house of music where the traveling bards play less holy music upon a similar stage.

Soon, a third priest (the high priest of this temple, also dressed like a merchant) takes the stage in order to deliver a speech, after the fashion of this temple and others like it. The speech reminds me of the debates of the University, if they (in foolishness) had only one participant, and if others present were mute. The audience listens in silence, and thus it is difficult for me to discern whether the priest’s speech is being met with agreement or not (as this seems to be the point of it). I see that his heart is pure in his belief, but true to his choice of clothing he wields logic like a merchant. In his effort to convince those of the throng who do not yet belong to the temple to adopt its hopes, he makes several points, and I wonder if anyone has chosen to change his mind as a result.

My own mind wanders to the story which this day celebrates, about the man who died and then was raised by divine power back to life. The high priest in his speech reminded us that the news of that man’s new life was couriered by women (in a society where they were considered insignificant). I ponder the honor given to these women in the story as my wife shares in whisper an irony: the cadre of priests at this temple consists entirely of men! So much for women bearing good news.

I am brought back to the ceremony as the cadence of the high priest’s lecture signifies that he is about to finish. The next ritual is one with which I am familiar, though at this temple it is also rife with irony. Led by yet one more priest, it re-enacts another part of the story of the resurrected man, where, at dinner with his friends, he uses bread and wine to prophesy his death. Owing to the size of the crowd, the re-enactment looks more like a display of martial discipline than a meal. Small wafers and tiny cups of sweet wine are delivered with impressive efficiency, and the worshippers swallow the bland morsels as the musicians play music designed to inspire contemplation. Truly, the music is more reminiscent of the intimacy of that first meal than the small food bits which are intended to symbolize it.

For my reflection, I contemplate death. I contemplate my fear of it and search for that seed within my belly that says death will not be the end of me. I contemplate the story of the man who was raised from the dead, and wonder at its place in history and what it means if it really happened. I contemplate the beauty of the gathered worshippers contrasted with the ugliness of the streets outside. I contemplate a world that doesn’t know what to do with death (physical or psychological), and so inflicts it on others, runs from it, or denies its reality altogether through a steadfast focus on present pleasure. This contemplation submerges me into the deep pool of longing which has always existed in the center of my being, and I am moved in wordless ways.

The amphitheater emerges back into view as the high priest returns to the stage to intone a farewell benediction, accompanied by more music. He then directs those in the audience who are parents to collect their children from a holding area. I realize for the first time that, despite the varied ages of the disciples, no children were present during the ceremony. I can only imagine that they were sequestered so as not to be bothersome, or perhaps because children are thought not to be able to understand the high priest’s lecture.

After the ceremony, we make our way to the temple doors, passing clumps of worshippers (organized by some social principle or other) discussing various topics unrelated to the rituals of the temple. Back on the streets of the city, the people we pass seem to be going about their business in ignorance of the day’s holiness, particularly those who, being deformed and unable to work, beg for money. Without further event (save for seeing several citizens wearing masks with the ears of a hare, presumably about to act in a comedy) we arrived home and began to prepare the traditional feast: a combination of morning and mid-day foods.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 8, “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.

This chapter begins Part 2 (The Character of Technology), the first half of which (chs 8-12) aims to describe and articulate the paradigm of technology, and the second half of which (chs 13-16) aims to ask how we have come to terms with technology politically and socially. The thesis which Borgmann will be following throughout is that technology, as the characteristic way we engage with the world, is guided by a basic pattern. This pattern, however, like many deeply ingrained patterns, can be impossible to see. This is essentially the observation that the features of our worldviews which are fundamental (in the “background”, so to speak) are themselves not open to our introspection without some serious effort.

That effort for Borgmann is put to use in returning to the first articulations of technology. They go back to the founding event of modernity: the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was the original modern liberation movement, and thus technology (as a liberating force) is usually seen as a corollary of it; Borgmann claims, to the contrary, that technology is a primary current in that stream. Descartes, for example, calls out technology as an obvious tool of intellectual liberation, describing its potential for self-determination (making us “masters and possessors of nature”), for freedom from labor, and for freedom to enjoy one’s faculties.

The proper grounding of this vision was not seen until the middle of the 19th century, however. Before that, machines and efficiency multiplied, but with a corresponding degree of toil and misery. Eventually, industrialized nations saw the fruits of the new technological order, and strong arguments indeed can be made for the disburdening character of technology (disburdening us from disease, hard manual labor, etc…).

This promise of technology (of self-determination and freedom) is reiterated constantly in all kinds of social and political rhetoric. The implication is that the mature technology of an advanced industrial society is continuous with the liberating technology which, for example, helped more and more people survive and do business in North American winters. Borgmann doesn’t take this for granted, and offers modern advertising as an example of the macabre and seemingly trivial ends to which technology is now put. Marketers selling us “world-class cuisine” without leaving home (through the use of the microwave) seems somehow hollow when put next to vaccinations of serious diseases.

