Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 2, “Theories 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.

Chapter 2 of TCCL consists of an overview of several existing theories of technology that Borgmann wants to use as partners in dialogue, in the process of constructing his own theory. The pre-theoretic, simplistic view of technology is pragmatic: science and technology have proven their validity and usefulness through the effective solutions they boast to real problems. Since it is obvious that technology has indeed solved such problems, any more nuanced theory will have to be presented with the utmost precision and care. (Here I think Borgmann is justifying the level of detail he will be going into in this section of the book).

In the simplistic “default” view, technology is basically “applied science and engineering” (8). By this Borgmann is saying people generally think of technology merely as what happens when scientists and engineers do work in the world. He claims this leaves technology too narrowly defined: there is no room for fruitful inquiry into technology’s deeper essence if it is defined purely functionally. So a real theory of technology would offer a more engaging perspective.

Borgmann sees three broad approaches to developing a theory of technology:

  1. The substantive approach. On this view, technology is a force in its own right. It isn’t understood as a personal force, but just something which is not reducible to other principles. In other words, it’s a basic element of modern existence, rather than something which is explained by reference to other elements. As a matter of practice, most substantivists tend to portray this force as negative (and so are called anti-technologist or Luddite).

    While Borgmann lauds the simplicity of this view (technology simply is) and the fact that technology as a basic force is seen to have its own characteristic essence, he thinks substantivists do not adequately meet the challenges posed by the apparent success of technology in meeting the world’s problems. Stridently declaring technology evil does not deliver the requisite insight!

  2. The instrumentalist approach. This is perhaps the most common theoretical position; it sees technological devices as the evolution of the simple tools humans have been using since the dawn of our species—there is fundamentally no difference between a hammer and a computer. On this approach, Borgmann notes that the primary question concerning technology becomes: what ends are these tools used for?

    This division between ends and means finds a congenial home in our liberal democracy (by which Borgmann means this kind of democracy), wherein “it is the task of the state to provide means for the good life but … to leave to private efforts the establishment and pursuit of ultimate values” (10). In other words, the state is free to make available any kind of technological development, but not to say what kinds of ends are appropriate for their use.

    Borgmann admits that instrumentalism is on one hand true (technological devices and tools are indeed analogically related, and the distinction between ends and means is indeed a real part of our current experience), but claims it misses several important points. The first is that the distinction between ends and means itself is a novel thing which did not exist in pre-technological society. Secondly, technological “ends” consistently find their realization in supporting a ruling elite and exploiting the poor, which suggests there is something more complicated going on than the use of tools.

  3. The pluralist approach. Borgmann defines this perspective rather vaguely (in my opinion), describing it basically as the position that there can be no comprehensive approach to technology; at the end of the day, all we have are anecdotes about society’s engagement with machines, and there is no discernible underlying pattern. While this approach can (technically speaking) handle every observed fact or situation, Borgmann claims it does so at the cost of failing the test of reality: technology does have a character which runs through all the instances of its use, and it moreover has a real effect on the world. As he says, “in modern technology the face of the earth is transformed in a radically novel way” (11)—I leave it to the reader to imagine all the ways the earth has been literally transformed by machines.

After this brief review, Borgmann describes the kind of theory of technology he wants to build in TCCL. It should make bold and radical claims, it should explicate the character of technology (i.e., make it easier to observe and understand), it should on one hand reflect common-sense intuitions while on the other hand avoid superficiality, and finally it should emerge from an observation of actual events and situations (i.e., it should have empirical grounding).

As we move into the next chapters, Borgmann will lay out the ground rules for developing and substantiating such a theory. For example, we’ll engage in some philosophy of science (“What is a theory, and what makes a theory good?”). We’ll also look at the relationship between technology and science—is it as close as we normally assume? We’ll begin to explore that question in Chapter 3.

Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 1, “Technology and Theory”

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

In the first chapter of TCCL, Borgmann makes it clear that we need a theory of technology, not just an understanding of the practices involved in it. He says moreover that this study is going to be “philosophical”, especially in the sense of prompting “considerations of a radical and reflective sort” (7). (This was certainly my experience in reading the book). The reason we need a theory is that problems in technological societies such as ours are often seen to be extrinsic to technology. People claim that “they stem … from political indecision, social injustice, or environmental constraints” (3). According to Borgmann, this is a mistaken view. There is in fact a definite pattern to the fabric of our technologically-driven lives which elucidates the “hopes, confusions, and frustrations of the modern period” (3)—and it is intrinsically tied up with technology.

(Philosophers have historically fared no better than others in discerning this pattern because, Borgmann suggests, they often overlook the everyday foreground of our lives; and it is precisely here where the paradigmatic pattern of technology dominates.)

We need a theory of technology, and much of the book will be devoted to delivering one. So let’s begin. What is technology? It is, in sum, the dominant characteristic approach to reality in the modern world. It is seen most concretely in “devices” (TVs, cars, etc…), and showing how such devices are paradigmatic of technology is a major aim of the book.

We can give one initial example of a device: a stereo set. The reason a stereo set exists is obvious: its goal is to provide music. Of course, people who gather with instruments and play bluegrass also provide music, but a stereo set provides music (a) at any time, and (b) of any kind. A stereo set, within the boundaries of its technology, is infinitely more versatile than a group of humans with instruments, but this comes at the cost of extreme abstractness (the form of the stereo set has nothing to do with the kind of music it provides, whereas the shape and material of a fiddle has everything to do with it) and concealment (the inner workings of a stereo set are an inscrutable collection of microchips and small electronics hidden behind a plastic veil). These two features, abstractness and concealment, will be major themes in elucidating the device paradigm.

Differences like these between live musicians (pre-technologically the only way to procure music) and a stereo set flag important questions of the gains and losses of the technological approach, which will continue to provide an interesting arena for discussion.

Apart from establishing the device paradigm as a good theory of technology, the other main aim of TCCL is to discuss “focal things and practices”, in order to understand the fatal flaw in present technological rule (this is where we can see the philosophy becoming truly radical, in the sense of calling accepted sensibilities into question). What are focal things and practices? In short, they are things/practices that “center and illuminate our lives” (4). As Borgmann says, “Music certainly has that power if it is alive as a regular and skillful engagement of body and mind and if it graces us in a full and final way” (4).

A core critique of modern society, for Borgmann, is that it fundamentally lacks appreciation for the centrality of focal concerns, not to mention the tendency for technology to diminish them. (This is true even among philosophers and sociologists who study the modern era). It’s a testament to the cogency of the book, then, that this techno-junkie found deep insight in Borgmann’s claims that the device paradigm is inherently arrayed against focal concerns. But we’ve finished with chapter 1. See you next time for chapter 2, “Theories of Technology”!

PS: Some evidence that some part of Borgmann’s theory of technology resonates with technologists’ understanding of it can be found in this interesting post by Jean-Baptiste Queru on the complexity of a simple task like visiting a web page. A relevant quote which emphasizes the ‘concealment’ aspect (and the corresponding inability for most of us to diagnose and fix technological problems):

Once you start to understand how [our] modern devices work and how they’re created, it’s impossible to not be dizzy about the depth of everything that’s involved, and to not be in awe about the fact that they work at all, when Murphy’s law says that they simply shouldn’t possibly work.

For non-technologists, this is all a black box. That is a great success of technology: all those layers of complexity are entirely hidden and people can use them without even knowing that they exist at all. That is the reason why many people can find computers so frustrating to use: there are so many things that can possibly go wrong that some of them inevitably will, but the complexity goes so deep that it’s impossible for most users to be able to do anything about any error.

Blogging Borgmann: Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Overview)

As any long-time reader of this blog knows, I am an avid technologist. From an early age, I was coding, gaming (see this post for my personal gaming history), building computers, hacking electronic devices, etc… I’ve never been without a self-designed Internet homepage since 1997, and this blog has existed sporadically since 2002. After college I worked full-time as a web developer building applications, starting up startups, and generally being immersed in the geekiest of Internet culture (you may not know this, but according to YouTube I am a minor celebrity, because of a random video of an origami castle I posted once). I’ve salivated after iPods, stood in line for iPhones, built applications for Facebook, and co-founded two tech startups. How much more techno-centric could my life get?

