Technology and the Good Life?

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Can we use technology in the pursuit of a good life, or are we doomed to having our lives organized and our priorities set by the demands of machines and systems? How can philosophy help us to make technology a servant rather than a master?

Technology and the Good Life? uses a careful collective analysis of Albert Borgmann's controversial and influential ideas as a jumping-off point from which to address questions such as these about the role and significance of technology in our lives. Contributors both sympathetic and critical examine Borgmann's work, especially his "device paradigm"; apply his theories to new areas such as film, agriculture, design, and ecological restoration; and consider the place of his thought within philosophy and technology studies more generally.

Because this collection carefully investigates the issues at the heart of how we can take charge of life with technology, it will be a landmark work not just for philosophers of technology but for students and scholars in the many disciplines concerned with science and technology studies.

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Editorial Reviews

Philosophers of technology offer views for and against the device paradigm proposed by Albert Borgmann (philosophy, U. of Montana) in his 1984 . They apply it in such areas as film, agriculture, design, and ecological restoration to consider whether people can take charge of their lives with technology. The 17 studies are from a September-October conference in Jasper, Alberta. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226333861
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Higgs is an associate professor of anthropology (adjunct in sociology) at the University of Alberta.

Andrew Light is an assistant professor of environmental philosophy and director of the graduate program in environmental conservation education at New York University.

David Strong is an associate professor of philosophy at Rocky Mountain College.

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Read an Excerpt


Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-33387-8

Chapter One
Borgmann's Philosophy of Technology

David Strong and Eric Higgs

The book [Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life] that helped me find a voice, however, also opened up a troubling rift between the instruments of thought and what matters in thought, between the discipline of philosophy and the task of philosophy. The latter, I thought, was a matter of helping people become more conscious of the distractions of the culture of technology and more confident of the focal things and practices that can center one's life. I had engaged the arguments of the discipline to advance the task. The clanging and grinding of the disciplinary machinery was music to some colleagues, an ordeal to others, and incomprehensible noise to all non-philosophers. Where, then, is philosophy to be found, in the discipline, or in the task? -Albert Borgmann, "Finding Philosophy"

In modern life we swim deep in a sea of technology, surrounded by artifacts and patterns of our own making. These artifacts and patterns, like water, are often transparent to us. They are everywhere and nowhere to be seen as we fin our way along chasing after whatever is new, stylizing and restylizing our lives. Yet something feels wrong. Leisure leaves us stressed. Time saving leaves us with no time. Freedom amounts to deciding where to plug into the system. Nature is pushed aside. Even our sense of who we are is transformed in relation to this surrounding sea. So we dart anxiously here and there trying one technological fix after another. It has not occurred to us yet that, like fish in polluted water, what may be wrong lies closest to us. Philosophers of technology along with political and social theorists and others have made insightful attempts to understand the problem or problems of what is in the water. Nevertheless, despite debates within and among these disciplines, scholarly sophistication here remains at an early stage. In addition to this disciplinary challenge, the task of reaching beyond academic specialists to get other people to realize that a significant problem is hidden in their transparent surroundings has scarcely made a dent (Noble 1997).

These two challenges, both the challenge of what Albert Borgmann calls the discipline of philosophy and the task of philosophy, are important. As professional members of the discipline of philosophy, we are concerned with the "instruments of thought." We take theories, distinctions, and arguments, such as those advanced by Borgmann in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (or TCCL), as a point of departure for testing, revising, or forwarding alternative theories. From this perspective, we are the ones who find music, or at least hours well spent, in working through the complex turns of thought in Borgmann's book. However, we also share Borgmann's disappointment that genuine achievements in the discipline of philosophy often fail at the task of philosophy, that is, to engage the public more broadly in a reflective conversation about matters of great concern to all. We feel this shortcoming poignantly when these philosophies could have something decisive to contribute to a conversation about the quality of our lives by uncovering what is hidden yet harmful in our surroundings and by helping us to understand what can be done about it. From the particular standpoint of Borgmann's theory of the device paradigm, as we will see in detail later, this means "helping people become more conscious of the distractions of the culture of technology and more confident of the focal things and practices that can center one's life." Such philosophies ought to be, but often are not, part of the mix of a widespread public conversation.

A public and philosophical conversation about technology, in particular, is urgent, as Ellul, Heidegger, Mumford, and many others have pointed out. For such a public conversation to develop in a meaningful sense, it must be much more widespread than a debate among a handful of academic specialists. If the philosophical ramifications of technology remain little discussed by the larger society, then no matter how successful philosophers are at articulating and debating these ramifications, they will have failed at the greater task.

