13.0484 NetFuture on Albert Borgmann &c.

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Mon Mar 13 2000 - 07:54:36 CUT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 484.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Mon, 13 Mar 2000 07:29:56 +0000
             From: Arun-Kumar Tripathi <tripathi@statistik.uni-dortmund.de>
             Subject: Review: Albert Borgmann on the Technological Paradigm
    (Part I)

    Greetings Scholars,

    [Following is the NETFUTURE Newsletter, which deals with the relationship
    of Technology and Human Responsibility eloquently written by Stephen Talbott.
    --Specially, in this Issue of NETFUTURE newsletter. --There are "notes"
    concerning the book, *Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A
    Philosophical Inquiry*, by Albert Borgmann (Chicago: University of Chicago
    Press, 1984). Paperback, 302 pages. You would be reading --The review
    --In this issue of Albert Borgmann's book, *Technology and the Character
    of Contemporary Life*, may be the most important thing Stephen Talbott has
    ever passed along in NETFUTURE. Prof. Borgmann offers a penetrating analysis
    of technological society. Thank you and my sincere thanks to Prof. Albert
    Borgmann. --Arun]

    Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998 14:44:41 -0500
    From: Stephen Talbott <stevet@MERLIN.ALBANY.NET>


                         Technology and Human Responsibility

    Issue #64 Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications January 20, 1998
                   Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@oreilly.com)

          On the Web: http://www.oreilly.com/people/staff/stevet/netfuture/
          You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.


    *** Editor's Note

    *** Quotes and Provocations
             Chains of Logic
             Is Technology Good for Society? (Your Answer, Please)
             Consulting as a Respectable Business
             Technology and Chaos

    *** How Technology Co-opted the Good (Part 1) (Steve Talbott)
             Albert Borgmann on the technological paradigm

    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's Note (14 lines)

    The review in this issue of Albert Borgmann's book, *Technology and the
    Character of Contemporary Life*, may be the most important thing I have
    ever passed along in NETFUTURE. While recognized by philosophers of
    technology as perhaps the preeminent American treatise on the
    technological society, Borgmann's book has nevertheless been -- within my
    own woefully restricted horizons -- the best-kept secret of the past
    fourteen years. It not only carries out, in the most thorough-going way,
    a razor-sharp critique of the "device paradigm" currently ruling our
    society, but it also strengthens one's hope for the future. My two-part
    review of the book will be concluded in the next issue.


    [material deleted]

    Is Technology Good for Society? (Your Answer, Please)

    In reading through an old issue of *Daedalus*, I came across this remark
    by Joseph Weizenbaum (addressed to a doctor as part of an informal

         You were taught what to do if a patient were to walk into your office
         and say, "Doctor, I want you to amputate my little finger, and how much
         do you charge for that?" You would not do what the technologist does,
         that is, ask..."What are the specifications? Do I have the resources?
         Do I have the competence?" and if all these questions are answered
         appropriately, say that you will perform the amputation. Instead, you
         take ... responsibility for finding as best you can what the problem
         is. You may decide that what is really necessary is aspirin or
         bedrest, or an amputation of the foot, and you will behave accordingly,
         quite independent of how much the patient is willing to pay you to cut
         off his little finger. That is what you were taught as a physician.
         That is precisely the opposite of what happens in almost all
         engineering practice. ("Some Issues of Technology", *Daedalus*,
         winter, 1980, p. 23)

    A doctor, of course, acts within a world of concern that includes the
    health and welfare of the patient. This lends an inescapably moral
    quality to the treatment.

    Not everyone would agree with Weizenbaum's indictment of the engineering
    profession. I would like to ask NETFUTURE readers in the high-tech
    industry the following questions (which bear, not just on engineers, but
    on the industry as a whole):

    * In your experience, does the high-tech industry operate within a
          context of moral concern for the health and welfare of its customers
          and the society of end users?

    * If so, how primary is the concern, and via what pathways and practices
          does it effectively find its way into industry performance?

    I'd be interested in collecting your responses and sharing them with
    readers. The wider the range of respondents, the better, so please
    forward this invitation, as appropriate, to other relevant forums.

    (Thanks to Nancy Phillips for passing along the old issue of *Daedalus*.)

    [material deleted]

    Technology and Chaos

    "Nature in its pristine state," writes Albert Borgmann, "now consists of
    islands in an ocean of technology." There was a time when every shrine,
    every temple, every city marked off a sacred and inhabitable district,
    redeeming it from the surrounding primordial wildness, or "chaos". But
    now there has been a reversal:

         Whereas in the mythic experience the erection of a sanctuary
         established a cosmos and habitat in the chaos of wilderness, the
         wilderness now appears as a sacred place in the disorientation and
         distraction of the encompassing technology. (*Technology and the
         Character of Contemporary Life*, p. 190)

    The technologies we employed to vanquish wilderness have now established
    the rule, you might say, of a new chaos, from which we must wrest a truly
    human habitation.

