Troubles We Must Not Refuse

If you’re not paying attention to Evan Selinger’s work, you’re missing out on some of the best available commentary on the ethical implications of contemporary technology. Last week I pointed you to his recent essay, “The Outsourced Lover,” on a morally questionable app designed to automate romantic messages to your significant other. In a more recent editorial at Wired, “Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths,” Selinger provides another incisive critique of an app that similarly automates aspects of interpersonal relationships.

Selinger approached his piece by interviewing the app designers in order to understand the rationale behind their product. This leads into an interesting and broad discussion about technological determinism, technology’s relationship to society, and ethics.

I was particularly intrigued by how assumptions of technological inevitability were deployed. Take the following, for example:

“Embracing this inevitability, the makers of BroApp argue that ‘The pace of technological change is past the point where it’s possible for us to reject it!’”


“’If there is a niche to be filled: i.e. automated relationship helpers, then entrepreneurs will act to fill that niche. The combinatorial explosion of millions of entrepreneurs working with accessible technologies ensures this outcome. Regardless of moral ambiguity or societal push-back, if people find a technology useful, it will be developed and adopted.’”

It seems that these designers have a pretty bad case of the Borg Complex, my name for the rhetoric of technological determinism. Recourse to the language of inevitability is the defining symptom of a Borg Complex, but it is not the only one exhibited in this case.

According to Selinger, they also deploy another recurring trope: the dismissal of what are derisively called “moral panics” based on the conclusion that they amount to so many cases of Chicken Little, and the sky never falls. This is an example of another Borg Complex symptom: “Refers to historical antecedents solely to dismiss present concerns.” You can read my thoughts on that sort of reasoning here.

Do read the whole of Selinger’s essay. He’s identified an important area of concern, the increasing ease with which we may outsource ethical and emotional labor to our digital devices, and he is helping us think clearly and wisely about it.

About a year ago, Evgeny Morozov raised related concerns that prompted me to write about the inhumanity of smart technology. A touch of hyperbole, perhaps, but I do think the stakes are high. I’ll leave you with two points drawn from that older post.

The first:

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant observed. Corollary to keep in mind: If a straight thing is made, it will be because humanity has been stripped out of it.

The second relates to a distinction Albert Borgmann drew some time ago between troubles we accept in practice and those we accept in principle. Those we accept in practice are troubles we need to cope with but which we should seek to eradicate, take cancer for instance. Troubles we accept in principle are those that we should not, even if we were able, seek to abolish. These troubles are somehow essential to the full experience of our humanity and they are an irreducible component of those practices which bring us deep joy and satisfaction.

That’s a very short summary of a very substantial theory. You can read more about it in that earlier post and in this one as well. I think Borgmann’s point is critical. It applies neatly to the apps Selinger has been analyzing. It also speaks to the temptations of smart technology highlighted by Morozov, who rightly noted,

“There are many contexts in which smart technologies are unambiguously useful and even lifesaving. Smart belts that monitor the balance of the elderly and smart carpets that detect falls seem to fall in this category. The problem with many smart technologies is that their designers, in the quest to root out the imperfections of the human condition, seldom stop to ask how much frustration, failure and regret is required for happiness and achievement to retain any meaning.”

From another angle, we can understand the problem as a misconstrual of the relationship between means and ends. Technology, when it becomes something more than an assortment of tools, when it becomes a way of looking at the world, technique in Jacques Ellul’s sense, fixates on means at the expense of ends. Technology is about how things get done, not what ought to get done or why. Consequently, we are tempted to misconstrue means as ends in themselves, and we are also encouraged to think of means as essentially interchangeable. We simply pursue the most efficient, effective means. Period.

But means are not always interchangeable. Some means are integrally related to the ends that they aim for. Altering the means undermines the end. The apps under consideration, and many of our digital tools more generally, proceed on the assumption that means are, in fact, interchangeable. It doesn’t matter whether you took the time to write out a message to your loved one or whether it was an automated app that only presents itself as you. So long as the end of getting your loved one a message is accomplished, the means matter not.

This logic is flawed precisely because it mistakes a means for an end and sees means as interchangeable. The real end, of course, in this case anyway, is a loving relationship not simply getting a message that fosters the appearance of a loving relationship. And the means toward that end are not easily interchangeable. The labor, or, to use Borgmann’s phrasing, the trouble required by the fitting means cannot be outsources or eliminated without fatally undermining the goal of a loving relationship.

That same logic plays out across countless cases where a device promises to save us or unburden us from moral and emotional troubles. It is a dehumanizing logic.

