Interviewing Borgmann, Part 4

Author’s Note: This is the last 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!

On-demand apps and the sharing economy

JL: We've already talked about the Internet of Things, so I think I'll skip that question. There's this other hot area in technology, which is the rise of on-demand goods and services applications where anything that we want, whether a good or a service, is wrapped up into an app designed to get us that thing as instantly and reliably as possible. You might have heard of Instacart or Uber or all these apps which are replacing the traditional mechanisms for procuring things, in a way which makes them more available. It's the Device Paradigm. But to me it's interesting that it's being splintered into each good or commodity having its own app or service. It's this kind of very clear picture of the fragmentation that you were talking about in your book. People love these apps; people whose lives are busy, for whom going grocery shopping is a chore that takes them away from quality time with their family or the little time that they have after work, or an app that can get a maid to your house in 10 minutes to clean and you never have to see them and it just charges your credit card and it's just so convenient and it frees you up. There's this disburdenment. It's all very Device Paradigm in essence. What would you say to somebody who is really feeling the benefit of that? How could you convince them that maybe this is taking something away, or would you?

AB: Well again there are special cases where these things are a godsend, and so fine.

JL: If you're a starving person a Big Mac is a godsend.

AB: Right. It's an iteration of the unkept promise of technology. So it saves people time. What for? It's Marx's remark, you know, all these wonderful things [that come from] free time. It just never happened. Free time—what for? Either to work more, or to indulge in consumption that is the antithesis of engagement and the Good Life.

JL: So it's hard because at any given point, disburdenment feels disburdening. But then it becomes a moving target and if you choose to work more or consume more you don't realize that you're putting yourself in a position where you're going to choose more disburdenment later, rather than choose another path entirely which would have kept you from the subseqent need for that disburdenment.

AB: And as you know, when it comes to liberty (you know people make a distinction between liberty from and liberty for)… the question is never asked "disburdenment from?" Great, what for? Oops!

JL: It's just the assumed good that nobody questions.

AB: So there's always this utopian notion, we'll read Shakespeare and play an instrument. We'll take our kids to the park.

JL: But instead we'll catch up on e-mail and stick an iPad in front of our kids' faces.

AB: Right.

A way forward for the promise and reform of technology

JL: Yeah, OK. So with this blog series that I've been doing on your book, I know that a small handful of people have been reading it, and hopefully more in the future. So the question is, what would you say to those of us who've read these articles from my blog or who've read your book itself who are "literate laypeople" who've powered through the book, struggled through, whatever. What's next? What should we be aware of or concerned about? These possibilities of reform for technology that you mentioned, have they changed, have they expanded, have they shrunk? I sometimes look at the future and I see this polarization of this rabidly technological culture or this rabidly Luddite culture that completely disconnects. Is that what you see happening? Do you see a different way forward that's more productive?

AB: Well, as you know I think there always has to be a technological substructure to our lives.

JL: You can't get away from that anymore.

AB: No. So I think the hopeful things, inspiring things, are where people understand this and then within the framework of technology are able to find celebration, which is easier, and then work, which is harder. So the food industry, the "foodies", is a very hopeful thing. We had a conference here on food and there was a table with books and I couldn't believe how many wonderful books there were. And these people use technology. They use the Internet, they use cars of course. They use sprinkler systems… As you also know, the focal reality is not just traditional, it has a new kind of splendor. So the things that they grow have a sort of force in their own right as they come out of their drip systems or whatever they use to grow them. To come back to the earlier point: one title that I use in the book which I think is still appropriate is "local, labor-intensive industries". Whatever comes under this heading. You know, Matt Crawford's first book talks about his shop for motorbikes. Those are the wonderful things that give me hope. As I said, the crucial thing you have to look for is that they enforce coherence and assert themselves.

JL: And be a unified front which people see as distinct from the dominant mode.

AB: Right. And to the extent that these people are tech-savvy, that's a big plus. Because they're not Luddites. The terms Luddite and neo-Luddite are used loosely. So in one sense they are. But they don't destroy things. They use them, but they are able to subordinate them to reality in some way.

JL: It was interesting living in San Francisco, because there is a big foodie culture, a big artisan culture, and a focus on local things, but also it's the global epicenter of the many aspects of the Device Paradigm. So I see a large tension between these two things and I think there's a dissonance there, but a lot of people seem not to notice it in their own lives. They work for 15 hours a day at their tech startup with no grounding and no free time, but then they go and enjoy the foodie scene and order only local and organic things. So they appreciate it as a cultural phenomenon but it doesn't seem to be inspiring them to reflect on other aspects of their lives. Is that what you're talking about where you hope that there can be a greater force for these things, more of a voice in some way?

AB: Yeah. I once counted how many philosophers, professional philosophers, there are in this country. Many thousands. What the people in San Francisco need is a theory, and a theory tells them how things fit together in a stable and sustainable way. That they're not just saying, "oh yeah it's romantic, this restaurant". But of course that's not the culture, or sometimes as you say they're conflicted. Should I give up my job and teach high school? A theory should allow people to see the hope. What the good things are, and the bad things are, and how the good things fit together in an intellectually defensible and practically sustainable way. And philosophers just aren't doing that. Philosophers are… I mean, when it comes to free will, you won't believe how many different schools there are! So it's not just one school that deals with free will. There are all these factions and they just love fighting each other. So philosophy is really remiss in its social responsibility. I'm not saying that people shouldn't do analytic philosophy, it's just that not everybody should do it.

JL: It shouldn't be the gold standard of philosophical debate, because people need as you were saying something to help them live their lives, and philosophy's not giving it to them.

AB: Right.

The history and trajectory of the philosophy of technology

JL: OK, so speaking of philosophy, the philosophy of technology: as far as I know you've been in the field as long as anybody. So how do you see it having evolved over time, in terms of the questions people ask? It sounds like you already answered this saying it's gone in this analytic direction, but could you maybe give a couple exemplar questions or debates that in the last 50 years would have changed?

AB: Well, it began in '74 or '76 with the conference at the University of Delaware. The great founders were Paul Durbin and Carl Mitcham. Those are the two. And you must be familiar with Thomas Kuhn. So it was a pre-paradigmatic period. People were saying all kinds of different things. The thing didn't have any shape. And then out of this conference came positions. Don Ihde at SUNY Stonybrook, is one of them. Paul Durban's sort of activist model, and Langdon Winner with a kind of political version of it. And so amazingly the people got together, and they wrote their books! And gave the thing shape. So there were distinct positions that emerged. Paradigms in the Kuhnian sense. And all of them had often an implicit but always a very strong moral and social force to them.

JL: I can see that having met Langdon and Carl. Very strong in that sense.

AB: And so that continued into the 80s and 90s and then the Dutch took over, and they're spending enormous amounts of money institutionally on philosophy of technology, bless their hearts. They're doing some good things in response to the first stage but what then sort of arose from outside of philosophy is the social studies of science. Latour. Bruno Latour. And there were some British guys who did this, and they sort of took over the field of technology and science and merged the two into technoscience, which I think was a disaster.

JL: Well it's not very interesting work to read from my perspective.

AB: But it was sort of sexy.

JL: Because you could claim it as a science? Or why was it attractive?

AB: If you have a choice between interesting but false and true but trivial, everyone goes for interesting but false. And false sort of gets concealed for a while. So these people came up as revolutionaries, and they're often… there was always this tendency to appease the humanist and social scientists about physics. "That's just a way of talking". And that's an easy way of dealing with physics, other than learning quantum physics, which is hard. Or just special relativity, which is fairly hard. Do I want to go back and learn calculus again to understand? No, it's just "we talk this way, they talk that way". So just like Derrida in the study of the literature, people felt sort of great. They were in charge and they showed those scientists! So they took over for a while and Don Ihde to some extent bought it. Do you know Don Ihde?

JL: He wasn't there so I didn't meet him but his work was referenced a lot.

AB: He sort of bought in on this. Not totally, but largely.

JL: Is that the stuff about world-something…?

AB: Well multi-stability is his big thing, and then mediation theory and stuff like that. That I think was one way towards self-absorption. Who wants to read Latour? And some of it is just sexy terminology without anything really new. So the "agency of things". A speed bump, for example—it talks to you and says, "slow down!" Well big deal! And then the Dutch were enamored with the rigor and precision of analytic philosophy. And rigor and precision are admirable things, but the price for precision is impoverishment. The richer the phenomenon, the less it submits to rigor and precision. That's just the way it is. Modeling is a good example. You must know that well! Models get so complex finally there's no insight at all. You just hope the thing's gonna work. So rigor and precision in one sense have to be left aside to make the thing work. Rigor and precision are dangerous tools because the impoverishment often creeps in unnoticed.

JL: You're following the rules and doing the things and coming up with these what are essentially tautological conclusions, so it feels like you're doing work for a while.

AB: Well, finer and finer distinctions. And again, I'm not against it. It's just the displacement of more substantive work. So I think the philosophy of technology in one thing just failed spectacularly because in 1976 we all thought, what's the big thing today? It's philosophy of science. So what's next? It's gotta be philosophy of technology. But within the overall profession, it's totally marginal. Less than marginal. Efforts were made to give it mainstream respectability, but I think we should just give up on it. The way that some of the Dutch try to gain respectability for it… it's just the death of its cultural and social significance.