In recent years, despite my love of all shiny code-filled things, I’ve had a nagging worry about the largely uncritical process by which society adopts new technologies, and this has surfaced on the blog occasionally: I’ve wondered about media consumption, questioned smartphones’ effects on our mental faculties, and even stopped checking Facebook. A few years ago, a friend told me about a book by Albert Borgmann which apparently called into question the fundamental operating pattern of technology. I was intrigued, and not a bit offended by the very idea of this, so I ordered Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL). It was my first foray into the philosophy of technology, and it profoundly changed the way I think about technology and technological devices.

This change didn’t come easy; in fact, Borgmann’s rather short book took me over a year to read. Partly this is because Borgmann’s writing is dense (full of rich meaning, but hard to digest), and partly it’s because I subconsciously knew my position on technology and thereby my habitual actions were in danger of being threatened by a sea change. After finishing the book last Fall and wrestling with / processing Borgmann’s ideas, I resolved to read the book again, blogging each chapter as I go (both to clarify my own understanding and to help his ideas reach a wider audience). My goal will be to summarize Borgmann’s ideas and engage with them briefly (though this will look primarily like explicating them and defending them against putative objections, since I have been so swayed by his perspective). There are, I think, accessible popularizations of Borgmann’s ideas already available (of which I believe Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford to be one), but I hope my bringing attention to this relatively new field will be helpful nonetheless. For now, I will give a brief overview of the book, and hopefully tackle Chapter 1 sometime soon.

Book Overview

Borgmann’s book attempts to answer the basic question “What is technology?” by elucidating the basic character or pattern of technology (and indeed arguing that there is such a discernible pattern), and using that understanding to suggest a direction for the reform of technology (that such a reform is necessary is motivated by the nature of the basic pattern Borgmann argues has emerged).

There are, he claims, essentially three views on the essence of technology: the substantive, the instrumentalist, and the pluralist. On the substantive view, technology is a force in its own right, with its own character, and can thereby explain other phenomena in a properly basic way. For people who hold this view, technology is often pernicious, i.e., something to be avoided or minimized (cf. the anti-technology “Luddites”). On the instrumentalist view, technology is not a thing in and of itself, beyond the facts of machines and the purposes to which humans set them. Morality vis a vis technology is therefore the same as morality vis a vis anything else—technology has no distinctive character which warrants a different analysis. Technology is essentially composed of more and better tools: there is no qualitative difference on the philosophical level between an iPhone and a hammer and chisel. Finally, the pluralist view brings to the fore the complexity of the task of describing technology, and makes no statements about its essence: it recognizes the validity in both the substantive and instrumentalist perspectives and attempts no adjudication.

Borgmann is concerned in TCCL to argue for the substantive view, though in a patently non-Luddite tone. He rejects the pluralist view outright as a failure to recognize the reality that technology is something: pluralism is an unhelpful recapitulation of the problem of defining technology. The instrumentalist view is, according to Borgmann, the dominant and subconscious view, held by philosophers as well as popular culture (indeed, it was my view before reading his book), and much of the book is therefore spent explaining some of its inadequacies. His main critique is that the instrumentalist view fails to recognize the overarching paradigm which characterizes technology, and whose challenge cannot be met without engaging in so-called “deictic discourse” (essentially, discourse containing reference to ultimate goods). The whole point of instrumentalism is to avoid deictic discourse, and to assert that technology is a value-neutral enterprise, ready to be aimed towards the definition of good of whoever holds the trigger. Borgmann’s claim that in fact technology has its own “bent” brings up questions of social justice and social responsibility which end up being difficult to discuss profitably in the marketplace, especially when instrumentalism is assumed all around.

The pattern Borgmann sees underlying technology as a whole is called the “device paradigm”, defined as the making of goods available in a non-burdensome way, increasingly through the removal of the inner workings of the good-producing machine from human view and from human understanding. There is therefore a distinction between a thing and a device. Wood, for example, is a thing: it is felled, chopped, stacked, and put into a fire in order to burn and produce heat for a family. While fire itself is a scientific phenomenon difficult to explain, at no point is the production of heat (for the purpose of warmth) opaque to human participants. The wood also confronts us with its thingness: it is rough, heavy, requires work to chop, turns into annoying ash, has a distinct smell, produces smoke, etc… All of these things are intrinsic and cannot be separated from the heat produced.

