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

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 8, “The Promise of Technology”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mathematical Model of Spiritual Development

I was inspired after a recent conversation (on humans’ psychological relationship with our own spiritual development) to do something I have been meaning to do for a long time, namely to put into practice some of the methodologies that I considered very powerful after reading Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology trilogy. Essentially, I want to bring the well-known concept of mathematical modeling to bear on a theological issue (spiritual development). In doing so, I am hoping to achieve what all models are meant to achieve–an analogy that captures as much of the data as possible while providing a simple, coherent, abstract picture that can be investigated in its own right. I am emphatically not trying to define or otherwise delineate all aspects of spiritual development via such a model; spiritual development is the reality, and any model is simply a way of attempting to capture that reality and present it in such a way as to spark further exploration. That is all! Indeed, just in virtue of the fact that the model I am about to propose is mathematical, we should not expect it to speak to all (or even most) of the phenomena surrounding spiritual development, which exists in a stratum of reality distinct from that of mathematics. Still, some surprising correlations can be made, and I hope these may be found useful.

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The Da Vinci Code

I just finished reading The Da Vinci Code (hereafter TDVC–or maybe I’ll write it out for SEO purposes). It was more or less, given all the fuss, what I’d expected. I thought I’d share some thoughts and reflections. Be warned–I will probably reveal things about the plot that you may not want to know if you are keeping a vow of Da Vinci virginity or something.

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Quantum Community

In physics, there is what is known as the “wave-particle duality” of photons. Sometimes, light behaves like a particle, and sometimes it behaves like a wave. It seems occasionally to simultaneously follow the rules for particles and waves! This confounds physicists (and me).

Recently, I have become aware that community is much like this. One might think that a community is just an aggregate of particles (individuals), and so it should behave like an aggregate of individuals. Another might think that a community is like a wave–it behaves like a single extended entity. These people will treat community differently; the first person will place ultimate foundation in each individual, and will argue that their motions (i.e., the influence of God’s will in their life, and their response) qua individuals define the epiphenomenal motions of the community at large. Those of the wave persuasion will argue conversely that God directs the community as a whole according to his will, and the motions of individual members follow like crests and troughs in a wave–all very connected.

It is hard to know within which paradigm I should be viewing community right now. Are we fundamentally separated, and therefore at the end of the day we must discern our calling from God as pertaining to ourselves alone? Or are we fundamentally connected, and must therefore all collectively submit our motions to the movement of the larger group?

Right now, it seems appropriate to view the motions of some as following the particle paradigm, and others as following the wave paradigm. Are we therefore separate entities (i.e., in separate communities)? Or are we exhibiting the true essence of community and just failing to describe it in classical sociological terms, exactly the same as physicists failed to describe quantum phenomena using Newtonian language?

We have been gathering data for a while now, but I think we still need some more. Anyone else have any data worth sharing?

Faith and Science

I’m in Orlando this week for a seminar we’re putting on with Alister McGrath as the lecturer. We’re filming the whole experience in an insanely-designed soundstage at Disney’s MGM studios, and just being in such a cool place every day is pretty fun. The lectures themselves, and more importantly the interaction that I’ve been able to have with Alister both on and off camera, have been incredible.

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