Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Blending social analysis and philosophy, Albert Borgmann maintains that technology creates a controlling pattern in our lives. This pattern, discernible even in such an inconspicuous action as switching on a stereo, has global effects: it sharply divides life into labor and leisure, it sustains the industrial democracies, and it fosters the view that the earth itself is a technological device. He argues that technology has served us as well in conquering hunger and disease, but that when we turn to it for richer experiences, it leads instead to a life dominated by effortless and thoughtless consumption. Borgmann does not reject technology but calls for public conversation about the nature of the good life. He counsels us to make room in a technological age for matters of ultimate concern—things and practices that engage us in their own right.
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About the Author
Albert Borgmann is Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana. He is the author of Crossing the Postmodern Divide, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life
A Philosophical Inquiry
By Albert Borgmann
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1984 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Technology and Theory
The advanced technological way of life is usually seen as rich in styles and opportunities, pregnant with radical innovations, and open to a promising future. The problems that beset technological societies are thought to be extrinsic to technology; they stem, supposedly, from political indecision, social injustice, or environmental constraints. I consider this a serious misreading of our situation. I propose to show that there is a characteristic and constraining pattern to the entire fabric of our lives. This pattern is visible first and most of all in the countless inconspicuous objects and procedures of daily life in a technological society. It is concrete in its manifestations, closest to our existence, and pervasive in its extent. The rise and the rule of this pattern I consider the most consequential event of the modern period. Once the pattern is explicated and seen, it sheds light on the hopes that have shaped our times, on the confusions and frustrations that we have suffered in our attempts to realize those hopes, and on the possibilities of clarifying our deepest aspirations and of acting constructively on our best insights.
Concrete, everyday life is always and, it seems, rightly taken for granted. It is the common and obvious foreground of our lives that is understood by everyone. Therefore it is almost systematically and universally skipped in philosophical and social analysis. But if the determining pattern of our lives resides and sustains itself primarily in the inconspicuous setting of our daily surroundings and activities, then the decisive force of our time inevitably escapes scrutiny and criticism. I want to argue that this is in fact so, and not only because everydayness in general seems inconsiderable but because of the particular way in which the ruling pattern of our time arose and came to be articulated.
The pattern of which I have been speaking inheres in the dominant way in which we in the modern era have been taking up with the world; and that characteristic approach to reality I call (modern) technology. Technology becomes most concrete and evident in (technological) devices, in objects such as television sets, central heating plants, automobiles, and the like. Devices therefore represent clear and accessible cases of the pattern or paradigm of modern technology. Giving these claims conviction will occupy us for much of the book. But the note of alarm in the foregoing remarks and their abstract and perhaps peremptory tone as well as the unusual focus of the perspective that they advocate make it advisable to provide an early illustration of the device paradigm. Surely a stereo set, consisting of a turntable, an amplifier, and speakers, is a technological device. Its reason for being is well understood. It is to provide music. But this simple understanding conceals the characteristic way in which music is procured by a device. After all, a group of friends who gather with their instruments to delight me on my birthday provide music too. A stereo set, however, secures music not just on a festive day but at any time, and not just competent flute and violin music but music produced by instruments of any kind or any number and at whatever level of quality. To this apparent richness and variety of technologically produced music there corresponds an extreme concealment or abstractness in the mode of its production. Records as unlabeled physical items do not bespeak, except to the most practiced of eyes, what kind of music they contain. Loudspeakers have no visible affinity to the human voice, to the brass or the strings whose sound they reproduce. I have little understanding of how the music came to be recorded on the disk and by what means it is retrieved from it. I have a vague conception at best of the musicians who originally performed the music; I may not even know how many there were, and in some cases I will not be able to distinguish or identify their instruments from the reproduction of their playing.
When we consider such a technological device and the things and practices that it replaces, varied and conflicting intuitions come to mind. What are the gains and what the losses in the rise of technologically recorded and reproduced music? If a consistent and revealing answer can be found to this question, does the finding have general significance? Is it an instance of a pervasive pattern? In the pursuit of an answer to these questions, we will have to pay attention to the sharp division between the commodious availability of music that a stereo set procures and the forbiddingly complex and inaccessible character of the apparatus on which that procurement rests. It is the division between the commodity, e.g., music, and the machinery, e.g., the mechanical and electronic apparatus of a stereo set, that is the distinctive feature of a technological device. An object that exhibits this central feature clearly is a paradigm of the technological device. I use "paradigm," however, not only in the sense of "clear case" but also for the pattern the clear case exhibits so well; and that pattern in turn can be drawn from various points of view and at different levels of abstraction. Obviously this definition of technology conflicts with many others that have been developed. It is helpful to consider these, and I will do so in Chapter 2. But it is not my purpose to establish the sense of technology that I have proposed as somehow superior or privileged. What the word "technology" should provide for this essay is a concept, a conceptus, in which the most helpful insights and experiences are gathered in a tentative, prereflective way.