JL: So this is something that's relevant for me personally. I would love to see it revived in a more practical and connected way that is doing what the original call of philosophy was, which is sort of what you pointed out: giving people tools for thinking that connect with the way that they're living their lives and help them understand what they're doing.

What the philosophy of technology needs

AB: I think one has to be careful not to do this in a sort of procedure- and method-oriented way, you know, "I want philosophy that's like this and like this". But rather be content- and substance-oriented. What is it out there that cries out for philosophical illumination? And it's the impact of ICT! What is it doing to people? As far as influence is concerned: Kant says about happiness, don't pursue it. It's a wil-o-the-wisp. What you can pursue and should pursue is being worthy of happiness. The same thing with influence. Don't beat the bushes and… write something that's worthy of being influential. And then you have to leave it up to the culture, whether it responds or not. But clearly there's something out there. As I said it should be worthy of influence in the sense that if David Brooks—do you know him?—if he read it, he would say, "Oh my God, yes. That really allows me to talk about things in a way that I've been struggling to talk about".

JL: Like you were pointing out with New York Times articles. I read op-eds that show this cultural need where people are aching for the ability to talk about something, and there's books like Matthew Crawford's books, and Sherry Turkle… there's a lot of pop culture stuff coming out that's all sort of throwing a random splash of paint here and here, and it's not really pulling it all together in a philosophically compelling way, but it is showing that that's where the need is, instead of where philosophy of technology currently is, where people are talking about the philosophy of science oriented processes of how technologists work and technology works.

AB: Right.


Author's note: At this point time was up and the interview concluded. I am deeply grateful to Albert for his conversation and hospitality! And I recommend checking out his works, particularly TCCL. Once again, for an overview of that book, refer to my blog series which covers it.

Interviewing Borgmann, Part 3

Author’s Note: This is Part 3 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 promise of technology

JL: Sometimes I'm talking to people about your work, and, maybe as in the case of the conference I went to, people were familiar with it, but held a common misunderstanding that you are fundamentally opposed to technology or are really negative about technology. But based on some of the things you wrote (and you can tell me if I'm getting it wrong) it sounded like you were really affirming some of the original promise of technology…

AB: Absolutely!

JL: …But really want to caution us not to trade what's meaningful and central in our lives for the sake of availability. And so how would you respond to someone who claims you're anti-technology or anti-progress?

AB: I sympathize with these people. You have to pigeonhole writers, otherwise you just get lost! They just put me in the wrong pigeonhole, that's all. I think it's just that these people haven't read the book; that's obvious. They've just heard about it, or they might have read excerpts. I mean, one of the later chapters (I'm not sure you have blogged it yet), mentions "the recovery of technology". To recover! There is something genuine in this promise of liberation and enrichment. I think focal things and practices help us to recover that promise. Think of an example I use: you go running on a cold, rainy, muddy day and you come back and you're shivering and you think, boy a shower is wonderful. Whereas a shower every morning..? Or hunger: if you allow yourself to get hungry, if you're totally spent and hungry and then there's a Big Mac… well that's a great thing. It's just this super-saturation with commodities that makes us ungrateful. And there's a tragedy, I think, in technology, and it's probably haunting your work too, Jonathan, and that is that information technology is just a marvel of ingenuity and cooperation. Physically, conceptually: it's amazing! Totally amazing. And how did it happen? Through cooperation. It wasn't Edison who did it, or Neumann, the mathematician, or whoever. It's thousands and thousands of people who contribute their little part. Something like this is a marvel. And you can't help but be full of admiration. And so the ingenuity, the devotion, the intelligence, the self-sacrifice that goes into it is amazing. And then what is it used for? What's this thing used for? All my students as soon as they get out of class…

JL: Instead of elevating us it's distracting us.

AB: So there is this terrible asymmetry between the ingenuity that goes into the means and the stupefaction that it largely has. And again, of course, you have to acknowledge the possibilities and limited actuality of people using an iPhone to stay in touch with their children, or staging a revolution, or… if iPhones were used for just that… I think they sold 13 million of their new iPhone 6?

JL: The 6S that was just released?

AB: They wouldn't sell them if there weren't all these teenagers looking at their smartphone.

JL: …who already had the previous revision of the iPhone anyway!

AB: So I think the problem is not that technology needs to be scolded and condemned and vilified. It needs redemption! We have to recover a sense of how wonderful it is and I don't think that's going to happen without a grounding in something that's not technological. Sometimes I just have to shake my head. People say, "Borgmann doesn't allow for the fact that devices can be engaging!" I have examples of engaging devices. Fine downhill skis that allow you to do things that with the old wooden boards you weren't able to do.

JL: Yeah I like what you were talking about in some of the chapters on nature. There are two things I appreciate. One is you acknowledge the reality that a nice pair of trail running shoes in a sense is a device, but in a sense one shouldn't refuse them on the grounds that it's not traditional. At this point, going off into the wilderness without the appropriate gear is just courting danger and disaster in a way that's irresponsible. The truth is that we don't have to do it the way the early pioneers did it anymore. There's sort of a mature acquiescence to that, saying we no longer have to put ourselves in that much danger to go outside. But we can still go outside, and in a way, like maybe with the example of these downhill skis, technology can be used not to take us away from that engagement, but to give us an ability to experience it with fewer barriers. So a nice pair of trail running shoes enables you to have the feeling of moving through the woods like a wild creature in a way that a heavy pair of leather hiking boots from 100 years ago would not give you the ability to do.

Virtual reality, videogames, and technological "art"

AB: Exactly. The requirement is that devices be transparent to reality. And of course virtual reality is the opposite. It's the exact opposite.

JL: Sheer opacity.

AB: Videogames are an example. Are they the successor of nineteenth-century novels? Works of art that should be appreciated? Again I think it's an empirical question. What is it doing to people? What are they doing to people, videogames? Virtual reality is still facing technical problems…

JL: It's coming along. Things like Oculus and whatnot, they're moving to mass production pretty soon.

AB: And then again you have to be an empiricist. Are there virtual reality experiences that people come away from the way they come back from, I don't know, watching a Greek tragedy, or Beethoven's 9th or something like this?

JL: But isn't there a concern that people would say "yes", that the empirical data would show that virtual reality and videogames are like Beethoven simply because our baseline of experience is already so technologized? If all you've had in your life is a Big Mac and then you go and have a very simple home-cooked meal… I mean this was the way that I grew up, where actually for my family going out to McDonald's was a treat. For me, that's where I wanted to go on my birthday, when I could choose to go anywhere. I didn't know that it was a technological device, I just knew that I loved these chicken nugget pieces that probably weren't even chicken. For me that was an amazing experience. So if you polled me then, I would say that McDonald's was much better than Grandma's meatloaf or potato casserole or whatever. So that's something that makes me feel a little more distressed. I wonder if the more we "progress" the more we lose the ability for people to make that comparison for themselves in a meaningful way?

AB: Right. Well, I think we come back to the question of the Good Life. The question is, let's say virtual reality experiences are becoming common, and some people get really mystical about it, and claim to have mystical experiences or whatever. We just have to see what happens. If it happens that these people come back from these virtual reality experiences in a way where they seem serene, and compassionate, and resourceful… well fine! Great. Then we want to find out why it's happening and how does it compare with religious or artistic experience. I have my suspicions though…

JL: Yeah I suspect that they'll probaby come back more anxious and distracted and it will be harder to live in the real world. They may find serenity but only in the virtual world.

Evolutionary mismatch theory

AB: I think you just have to give the advocates some slack, you know, and say OK let's try it. One thing I may not touch on at all in TCCL is evolution, and one thing I've learned since is how deeply evolution fits us into the past and into reality and how complex and profound these ties are. Exactly how evolution connects with ethics is complex and interesting, but the way we're put together by nature is to be in the world in an engaged way. That's what makes us happy. That's how we evolved and learned to prosper. There is a whole field called mismatch theory—have you heard of it? It compares our evolutionary endowments and what's called the ancestral environment (sometimes called "the environment of evolutionary adaption"), which is the environment that the human family lived through for probably a million years and within which we learned to prosper. We sort of know what it was like from examples of the hunting and gathering cultures that have survived into the 20th century. And then if you articulate these conditions and then compare them with the conditions that the technological culture provides, it's a mismatch. And so people feel anxious, they get obese, they get all kinds of diseases. So virtual reality is, I think, more mismatch. That's a good guess, but I think you should never be dogmatic. You should be liabilist, falsifiabilist, and open to being shown to be wrong.

JL: Yeah, it kind of puts me in the mind of a couple examples. People who thought that theism and evolution were incompatible, or who think that theism (or Christianity) for example and life on other worlds would be incompatible. For me it's kind of a, well, if there is there is, and it may mean something about God for us or it may not. It might be relevant, but I don't think that one can look at the Bible and presume to know a universal intent around life and the shape that life would take universally. Is that the kind of openness that you're talking about? We just have to kind of see about this virtual reality thing. And we think that it will be probably not a vehicle for let's say some kind of true spirituality, but you don't know until you see how people are shaped by it.

AB: Yes, exactly.

JL: So back to this misunderstanding that you're opposed to technology.