    The reversal is profound. A wilderness that is threatened can no longer
    stand as the ultimate challenge and threat. "Respect for the wilderness
    will never again be nourished by its formerly indomitable wildness. On
    the contrary. The wilderness now touches us deeply in being so fragile
    and vulnerable (p. 194).

    Borgmann does not disparage technology as such. It teaches us to respect
    wilderness "not for its power but for its beauty." The power -- raging
    storms, wild animals, impassable slopes, torrential floods -- can be
    overcome by technology. But technology is powerless to convert the beauty
    of wilderness into just another consumable commodity. It can make the
    attempt only by

         killing the wilderness or keeping it at bay. Technology kills the
         wilderness when it develops it through roads, lifts, motels, and
         camping areas. It keeps the wilderness at bay when, without affecting
         untouched areas permanently, it insulates us from the engagement with
         the many dimensions and features of the land, as it does through rides
         in jet boats or helicopters. Here we can see that technology with its
         seemingly infinite resourcefulness in procuring anything and everything
         does have a clear limit. It can procure something that engages us
         fully and in its own right only at the price of gutting or removing it.
         Thus the wilderness teaches us not only to accept technology but also
         to limit it. (p. 195)

    Both the acceptance and the limitation, Borgmann argues, can be principled
    and sensible. At one extreme, we would not turn people loose in the
    wilderness with only a coat and loaf of bread. The hiker can make good
    use of high-tech, lightweight gear. At the other extreme, we cannot
    reasonably allow motor vehicles into wilderness areas and expect the
    wilderness to remain as wilderness.

         To require that people (or at most horses and mules) carry in whatever
         is needed and leave no trash or scars is a rule that balances the
         mature acceptance of technology with the openness to pristine nature in
         its deep texture. Thus we become free for the wilderness without
         courting the danger of disburdenment and disengagement. The burdens of
         one's gear and of a climb are the ways in which the wilderness
         discloses itself. They are onerous, to be sure, and taxing. And so
         they call forth a discipline which is sensibly marked off not only
         against the strain of labor and the pleasures of consumption but also
         against the immature pursuit of pretechnological tasks. (p. 195)

    Wilderness, according to Borgmann, is just one example of the "focal
    things" that alone teach us to set proper bounds to technology. See the
    review of his book, below.


    *** How Technology Co-opted the Good (Part 1) (266 lines)

    >From Steve Talbott <stevet@oreilly.com>

    Notes concerning the book, *Technology and the Character of Contemporary
    Life: A Philosophical Inquiry*, by Albert Borgmann (Chicago: University of
    Chicago Press, 1984). Paperback, 302 pages.

    Borgmann's book was published in 1984. I am reviewing it now because I
    have just recently discovered it -- and because it offers as revelatory a
    treatment of technological society as I have yet found.

    The Pursuit of Consumption

    The social role of any given technology is often analyzed as a means-end
    relation; the technological device is the means, and what we produce with
    it reflects our ends. This is useful as far as it goes. but Borgmann
    takes us to a deeper level, where we see that the relatively strict
    separation of means from end is one of the decisive and damaging features
    of our technological society.

    Deeply meaningful human activity is activity in which ends and means
    *cannot* always be neatly distinguished. When a musician practices, is he
    simply developing the means to perform, or is he also gaining some of the
    joy of performance? When a family camps out, is the campfire merely a
    means for producing warmth and light, or is the pleasure of building it
    part of the whole reason for camping? Is a woodcarver's goal nothing but
    the production of finished figures, or does he also aim at the expressive
    satisfaction of the carving itself?

    The technological device, Borgmann argues, embodies negative answers to
    questions like these. A home's central heating system *is* only for the
    production of warmth, and a CD player is only for the final production of
    music. The social context and disciplined engagement of the music-making
    is now separated from the enjoyment of the music. In general, "what
    distinguishes a device is its sharp internal division into a machinery and
    a commodity procured by that machinery" (p. 33).

         Machinery is a means, of course, and it is a mere means. But the
         import of that mereness is often overlooked both by the critics and the
         defenders of technology. Since machinery is merely a means, so the
         proponent of technology reasons, it will serve whatever ends and not
         constrain our choice of ends. [But] this view overlooks the fact that
         the rise of mere means is a revolutionary event and transforms from the
         ground up what now can count as an end. (p. 63)

    Radically different machineries -- for example, a player piano, record
    player, tape recorder, and CD player -- can produce the same result, which
    is largely indifferent to the various machineries. By contrast, the
    *activity* of music-making is substantially defined by the particular
    context through which the music comes about, and is therefore inseparable
    from the context.

