Resisting Disposable Reality

Technology and consumerism coalesce to create disposable reality.  Let’s try that idea on for a moment by drawing together observations made about each by Albert Borgmann and William Cavanaugh respectively.

Writing about technological culture, Borgmann distinguished between devices characterized by a “commodious,” accessible surface and a hidden, opaque machinery below the surface on the one hand and what he calls focal things on the other.  Devices are in turn coupled with consumption and focal things are paired with focal practices.  Focal things and practices, according to Borgmann, “gather our world and radiate significance in ways that contrast with the diversion and distraction afforded by commodities.”  In short, we merely use devices while we engage with focal things.

With those distinctions in mind, Borgmann continues, “Generally, a focal thing is concrete and of commanding presence.”   A commanding presence or reality is later opposed to “a pliable or disposable reality.”  Further on still, Borgmann writes, “Material culture in the advanced industrial democracies spans a spectrum from commanding to disposable reality.  The former reality calls forth a life of engagement that is oriented within the physical and social world.  The latter induces a life of distraction that is isolated from the environment and from other people.”  On that last point, bear in mind that Borgmann is writing in the early 2000s before the onset of social media.  (Although, it is debatable whether or not his point still stands.)

Borgmann then addresses his analysis to human desire by noting that:

To the dissolution of commanding reality corresponds on the human side a peculiar restlessness.  Since every item of cyberpresence can be x-rayed, zoomed into, overlayed, and abandoned for another more promising site, human desire is at every point at once satiated, disappointed, and aroused to be once more gorged, left hungry, and spurred on.

Writing about contemporary consumerism, William T. Cavanaugh observes, “What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment.  People do not hoard money; they spend it.  People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.”  Furthermore, Cavanaugh adds, “Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that’s why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism.  Buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism.”

Both Borgmann and Cavanaugh have identified an analogous pattern at the heart of both contemporary technology and the consumerist spirit:  both render reality essentially disposable.  Both also note how this disposable quality yields a restlessness or unsettledness that permeates our experience.  This experience of reality as essentially disposable and its attendant restlessness are characteristic of what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has termed, “liquid modernity.”

Interestingly, one of the focal things identified by Borgmann is the book with its corresponding focal practice, reading.  While Cavanaugh did not make this observation, it seems to me that the book as object is one of the few commodities that resists his analysis of contemporary consumerism.  That is to say that books tend to be purchased and kept.  There are exceptions, of course.  Many books turn out not to be worth keeping.  We trade some books at used books stores for others.  We also now sometimes sell certain books through services provided by and the like.  Nonetheless, I would venture to say that those who purchase books often do so with an eye to keeping them.  Where we would typically encounter detachment, with the book we find a measure of attachment.  In a sea of technological, consumerist flux the book is a fixed point. It is an object that is engaged and not merely used, it is possessed rather than readily disposed; and perhaps, in modest measure, it tacitly alleviates our restlessness.

Perhaps this then provides one angle of approach to the analysis of electronic books and e-readers.  Consider Matt Henderson’s recent observations regarding his children’s experience of “reading” Al Gore’s Our Choice, “Push Pop Press’s highly-anticipated first interactive book.”  Henderson introduced Our Choice to his two children whom he describes as technologically savvy readers.

I showed them Our Choice, and just observed. They quickly figured out the navigation, and discovered all the interactive features. But… they didn’t read the content. Fascinated, they skipped through the book, hunting for the next interactive element, to see how it works. They didn’t completely watch a single video.

When they finished, I asked them to tell me about the book. They described how they could blow on the screen and see the windmill turn, how they could run their fingers across the interactive map and see colors changing. How they could pinch to open and close images. But they couldn’t recall much of what the book was about. They couldn’t recall the message intended to be communicated in any of the info-graphics (though they could recall, in detail, how they worked.)

Run through Borgmann’s grid this seems to be an instance of contrast between a focal thing with its attendant practice and a device  with its attendant consumption. The Kindle comes off better in Henderson’s analysis, and in his children’s experience, and this makes sense since the Kindle’s interface lends itself more readily to focused engagement.  And yet, the Kindle fails to provide the physical presence of books we keep which seems to be not insignificant as we search for anchors in an environment of manufactured restlessness and disposable realities.  To borrow a line from T. S. Eliot, nostalgia for the book in this case is just our pursuit of a “still point of the turning world.”


Borgmann’s comments are drawn from Power Failure.

Cavanaugh’s comments are drawn from Being Consumed.

Henderson’s comments via Alan Jacobs.

4 thoughts on “Resisting Disposable Reality

  1. “And yet, the Kindle fails to provide… [an anchor]… in an environment of manufactured restlessness and disposable realities.”


    I kept a philosophical / sociological / whimsical blog from 2004 to about 2007. Now I’m so disoriented in the digital world I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just chuck my laptop out the window, plant my bare feet in the dirt, and read something like the Tanakh 50 times.

    By the way, I found your blog after googling Borgmann’s name. I found him accidentally while browsing in a library years ago: The book I quote there was published in 1993!

    1. I can understand that impulse! And yes, Borgmann has been writing on technology for some time now. The book that established him as a philosopher of technology, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, is from the mid-80s.

  2. The way we value material things as a commodity rather than for the use-value is very interesting. I can’t wait to see and in-depth analysis of things like the kindle and how such items are more about “just having one” rather than just a convenient, compact book.

    1. I think we’re coming to a place where the possession of things is perceived as richer than the possession of their content. Is a wide range of reading material to be more highly regarded than a deeper range of less reading material? Of course, that depends on the material in question, but it can probably be argued that reading the Tanakh fifty times is mightily better than reading the most recent issue of a tabloid magazine. Could we begin to argue that literacy is of less importance than orality, rehearsing and reviving the ancient Platonic arguments against writing and its effects on human memory? I’m reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s character of the father in his novel, The Road: He told the boy old stories of courage and justice, as he remembered them.

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