Low-tech Practices and Identity

Hipsters, low tech, and the quest for authenticity — what do we make of the interplay among these three phenomena? In two recent posts at Cyborgology, P. J. Rey and Nathan Jurgenson addressed this question in an exchange of overlapping perspectives with competing points of emphasis. I encourage you to read each piece, but here is how I would characterize their respective arguments.

Rey, for his part, advanced the thesis that hipster fixation on lo-tech gear is mostly about achieving a sense of mastery over technology, a mastery that is mostly unattainable over more complex contemporary technology. This mastery also affirms a sense of individuality and independence. Rey concludes:

“The hipster low-tech fantasy–”the dream of the 1890s“–is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out.”

In his response, Jurgenson argues that Rey is focusing on the wrong thing. To put in Aristotelian terms, the retro-tech is accidental, identity construction is the essence. The really important dynamic is  not the hipster fixation on low-tech, but rather the imperative to construct an authentic, individual identity. Of course, shifting to Hegel-ese, the contradiction that constructs the desire is the inherent inauthenticity of constructed identities; the goal, under the conditions it is pursued, is unattainable.

Reading these two posts, particularly Rey’s initial offering, I was reminded of categories employed by the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann. Borgmann, whose thinking about technology arises from his engagement with Martin Heidegger, distinguishes between devices and focal things. Here’s the difference as I explained it in an earlier post:

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.

Borgmann’s categories enjoy some interesting points of contact with Rey’s analysis. The notion of a  commodious device, for example, that presents what we might call a user-friendly surface while hiding an inaccessible complexity below that surface tracks with Rey’s sense that hipsters have turned to low-tech in order to engage with technologies over which a certain degree of mastery can be achieved.

The objects in themselves are not, therefore, mere signifiers in a what is essentially the work of identity construction as I take Jurgenson to argue. Not too long ago I offered a few disorganized reflections on the sources of the modern imperative to construct one’s identity. This imperative arises, in part, from the erosion of traditional social structures that functioned as anchors for the self. It is a by-product of the solidity of the premodern world dissolving into the liquidity of the postmodern, to borrow Bauman’s metaphor. That said, it would be a mistake to conclude that we are always involved in the work of identity construction in equal measure. In fact, I think this is where Borgmann’s phenomenological analysis of the commanding presence of focal things may prove most useful.

Borgmann, if I understand him correctly, distinguishes between focal things and devices mostly on the basis of the sort of engagement they require. Simply put, a focal thing demands more of one’s self than a device. We are mere users of devices, focal things invite us to become practitioners. The paradigmatic focal thing for Borgmann is a musical instrument, and this example is particularly instructive.

It is possible for a musician to have the experience of losing themselves in the act of playing a musical instrument. In other words, in such focal practices the imperative to construct one’s identity is counteracted by the very nature of the focal thing and its attendant practice. It is, of course, possible to argue, and in fact very likely, that the pursuit of musical skill is itself an instance of identity creation. But the nature of the practice itself, if the testimony of practitioners may be trusted, finally resists that impulse. We might imagine the same to be true for a wide range of practices, particularly as one approaches a level of expertise in the practice and find themselves “in the flow,” which is to say in a state of almost non-conscious action. This state, phenomenologically, would appear to be the polar opposite of the hyper-self-consciousness that the performance of identity assumes.

I should add that such practices are not necessarily limited to the low-tech or the analog. I imagine that for the expert coder or computer programmer, for example, may find themselves similarly taken in by their work.

I am reminded once again of a passage in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

“It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

Conrad’s Marlow captures neatly the dynamic of Borgmann’s focal things and practices. They are not finally about the performance of an identity, and they may even allow for an entirely different approach to the matter of identity. As Marlow puts it, he values what is in the work, namely “the chance to find yourself.”

It is the desire expressed by the lyrics of what might possibly be a rather hipster-ish band, The Head and the Heart:

“I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade.
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days.”

My interest in these matters, however, is not tied to an exploration of the hipster psyche. In the limited case of the hipster, Jurgenson may very well be right, it is all performance all the way down. But I believe that Rey is also right in focusing on the low-tech objects that are the paraphernalia of hipster culture. They are not insignificant in themselves even if the hipsters have stumbled upon this reality accidentally.

Happily, the world is populated by more than hipsters and it includes those who find in their analog and low-tech practices something more than an opportunity to perform a particular identity, they find a respite, momentary perhaps, from the imperative to perform. Moreover, it is not mastery that they are after, but rather a certain form of engagement with the world that is its own reward.


Update: Some further thoughts on authenticity here.