An example of a philosophical and technological issue that may open up a public conversation in this fashion-in fact an underlying contention for a number of chapters that follow-is the challenge posed by rethinking, in our contemporary technological context, the general relationship between the useful and the good. According to TCCL, technology has produced extraordinarily useful things and successfully taken on the ancient scourges of hunger, disease, and confinement. It did so, however, in following a particular pattern, the device paradigm. In following that pattern, we have been inattentive to the distinction between two kinds of burdens: the odious burdens of hunger, disease, etc. and the ennobling burdens exacted by the demands of community and of human excellence. Rather we seek relief from all burdens whatsoever. Hence we have under the banner of usefulness reduced our devotion to community and excellence. One the one hand, ambulances save lives and so are eminently useful; on the other hand, cars save us bodily exertion and the annoyances of fellow pedestrians or passengers and are thus, at least in part, a threat to the goods of community and our physical health in the form of exercise. Hence, according to this particular philosophy of technology, we need to focus on those specific goods that are both irreplaceably good (viz., focal things and practices) and threatened by the thoughtless employment of technology.

Borgmann and the Task of Philosophy

The twofold task of philosophy is to engage philosophy with issues that matter and to involve the public in a philosophical conversation about these matters. For Borgmann, the task of philosophy is to engage "the things that matter" quite literally. The distinction between "focal things" and "devices" has proven to be valuable to philosophers and laypeople alike: Borgmann's account of the difference between things and devices is easy to grasp intuitively, as we will see shortly. Moreover, it helps people to become aware of the otherwise invisible water we are immersed in, Borgmann believes, by making them conscious of the significance of technological change as it impinges on important centers of their lives. On his view, it helps people to identify and guard these centers against corrosive forms of technology. To see these latter advantages, we need to understand the distinction itself first.

What are these focal things and devices? In general, Borgmann characterizes "focal things," "centering things," or what he sometimes calls "focal reality" as simply different placeholders "for encounters each of us has with things that of themselves have engaged mind and body and centered our lives. Commanding presence, continuity with the world and centering power are the signs of focal things. They are not warrants, however. To present them is never more than to recall them" (Borgmann 1992, 119-20). Before developing this terminology, it is helpful to think of the device for now (although a more rigorous account will be offered later) as referring to a descriptive characterization of most of the mass-produced artifacts around us as well as our commonly employed procedures. Devices are just the opposite of focal things. Devices are disposable, discontinuous with their larger context, and glamorous in their appeal.

To give content to these characterizations of things and devices, let us take an example that figures prominently in Borgmann's works: running. Among focal things for runners are an ocean road that George Sheehan runs almost daily; a path along Rattlesnake Creek for a runner in Missoula, Montana; the course that the New York City marathon takes for Peter Wood. Like other focal things, these things often lie inconspicuous until runners disclose them, bringing what Borgmann calls their eloquence into relief.

The focal thing's commanding presence, in part, is its capacity to make demands on us. It takes getting in shape and staying in shape to be equal to the six miles of ocean road. Nor can one simply push a button and step off the device, disposing of the run, if one does not feel like running that day. Focal things demand patience, endurance, skill, and the resoluteness of regular practice-a focal practice. Even a certain character, that of a runner, is developed in order to become a match for the thing. Commanding presence, too, in part, has to do with the thing's attractions. The sights and sounds, the events of the run, the uniqueness of a particular run, or the harmony one feels with the surroundings cannot be instantly replayed at our disposal. These demands and attractions of the focal thing's commanding presence make things engaging for mind and body, serving to unify them. Commanding presence, then, describes (Borgmann excels at descriptions on a general level) the characteristics of focal things that contrast with the disposability of the device. Most of these devices are designed to be under our control. Acomputer software advertisement, picturing a mouse, brags about how much can be done "without lifting a finger." Following the trajectory of disposability, it's hardly surprising to find the recent development of a wireless mouse-it makes control even easier. In the process of lifting all these burdens from us, however, these devices are often disengaging. Most devices require little in terms of skill, patience, effort, or attention.

Unlike exercise in front of a video in the controlled environment of a health club, runners experience a telling continuity between their focal thing, say the Rattlesnake Creek path, and the weather overhead, between the high, roily waters of the creek, the month of May, the receding snowfields, and the previous winter's snowfall. The office window from which one sees the mountains still capped with snow, the home where one lives, and the conversations one has with other members of the community are of one piece with this focal thing. The hour spent in the club exercising in front of a video, as we will later see with devices generally, is discontinuous with this larger context of one's life, community, and place. While the function of a device captures one or a few aspects of the original thing, such as the exercise of muscles, devices sever most other relationships. At the health club, one might be reading a book, riding a stationary bicycle, and listening to music with headphones. Mind, body, and world are all dissociated from one another. In general contrast, then, a focal thing is not an isolated entity; it exists as a material center in a complicated network of human relationships and relationships to its natural and cultural setting.

Focal things gather this complicated web of relations in a way analogous to how a grizzly bear concentrates the web of ecological relationships dispersed throughout an ecosystem large enough to support the species. But mere contact with the thing, the material center, does not guarantee that this web of relations will be brought home to us automatically. A six-mile run along Rattlesnake Creek can be boring or a mere relentless chore. Although mind, body, and world may not be quite as dissociated as in a health club, runners do feel this discord and find themselves to be out of touch at such times. Presumably, runners would not be runners were it not for better days. On the good days, runners come away appreciating these centering powers of the thing. They come away invigorated, knowing that "this is where I want to be and what I want to be doing." Through focal things and practices they affirm the place where they live and the direction of their lives. On such days they have had a centering experience. These centering powers of focal things contrast with the short-lived but admittedly alluring glamorous appeal and thrill of many devices.