A central heating system, on the other hand, produces warmth without any of these effects. The system itself is hidden from view (obviating the need for a hearth around which families gathered), and its workings are opaque to observers who are not specially trained in the technology. Warmth is commoditized and separated from its previously-physical concomitants. This is precisely what a device is: something that provides a commodity in a non-burdensome way, via the inner workings of black box of the machine.

According to Borgmann, the commoditization of certain goods which used to be obtainable only in conjunction with certain “focal practices” (practices central to the humanity of humans, or related to “ultimate” concerns) is dangerous on a number of levels, and becomes an issue of social responsibility and justice, precisely when the instrumental view of technology illegitimates talk of ultimate concerns in the first place. What Borgmann sees happening is the increasing procurement of goods without the contexts which originally gave those goods meaning. Microwave dinners, treadmills, and the assembly line all come into view as clear examples of devices which subtly undermine the value in (respectively) the process of preparing food, the engagement of the physical world via running through it, and the satisfaction of creative, skilled labor.

It should be clear at this point that Borgmann believes technology needs reform, and the last third of the book is devoted to this issue. I will stop the overview here, however, and wait to discuss his recommendations until more of the scene is set. Suffice it to say that reform for Borgmann involves a recognition of the importance of focal things and practices, an awareness of nature, and deeper reflection on excellence, happiness, work, and political involvement.

Book Outline

Interviewing Borgmann

After completing this series, I had the opportunity to interview Albert at his home in Montana. Our very enlightening conversation has been transcribed and written up here as 4 separate posts:

Reflection: Why “It’s Complicated” With Facebook

When my wife and I got married at the beginning of last August, we decided not to use Facebook or do (practically) any e-mail during our month-long honeymoon, since we wanted our vacation to be free from social distraction. Afterwards, once we got set up in our apartment in Oxford, I gave myself a little challenge, on a whim: not to open up Facebook until I had a need or strong desire to. While the need was realized once or twice (I maintain a Facebook application called BookTracker, and had to update and test some code, which required going to the canvas page for the application), the strong desire wasn’t. Thus it happens that, 5 months after my Facebook hiatus officially ended, I still haven’t updated my status (although updates are made automatically when I publish a blog) or seen anything in my news feed. Somewhat humorously, Jessica and I haven’t even bothered to update our relationship status from ‘Engaged’ to ‘Married’! What follows are a few reflections I now feel prepared to make about Facebook (and a fortiori much of social media in general), given that I’ve had a decent amount of time to differentiate from it:

  • Facebook is distracting. Even though I had heavily curated my news feed, ruthlessly eliminating ‘friends’ to keep them from crufting it up with FarmVille updates, I now recognize that Facebook was a habitual distraction. Whenever I paused in work or lost a train of thought, I’d mindlessly navigate to Facebook and get even further away from what I really needed to spend time doing. I still have other such distractions, e-mail being the most major. But in resisting the urge to click my Facebook bookmark, I really do save time and brain cycles. I think the mode of distraction goes deeper than individual distraction experiences, however; more on this in further reflections!

  • Facebook discourages extended or systematic discourse. I’m the kind of person who likes to share thoughts and ideas, and sometimes I even think others appreciate them. What Facebook (and moreso Twitter) encouraged me to do was to compress these thoughts into something that could fit into a status update. I realized that this bite-size style of communication had two effects:
    • My desires to share thoughts/ideas were satisfied by publishing these snippets, and I therefore had less inclination to try and say something that took time to post on my blog. Why would I try to make a complex and nuanced contribution to a conversation when I would get ‘liked’ just as much for saying something short and snarky, or simply passing on a link?
    • The things I said were less useful or interesting to others. While there is indeed value in saying something concisely, there are a lot of valuable things that can’t be so stated (hopefully this post is among them, for example). Some arguments that merit attention are extended!

