Technology and the Social World 1

Technology creates social conditions (This is taken from Albert Borgmann, "The Device Paradigm")

4 Views of Technology

1. The Instrumentalist view. Technology is viewed simply as an instrument by which to procure certain social values which arise independent of it. Technology is value neutral. The problem here is that this is a short-sighted view. It separates means from ends in an artificial manner.

2. The Substantive view. Technology is viewed as a force in its own right. It shapes both society and values from the ground up. This view is often adopted by "anti-technologists". Technology is seen as the root of all evil. Conversely, some people that have absolute faith in technology also adopt this view. If there is a problem, technology will fix it. The problem here is that it leaves technology itself unexplained. It says nothing about how technology achieved this status.

3. The Pluralist view. This view attempts to account for the dynamic interaction between the various forces which serve to shape our social values and our understanding of technology. This is an ambitious view, in that it tries to step back and view the whole process. The problem is that it fails reality. Technology does not, in fact, take shape in a prohibitively complex way with undiscernable patterns, as this view suggests.

4. The Device Paradigm. As far as Borgmann is concerned, the role of technology is to liberate humanity from the misery and toil associated with dominating the world; to enrich human life. Liberation and enrichment require availability, which entails that it be instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.

What's the Use of a Wood Stove?

Borgmann uses the example of the wood stove in a pre-technological house. The purpose of the stove, it would seem, is to provide warmth. Yet in fulfilling this function the wood stove fails from a technological point of view:

  • it is not instantaneous -- someone has to build the fire.
  • it is not ubiquitous -- not all rooms are heated.
  • it is not safe -- you could burn the house down.
  • it is not easy -- someone has to fell the trees and cut the logs. The wood has to be carried into the house and split.

So, the wood stove seems to be a dinosaur. It does not produce the commodity "heat" very efficiently. Central heating, on the other hand, makes the commodity heat instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy. We should be thankful that this technology has liberated us from toil and enriched our lives. BUT it is not as simple as this.

Borgmann distinguishes between Things and Devices. The point of technology is to identify commodities we are trying to attain, and provide them for us. The problem is that to think of the various things which we rely on to provide our basic needs as simply a means to acquiring an end, is to see these things as devices. But there is a difference between a thing and a device:

Thing

  • inseparable from their context, and from our engagement with them.
  • they provide a focus for practice. Consider the wood stove, and the various practices in the family that are centred around the stove. The father fells the trees. The boys help bring the wood in. It is someone's daily task to keep the wood box full. Mom lights the fire. The family gathers around the stove each evening to keep warm. In other words, means and ends are inseparable.

Device

  • provide a commodity to relieve a burden
  • lacks a context
  • separates means from ends
  • to think of the stove as merely a device to provide a commodity is to reduce its significance as a focal point for practices

But it is not only the distinction between things and devices that is important. Devices are "foregrounded". That is, in taking a thing out of its social context, it is not just that it loses its tie to humans. It also gives the impression of history and character without actually having it. Borgmann uses the example of wine. It used to be that you could tell wines by their year. The process was not high technology, and so there was the possibility of unpleasant and pleasant surprises. Now, they are homogenous and predictable. In other words, they used to be things of depth. Now, they are opaque, mimicking the depth without actually having it. There is no need for background awareness of, say, how something works or how it was made.

Part of the problem is that technology, like any of our material things, must be ambiguous. But by emphasizing the foreground, we attempt to do away with the ambiguity. Part of this trend comes through advertising again, which shows the use of the products in the typical (usually idyllic) surroundings. There is little creativity, and it implies not only that technology gives us the good life, but that the good life gives us technology. There is a tool/toy for every purpose in the well-ordered modern life.