AB: Yeah, I'm not mad at these people. Pigeonholing is a survival necessity and so I just get put in the wrong pigeonhole.

JL: Graciously allow yourself to be the straw man!

AB: Well I do respond if I come across it.

JL: I was surprised, because I was reading your book to do a blog just a week before I went to SPT and you had a sentence (it might be the same one you just referred to), which was very positive about the promise and redemption of technology. I came across some people at the conference who had this pigeonholed view of you, and I said, "no, I just read this sentence two days ago and I can assure you he's not that". So it does seem the pigeonholing has had its effect over the years.

AB: That's fine.

Meaning and significance in a perfectly available world

JL: So continuing on from there, I read you as making the claim that a perfectly safe, perfectly convenient world of availability that the Device Paradigm is geared towards is essentially one that's devoid of the possibility of a narrative for human significance. So I wanted to ask, first of all, if that's in fact what you're saying. And if so, how would you motivate that claim in a generation, my generation, that really believes this liberal democratic ideal that meaning and significance are just whatever we choose them to be? And thereby compatible with this perfectly safe, perfectly available world.

AB: The answer to the first question is yes, and to the second… The answer to the second connects with things we've talked about and that is that you have to ask people who center their life in ICT or cyberspace how they're doing. And then at a more philosophically sophisticated level you have to point out to them that people who claim that they're imposing meaning on reality are just the captives of stereotypes. It's fame and fortune! I want to be like Justin Bieber! If you're a boy. Or I don't know, Beyonce.

JL: So you're essentially saying that this belief that we can choose whatever meaning we want is sort of hollow and empty and not true in practice.

AB: Right. But there is a grain of truth to this belief and you're the perfect illustration. So Jessica [JL's wife, who grew up in a small town in Illinois] has been blessed with a grounded life, from which she can draw strength and orientation, and for you it's not the case. So it's a distinction of degree of course. You have to sort of be open to things that claim you and learn to see how they converge. It's characteristically American that every person is a point of convergence of many things, and you don't make them converge. They converge in your life, and you have to be alert to them, and of course help them to grow together into something meaningful. So running is part of your life, right? And the experience of nature that comes with it. I take it you run outside?

JL: Yeah, we live in downtown San Francisco, so as much as I can. I run along the water, but I prefer running on trails, which I just don't get to do very often.

AB: And then your cuisine is probably a convergence of Mid-western cooking and Texas cuisine?

JL: Well… it's a little more complicated than that. But cuisine is important to us.

AB: Well anyway. What's your.. I forget your last name?

JL: Lipps.

AB: Is it German?

JL: Yes.

AB: So you can't say, I'm a Lipps, and the Lippses have always cooked this way! You can't say that. That would be fake. You could embrace it if somehow…

JL: If I wanted to reappropriate that ancestral thing.

AB: You could only reappropriate it if it claimed you in some sense, right?

JL: I can't reappropriate Native American traditions.

AB: Right. So these things are philosophically very interesting and subtle. I'm a determinist so I think you should think of a person as the wonderful convergence of billions of things. So the people who say you make your own meaning, they're mistaken in this activist way they put it. It should be more receptive. But they're right that the way the meaning of life comes to them does not have the homogeneity of an inherited culture. And that's a wonderful thing.

JL: So you can choose which convergences you allow to dominate your experiences of life, and there are more convergences than there were maybe 500 years ago because of the more diverse cultural context we've lived in? Is that what you're saying?

Determinism and libertarianism

AB: Yeah. Are you a determinist or libertarian when it comes to free will?

JL: I've usually been a pretty strong libertarian.

AB: Yeah, well it's incoherent, I'm sorry to say! "Free" is undetermined, is uncaused, is random. There's no way to break this.

JL: The way that I break it is countenancing agency as a fundamental universal substance.

AB: A ghost in the machine?

JL: Why not?

AB: <laughs>

JL: We can talk about it at dinner. Nobody believes it, I know.

AB: Worse than that, you can't tell how a universal agency… what are the levers that it works on, and how can it work on levers when it's not… you know it's the Cartesian problem of, I forget the name of the gland, the pineal gland, where he thought that's where the… at any rate, you're right.

JL: I'm not a substance dualist, but…

AB: Well you're courting substance dualism, aren't you?

JL: Sure. But growing up in the evangelical Christian tradition, courting substance dualism is second nature (pun intended)!

AB: Well these are the things that make philosophy fun.

JL: Well let's talk more about that at dinner, it'll be a fun conversation.

AB: Yeah. So at any rate if you're a determinist like me, what you realize is it's this wonderful situation where billions of things come together and fuse in your mind and in your brain. But they don't fuse mysteriously. They fuse both intelligbly and unreachably. There is a complexity that you understand. 86 billion neurons and trillions of synapses. So there's no way of mapping the thing. And yet, there's Jonathan, there's Jessica, there's me. We're persons! So "choosing" always needs to be rephrased and that's one of the fun challenges of philosphy. I think it's best to think of oneself as the fusion of many things and being that fusion, you're a force in your own right. You're not just effects. The effects fuse into this amazingly resourceful cause, but the basic attitude is much more one of gratitude than power.

JL: I definitely agree with that aspect of it.

AB: These are just, in a way, differences of discourse rather than differences in substance.

JL: Yeah, it sounds like the attitude we take towards it is pretty similar even if maybe there's a different philosophical basis… and maybe I'm incoherent at the end of the day, but I haven't been shown it sufficiently to agree yet.

AB: Yeah it's good to resist it for as long as you can! I was a libertarian once. I had this wonderful [friend]… I mentioned him in the introduction—John Winnie—in the acknowledgements at the beginning. He just gave me such a hard time that finally I said, John you're right.

JL: Well I don't talk to a lot of philosophers anymore so I get to just come up with whatever I want.

Deictic discourse, transhumanism, and Artificial Intelligence

JL: OK so moving on then. At the end of the day in your book you acknowledge in your later chapters that you are speaking, and people need to be speaking, "deictically" (or "paradeictically" in the case of being more philosophical), not "apodeictically" with what you call the cogency or the assent that's forced by purely scientific reasoning. So if I were to try and state this another way, it sounds to me like you're fundamentally assuming a certain mode of human essence and human flourishing, and not trying to substantiate that a priori but rather trying to live in it and reflect it, calling others into participation with it deictically.

AB: Absolutely

JL: So for me I'm very curious because of something that comes up a lot for me in conversations. I talk with a lot of people who are not necessarily transhumanist but they're kind of Singularity people and whatnot. People who'd say that the term "human" is kind of whatever we make it, maybe in a similar sense as we talked about the term "meaning" or "significance" before. So in other words, to this concept of human flourishing, which you're trying to speak about from your own kind of deep experience, I imagine someone else saying, "that's great, and that seems to be what your definition of being human is. Mine is that I would like to extend my body with these bionic implants so that I have more working memory, so that I become more intelligent according to my understanding of what makes somebody human". A lot of people say that working memory is what defines intelligence, and intelligence defines humanity, so the more working memory you have, the more intelligent you are, and the more human you are. They take this more or less mind-oriented definition. So is there anything you can say to these thinkers? Is a conversation possible? Or do you just have to accept that you're on different planets?

AB: The question is whether intelligence is the essence of being human, right?

JL: Well I was giving that as an example. Somebody might have picked something else. I was just trying to highlight how it seems like you're coming to the table with this understanding of what human flourishing consists in. Someone else might say (again like "meaning") that you sort of choose what human flourishing means, and then you go with it.

AB: One thing I'm unclear about. Is there a proposal in there, or is it just a skeptical question? If the proposal is transhumanism, Kurzweil-type, it's very specific, and it says the essence of humanty is an intelligence that is substance-neutral.

JL: So let's take that as the foil. That's something that people argue to me. I don't know if they would choose it themselves, but being skeptics they're bringing it up anyway.

AB: Lots of the things that were said before apply here too. It's a question of empiricism. What is the case? And the question is, how do you get people into a position such that they see what is the case? I've written a paper about this, about the Turing Test. I posit that the program passes the Turing Test—and as you know it's very far from ever doing so—so let's just assume it and then the question that I pose is, what is it that would make us find that computer to be a commanding presence? Something that we find interesting, noteworthy. So what I'm doing is arguing that we're supplying what exactly makes it a commanding presence. So we get these answers [from the computer as part of the Test], and we think, well there must be a person there. So I say let's enrich it and enrich it and enrich it. So there's not only the writing but also voice and so on. And enrich it and enrich it and enrich it and the argument finally says that at every point, if we stop at this stage of enrichment, we will not find that person to be enduringly interesting and worthy of respect.

What makes a person interesting to me is that the person has parents that I can ask the person about, and that they're real parents, not just fake parents. That the person can suffer and prevail against suffering, and if the person is just faking suffering, I'll find their "triumph" over suffering boring after a while. And then the person being capable of despair. And so the basic idea is that when you detail what it is that makes a person a commanding presence, something that you respect and turn to and hope for and call in the dark night of the soul… "Bill, you gotta come over…" The person has to be just the way we are. Someone who's capable of believing, of possibly dying and some day really dying. A person who's born, has parents… And so these computers that supposedly are just as smart as I am are just going to be boring to me after a while. Even though they can fake things…

JL: It might fool you but once you were revealed the truth it would eventually lose its commanding sense.