    A systemic corollary of this, I think, is the general reduction of people’s willingness to engage with complicated ideas that take time to explicate and understand. I think it’s obvious why this is a problem—one has only to look at any hot political issue to see what happens when debate devolves into slogan-shouting (i.e., status-update-slinging)!

  • Facebook is shallow. I mean this in a number of ways. The previous point elaborated on the shallowness inherent in the sharing mechanism, but I believe it extends to the quality of relationships maintained on Facebook, and in general the content which is produced (‘social’ apps tend to exacerbate this problem, as they try to spam the news feed with meaningless achievements or updates). I think this point is a strict consequence of other things I’ve been saying, but I wanted to sum it up under one adjective.

  • Facebook technologizes relationships. I hope that this entry will be the first of many to come relating to the philosophy of technology, and so I don’t want to go into a lot of detail here. Basically, Facebook is an instance of the technological paradigm in that it commoditizes the goods it claims to procure for us. Ostensibly, Facebook’s goal is merely to provide something like ‘frictionless online connection’ for pre-existing friendships. However, let’s face it, what people use Facebook for is ‘connection’ simpliciter, and often not even in the context of a pre-existing relationship. The ‘connection’ that Facebook procures for us in this regard is the mere composite of the sharing and consuming of personal information, rather than the appropriate synchronization of sharing/consuming which engenders true connection. These two behaviors (sharing and consuming) are disconnected in such a way that everyone is talking, and everyone is listening, but nobody is having a conversation. And yet, in the way that high-fructose corn syrup fools our bodies into thinking they have ingested something natural (sugar), I notice that, for the most part, Facebook users believe this flood of voices projected into the void constitutes legitimate connection.

  • Facebook facilitates strange interpersonal behavior. Has anyone ever had a Facebook friend post something to their wall which should have more appropriately been sent as a private message? I have, and much more often than experiencing the equivalent real-life behavior (i.e., communicating personal information within earshot of others) or even the equivalent e-mail behavior (i.e., cc’ing people who really don’t have anything to do with the private contents of the message). Has anyone else noticed a growing tendency in users to share fairly personal and/or awkward updates to their entire friend list? Facebook provides tools to moderate who sees what, but few if any people make use of these tools, with the result that most users’ friend lists are undifferentiated masses of relationships, probably not all of whom should be informed at the same time about, say, a miscarriage! Are these things Facebook’s fault? Not directly, perhaps, but the ecosystem has somehow bred this kind of culture, perhaps because the disembodied nature of Facebook relationships makes it easier to forget who exactly you’re speaking to.

    One more personal example: mere hours after our wedding, my wife and I were tagged in Facebook photos of the event (nevermind the fact that our invitation explicitly asked guests not to do this!), which of course are visible to God-knows-who. We were faced with the decision of waiting to relive our special day through our wedding photographer’s photos (which would take a few months to arrive), or seeing people’s crappy cameraphone pics immediately, in all their poorly-lit glory. We chose to ignore the Facebook photos, and in fact I still haven’t been on to see any of them. My point is: when did it become socially acceptable to publicize photos of a bride and groom to the wider network before said bride and groom can even realistically be expected to be able to see them?

  • Facebook is the best tool on the internet for making stuff ‘social’. Let’s face it, we all use the internet, and we’re not going to stop anytime soon. A lot of what we do online is socially oriented, like sharing photos of weddings and parties and vacations with friends. If we ignore the strange social behavior I claim is encouraged by Facebook culture, there’s nothing wrong at all with sharing photos with friends. This is one of the few things I’ve missed about using Facebook, though I guess I could post everything to Flickr and link it up here on my blog, hoping people would find their way to the photos. Likewise, Facebook is the best avenue I know for reliably blasting information to the widest audience I have; that is why I decided to let my blog posts automatically generate updates on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to suggest that these channels are in principle good things.