Technology and Trust

The best kind of blog posts and essays are the ones that make you think, and that was exactly the effect of PJ Rey’s smart post on Cyborgology, “Trust and Complex Technology: The Cyborg’s Modern Bargain.” After doing some of that thinking, I offered some on-site comments. Because they are related to previous posts on this site (here, here and here), I’m going to also post them here. Before reading them, I recommend you click over to Rey’s post and read the whole thing which would only take a few minutes.

In case, you’re in a hurry, here’s Rey’s argument in brief, as I understand it: We live in a world of increasingly complex technologies, the workings of which the average person is, for the most part, unable to understand. Because we nonetheless use these technologies, often without so much as a second thought, this means that we are trustingly committed to these technologies and the expert systems that generate them. This trust, which presupposes a lack of self-sufficiency, is a fundamentally social dynamic.

In light of that argument, here are my comments, edited somewhat so as to make better sense as a stand alone statement:

I’m not sure how well this describes the actual existential experience of modern technology. Mostly, I wonder if there is not a distinction between implicit and explicit trust when we talk about the sociability of technology use. In other words, I’m not sure if the users of complex technologies such as the iPhone or social media platforms are consciously deploying what we might meaningfully call “trust” in their use of these technologies and platforms.

We could argue that their use implies a kind of de facto trust in the equipment, but does this amount to the kind of trust that operates in truly social relationships? Trusting systems and trusting persons seem to me to be two different phenomenon. And while it’s possible to argue that people set up and run systems so that finally we’re trusting in them, but I would suggest that the system, if it is running well, practically obscures the human element. So if we’ve outsourced our trust as it were to expert systems, is it still trust that we are talking about or habituated responses to (mostly) predictable systems?

Historians of technology (and Arthur C. Clarke) have pointed to an affinity between magic and technology that can be traced back to the early modern era. I would suggest that our existential experience of using an iPad, for example, more readily approximates our experience of magic than it does trust among social relations. As I write this it occurs to me that perhaps the analysis assumes the other half of the atomized (political) individual that is being criticized, the rational (economic) actor whose decision making is a fully conscious, calculated affair. In other words, I suspect most people are not consciously rationalizing their use of technologies by invoking trust in the persons who stand behind the technologies, rather they use the technology as if it were a magical tool that “just worked” — Apple products, I think, are paradigmatic here. And, if the trust in persons is not explicit, can it meaningfully be called social?

One last thought. Philosopher Albert Borgmann’s “device paradigm” comes to mind here. In brief, he argues that our tools are increasingly offering ease of use, effectiveness, and efficiency but at the expense of becoming increasingly opaque to the average user — much the same dynamic that you describe. But this opacity, in his view, has the effect of alienating us from the technology, and to some degree from the experiences mediated by those technologies. In part, I suspect, this is precisely because we are made to use that which we don’t even remotely understand, and this is not really trust, but a kind of gamble. Trust, in social relations, is not quite blind faith; it is risky, but not, in most cases, a gamble. Coming back to the airplane, for many people, statistics not withstanding, boarding an airplane feels like a gamble and involves very little trust at all.

To wrap up, I’m suggesting that we need to phenomenologically parse out “trust”: reasoned, explicit trust; reasonable, implicit trust; unreasonable, implicit trust; unreasonable, explicit trust (blind faith); explicitly untrusting acquiescence; gambles; etc. Our use of technology relies on many of these, but not all of them amount to the kind of trust that might render us meaningfully social.

There you have it; comments, as always, welcome.

Update: The conversation continues at Cyborgology. Click through to read Rey’s response, etc.

Meeting the Rule of Technology with Counterpractices

From Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure:

“… for a long time time to come technology will constitute the common rule of life.  The Christian reaction to that rule should not be rejection but restraint … But since technology as a way of life is so pervasive, so well entrenched, and so concealed in its quotidianity, Christians must meet the rule of technology with a deliberate and regular counterpractice.

Therefore, a radical theology of technology must finally become a practical theology, one that first makes room and then makes way for a Christian practice.  Here we must consider again the ancient senses of theology, the senses that extend from reflection to prayer.  We must also recover the ascetic tradition of practice and discipline and ask how the ascesis of being still and solitary in meditation is related to the practice of being communally engaged in the breaking of the bread.  The passage through technology discloses a new or an ancient splendor in ascesis.  There is no duress or denial in ascetic Christianity.  On the contrary, liberating us from the indolence and shallowness of technology, it opens to us the festive engagement with life.”