AB: Right. And people, unfortunately, are willing to supply this… "Her", did you see "Her"?

JL: I still need to, I've heard about it. Or the elderly people with these robots, the caretaking robots that become sources of consolation, but like you're saying it feels like they're giving the robots "personhood" so they can receive back, not because it's actually there.

AB: Yeah, they're imagining. Again, empiricism comes in. And I've heard that the person who made this dog, the Japanese outfit… they stopped making it.

JL: I forget what it was called, there was a paper on this at SPT.

AB: So again, the empirical evidence I suspect will show that people get tired of it. Of course people can live with fantasies for a long time, but again it's a social question. What's going to happen broadly?

JL: And if society is already kind of empty enough of actual relationship, then an imaginary one, or… In China I read this article there's a "girlfriend" app that is becoming really popular that will randomly text young men to make them feel as though they have a relationship. To me it's pointing out how empty the culture is such that that could be a replacement. Not how rich that is in and of itself.

AB: And more than that I think my expectation is that people will get tired of it.

JL: Right, that it's a momentary respite from despair.

AB: The sort of vacuity of the whole thing will become obvious to the persons who for a while are enchanted with it. And again we have to be careful with anecdotes. Anecdotes always dominate.

JL: Right, that's what's hard for me as somebody who's trying to voice a dissenting opinion. You might say that the facts for a lot of these things aren't really in yet. So I have the skeptical voice and other people have the very positive voice, and there's always enough positive anecdotes that you can sort of skip from one to the other while ignoring the wreckage that lies at the end of each particular trajectory.

AB: There are, as I said, cases where the accumulating evidence is telling. With food, mental health, and people's avowed unhappiness. So advocates of new technologies who take the kind of empiricist attitude I'm talking about as a concession can be countered by saying that there are lots of cases where if we didn't know the social causality, we'd still be singing a device's praises, like you with the Big Mac, right? But we no longer say that in some areas. And as I said, distraction will be the next example, then of course global warming. Although global warming is ambiguous morally speaking because as we said before it could be cured in a way that would not unhinge the Device Paradigm.

JL: It wouldn't make us better people.

Continued in Part 4

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

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]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 25, “Political Affirmation”

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 come finally to the last substantive chapter in Borgmann’s essay on technology. It also happens to be the longest, so buckle up! The question is: can the reform of technology, so vividly imagined as “wealth” defined by focal concerns in the previous chapter, be taken out of private life into the public sphere, ultimately changing the very heart of the systems that we have so little power over as individual citizens?

One option would be to press for legislating morality, arguing that technological reform is really moral reform that should be encoded in the legality or illegality of individual behaviors. This is what conservatives generally try to do in other spheres. But Borgmann points out, echoing his thoughts in Chapter 14, that “morality”, especially traditional morality, is a less commanding force in the lives of most citizens than conservatives usually estimate, even as a concept. (And of course it doesn’t help conservatives that they often undercut their moral argument by trying to outlaw certain types of supposedly immoral individual behavior while simultaneously promoting clearly unjust and immoral economic policies that have wide-ranging negative impact). In other words, this strategy would be paternalistic, harmful, and ultimately self-refuting (according to the norms of deictic discourse).

And it is in fact in the laws of the economy that Borgmann thinks we have the greatest opportunity to effect real change. What does economic reform that leads to technological reform look like? It begins with convincing the public that the “quality of life” and the “standard of living” are not one and the same. As a society our economic policies have been focused on the standard of living (as measured by the production and possession of commodities) as a proxy for quality of life, but in fact this is a bad proxy, as the previous chapter showed. We thought that “affluence” was what technology promised us, but it turned out to be hollow, a never-ending escalator of commodity consumption. Instead, Borgmann’s concept of (non-material) “wealth” is what truly leads to higher quality of life. Thus we need to convince the public to focus on quality of life at the expense of the standard of living, to argue that economic policies which promote such a view are a good trade.

How is such convincing even thinkable? How do we take the world of focal concerns (private, deictic discourse) into the world of labor and politics (public, political discourse)? We can’t impose some “national focal concern”. We can’t remake society on the model of pre-technological production; at this point there’s no getting rid of technology, in the background of production at least. Individual focal concerns could bubble up naturally through the disparate care and passion of individual citizens, but what about an actual public discourse? What will help is to bring to light the pattern of technology (what this book has been about) and talk about it. But in terms of actual change, again only deictic discourse will sway the public’s heart. And so far we’ve only seen deictic discourse effective in more private arenas, about the majesty of private pursuits like running and so on.

Part of the problem again lies in how the pattern of liberal democracy is set up. Public deictic discourse would expose the world to some kind of moral critique or evaluation, and liberal democracy is organized so that such critique is kept out of the public sphere. The legal system is idealized as amoral, like a technological device, at least in terms of how it understands itself (of course, it smuggles moral considerations in through the back door by tacitly specifying a concrete vision of the good life, as Borgmann discussed in earlier chapters). So we come back to the earlier question: how could economic reform be possible, given the challenges inherent in public deictic discourse?

Without getting into the professional economic implementation details, we can say that it begins with the philosophy of economics, which is currently complicit with the technological paradigm in its singular focus on the “standard of living” or affluence (paralleling the Device Paradigm’s focus on “availability”), falsely narrowing the scope of the good life. Lester Thurow has said, “Man is an acquisitive animal whose wants cannot be satiated. This is not a matter of advertising and conditioning but a basic fact of existence” (231). Thus the justification of acquisitiveness as the fulcrum of economic philosophy. But Borgmann points out that this doesn’t accord with what we actually know of the greater part of human history, where, once basic needs were satisfied, time was spent in non-acquisitive activities like play or celebration.

In reality, our society has a lot of economic margin to consider reform. We’ve proved this by enduring recessions and spending exorbitant amounts of money on military activities, all without substantially reducing the standard of living (at least in aggregate; of course the burden of recessions falls disproportionately on the poor). What could convince us to scale back our rabidly consumptive spending? Focal practices! As we saw in the previous chapter, focal practices subvert the individual’s race to affluence. (This is the deictic discourse of “wealth” vs “affluence” in general, not a discussion of this or that focal practice.)

So it seems possible to engage the public in this way. But do people actually want reduced affluence to attain “wealth” in Borgmann’s sense? Studies do suggest a general willingness to cultivate a “simpler” lifestyle, but maybe this is purely aspirational. What we need is a “collective affirmation” on a societal level, like we have in cultural norms of politeness (on the invisible end of the spectrum) or in the Constitution (on the formal end of the spectrum). Borgmann thinks we already have a sense of the tension between “quality of life” and “standard of living” in the form of the tension between considering public goods to be indicative of economic success in our country versus a standard of measurement like the GNP. Here, “public goods” parallels “quality of life”, and “GNP” parallels “standard of living” (a much simpler financial measure, to be sure, than the value public goods like infrastructure, water, parks, public spaces, etc… provide).

Transitioning to a model of economic success built on top of the quality of life would inevitably entail a certain shrinkage of the technological machinery at the heart of our industrialized society, but not by orders of magnitude. Many people would still work in the maintenance of said machinery, or would perhaps have no work at all. But what about work, which has been the cornerstone of meaningful engagement with the world up until the Industrial Revolution? We already see people who don’t strictly have to work returning to artisan-style pursuits—bakers, potters, metalworkers, etc… And Borgmann sees in this an opportunity for the institution of a two-sector economy.

We already have a two-sector economy, really: mega-corps on one hand and small businesses on the other. They represent two systems: the “planning system” and the “market system” respectively. The planning system operates basically according to the technological pattern of availability, and so they grow in tandem, taking over more and more of the market system. Borgmann wants to see us create space for those who do “engaging work”, even if people choose that work because their previous roles have been made redundant by technical automation. Engaging work is not about eliminating technology entirely, but about technology moving to the background so that the work itself can be in the center:

Engaging work is largely dependent on [technology] for tools, machines, energy, materials, transportation, and communication. But it will not adopt technological devices indiscriminately. The criterion will be whether a device is helpful or detrimental to a worker’s skill and to the focal depth of the work.” (239)

So we want to see a two-sector economy where the production of certain goods like food, furniture, clothing, health care, education, arts instruction, etc…, is entrusted to local, labor-intensive industries (where “engaging work” happens). The “planning system” or a centralized industrial economy would then take care of infrastructural goods like transportation, utilities, communication, as well as the tools and materials required by the other sector, insurance, finance, and R&D. Technology would live on here as the context for the former sector, not the center of our lives. We would encourage this economy not by imposing quotas or embargoes on the planning system, but rather by giving tax credits or breaks to the local, labor-intensive sector so that they become competitive in the market for their goods. Of course, there are lots of potential problems with this sketch, but the basic ingredients are there, as long as we are willing to accept a reduction of overall affluence to subsidize these quality-of-life improvements.