I think it’s clear that, overall, I’m pretty happy with my time away from Facebook. It’s enabled me to recognize some of the weird things that happen in its ecosystem, whether or not they are explicitly encouraged by Facebook itself. I also have substantial worries about what social media in general is doing to the concept of real friendship and embodied relationship. I think these are broader worries about the pattern of technology which hopefully I’ll be able to explicate in future posts (my ultimate goal will be to blog through a book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Society, by Albert Borgmann, which has radically reshaped my thinking about the nature of technology). I also hope I don’t need to make an exhaustive list of qualifications, e.g., people are weird without Facebook too, and so on—I simply think there is a definitive pattern of engagement we can discern through observation of social networks, and it’s worth taking a critical perspective on that pattern, in order to inform our decisions about how we want to relate with networks like Facebook.

PS: Justin has reminded me that our friend Jesse Rice has a book about how to engage with social media in a spiritually healthy way: The Church of Facebook. I haven’t read it, but it looks interesting! Comments from anyone who’s read it?

The iPhone Era: Technological Adaptation and the Future of Human Evolution

When the original iPhone was released a year ago, I wanted one. The promise of being constantly connected to all the various sockets of the Internet into which I have plugged myself (news, e-mail, chat, social networks, information gathering, etc…) was seductive. Being able to work while not standing by a computer, or to keep tabs, in an up-to-the-second fashion, on my virtual communication stream – how exciting!

I didn’t get an iPhone then because of my imminent move to Kenya (where it would have been a bad idea to flash one of those around, even if it functioned), but with the recent emergence of the iPhone 3G, I decided to take the plunge, and see if this device was as life-changing as it was cracked up to be. Turns out, it is! But I’m beginning to wonder at what cost.

It’s no secret that technology changes us. A few years ago I reflected on the iPod’s effects on culture, and earlier this month, Melissa raised similar questions, with respect to Google. I had an interesting experience today, however, which proved that these changes can insinuate themselves into deep parts of our cognition.

I was walking down the street with some friends, looking for Los Hermanos, a great burrito place. I was in the general vicinity of it, I thought, but wasn’t quite sure of the cross street, and I was confused that I hadn’t seen the restaurant thus far on my walk. Well, I said to myself – that’s what I have an iPhone for! So I fired it up, Googled the restaurant, and had a street address in under a minute. 2026 Chestnut. “OK, what’s the address of this store here? 2016… OK, that means that Los Hermanos should be…” At which point, I looked up from my phone and noticed the large, brightly-colored sign hanging above the business not more than 15 feet from where I was standing. Yep, it was Los Hermanos.

It was very interesting to me that my first instinct, upon finding myself in a place where I expected to see one thing and saw another, thereby needing more locational information, was to use the Internet rather than my eyes. My eyes, having evolved to perform precisely the task I needed done (namely the gaining of local spatial knowledge) were passed over in favor of technology. Which meant, of course, that the more dangerous trade – my memory for Google – was implicit.

But why not trust to the skills that were bestowed upon us via our natural adaptations? Have we truly passed into an age where our environments are changing far more rapidly than our bodies can adapt? It certainly seems like it. But perhaps the more interesting question is, what will that do to our bodies? When we learned how to cook food our jaws decreased in size. When we learned how to wear clothes, we lost our hair (depending on your view of this adaptation). When we learned how to live in cities, we lost our natural keen sensitivities to natural phenomena. When we learned how to use dead plant matter to propel ourselves in metal canisters across the earth, many of us lost the proper functioning of our legs and other muscles. When we taught ourselves that interesting content can be delivered in the time span of a short video clip or a 3-minute radio single, we infected ourselves with A.D.D. while simultaneously dulling our senses to anything not flashing or brightly-colored.

… And I could go on.

So, what will happen when we learn how to never need to remember anything again? What will that do to our brains? What will it do to our ability to survive without our newfangled devices? (Imagine trying to survive these days without clothes, fire or tools!) What species will we become, with essential parts of our existence scattered around the world in metal boxes on fragile hard drives? No longer homo sapiens, the thinking human, but homo technologicus, the equipped human. And so we have to ask ourselves, do we want to evolve in this way? The benefits of ubiquitous and distributed memory are immense, but what are the costs? What will happen to our ability to spend time in Nature qua natural beings, qua creatures?

Maybe that’s what we should be thinking about when buying our new iPhones (and yes, mine is very shiny) – but either way, it’s certainly not what is being advertised.