These centering powers of a thing can also be thought of as its unifying powers. As we will see better later, devices separate means and ends. With automobiles, for example, we "cash in prior labor for present motion ... my achievement lies in the past, my enjoyment in the present" (Borgmann 1984, 202). Things, through their centering powers, unify means and ends, achievement and enjoyment, competence and consummation, mind and body, body and world, individual and community, present and tradition, culture and nature. These latter can be seen more clearly by summarizing our account with an example of a focal thing drawn from music. A fine violin, for instance, is brought to life in the hands of a caring and gifted performer, and simultaneously the life of the performer is enriched in relation to the violin. This relationship between the artifact-the violin-and the performer requires skill, and as such helps to create the character of the performer in relation to the artifact, here, the focal thing. Communal ties can be forged when focal thing, performer, and audience come together in a performance that offers a communal celebration.

As are many of the focal things that are likely to come first to mind, violins are an older technology and somewhat "a thing of the past." Most musicians, whether with violins or mandolins, cannot make a living at their focal practice. Many are forced to give up, choosing a different occupation altogether, often leaving their instruments behind. Devices, such as sound systems in one way and televisions in another, have displaced performance both by individuals and within the community. From a historical perspective, these things of the past and their world are all but gone; devices have come to replace them. On Borgmann's account, the destruction of things and the reconstitution of them into devices continues to this day, perhaps even more rapidly, with newer forms of sophisticated technology, such as information technology. In this rising tide of technological devices, disposability supersedes commanding presence, discontinuity wins over continuity, and glamorous thrills trump centering experiences. The pervasive presence of these devices and these experiences, Borgmann finds, tends to contribute to a life that lacks a center and that is missing a rich social and ecological context. Thus, if Borgmann's theory is right, there exists a profound conflict between the expansion of technological devices and the focal things and practices these devices displace. On that basis, he appeals to readers, for the sake of the quality of their lives, not to let devices completely overrun these things and practices. Such protection of centering things can occur, he argues, only if prescribed steps are taken to make room for them in our individual lives, communities, and culture.

Understandably, Borgmann thinks of the task of philosophy as making these points about things, devices, and the quality of our lives not only for other philosophers and other specialists but also for all his fellow citizens. No contemporary philosopher has drawn more attention to these "things that finally matter" than Borgmann, and for that reason, his philosophy has received widespread attention beyond the disciplines of philosophy of technology and technology studies. If more successful with this conversation about technology and the quality of our lives, it certainly would help to spur and revitalize philosophy generally and the philosophy of technology in particular. Significantly, for our purposes too, these focal things yield a standpoint from which Borgmann's theory as a whole can be evaluated. We can get clearer about this task of philosophy and tactics for widening this philosophical conversation with a brief look at the several traditions that Borgmann's philosophy of technology is rooted in. In one classification system Borgmann belongs to the humanities as opposed to engineering tradition in the philosophy of technology. Philosophers in the engineering tradition tend to take a narrow view of the philosophy of technology, thinking of it as a field aimed at examining mostly technical philosophical problems arising out of applied science and engineering and taught most relevantly at technical universities. In the humanities tradition by contrast the task is a broader one of reflecting on the world and technology, and here is where Borgmann's work is clearly situated (see Mitcham 1994). Technology, for him, is not only applied science and engineering; technology is the larger context, the way we "take up with the world." The world within which we exist with modern technology has its own special features and patterns. To bring out these special and decisive features of our age, that is, to evaluate the significance of technology is to do, on this view, philosophy of technology.


Excerpted from TECHNOLOGY AND THE GOOD LIFE? Copyright © 2000 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Contributors
Introduction 1
I Philosophy of Technology Today 17
1 Borgmann's Philosophy of Technology 19
2 Philosophy of Technology: Retrospective and Prospective Views 38
II Evaluating Focal Things 51
3 Focal Things and Focal Practices 55
4 Technology and Nostalgia 70
5 Focaltechnics, Pragmatechnics, and the Reform of Technology 89
6 Borgmann's Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen: On the Prepolitical Conditions of a Politics of Place 106
7 On Character and Technology 126
III Theory in the Service of Practice 149
8 The Moving Image: Between Devices and Things 153
9 Farming as Focal Practice 166
10 Design and the Reform of Technology: Venturing Out into the Open 182
11 Nature by Design 195
IV Extensions and Controversies 213
12 Technological Ethics in a Different Voice 219
13 Crossing the Postmodern Divide with Borgmann, or Adventures in Cyberspace 234
14 Technology and Temporal Ambiguity 256
15 Trapped in Consumption: Modern Social Structure and the Entrenchment of the Device 271
16 From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads 294
17 Philosophy in the Service of Things 316
V Postscript 339
18 Reply to My Critics 341
Afterword 371
Index 375
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