NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #64 Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications January 20, 1998 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** 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) (Stephen L. Talbott) Albert Borgmann on the technological paradigm *** About this newsletter
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.
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The issue in all three cases is the adaptability of huge, complex software systems in the face of change. We've gotten used to thinking that manipulating bits, as opposed to atoms, is a clean, light, and fleet-of-foot business -- as effortless and compelling as thought-zephyrs breezing through a sleek, logical landscape. We now need to recognize that bits, once cobbled together, can leave as ponderous and unwieldy a footprint upon society as old-line rusting factories.
It stands to reason, of course, that altering huge, international systems should be costly. Change has never been free. But I wonder whether we're paying enough attention to the underlying issues. In pre-software days, the problems mentioned above either would not have arisen (Y2K) or would have been managed almost incidentally, without major investment. The agreement to do things differently would itself almost have been the entire solution.
Simply pointing to the efficiencies of modern information systems and claiming that the cost of the current changes is minor by comparison isn't quite enough. We are still in the very early stages of constructing global data networks, and already it appears that, counter to the curve of efficiency, there's a second curve -- a curve of rigidity, which imposes penalties upon change. The remarkable thing is how sizable the penalty can be even when the change is scarcely significant in human terms.
We already know what it is like for our affairs to be "fixed in concrete". We are only now glimpsing what it can mean for them to be "fixed in logic".
Without thinking the matter through far more than we have, we can hardly rule out the following possibilities: (1) the curve of rigidity is an accelerating one; (2) it will outrun the curve of efficiency; and (3) its acceleration is directly related to the increasing scale and complexity of the digital logic now wreathing the globe.
In other words, we cannot rule out the possibility that the bit-wreath will progressively tighten into a straitjacket.
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):
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.)
The essence of charity isn't tax avoidance. The essence was summed up by John Donne some time back in his famous poem, "No Man is a Proprietary Stand Alone Platform."One of the pleasures of producing NETFUTURE is hearing about readers' efforts to engage technology responsibly. The San Francisco Chronicle recently celebrated the work of Ben-Horin's CompuMentor organization, which mobilizes volunteer experts to help schools and nonprofits set up computer facilities.
In their search for the appropriate uses of digital technology, Ben-Horin and his CompuMentor colleagues stand apart from most high-tech consultants. "We might say [to a client], `You don't necessarily need technology as much as you think you need it.'" Avoiding technological panaceas and quick fixes, CompuMentor tries to help its clients understand the relationship between mission, organizational development, and technology.
With a seventeen-member staff, 2500 volunteers, and a budget of $930,000, CompuMentor charges $120 per project (not per hour!), and has expanded into several states outside its original, California location. Its funding comes from foundations and corporate donations.
According to CompuMentor's supporters,
Ben-Horin brings a unique blend of dogged activism, social conscience and professional expertise. "He is a charismatic and visionary man who's also a great critic," said John Schweizer, director of external affairs at Pacific Bell.As readers of NETFUTURE know, I am deeply skeptical of the rush to wire our schools. And my fear is that even the efforts of well-intending organizations like CompuMentor will be assimilated to the drunken, unprincipled rush of society toward "the technology of the future," without regard for educational values.
Nevertheless, people like Ben-Horin may be our best hope for a slow shift in the public understanding of technology's place in schools and the society at large.
(News from San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 25, 1997. Daniel Ben-Horin can be reached as email@example.com. See also http://www.compumentor.org/.)
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.
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From Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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 foolproof.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.
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.
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. Further,
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. 143)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.
Go to part 2 of "How Technology Co-opted the Good"
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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #64 :: January 20, 1998
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