    Borgmann shows how the machinery of a device is progressively hidden from
    view in technology's background, while the now decontextualized commodity
    produced by the device occupies the foreground. This separation
    encourages us toward the unrooted, trivial, and distracting pursuit of
    consumption, wherein our activity loses all depth and focus. Carrying the
    trend to its logical extreme, we would seek our commodious pleasures
    altogether without context, via direct stimulation of the brain -- a
    notion more realistic and closer to acceptance today than when Borgmann
    wrote his book. In sum,

         Central heating plants, cars, and T.V. dinners are technological
         devices that have the function of procuring or making available a
         commodity such as warmth, transportation, or food. A commodity is
         available when it is at our disposal without burdening us in any way,
         i.e., when it is commodiously present, instantaneously, ubiquitously,
         safely, and easily. Availability in this sense requires that the
         machinery of a device be unobtrusive, i.e., concealed, dependable, and

    Borgmann distinguishes technological devices from the "focal things and
    practices" that can "center and illuminate our lives." Music (produced
    and enjoyed in a social, historical, and disciplined context), the
    experience of wilderness, and the culture of the table (where the
    production and handling of food, the decorous ordering of the table, and
    the social and conversational tradition all play a role) are examples of
    such focal practices. In general, focal things are

         concrete, tangible, and deep, admitting of no functional equivalents;
         they have a tradition, structure, and rhythm of their own. They are
         unprocurable and finally beyond our control. They engage us in the
         fullness of our capacities. (p. 219)

    But the distinction between commodity and focal practice is increasingly
    glossed over today:

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

    "It is," Borgmann claims from beginning to end, "the pervasive
    transformation of things into devices that is changing our commerce with
    reality from engagement to ... disengagement" (p. 61). He argues time and
    again that no escape from the distraction and fatuity of consumerism is to
    be had by working within the current technological paradigm -- for
    example, by defending "values" and trying to employ technology as a means
    for achieving worthwhile values. This is to continue accepting the
    artificial separation of means and ends that must be overcome if we are to
    rediscover focal things and practices. What is required is that we take
    up with the world and with technology in an entirely different and more
    conscious manner.

    Digital Watches, Skyscrapers, and Televisions

    Borgmann is not altogether pessimistic about the possibilities. But
    before looking at the sources of his hope, I would like to characterize
    what he calls the "device paradigm" a little more closely.

    If you showed a modern, spring-driven watch to Bacon, Descartes, or
    Newton, they would have little difficulty in understanding its workings.
    But show them a digital watch and they would, as Borgmann points out, be
    stumped. They could understand it only after pursuing graduate studies in
    modern logic, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and engineering. Yet they
    could learn how to *use* such a watch even more easily than a spring-
    driven one.

    Further, the digital watch is more convenient, giving us the time "in
    digits, with more precision, more variety, greater completeness, and with
    less bulk, without the need to wind it up, to turn it past 31 November, or
    to take account of leap years" (p. 149). The convenience is purchased at
    the price of a less accessible machinery.

    This pattern holds even for such "devices" as food and skyscrapers. When,
    for example, food is reconceived as an end product compounded of certain
    textures, tastes, colors, smells, and nutritive substances, it can be
    engineered and consumed as a commodity with little relation to the land
    and cultivation or to the skills and social ordering of kitchen and table.
    Technologically transformed wine

         no longer bespeaks the peculiar weather of the year in which it grew
         since technology is at pains to provide assured, i.e., uniform,
         quality. It no longer speaks of a particular place since it is a blend
         of raw materials from different places. (p. 49)

    Or take the skyscraper:

         It makes space available in an abstract three-dimensional grid into
         which one inserts oneself through an equally abstract transportation
         system. As always, there are echoes of pretechnological experiences in
         these devices. Thus a higher location in a high-rise is better and
         more prestigious as though, being up there, one had mastered a mountain
         or were lord over those below. But in fact one has no real sense of
         position or location; one is not oriented to those around one in the
         other apartments or offices, and one is not related to a center because
         skyscrapers, as a rule, have none. (p. 67)

    The same spatial indifference also holds true of the skyscraper's relation
    to its setting. Nothing much about the building changes as you move
    between locations thousands of miles apart.

    Borgmann points out that while "the machinery of technology can still be
    obtrusive and disruptive, as in strip mining or highway construction," it
    shapes our lives most profoundly where it is concealed behind readily
    available commodities.

