Review: What Things Do (Part 6)

This is part six of a review of the book What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Read part 1 for the overview.

In Chapter 6, “Devices and the Good Life,” Peter-Paul Verbeek examines the work of Albert Borgmann to answer the question, “How do artifacts coshape human existence?” Borgmann has looked at how technology affects what he calls “the good life” and how it shapes the interactions people have with the world.

Technology for Borgmann isn’t a monolithic force, but should rather be thought of in discreet bits–as devices. Devices create “a characteristic and constraining pattern to the entire fabric of our lives.” This device pattern “inheres in the dominant way in which we in the modern era have been taking up with the world.”

Devices deliver availability, which is to say that they make things available to humans that are difficult to acquire without their help. Something is available, according to Borgmann, if it is “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” Devices obtain what previously humans had to obtain with things. A device isn’t a thing. A thing, says Verbeek,

cannot be separated from its context or its world nor can it be divorced from our involvement with it; dealing with a thing requires us to engage with it and its environment. A device, on the other hand, puts out of play its context and does not require engagement; it does the work for us and without our involvement.

Devices, via their machinery make available commodities. Machinery makes up “the background of technology” and remains hidden as much as possible. Machinery is “pure means”: means that are “independent of the goal, divorced as much as possible from the commodities it delivers.” The reason the machinery is hidden is so that “we can enjoy commodities without having to engage ourselves with their production.”

This, however, leads to a style of life that could be labeled “consumption.” Technology allows us to be disengaged from the social and physical production of commodities, and because the machinery that makes this possible is in the background, this pattern of consumption remains mostly hidden. The irony of technology is that “it promises enrichment but delivers impoverishment…Though the great technological breakthroughs of the past have liberated human beings from misery, most technological innovation nowadays only serves to diminish our engagement with the world.”

Borgmann takes this bleak view one step further, noting that Western societies are mostly built upon this background of technology and consumption.

Technology hooks up seamlessly with [a] specific constellation of ideas about freedom, equality, and self-realization. By making ever more goods available, technology makes it possible for human beings to realize their desires without imposing a content on how they go about it.

“Liberal democracy,” Borgmann writes, “is enacted as technology…[We need to] consider democracy not just as a political system, but as a set of institutions which do aim to make everything available to everybody.” Technology, while making it seemingly possible for everyone to have “the good life” also radically shapes the world to make that goal possible, in order to make the device paradigm work. “The liberal ideal of free self-realization appears in practice to involve mass consumption and work in order to make more consumption possible.” In fact, Borgmann claims, liberal democracies rely on technology to keep them stable. The promise that technology will bring prosperity to all through availability has prevented social unrest because the lower and middle classes “acquire the perspective that tomorrow they will wake up to what the rich have today.”

To obtain a true “good life,” Borgmann feels we need an alternative to to technological consumerism, yet one that still exists within the device paradigm. To which he offers focal things and focal practices. Focal things “draw together human involvements, things that invite engagement with themselves and what they make possible” and that concern things greater than just ourselves. These focal things create focal practices “[sponsor] discipline and skill which are exercised in a unity of achievement and enjoyment, of mind, body, and the world, of myself and others, and in a social union.” Focal things and practices are meaningful and not necessarily efficient like a machine would be. Verbeek uses the example of a marathon: no one runs one because it is more efficient than a car. Focal practices aren’t the most convenient path to reach a goal, but are more about the realization of a goal.

Verbeek (justifiably) takes Borgmann to task for his stark view of technology. He notes that

Borgmann does not see that technology can not only reduce engagment but also amplify it. Technology not only gives rise to disengaged consumption, but also to new possibilities for engagement…Technology indeed makes things available, but the lack of human involvement in the process does not mean that humans are not involved in the product. Reduction of one form of involvement usually goes hand-in-hand with the amplification of other forms.

Looking at involvement, Verbeek contrasts Borgmann’s views then with Latour’s from the previous chapter. Involvement can be direct or indirect. “By encouraging particular actions (invitation) and discouraging others (inhibition), some forms of involvement are called forth and others are suppressed or excluded.” Verbeek rightly notes that devices themselves, instead of being simply machinery for delivery of commodities, can also invite involvement both with themselves (a video game) and with what they make available (the music my iPod plays). Verbeek calls these “engaging devices” and rightly notes that

Some artifacts such as a piano indeed create involvement with their functioning and thus give rise to the intriguing situation of both withdrawing from people’s attention and calling attention to themselves at the same time…A piano is never entirely ready-at-hand, but neither is is exclusively present-at-hand–its machinery is not completely in the background but not entirely in the foreground either…Heidegger’s binary opposition…needs to be challenged, but also the idea that artifacts need to be ready-at-hand to be useful.

Next: the final installment: A Philosophy for Things.

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