Borgmann closes the chapter by exploring two concrete political issues as examples of how we could engage on a political level to help the cause of technological reform: the plight of large cities and social justice. He shows how the technological pattern has been instantiated in these parts of life to detrimental effect (the urban/suburban distinction mirrors the labor/leisure distinction, for example), and how a public focus on quality of life rather than affluence would serve to forestall the disintegration of civic life and the reduction of social justice. He wants to see public structures “opened up”, i.e., made intelligible and inviting for us to engage with. The artifacts of our technological substructure like dams, power plants, office buildings, etc…, could be redesigned so that they are not opaque, intimidating, or lifeless, and instead invite curiosity and understanding. Likewise we need memorable places in the sense of places that allow engagement, not just passive enjoyment (cf. the fate of churches or cathedrals in so many European cities). We need, as he says, an “enactment of culture”—spaces designed for the focal concerns of sports, music, arts, worship, and work.

Social injustice is a more visible problem. Borgmann laid out the problem in Chapters 13 – 16: liberal democracy has allowed the broad middle class to tacitly specify a definition of the good life that is actually complicity with technological consumption. Social injustice has become the hidden injustice that allows that consumption to continue. If the middle class were to care more about quality of life than the standard of living (affluence), and is able to seek after wealth of engagement via focal concerns, then that wealth is open to everyone in a way that affluence was not. There is no more need for the moving escalator that keeps classes forever divided. And of course letting go of affluence as the end goal means that there is more likelihood that money, the means by which the lower classes might achieve a basic quality of life, won’t just pool together, locked in the upper echelons.

In sum, Borgmann thinks that the path to political affirmation of the reform of technology is this: deictic discourse leads to collective affirmation, which leads to a two-sector economy focused on quality of life and engaging work, which can lead to a reform of the cities and bring about greater economic justice. At that point we’ll have begun a true and lasting reform of technology—not eliminating it, but putting it in its place as the servant of the good life.

[Photo: Athens, by the author]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 24, “Wealth and the Good Life”

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.

As we saw in the last chapter, Borgmann thinks focal things and practices (gathered together under the heading of ‘focal concerns’) are central to the kind of reform of technology we need. In this and the next chapter, he wants to (a) defend focal concerns from any philosophical worries, and (b) show how focal concerns constitute the kind of reform of technology that we need. This chapter looks at focal concerns on a personal level, and so connects them up with a reform of technology in our personal, more than our public, lives. This is why the name of this chapter is “Wealth and the Good Life”: focal concerns constitute “wealth”, and lead to the much-sought-after “good life” that technology has been promising to us but failing to deliver.

The main philosophical worry about focal concerns as presented in the last chapter is their plurality. I take it that Borgmann sees two potential problems under this heading:

  1. We have to ask: is it even possible to figure out what all the focal things and practices out there have in common? Is there, in other words, some kind of necessary and sufficient definition we can give of what focal concerns are? If not, then it appears on the surface that Borgmann’s idea of focal concerns may not be formulated clearly enough to bear the weight of technological reform.
  2. What about the sheer diversity of focal concerns? Doesn’t this bring up issues around which concerns are to be considered more or less focal? If my focal concern is so grounding and enriching in my life, won’t I be forced (out of genuine sympathy) to attempt to convert others away from their focal concerns and over to mine? How can a bunch of varied practices (even if we can answer the first problem above) present a unified front when it comes to technological reform?

We might say that these are the ‘philosophical’ and ‘practical’ problems of plurality for focal concerns.

Let’s take the ‘philosophical’ problem first. What could philosophically tie focal concerns together? Borgmann examines what he takes to be the most likely candidate, in the form of John Rawls’ ‘Aristotelian Principle’, which says that the excellence of our life is determined by the complexity of the faculties that we develop. In other words, the more complex skills we cultivate, the more we partake of ‘excellence’ (something Borgmann definitely cares about as well in the context of focal concerns). Could this principle suffice to capture what we mean by ‘focal concerns’? Let’s examine a few examples: on this view, people should prefer chess to checkers because chess is more complex and demanding. Likewise people would prefer checkers to watching TV, for the same reason.

So far, so good. But when we come to examine technology, it seems the principle loses some of its bite: complexity is in no way a counterforce to technology. Couldn’t technological devices (like highly targeted workout machinery) be more ‘complex’ than their analog equivalents? Isn’t a machine that allows individual muscle groups to be sensed and worked with precision more complex than the simple act of walking or running? So it appears the Aristotelian Principle as it stands does not capture what is essential about the difference between technological devices and focal concerns. Could it be extended, though? Let’s take the contrast between a great chef or a great runner and a fast food junkie or a treadmill enthusiast. What is different between the two sets? Well, the difference is engagement. The chef and the runner are fully (mentally, physically, perhaps even spiritually) engaged with their activity, whereas the fast food junkie is merely consuming, and the treadmill runner is merely using their body for some extraneous end (fitness). So perhaps ‘engagement’ can replace ‘complexity’ as the philosophical essence of focal concerns?

Unfortunately, we run into problems here as well. Borgmann envisions a fan of computer games arguing that their games are just as engaging as something Borgmann takes to be a paradigmatic focal practice, e.g., fly-fishing. And nowadays, thirty years after TCCL was published, we would in some cases find ourselves hard-pressed to deny this (take for example the meteoric rise of eSports and the high level of training, dedication, strategy, and teamwork involved in professional video gaming). So our problem is this: it seems on the surface at least that ‘engagement’ can be technological, but all along we have said that focal concerns are meta-technological.

One way out is to say that technological engagement is only apparent, not real. We could argue that they are one-dimensional in that they don’t connect us to the wider physical universe of which we are a part. A computer game does not (in the way other mental practices like musical composition or poetry do) gather together some meaningful aspect of reality and present it to us in a new and engaging way. The reply to this would then be that games do help us connect with a deeper reality—the reality of the computer world. Borgmann thinks this is disingenuous in that he sees being at home in the ‘computer world’ as equivalent to being at home with the device paradigm’s pattern of commodity consumption. But what about computer engineers themselves? Aren’t they in touch with something deeper than their users might be? Indeed hardware or software engineering is often practiced as art for art’s sake (something I know full well, being a software engineer myself). And Borgmann grants that, “inasmuch as computers embody and illuminate phenomena such as intelligence, organization, determination, decidability, system, and the like, they surely have a kind of focal character, and a concern with computers in that sense is focal as well.” But he goes on to say, “the focal significance of work with computers seems precarious to me and requires for its health the essentially complementary concern with things in their own right. Otherwise the world is more lost than comprehended” (217). In other words, focal things in the computer world are not strong enough to grace us in their own right, something we appreciate in the more traditional kind of focal things and practices Borgmann has discussed so far.

On this point, Borgmann does ask in passing this important question: can a device ever become a focal thing, “one that, whatever its genesis, has taken on a character of its own, that challenges and fulfills us, that centers and illuminates our world?” We can’t know for certain, he says; we will have to wait and see. But for the time being that is no reason to abandon the focal things that are still in front of us! Anyway, it appears that we have exhausted the search for a philosophical unity behind focal concerns that truly captures what is distinct about them. What about the other problem, the ‘practical’ problem of focal concern plurality?

The problem, again, is that fly-fishing and running can’t both matter in the most ultimate sense. In pre-technological times, this was not a problem because it was only the religious life that mattered in the most ultimate sense—every other focal concern was arranged underneath it. But eventually the primacy of the church’s control over our understanding of reality was dissolved, in the course of various reform movements, the scientific revolution, the rise of democracy, and finally technology itself. We have begun to see the actual world as one out of a great range of possible states of affairs.

Borgmann’s first response to the issue of plurality of focal concerns in this regard is to say that perhaps this isn’t so much a problem for the theory as it is for us. The fact that George Sheehan’s focal practice is running rather than music implies not a deficiency in music enthusiasts but in Sheehan himself! As he says: “When a musician tells me Beethoven’s Opus 132 is not simply an hour of music but of universal truth, is in fact a flood of beauty and wisdom, I envy him. I don’t label him a nut” (213). We must understand that no one person can realize everything we as humans are capable of when it comes to focal experiences. But by cultivating our own focal practices we can join with the rest of humanity by contributing our own experience. In other words, we can see this plurality of concerns positively rather than negatively.

Ultimately, Borgmann thinks the plurality problems are not really problems for focal concerns. Still, it would be nice to be able to discern affinities between them, not as a way of describing a cogent philosophical umbrella per se, but as a set of ‘family resemblances’ that help us to say, with regard to a particular thing or practice we are considering, “Aha! Now that looks like a focal concern!” (Likewise, religion is still available as an umbrella concern, and no doubt for many people it is very effective in ordering their other focal practices, but Borgmann assumes for the time being that we will not find a generally-accepted umbrella concern like this that can serve as the basis for public reform of technology, given the fundamental pluralism of religious views in our country.) What we can say regarding focal concerns is this: “A focal practice, generally, is the resolute and regular dedication to a focal thing. It sponsors discipline and skill which are exercised in a unity of achievement and enjoyment, of mind, of body, and the world, of myself and others, and in a social union” (219). So, how does this understanding of focal concerns lead to a reform of technology (remembering from previous chapters that what we need is a reform of the paradigm, not a reform from the paradigm)?

Well, on one hand, it would not look like a restructuring of the Device Paradigm itself. The Device Paradigm can’t really be restructured because it is already perfectly architected according to the terms it takes to be valid. I.e., the process of taking goods and making them progressively more ‘available’ (in Borgmann’s technical sense) can’t be improved upon. Any failure is deemed to be a failure of availability, and that is precisely what the Paradigm is constantly working to achieve. On the other hand, it would also not look like the dismantling of technology itself. But what it would look like is the “recognition and restraint of the paradigm,” restricting it from access to the sphere of focal concerns. Technology becomes no longer the dominant, unrecognized, default way of being, but one that we can take up and put down in a new maturity.