         An affluent suburb is seemingly the incarnation of the pastoral garden
         that [some observers] see threatened by the incursion of the machine.
         And yet such a suburb is technological through and through. It is a
         pretty display of commodities resting on a concealed machinery. There
         is warmth, food, cleanliness, entertainment, lawns, shrubs, and
         flowers, all of it procured by underground utilities, cables, station
         wagons, chemical fertilizers and weed killers, riding lawn mowers, seed
         tapes, and underground sprinklers. The advanced technological setting
         is characterized not by the violence of machinery but by the
         disengagement and distraction of commodities.

    Borgmann offers many other examples of the same pattern. Insurance
    disburdens us (through a mostly hidden "machinery" of contracts, legal
    provisions, and organizational structures) of the difficult and sometimes
    unpleasant relations between neighbors in times of trouble; it reduces the
    uncertainties of neighborly obligation to the certainty of a cash payment
    that puts an end to all further obligation.

    Or take personal transport: when we walk or run, our breathing, our
    muscles, our senses are challenged and engaged by the environment through
    which we move. At the opposite pole, busy executives go to a health club
    and walk a treadmill to nowhere (gaining commoditized "health factors")
    while occupying their minds with business literature.

    It is the glory of technology, Borgmann argues, that it "meliorates
    dangerous, injurious, and back-breaking work" (p. 118). But much of this
    potential has already been achieved, and it has gotten us into a bad
    habit: we continue to think of all forms of disengagement as if they were
    liberation. Commenting on the view that carrying water is insufferable
    drudgery, Borgmann grants that, if the purpose of carrying water is merely
    to obtain a commodity, then the concealed modern plumbing system is vastly
    superior to the old-fashioned well. But then he cites the Old Testament
    figure of Rebecca:

         As [Daniel] Boorstin reminds us, Rebecca, going to the well, not only
         found water there but also companionship, news of the village, and her
         fiance. These strands of her life were woven into a fabric technology
         has divided and privatized into commodities. (p. 119)

    Borgmann does not suggest that we should resist modern water supplies.
    But he does prevent us from exaggerating their liberating qualities. And
    he urges us to consider how we can replace the lost engagement with nature
    and community.

    Work and Play

    The labor/leisure distinction peculiar to our day "represents the split of
    the technological device into machinery and commodity writ large" (p. 34).
    Borgmann wonderfully traces the split's implications for work, whereby
    work became a mere means of production. The result was disruption of the
    household, the establishment of factories and a proletariat, and the
    destruction of village life. The tasks "that once gave the family weight
    and structure" were taken over by the machinery of technology, and parents
    were reduced to overseeing the consumption of commodities within the home
    -- an insufficient basis for earning the child's respect (pp. 137-38).

    But the device paradigm is perhaps most vividly displayed in the
    complement of work: our use of leisure time. Here the television must
    loom large in any account. It "remains the purest, that is, the clearest
    and most attenuated, presentation of the promise of technology. It
    appears to free us from the fetters of time, space, and ignorance and to
    lay before us the riches of the world in their most glamorous form. In
    light of this cosmopolitan brilliance, all local and personal
    accomplishments must seem crude and homely" (p. 142).

    Few take pride in the quality of the television programs they watch.

         We feel uneasiness about our passivity and guilt and sorrow at the loss
         of our traditions or alternatives. There is a realization that we are
         letting great things and practices drift into oblivion and that
         television fails to respond to our best aspirations and fails to engage
         the fullness of our powers. These impressions generally agree with
         more systematic findings that show television is "not rated
         particularly highly as a general way of spending time, and in fact was
         evaluated below average compared to other free-time activities." (p.

    And yet, we cannot abandon television, because it "embodies too vividly
    the dream of which we cannot let go."

         It provides a center for our leisure and an authority for the
         appreciation of commodities. It is also a palliative that cloaks the
         vacuity and relaxes the tension of the technological condition. So it
         is normally not enough to reject or constrain television. One must
         recognize and reform the larger pattern if one is to reform its center.

                   * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Borgmann not only offers as penetrating an analysis of technological
    society as I have seen; he also limns as substantial a hope for its reform
    as I have ever dared to imagine. I'll take up this side of his thought in
    the next issue.

    *** About this newsletter (35 lines)

    NETFUTURE is a newsletter and forwarding service dealing with technology
    and human responsibility. It is hosted by the UDT Core Programme of the
    International Federation of Library Associations. Postings occur roughly
    once every week or two. The editor is Steve Talbott, author of "The
    Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst" and an
    editor at O'Reilly & Associates, book publishers.

    You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may
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