So, we can ask several questions about the promise of technology. Can technology be successful in delivering this promise, even on its own terms? Will it impose new burdens to replace the old (a pernicious irony which can be seen quite clearly in the traffic jam, for example). Can it fulfill its promise in a just way, without merely sweeping toil under the rug of the developing nations? And finally, is the promise well-conceived and worth keeping to begin with?

The promise presents the character of technology in broad outline. It is essentially “the general procurement of liberty and propserity in the principled and effective manner that is derived from modern science” (39). But is this outline too broad? Does it allow for technology to descend into meaningless “improvements”? As Borgmann says, “Initial genuine feats of liberation appear to be continuous with the procurement of frivolous comfort” (39). If this is the case, it is perhaps worrying.

At any rate, Borgmann agrees that we could spend much fruitful time looking at the history of the promise of technology (through e.g. Heidegger), but in this book we’ll be moving on to the contemporary analysis. This will begin in earnest with the next chapter, “The Device Paradigm”, which is one of the central chapters of the book. Until then…

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 7, “Science and 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.

At this point in our exploration of the relationship between modern science and technology, what can we say with confidence? First, that modern science shows us that the world exists in a large matrix of possible states of affairs. The space of these possibilities is defined by the world’s initial conditions: given some physical state of affairs in the past, our world is one of its possible subsequent states. Technology can then be seen to “[reflect] a determination to act transformatively on these possibilities” (27). In other words, science tells us what’s physically possible and through technology we decide to act on them in order to change the world. In these roles, both science and technology share a problem: there is no principled way, using only their own resources, to decide what to explain or what to transform.

To illustrate this, we can return to our example of winemaking. Modern science makes the process of fermentation more and more perspicuous, more clear to our understanding. With that clarity we can see which parts of winemaking are laborious, which chemicals lead to bad taste, and even how harmful byproducts might be introduced. This knowledge opens the door to a technological intervention—we might, for example, choose to use tools which speed up the fermentation process or which reduce harmful byproducts. But where should we draw the line in modifying the traditional process? At what point does technologically optimized wine stop becoming wine?

Borgmann says that the general public, though it has limited understanding of science and of the details of technological transformation, intuitively grasps at least what we have been saying so far: science illuminates possibilities of dealing with the world, and through technology we make them actual. But some people go further and argue that modern science in its explanatory slide has actually ushered in a new worldview. Those who agree with this claim differ in whether it’s a good or bad thing, but Borgmann wants to call the premise into question. There are three arguments he sees for this thesis that science itself has ushered in a new worldview:

  1. Science was in historical fact a liberating event (from superstition to true understanding, etc…), therefore it has delivered a new and concrete way of engaging with the world.
  2. Scientists are held to unparalleled standards of correctness and achievement, therefore what is active is a new worldview.
  3. The chaos in our world comes from a failure to follow scientific ideals through completely, therefore science must embody a distinct worldview.

Of the three arguments, he only considers the first (which he considers to be the strongest) in detail. It is true that as scientific theories advance, real and well-documented clashes occur. When these clashes are against the powers of the day, the clash is seen as a revolution and science is typically on the side of liberation. But, as Borgmann points out, science in this role is always a liberation from, not a liberation for. What he means is that by casting sufficient doubt on established ideas, science can provide incentive to revolt, but it can never produce a substantive framework of its own, out of its own resources.

Here Borgmann draws upon the idea of deictic resources (world-articulation, rather than world-explanation): “Withdrawal of scientific endorsement forces a worldview back to its deictic resources” (29). If that worldview has no deictic resources, it may very well perish (as we have seen with alchemy). But strongly deictic disciplines such as poetry and art do not, predictably, disappear with the advance of science, since they are not in the business of world-explanation. For this reason Borgmann declares the scuffle between science and theology to be pointless—science is not satisfyingly deictic enough to warrant the discarding of theology, which can provide concrete orientation for our lives.

The main point is that science as a sociological phenomenon cannot guide us from within its own center (i.e., its laws and theories), but must lean upon external resources for leadership. That doesn’t mean, however, that science cannot rise in power without those guiding resources. And this approach, like a car with the driver asleep at the wheel, can have disastrous consequences. We might engage technology as the inevitable outgrowth of a science that sees reality as an infinite manifold of pure, moldable substance, begging us to transform it. Borgmann is not quite so pessimistic, however, and reminds us that it is possible to distinguish the scientific method (i.e., the heart of science’s laws and theories) from the worldview just expressed. This enables us to separate science from technology and find a place for science without viewing technology as necessarily having the same privileged status (a status which flows from true explanation). Science is a necessary precursor to a technological age, but it is not a sufficient condition for it.

How then can we explicate technology if not as a necessary consequence of science? Borgmann believes we need to begin by looking at the fundamental pattern of technology. We will do that when we transition to Part 2, which begins with the next chapter, “The Promise of Technology”.