Helpful for what? The chief concerns of this book are two, and they are interrelated as follows: The first is to provide a concise, illuminating, and, as far as possible, cogent description of the device paradigm. This description reveals a fatally debilitating tendency in the present rule of technology. But that aspect of its rule can be made intelligible only if we turn explicitly to those forces in our lives that are endangered by the rule of the device paradigm. I use "focal things and practices" as approximate terms for those forces. My second major concern is therefore with the nature of focal concerns. Here too an introductory sketch may aid the reader's orientation. A focal practice is one that can center and illuminate our lives. 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. Our daily and mundane endeavors are then centered around music and invigorated by it. In such a practice the musical instrument occupies a privileged place. In many cases it embodies a long tradition of a craft, of a method, and of a musical literature. In it the melodious power of the world is gathered concretely. And it challenges humans to develop and exercise the finest bodily movements of which they are capable. In this sense a violin, for instance, is a focal thing. These observations will again evoke a variety of responses. We may applaud the value of music and yet wonder if musical practice can have a secure, a consequential, and a widely shared place in a technological setting. Still, it may have become apparent that there is a crucial connection between the rule of the device paradigm and the destiny of focal concerns. The present essay, at any rate, is primarily concerned with the explication of the technological paradigm and the elucidation of focal concerns.
These two major tasks are taken up in more specific or subsidiary investigations. The first of the latter are preparatory and methodological. Since I regard "technology" as the most appropriate and helpful title for what is characteristic of our lives, it is necessary to take account of presently available theories of technology. And since I am urging a shift in philosophical attention and description, reflection is needed on what it means to describe, explain, and evaluate something. There is a particular need to take account of natural science both because it sets new standards of description and explanation and because it is a crucial, though poorly understood, contributor to the rise of technology. These matters are taken up in Part 1, "The Problem of Technology."
Part 2, "The Character of Technology," turns to the central task of describing the concrete features and idiosyncrasies of technology. Though I claim that these are usually and even systematically overlooked, it would be most unlikely, and no one would reasonably assume, that what is most characteristic and consequential in our time has been altogether missed or ignored. It is possible, however, that a failure of focus has deflected, confused, or limited social and philosophical analyses of technological culture. My task, therefore, is not to reject or deny such inquiries but to point out how their best insights are rendered more incisive and consistent when the technological pattern of our time is clearly seen. Moreover, the investigations of social scientists have collected many data which, however limited or one-sided in perspective, have a strong claim to objectivity and generality. The kind of description and analysis that I propose is, roughly speaking, in a phenomenological style, and such analyses often run the risk of being anecdotal and parochial. For these reasons the description of the device paradigm must be tested and elaborated against pertinent work in philosophy and especially in the social sciences.
I regard scholarship as essential to a serious and credible inquiry. Still I have made no attempt to exhaust the scholarly material. Technology is at the intersection of so many currents and disciplines that the literature has become boundless in its extent. But the essential positions, I have found, appear to be limited in number. What can be expected from the treatment of scholarship is not exhaustiveness but a thorough consideration of some of the eminent and representative schools of thought and the possibility of extending fruitfully and consistently the major theses of the book to arguments and evidence that have been ignored. Though scholarship must be given its due, the esoteric features of its language and arguments are not needed in an essay of the present sort. Accordingly I have tried to write in a style that is accessible to any literate reader. I have tried to do this through simplicity of presentation and through the explanation and illustration of technical matters where the latter are unavoidable.
In Part 3, "The Reform of Technology," I turn to the focal forces whose predicament and dignity is what finally motivates my critique of technology. Here again, my concern in general is not unique. Just as there is an abundant literature devoted to the analysis of the technological society, so there is an abundance of pleas for the victims of technology and of reform proposals. But the lack of focus that I have claimed for the common analysis of technology infects the literature of accusation and reform more harmfully still. Since most writers fail to have a clear view of the pattern according to which we orient ourselves and take up with the world, their allegations are often misdirected and their proposals ineffective. The latter are so because they frequently play into the hands of what they oppose or they fail to connect with the real openings for reform.
Assuming that this essay accomplishes what it sets out to do, is it not one of social analysis and commentary? In what sense does it constitute a philosophy of technology? To begin with, I believe that there is no sharp dividing line between social science, or perhaps social studies, and philosophy. To be sure, this is to take philosophy in a sense which is not the dominant one in the modern era and is only now being recovered. It is a traditional one, however, and close to Aristotelian theory, to theoria, the calm and resourceful vision of the world. Theoria was eclipsed with the rise of the modern period, and ambiguity befell all eminently theoretical endeavors. Language is negatively ambiguous if it exhibits a disorienting or debilitating plurality of senses. In the everyday world a pervasive negative ambiguity makes itself felt in the suspicion and diffidence with which ambitious questions and assertions are met. Words of beauty are suspected of naiveté, words of salvation are thought to conceal egotism, words of profoundness are charged with obscurantism. The mere plurality of senses that attaches to every word is a prosaic matter, apparent in dictionaries, and normally counterbalanced by the resolving force of the context of discourse. But no such context seems to be at hand when weighty matters are at issue. Instead more and more claims pour forth, eroding and submerging all points of orientation.