How does this look in practice? Well, someone whose focal practice is running might still acquiesce to using a car to drive to work; i.e., they would not insist on running everywhere. And, consonant with the Device Paradigm, they would want their car to be safe, fast, and so on (in addition to being as environmentally-friendly as possible, given their love for the outdoors, etc…). But when it comes to the focal practice itself, they would leave the car behind. Engagement with running would not take place on the terms of the Device Paradigm. In other words, focal practices engender a selective attitude with regard to technology, not a wholesale adoption of it. Technology is relegated to a place of lesser importance in our lives, and only judiciously allowed into the foreground. People whose focal things have radiated out from their surroundings and into their lives might appear quixotic or quaint to others, and this must be accepted, in the face of a culture that values mainly the display of commodities.

Of course, this attitude could also lead to an overzealous self-sufficiency or insistence on a do-it-yourself methodology, wherein life becomes so full of the preparation for focal things that the things themselves and their enjoyment are not to be found. Imagine people who are constantly buying backpacking gear but never going outside, or constantly remodeling their home but never enjoying it. At some level, Borgmann says, we must, while holding on to our criticality, allow technology to do its job of disburdening us, to “allow celebration and world citizenship to prosper in the time that has been gained” (222). Our lives can benefit from the fruits of technology while not being ensnared by the deadening commoditization that the Device Paradigm brings, or by the endless cycle of labor for leisure’s sake. Focal practices allow us to put technology in its proper place. And this is where we get the idea that they constitute ‘wealth’ for us:

Such a life is centrally prosperous, of course, in opening up a familiar world where things stand out clearly and steadily, where life has a rhythm and depth, where we encounter our fellow human beings in the fullness of their capacities, and where we know ourselves to be equal to that world in depth and strength. (223)

This is very different than ‘affluence’, the possession of many commodities. This kind of wealth will be connected with politics and economics in the next chapter, but for now we connect it to the private sphere, with the traditional concepts of ‘excellence’ (cashed out in terms of world citizenship, gallantry, musicianship, and charity), and ‘family’.

  • World citizenship: within the technological paradigm we learn about our world from a firehose of too much information, shredded into colorful bits of data and delivered in as entertaining a way as possible. We need a center from which to appropriate the world; we cannot comprehend it from the disembodied ‘nowhere’ that is the Internet. Focal things can help give us that grounding.
  • Gallantry: Borgmann defines ‘gallantry’ today as the fitness of our bodies for greatness and for responding to the playfulness of the world. Technology has co-opted the depth of this idea and turned physical fitness into something which is sheer surface: the cultivation of a perfect body in appearance, achievable by science, diets, conforming to norms of fashion, etc… Focal practices can help us rediscover what it is to be fit, not for the sake of appearance or according to an external standard, but as a way of engaging with the world through running, hiking, etc…
  • Musicianship: this virtue has survived somewhat unscathed in the transition to a technological world, and retains connections with traditional excellence. However, technology commoditizes it, makes it available in a way that cheapens the practice of making music. So wealth in this area will look like reminding ourselves of the treasure that music actually is, restraining our consumption of it so as to appreciate the focal practice that results in transcendental live performances in the company of others.
  • Charity: our technological society is depressingly self-oriented, and we have by and large lost touch with the virtue of charity. Focal practices can help us encounter life in a more raw way, one where we are not simply given what we want, which helps us to grow in empathy. Technological citizens are so disengaged as to be calloused by default. Deliberately choosing to live more simply would put us in touch with the plight of others, whom technology does not benefit as it has us.
  • Family: as we discussed in Chapter 18, the modern family has been disintegrated by technology. One consequence is that it has left parents with nothing to do in the service of raising their children. Focal practices allow families to share in an engaging pursuit and form traditions. They give the parents something meaningful to impart. And of course they enable the possibility of enjoyable shared experiences.

This was just a sketch of how this life of ‘wealth’ generated by focal concerns can begin a reform of the technological paradigm, not by destroying technology or banishing it out of our lives, but by refusing to let it take the place of what is ultimately meaningful for us. In the next chapter, we will carry these ideas forward into the realm of politics, the public sphere of engagement, and see how a reform of technology in that sphere would benefit not just us as individual persons but society as a whole.

[Photo: Badlands, taken by the author]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 23, “Focal Things and Practices”

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 previous chapter took Nature as an intuitive source of helpful challenges to the technological paradigm. But Borgmann’s insight, spelled out in his concept of “focal things and practices”, is that what is true about Nature can be explored in a more general fashion. Moreover, Borgmann actually thinks that technology, while it can be a challenge to what we find meaningful in life, for that very reason heightens its beauty. We therefore don’t need to be pessimistic about its survival; we just need to pay attention to how and where we can cultivate focal things and practices despite the challenge that goes along with such effort.

So, what is a focal thing or practice? First of all, what is ‘focus’? We can find two senses of it: the first is from the Latin word for ‘hearth’, where we can see a focus as that which gathers social reality and arranges it around itself. The other sense is later, meaning the “burning point of a lens or mirror”, in other words, where optical lines converge. As Borgmann says, “Figuratively they suggest that a focus gathers the relations of its context and radiates into its surroundings and informs them. To focus on something or to bring it into focus is to make it central, clear, and articulate” (197).

Examples of focal things are not hard to find, and extend beyond the wilderness: music, gardening, the culture of the table, and running constitute a few. We might intuitively understand that these are ‘focal’ in some sense, but we’d all have to agree that they are scattered and disparate, totally unlike the focal things of pre-technological times, like temples, which had a place of physical and cultural prominence (in addition to “focusing” the divinity of their surroundings into one structure).

For Heidegger, this role of the temple—gathering in and disclosing the givenness of its surroundings—is central to art and historical existence. Technology, on the other hand, is for him a metaphysical development that deals in pure conditionality—what might (or might not) be the case in whatever circumstance. Conditionality (potential realities based on lawlike extrapolations of variable states of affairs) is totally different from givenness (what truly is). Heidegger tried to recover this givenness, finding it in simple, concrete artifacts like an earthenware jug. A simple jug by its shape and purpose discloses what it means to hold as well as to give. It gathers together sky, earth, rain, and grape together in the wine it serves, revealing them to us, teaching us about refreshment and invoking the divine (via the tradition of libations, or something else).

While Borgmann is sympathetic to this way of thinking, he fears that we moderns have lost the ability to listen to earthenware jugs the same way we have discarded temples; outside of a very specific set of circumstances, a jug will just be a jug, and a temple a building. What is essential is to uncover the pattern of technology, to perceive its central emptiness, so that focal things regain a place in our ontology, where they had before been crowded out. Moreover, we need to go beyond focal things to practices, and to an engagement with society and politics, which of course is where things themselves exist. Essentially, we need through a cultivation of focal practices and political engagement to strip the gag from focal things and allow them to have a voice in deictic discourse.

Now to more examples. Nature was a good one! What about one that’s “closer to home”? Borgmann examines two in the course of the chapter: running and the culture of the table. He picks these in part because he believes that we have all experienced in some way or another the feeling of a run (or at least a brisk walk), and a simple good meal at home in the presence of good company, and that we will understand the contrast between them and sitting indoors for weeks, or grabbing a quick meal from a fast-food chain.

Unfortunately running outside and homemade meals are nowadays fleeting experiences. Philosophers, politicians, and technologists have not developed them as part of a wider discourse. Instead, practitioners (the runners themselves, for example) have been the ones who have been witnesses of the focal power of these practices. This is excellent, as far as Borgmann is concerned, for these people can actually speak deictically to us! Melville, Thoreau, Pirsig, and Maclean are all helpful. Even instruction manuals for hiking or backpacking can have strikingly deep philosophical reflection and insight.

For running, Borgmann chooses George Sheehan’s Running & Being to bear the torch. Running is different than driving. In both activities we can say we have ‘achieved’ something, but in driving it is the technological achievement of having extracted stored energy from the earth, which of course I had no particular hand in making happen. I can’t really take any credit for it even though I benefit. “I am a divided person; my achievement lies in the past, my enjoyment in the present. But in the runner, effort and joy are one; the split between means and ends, labor and leisure is healed” (202). Running engages the mind and body, which is different from “exercise”, which works the body while leaving the mind disengaged. Running on a treadmill is an efficient, disassociating kind of activity in which I use my body while doing the best I can not to be bored, often by watching TV or listening to music—a perfect example of a ‘divided person’. In outdoor running, mind and body are intimate with the world. We know the world more deeply by running through it than driving past it in an enclosed cage. Not only that, “serious running takes us to the limits of our being” (204) through encountering the pain of effort and working with our bodies.

Another example of a focal practice is the “culture of the table”, i.e., cultivating homemade meals accompanied by conversation in the presence of others. Because of our technological capabilities or our human uniqueness, we often stand over or against the world; coming into immediate contact with the world is therefore something special, and this happens in a meal: “Truly human eating is the union of the primal and the cosmic. In the simplicity of bread and wine, of meat and vegetable, the world is gathered” (204). The great meal is a focal event which gathers the family and the gifts of nature and delivers them to us in the flow of our unique culinary traditions, recollecting our ancestral research into food and our particular branch of humanity’s customs. Technological eating is divided into form and function; in a festive family meal, eating once again engages us fully.