The crucial insight here, for Christians and non-Christians alike, is the necessity of formulating deliberate and intentional counterpractices.  It is not enough to merely desire or will to live well with technology.  The “rule of technology” engraves itself on us by shaping the routines and habits of daily life so that it is both pervasive and unnoticed. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, Jamie Smith makes a similar point in a recent blog post:

But as Pierre Bourdieu would emphasize, such “micropractices” have macro effects: what might appear to be inconsequential micro habits are, in fact, disciplinary formations that begin to reconfigure our relation to the wider world–indeed, they begin to make that world. As Bourdieu puts it in The Logic of Practice, “The cunning of pedagogic reason lies precisely in the fact that it manages to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant” (p. 69).

The force of such habituated, world-making practices and micro-practices must be met with counterpractices.

Material Faith: Gestures Toward a Theology of Technology

In his 2003 book, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology, philosopher Albert Borgmann invites us to consider what a theology of technology might look like.  He suggests that “there is hope for a coming to terms with technology not in the vortex of the initial confrontation, but only after one has passed through it.”  Then he goes on to add,

A radical theology of technology would be one that, through the experience of technology, could call into question what now counts as unproblematic …. In short I believe that the experience of technology can awaken in us a new potentia oboedientialis, a new capacity to hear the word of God.

As I read him, Borgmann is suggesting that a theology of technology is enabled by the experience of technology to perceive aspects of human experience that would otherwise remain obscured.  Passing through the vortex allows us to see more clearly what we may have apprehended only vaguely, if at all.

So for example, it seems that the vortex of rapid technological change encourages us to become aware of technology’s cultural consequences in a way that those who experienced technological change at a glacial pace would have been unlikely to perceive.  When technology does not change markedly in a generation or more, it tends to blend into the presumed natural order of things.  The acceleration of technological change encourages awareness of the attendant disruptions of established patterns of life.  Such awareness is sometimes accompanied by anxiety, euphoria, or nostalgia.  At best, though, it is a first step toward a discerning, critical disposition aimed at faithfulness and wisdom.

Two elements of experience thrown into relief by passing through the technological vortex come to mind.  Theorists of technology, and of digital media in particular, have over the last decade drawn attention to the materiality of texts and to the embodied nature of knowledge.  It is a concern fostered by the apparent immateriality of digital media and the not-so-fringe visions of disembodied immortality that animate many in the Silicon Valley set.

The rhetoric of disembodied posthumanism, for example, led Katherine Hayles, a scholar of literature and computer science, to articulate a countervision which secures the significance of the body.  In doing so, Hayles drew on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Paul Connerton.  Both Bourdieu and Connerton produced rich studies of embodied practices within traditional societies — practices geared toward the task of cultural remembrance.  Connerton cited, among other examples, the significance of the enacted Christian liturgy as an instance of embodied practice aimed at securing enduring social memory. The ascendency of digitized memory, then, is the figure against which the ground of embodied knowing and remembering becomes visible.

Along similar lines, Jerome McGann working within the field of literary studies and having pioneered the digital archive (Rossetti Archive) drew attention to the significance of materiality in the case of texts.  When texts become digital, it is suddenly important to ask what difference the material attributes of the book makes.  Reinforcing Borgmann’s point, the materiality of the book would have remained largely taken for granted had not the advent of digital texts and e-readers drawn our attention to it.

Similarly, a theology of technology will address itself to the new fields of human experience being disclosed by the rapid advance of technology.  This by no means amounts to a wholesale endorsement of all technological change and its consequences.  Marshall Mcluhan, for example, viewed the task of understanding technology as an act of resistance to that same technology:

I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what’s happening because I don’t choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me.  Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you’re in favor of it.  The exact opposite is true in my case.  Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.  (Understanding Me:  Lectures and Interviews, 101-102)

Of course, we need not take quite so oppositional a view either.  Rather, the point is to reckon with what technology discloses about itself, the world we inhabit, and the human condition – and to take theological account of such disclosure.

It is worth noting that the renewed focus on embodiment, materiality, and what amounts to liturgical forms of knowing and remembering accord well with prominent themes within the Christian tradition.  It is, however, a focus that the Christian tradition has historically struggled to maintain.  Strands of American evangelicalism in particular, but not exclusively, have tended to reduce faith and practice to assent to the intellectual content of propositional statements thus occluding the significance of the material and embodied conditions of Christian discipleship and worship.

Perhaps taking a cue from theorists of technology it is possible to look again at the significance of the body and the rich material culture of Christian faith and practice.  Moreover, resources within the Christian tradition may fruitfully be brought to bear upon contemporary discussions of embodiment and materiality yielding genuine engagement and dialog.  The Christian faith after all is a faith of bread and wine, water and wood, body and blood.  It is just the right time, then, to rediscover the body and materiality of faith.