Technology and the Inadequacy of Values Talk

Albert Borgmann has some useful, possibly urgent things to say to us in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. The book is, I believe, Borgmann’s most important work in the philosophy of technology. I recently discovered that Evgeny Morozov listed this work as on of the five books he commended a few years back as the best books on the philosophy of technology (it’s a solid list all around). Of Borgmann’s book, Morozov observed, “it was all hardcore philosophical theory, how to think and evaluate practices, and what to do about technology and what should be done.” Indeed. Borgmann’s work, though now 35 years old, seems to me as relevant as ever. I’ve drawn on his writing a number of times, and you can dip into the archive to read some of those posts if you’re so inclined.

For present purpose, I wanted to simply share a handful of excerpts drawn from the chapters dealing with technology and politics.

Writing about technology and social order, Borgmann observes that “it is widely admitted that there is a problem of orientation in the technologically advanced countries.” Citing a cheery paragraph from Buckminster Fuller, he acknowledges that not everyone is debilitated by the disorientation occasioned by modern technology, but he suspects that Fuller is an outlier. For those who do find modern technology disorienting, he notes that more often than not it is believed that “we can find our bearings in relation to technology by raising the questions of values”—ethics talk, we might say today.

But Borgmann is not impressed: “Such a procedure may only strengthen and conceal the reign of what we seek to question.” It would do so chiefly by reinforcing the means-ends distinction that Borgmann finds rather pernicious. “The relative stability of ends and the radical variability of means that again comes to fruition in the device is likewise congenial to values talk …”

Device is a technical term in Borgmann’s work, and a key component of what he termed the device paradigm. The device paradigm (or pattern), which Borgmann argues characterizes modern technology. It’s not an easy concept to summarize. It describes the tendency of machines to become simultaneously more commodious and more opaque, or, to put it another way, easier to use and harder to understand. Borgmann contrasted devices to focal things, and the differences was chiefly a matter of the form of engagement they generated. Basically, Borgmann believed that devices encourage what we might think of as shallow, superficial, ultimately unsatisfying engagement. I’ve suggested that we could get at this distinction by noting how we tend to call those who take up a device users. Such a term does not quite fit for those who take up with the sort of tool, artifact, or technology which Bormann labels a focal thing. It may be better to think of them as practitioners.

One aspect of the device paradigm is the radical interchangeability of means to which he alludes in the lines I cited above. The point of the device, in fact, is to offer us the same end we might have achieved through a focal thing but without the hassle, so to speak. Elsewhere, Borgmann spoke of what devices make technologically available being “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” In so doing, however, they have radically altered the nature of the end they procure. One cannot get at the meaning or significance of technology by presuming at the outset that means are basically indifferent and inconsequential so long as we arrive at the desired end or goal.

We might begin to see then why “values talk” simply unfolds within the device paradigm rather than challenging it. “No matter how the question of value is raised and settled,” Borgmann writes, “the patter of technology itself is never in question. Technology comes into play as the indispensable and unequaled procurement of the means that allow us to realize our preferred values.”

Borgmann acknowledges both that it is politically useful to resort to values talk and that, for the same reasons, it is difficult to commend focal things. Values talk typically centers on “hard” or “measurable” values: employment, resources, or productivity, for example. These are instrumental values, Borgmann notes, but “one can appeal to them as guides or ends in political controversies because the ends proper that they serve are understood and granted by almost everyone. Those final values are commodities.”

Commodities, he adds, “are sharply defined and easily measured. Focal things, on the other hand, engage us in so many and subtle ways that no quantification can capture them.” This is not a matter of “mysterious unquantifiable properties,” rather “their significance is composed of so many, if not all, of their physically ascertainable properties that an explicit quantitative account must always impoverish the greatly.”

Penultimate thought from Bormann: “When values talk is about [focal] things, it falters, and the object of discourse slips from our grasp. Discourse that is appropriate to things must in its crucial occurrences abandon the means-ends distinction. It must be open to and guided by the fullness of the focal thing in the world, and it can communicate the thing only through testimony and appeal.”

Final word: “In spite of its shortcomings one should, as a matter of prudence and pedagogy, encourage discussions that raise the value question. Without this familiar if inadequate approach, a fundamental analysis of technology remains forbidding. Moreover, values will remain indispensable as ways of summarizing, recollecting, and preparing for our experience with things.”

More from Borgmann forthcoming.

3 thoughts on “Technology and the Inadequacy of Values Talk

  1. I share your enthusiasm for Borgmann. I use his, Holding on to Reality, with my students, as the go-to source on the history of technology, even though it is twenty years old. Much looking forward to your continuing dissection of Borgmann.

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