Borgmann acknowledges that in the course of any meal there is an element of sheer consumption. In the great meal, that is only part of the structure, however; there is also a moment of reflection (or prayer), a sequence of courses, memorable conversation, all clothed with the desire to respect one another and the event via the discipline of table manners. Activities are embodied in persons—the dish and cook, the vegetable and gardener, etc… This meal is not characterized by consumption and anonymity. It could even be called religious, or sacred (and many special traditional meals have that character explicitly).

In our technological setting, the great meal is necessarily understood differently than in a pre-technological one; for us, rather than it being the necessary way of things, it can become something more: a place of calm, of memory. A place where there is respite from the striving for consumption and a restoration of the depth of the world.

Engaging in focal practices like running or cultivating homemade meals is clearly possible for all of us to do (even if only because our technological society has given us that opportunity!). Everyone can run or make a meal from scratch. So why don’t we, as a society? Well, first of all, our labor—that which we spend most of our time doing—is exhausting. When we return home from it, it’s easy to say “yes” to the least burdensome diversion that approaches us (e.g., TV). And so ultimately the rule of technology, which we have been examining all these chapters, is stronger than any ad hoc willpower we might possess. The whole framework of our world validates my desire to simply kick back in the easy chair and watch a movie, beer in hand. If we care about running or making meals from scratch, the only thing that will suffice is turning them into an actual practice, not a series of one-off events we hope will be the norm. Borgmann says, “…without a practice, an engaging action or event can momentarily light up our life, but it cannot order and orient it focally… Through a practice we are able to accomplish what remains unattainable when aimed at in a series of individual decisions and acts” (207).

How are focal practices established? In pre-technological societies, they were often done so with some mythic purpose or backstory, showing how this particular practice enacts something we all know or desire to be true cosmically, for example as in the Eucharist, a practice established to commemorate not just a specific event but the cosmic reality that event signified: God giving himself for the world. Practices were established in the face of some obvious antagonist, like chaos (thinking, “if we but keep this practice it will keep chaos and disorder at bay”). Our antagonist today is the deadening effect of technology, but this antagonist is hard to see. It is the backdrop, the stage setting, not easily visible as a character itself. Unless we have seen its patterns and felt its debilitating effect on our lives, it will be hard to find energy to found focal practices in opposition to it. But if we have observed the “persuasiveness and consistency of its pattern”, we will be encouraged to engage in focal practices that restore depth and integrity to our lives.

Practices, in their recurring and faithful nature, protect focal things from being subverted by technology and from being lost because of our own frailty or natural inconsistency. Practices remind us that focal goods, far from being delivered automatically whenever we engage in the practice, are hard-won, and all the more satisfying for remaining in the practice despite difficulty or long seasons without apparent advancement. And as Alisdair MacIntyre says, a practice always contains the notion of the goods it obtains, so the technological split between means and ends is healed—the focal practice and focal good cannot be disentangled as with a machine and its product.

In sum, focal practices are essential to counteract the pattern of technology and to guard focal things from extinction. They come into being through either our explicit resolution or an implicit nurturing that becomes a solid custom. Our focal practices today will differ from those of our pre-technological ancestors. Theirs were social, public, and enshrined in buildings, public offices, roles, clothing, etc… Ours are more humble, homely, scattered, and often more private. This is a limitation of focal practices that we need to examine if, as Borgmann thinks, they can be the ground for a more widespread reform of technology that reaches into the public sphere. And so we set the stage for the next chapter, which will begin to tie together the notion of focal practices with the “good life”, and how that pushes inevitably into politics.

[Photo: breakfast at our table, by Jessica Lipps]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 22, “The Challenge of Nature”

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 a sort of case study or example of something we might start deictic discourse (the subject of the last chapter) about in a fruitful way. Borgmann thinks that, in North America, nature (specifically as “wilderness”) is possibly the most obvious place to start looking for focal concerns to discourse deictically about. We’ll first start with a brief history of attitudes towards North American wilderness, then discuss previous attempts by conservationists to involve the wilderness in public discourse, and finally explore a new understanding of wilderness from within the context of our technological society.

The initial view of wilderness was that, being wild, it was a terrifying place. It was something that was not good until it could be tamed into a garden. And early European settlers (or invaders, however you see them), after a brief flirtation with the idea of the New World as a beautiful Eden, eventually saw it as an empty land, waiting to be wrought into shape. Of course, the land wasn’t “empty” by any stretch, nor was it unsettled or uncultivated; civilizations and centuries-long relationships with land already existed, in the form of the Native Americans.

Anyway, while this view of wilderness as a chaotic void waiting to be tamed was pre-technological, it was certainly amenable to the technological approach once that came on the scene. The technological paradigm sees nature as something to be shaped, something to be used as a mere means, as a raw material. And this indeed became the mission, not so much of the pioneers, but of early American industry: to subdue the wilderness and turn it into something that could become part of the production of goods that benefit humankind. Whereas in the Old World there were much more long-lasting ties between humans and the lands they dwelled in, this more instrumental view of nature in the New World did not encourage such ties.

On the other hand, in the Old World, nature was much more often cultivated than not; relatively speaking, there was much less true “wilderness” left in Europe. Thus the American wilderness can be seen as providing a unique challenge to the technological paradigm, in two senses: first, it can be a challenge within the framework. In this sense, wilderness is something to be overcome by technology. It might prove at first unyielding to technology; for a long time we lacked the ability to blast holes through mountains, for example. Technology overcomes this challenge through the outworking of the paradigm, applying scientific insight with the aim of deconstructing natural resources for us. Second, wilderness can be a challenge to the framework of technology itself, for example by highlighting necessary conversations about domination vs respect and conservation. If the technological paradigm in and of itself must take a dominating stance to nature, then the existence of the wilderness could be seen as a counterexample to that paradigm.

Technology does have within itself some resources to meet this kind of challenge, however. Recreation and human enjoyment is one of the avowed ends of technology, and it could be argued (from within that framework) that we should therefore preserve some wilderness so that humans have access to that particular kind of pleasure. Borgmann points out that this kind of argumentation is not what he means by deictic discourse, and thus ultimately not the kind of talk that brings the real issues to the fore. When conservationists use these kinds of arguments (arguments according to practical rationality), they give up the possibility of speaking movingly and eloquently about this thing (the wilderness) that has so deeply affected them.

In other words, feeling the need to give a justification for conservation gives the game away before it starts, because it is then always an open move to rank the wilderness against some other supposed human benefit (like safety, or convenience). It fails to disclose nature to us as something other, something that has value in its own right outside of human instrumentality. As Borgmann says, “Discourse of nature can hope finally to be successful only if it abandons the conceptual outposts and bulwarks and allows nature to speak directly and fully in one’s words” (187).

Early analyses of technology vis a vis nature talked a lot about the intrusiveness of technology. The loud and brash steam locomotive, for example. There was a sense that technology was constructing a “machine in the garden”, so to speak. More recently, as Borgmann’s book is trying to show, technology has been shaping our lives more concretely precisely when it is less intrusive, precisely when it is the hidden backdrop of all our actions. A city suburb, for example, is a technological device through and through: a conglomeration of commodities procured by hidden machinery. Thus, “the advanced technology setting is characterized not by the violence of machinery but by the disengagement and distraction of commodities” (189). The balance has shifted. Now nature is the island, the garden in the machine, not the other way around.

On one hand, this feels defeating. Has nature been fully conquered? Borgmann wants us to take a more positive view: these islands can be sources of challenge for the technological paradigm, sacred spaces where technological distractions can be (in virtue of their conspicuous absence) be seen for what they are, viscerally. Borgmann’s not saying that we should turn nature into religion or that it’s the only way of accessing the divine, but it is a clear starting point for this kind of thing.

How does this work, exactly? How does nature have the possibility of bringing these issues up for us in this “sacred” way? We could look at some oppositions between life in technology and life in the wilderness.

  • Technology annihilates time and space (in bringing everything and everyone closer in both dimensions, until space has no more meaning). Wilderness restores it to us. The sun is our compass, the land delineates clear boundaries with its physical features. A day in the wilderness is marked by the rhythm of the various activities necessary for survival.
  • Technology bespeaks human creation; nature speaks to us as an another, outside the human world. It speaks as something in its own right, which devices never do.
  • Technology takes a shallow view of objects, and turns them into commodities. Nature is eminently deep. An animal in the eyes of technology is a machine that produces such-and-such amount of meat and other materials that are worthless and must be discarded. In the wilderness, the animal is a focus of nature, a distillation of the land itself and the bounty that it can support. In the wilderness, we are not consumers or conquerors, but engaged guests. We can, in a different way even than the animal, gather and focus (like a prism) the beauty and meaning around us.