Philosophers today try to gain firm ground and act on this ambiguity by turning to the antecedent and enabling conditions of thought, discourse, and argument. Attention is directed not to what is claimed to be shown and seen but to the grounds and possibilities of claims in general. Philosophy is not concerned with theory in the sense of a steady view of the world but with metatheory, the conditions of visibility. This seems to be a plausible move beyond the common level of confusion. In fact it turns out to be an inconclusive enterprise. But that does not permit us to set it aside. It is for now simply a fact that the predominant response to ambiguity is not a desire to be open for what speaks with simple and salutary authority but the desire to gain authority over ambiguity by getting hold of its controlling conditions. The pattern and context of this response will become clearer precisely when we first take the metatheoretical turn and then move on to its final analysis where its insufficiency and the region beyond it become apparent.
There is a spectrum of attempts at taking the measure of our times. At one end are the concerns with immediately pressing and empirically quantifiable issues; at the other we find considerations of a radical and reflective sort. The present study is philosophical in belonging to the latter extreme. Though it pays more attention to substantive and empirical concerns than philosophy typically does, at least in this country, the present study has to draw on many of the concepts, methods, and insights of mainstream philosophy to obtain a reflective and radical view; and to that extent it is philosophical in the currently received sense as well.CHAPTER 2
Theories of Technology
Proponents of science and technology can respond to flamboyant accusations and proposals with superior silence. Modern science provides principled explanations and modern technology effective solutions of the problems that have troubled the human race from its beginning. This, at any rate, is the prevailing view, and it has a measure of accuracy. And from that viewpoint critics and competitors who fail to attain scientific rigor and technological efficacy are disqualified at the start. The strength of this view cannot be overcome by a colorful tour de force. One must at least begin by meeting it punctually and carefully. To be sure, one cannot overtake science and technology by their own standards. But care and precision of argument can make an opening for a truly alternative and viable kind of discourse, and in that universe of discourse deeper concerns can come to the fore which are eclipsed by science and technology. It is for the sake of these final aspirations that this essay sets out in what may seem an overly painstaking way.
Before a theory of technology as a vision of the world can be advanced, then, we must reflect on the possibilities of such a theory. They are best approached by starting from the theories of technology that have been developed in the literature. Each of these theories is guided by a certain sense of technology. The most common can be circumscribed as applied science and engineering. It designates an area of much sober and salutary work whose practitioners are entitled to fair and judicious treatment. If the word is not used in this sense, that must be made clear. In fact, technology as applied science and engineering is not a suitable title and guide for a theory of technology. To begin with, the subject matter covered by that title suffers from an overarticulation of its parts and seems to leave no areas for fruitful philosophical inquiry. It is the result of singularly principled and systematic efforts. No sorting out seems to be necessary. Take the case of medical technology. It would be nonsensical to ponder the laws and methods that surgical procedures, for instance, are based on. At best one would come back to the explicit knowledge of anatomy, biology, chemistry, and so forth from which surgical techniques derive in the first place. On the other hand, the reduction of a practically successful but theoretically opaque procedure to scientific laws, say, in metallurgy, is doing technology; it is not philosophical reflection about technology. The same holds true when we turn to the narrowly technological context of medical technology. There is voluminous and explicit knowledge on how medicine by way of insurance is connected to the economy, how by way of medical schools to the educational establishment, how by way of the AMA to politics, and so on. All these problems are at least attended to by well-trained specialists, and no field of inquiry is left for the philosopher.
Excerpted from Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life by Albert Borgmann. Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Part One - The Problem of Technology
1. Technology and Theory
2. Theories of Technology
3. The Choice of a Theory
4. Scientific Theory
5. Scientific Explanation
6. The Scope of Scientific Explanation
7. Science and Technology
Part Two - The Character of Technology
8. The Promise of Technology
9. The Device Paradigm
10. The Foreground of Technology
11. Devices, Means, and Machines
12. Paradigmatic Explanation
13. Technology and the Social Order
14. Technology and Democracy
15. The Rule of Technology
16. Political Engagement and Social Justice
17. Work and Labor
18. Leisure, Excellence, and Happiness
19. The Stability of Technology
Part Three - The Reform of Technology
20. The Possibilities of Reform
21. Deictic Discourse
22. The Challenge of Nature
23. Focal Things and Practices
24. Wealth and the Good Life
25. Political Affirmation
26. The Recovery of the Promise of Technology