Of course, these days the wilderness is always bounded by or mediated by technology. We drive to the mountains. We see jet contrails while backpacking. These slight intrusions remind us of the troubled relationship between nature and technology. They call us to be less egotistical, less anthropocentric in our treatment of the world. We also recognize that in our wilderness expeditions nowadays, it is the blessings of technology that keep us warm, well-fed, and safe. Our technical clothing, footgear, lightweight tents, dried food, and so on. But wait a minute! Is it not contradictory with the spirit of Borgmann’s analysis to want to enter the wild in safety and ease? Maybe it is to some extent, but Borgmann acquiesces that it would be foolish to court death in the wilderness. We have to have a mature recognition that the need to risk our lives in nature has been done away with. Still, this doesn’t mean that we can simply let the wilderness vanish; in fact the opposite is even more true. Our position of technological safety in the wilderness highlights nature’s fragility and need for protection. In a way, we as the children of nature have grown up, and are now “old” enough (technologically advanced enough) to see the frailty and complexity of our parents. This situation should move us to compassion and care, not extortion or abandonment.

In other words, the wilderness can help us acknowledge our need for technology, the fact that we fundamentally rely on it now, and there’s no going back. At the same time, nature helps us acknowledge our need to limit technology. On its own, technology neither needs nor wants limits, but engagement with focal things (or practices) like nature can help us outline that more mature and humble engagement with technology. Focal things are not just forlorn, pre-technological bygones; they can have a new and deep splendor, even in the technological world, so long as we heed their call to a mature and appropriately limited technology.

In the next chapter, we’ll dig even more deeply into the concept of “focal things and practices”, and move from nature to a number of other examples and how they might be patterns for us to move forward and find yet more in our own lives, about which we can speak deictically and effectively.

[Header photo by the author; Joshua Tree in 2009]

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 21, “Deictic Discourse”

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 turn now to the chapter wherein Borgmann finally goes into detail about the kind of discourse he actually thinks can have an impact on the current state of technological society: deictic discourse. Deictic discourse is discourse guided by specific focal concerns. It’s hard to know exactly what that means, or why it’s especially effective, and this chapter unpacks its relevance.

The context for these considerations is our earlier discussion about society and the good life. The liberal democratic tradition thinks it has left the question of the good life open in a good and fruitful way, but Borgmann would say that it’s not actually as open as it looks. In fact, we live our lives according to a relatively constrained set of possibilities defined by the technological paradigm. Recognizing that this is the case is of course the first step to doing something about it. But this recognition and any ensuing conversation is actually a pretty rare thing. How come? Well, as a society, the only real public conversations left to us are in the realm of politics, and thanks to the ideals of liberal democracy, political debate is kept fastidiously free of any real moral discussion (for reasons enumerated in previous chapters, e.g., that questions of the good life are to be answered by individuals and not society). The irony is, again, that these questions haven’t been left open; we have chosen a definite way of life as a society, only we’re not allowed to acknowledge it as part of our public discourse. This is part and parcel of “the catastrophe of liberalism which overturns the traditional order without being able to institute a new one” (170).

It is deictic discourse that re-opens the possibility of that conversation. Crucially, it doesn’t strive for pure philosophical cogency (and by cogency Borgmann has in mind a style of argument that compels assent), but rather “points” (hence the term deictic from Greek deiknumi) to something in our common experience which might be able to make a claim on us in virtue of its focal nature (i.e., in virtue of its capacity for sustaining and orienting human experience and significance).

But hold on a minute. Is it really true that there is no “moral” discourse in our political debates? In a sense, Borgmann allows that there is. There are discussions about responsibility, honesty, accountability, and fair dealing, but by and large these fall within and are defined by the technological paradigm, and the explicit and banal goal of maximizing resources and profit. In that context, yes, it is objectionable for an operator to exhibit greed—but the moral force of our reprehension has little to do with the inherent moral vice of greed and more to do with the inappropriateness of that action in hindering the smooth working of the economic engine. Or occasionally some genuinely “moral” movements might spring up from political or religious motivations, but these usually end up simply promoting the expansion of technology to population segments that don’t have it yet. Finally, there are sometimes “purely moral” discussions that have to do with the death penalty, abortion, pornography, etc…, which are increasingly incomprehensible by a technological society and often just do a lot of harm.

The one thing that’s never actually on the table is the explicit goal of technology, namely consumption. Consumption comes pre-justified (unless it harms someone else). Someone might be considered frivolous for buying a car in a mid-life crisis, but it would be “his business to spend his money how he wants”, not an opening for an ethical conversation. But this sweeps off the table whole areas of life that used to be squarely within the field of ethics! Now these issues just get a free ride, without any possibility of moral critique.

Consumption, of course goes against a positive notion of freedom, i.e., the promise of technology for self-improvement, which is ironically removed even further from us when the self is realized via consumption. Borgmann believes that, deep down, we all feel this: “I believe that what shows itself in the vacuity or arbitrariness of most private moral discourse is neither ethical pluralism nor ethical chaos but complicity with technology” (173). In other words, what we consider with pride to be a good sort of liberal ethical pluralism is in fact a very definite, non-pluralistic kind of morality based around consumption. What we need is for this fact to take center stage as a moral issue.

For any moral issue to be genuinely discussed will be hard, however, because of the ghosts of dogmatistm, bigotry, superiority, etc…, not to mention that traditional morality holds no sway with modern society. But the most difficult aspect will be that deictic discourse lacks, according to Borgmann, “cogency and procurability”, which are now the standard requirements of any discourse, presumably because of the privileged place of science in explanation (never mind that people don’t actually understand how science works). Borgmann points out that this is actually a feature of deictic discourse, but in the context of our modern expectations of cogency, it is a challenge nonetheless.

But why be so quick to give up cogency? Why deictic discourse and not some other more airtight form of philosophical reasoning? As Borgmann points out, there’s a long history of philosophers trying to start with little and end with much, but just as in real life, this never actually works. Usually it turns out that stronger assumptions were smuggled in somewhere, and the dramatic conclusion is mere philosophical legerdemain, rather than a genuine proof. For example, JS Mill claims that, in most cases, focusing on one’s own happiness will lead to the greatest good for the most people (here the weak starting assumption is “just focus on your own happiness”, and the strong conclusion is that this will set society as a whole on the best path). Pascal’s Wager would be another example (it’s better to assume that God exists because that’s the bet that’s most likely to pay off, therefore…. God exists?). Borgmann’s point is that in each case the argument compels not because of its rational character but because of the strong, hidden starting assumptions, which are precisely where deictic discourse begins and ends. Only, it does so honestly, without pretending to be something other than it is.

Ultimately, if there’s going to be a successful critique of the social malaise inculcated by technology, it has to come through deictic discourse. So what could its impetus be? Borgmann says that it needs to begin with the inner experience of something of ultimate significance (i.e., a focal thing or practice) that’s threatened by technology, and it must be fueled by regard for our fellow human beings. What, then, are some of the characteristics of this kind of discourse? It has three descriptors:

  1. It is enthusiastic: it is filled by the greatness of the thing that I’m disclosing, its potential for solace and delight. In other words, it springs out of a real and genuine (even transcendent) encounter with something.
  2. It is sympathetic: it is tempered by concern for the integrity of the person I’m talking with. It cares more about that person than their allegiance to what I’m disclosing. In fact, I’ll prevent their agreement if it looks like it would injure their agency.
  3. It is tolerant: it recognizes that violence or aggression will automatically nullify what I’m trying to disclose, and cause more harm than good. Violence and force are never worth it.

This is why Borgmann says that deictic discourse lacks cogency in a positive way: it simply discloses the good as an opportunity, as an open door that one may walk through, and the land through which I have experienced myself to be good. Deictic discourse is a witnessing or appealing kind of communication, not an expository kind of communication, or even a persuasive/rhetorical kind of communication. Borgmann says that this kind of discourse is what our democracy needs (and I heartily agree). Of course, liberal democracy must be opposed to deictic discourse since deictic discourse presumes to communicate a concrete aspect of the good life, and liberal democracy is committed to leaving the good life “open”. In other words, it believes that it has created an environment of true tolerance. The reply is as before: liberal democracy only claims to have left the good life open; in fact it hasn’t done so: “The question of the good life, as said before, cannot be left open. What remains open is not whether but how we will answer it.”

Deictic discourse has two modes, corresponding to its character of witnessing on one hand and appealing on the other. As a witness’s testimony, it becomes poetry. And as a strong appeal, it becomes politics. In fact, deictic discourse must be the ground of all real political action. Apodeictic discourse (the kind that comes by scientific or philosophical reasoning) can demand assent, but only in the narrow sphere of its own definitions. To connect it to action there must always be a deictic component. Deictic explanation is the only kind that can fill the is-ought gap.

A final critique of deictic discourse is that what is a focal thing or practice for me, what is of ultimate concern for me, is merely my imposition of significance. This is supposed to disqualify my appeal from generality, but Borgmann doesn’t dodge the critique. It is true, and irrefutably so. On the other hand, it’s inconsequential. Deictic discourse doesn’t aim to show that something is generally significant, or universally true. Its strength comes from precisely the opposite: it is grounded in the dirt of my own specific experience. It is unapologetically personal; it puts the question of significance to the interlocutor in a way that raises the question of her own experience as well. It says, in sum, “come and see”.

And thus ends Borgmann’s powerful explanation of deictic discourse. To drive the point home further, in the next chapter he will give an example of something about which deictic discourse is eminently suited: our natural environment and our relationship to it.