Why An Easier Life Is Not Necessarily Happier
Remembering Albert Borgmann (1937-2023)
Welcome to a special installment of the Convivial Society. On Monday, a friend emailed to let me know that the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann had passed away overnight. While I may not mention Borgmann as often as Illich, Ellul, or Arendt, he has undoubtedly been a critical voice shaping my thinking about technology and the good life. Borgmann was born in Germany, but, since 1970, he was a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana. During that time he became one of our preeminent philosophers of technology. His 1984 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, remains an indispensable classic in the field.
As a wholly inadequate tribute to Prof. Borgmann, I am republishing here an essay, slightly revised, which I wrote in April of 2014, nearly a decade ago. This piece takes a series of three articles by Tim Wu as a point of departure, before pivoting to consider Borgmann’s work. Even now, as we think about what “AI” promises and threatens to do for us, I remain convinced that Borgmann offers us a compelling way of thinking through the attendant challenges, and this essay, I think, gestures toward those possibilities. Borgmann’s work also featured in two more recent essays published in this newsletter: “What Do Human Beings Need?: Rethinking Technology and the Good Society” and “Baking Bread, Finding Meaning.”
I enjoyed exactly one personal interaction with Prof. Borgmann. In 2019, I rather impertinently reached out to see if he would consider offering a good word about a collection of my writing that I had put together when I shut down my old blog. He graciously assented, and I was both grateful and humbled. As I have learned from others, this was perfectly characteristic of Borgmann’s generosity of spirt. May he Rest In Peace.
Tim Wu, of the Columbia Law School, has been writing a series of reflections on technological evolution for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. In the first of these, “If a Time Traveller Saw a Smartphone,” Wu offers what he calls a modified Turing test as a way of thinking about the debate between advocates and critics of digital technology.
Imagine a time-traveller from 1914 (a fateful year) encountering a woman behind a veil. This woman answer all sorts of questions about history and literature, understands a number of languages, performs mathematical calculations with amazing rapidity, etc. To the time-traveller, the woman seems to possess a nearly divine intelligence. Of course, as you’ve already figured out, she is simply consulting a smartphone with an Internet connection.
Wu uses this hypothetical vignette to conclude, “The time-traveller scenario demonstrates that how you answer the question of whether we are getting smarter depends on how you classify ‘we.’ This is why [Clive] Thompson and [Nicholas] Carr reach different results: Thompson is judging the cyborg, while Carr is judging the man underneath.” And that’s not a bad way of characterizing the debate.
Wu closes his first piece by suggesting that our technological augmentation has not been secured without incurring certain costs. In the second post in the series, Wu gives us a rather drastic case study of the kind of costs that sometimes come with technological augmentation. He tells the story of the Oji-Cree people, who until recently lived a rugged, austere life in northern Canada … then modern technologies showed up:
“Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.
Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor.”
Wu understands that this is an extreme case. Some may find that cause to dismiss the Oji-Cree as outliers whose experience tell us very little about the way societies ordinarily adapt to the evolution of technology. On the other hand, the story of the Oji-Cree may be like a time-lapse video which reveals aspects of reality ordinarily veiled by their gradual unfolding. In any case, Wu takes the story as a warning about the nature of technological evolution.
“Technological evolution” is, of course, a metaphor based on the processes of biological evolution. Not everyone, however, sees it as a metaphor. Kevin Kelly, who Wu cites in this second post, argues that technological evolution is not a metaphor at all. Technology, in Kelly’s view, evolves precisely as organisms do. Wu rightly recognizes that there are important differences between the two, however:
“Technological evolution has a different motive force. It is self-evolution, and it is therefore driven by what we want as opposed to what is adaptive. In a market economy, it is even more complex: for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for.”
And this leads Wu to conclude, “Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility.” That possibility is a “future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.” A future, Wu notes, that was neatly captured by the animated film WALL•E.
Wu’s conclusion echoes some of the concerns I raised in an earlier post about the future envisioned by the transhumanist project. It also anticipates the third post in the series, “The Problem With Easy Technology.” In this last post, Wu suggests that “the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.”
Wu goes on to draw a distinction between demanding technologies and technologies of convenience. Demanding technologies are characterized by the following: “technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure.” Convenience technologies, on the other hand, “require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.”
Of course, convenience technologies don’t even deliver on their fundamental promise. Channelling Ruth Cowan’s More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave, Wu writes,
“The problem is that, as every individual task becomes easier, we demand much more of both ourselves and others. Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of e-mails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive.”
But, more importantly, Wu worries that technologies of convenience may rob our action “of the satisfaction we hoped it might contain.” Toward the end of his post, he urges readers to “take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.”
I trust that I’ve done a decent job of faithfully capturing the crux of Wu’s argument in these three pieces, but I encourage you to read all three in their entirety.
I also encourage you to read the work of Albert Borgmann. I’m not sure if Wu has read Borgmann or not, but his discussion of demanding technologies was anticipated by Borgmann nearly 30 years ago in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. What Wu calls demanding technology, Borgmann called focal things, and these entailed accompanying focal practices. Wu’s technologies of convenience are instances of what Borgmann called the device paradigm.
In his work, Borgmann sought to reveal the underlying pattern that modern technologies exhibited—Borgmann is thinking of technologies dating back roughly to the Industrial Revolution. The device paradigm was his name for the pattern that he discerned.
Borgmann arrived at the device paradigm by first formulating the notion of availability. Availability is a characteristic of technology which answers to technology’s promise of liberation and enrichment. Something is technologically available, Bormann explains, “if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” At the heart of the device paradigm is the promise of increasing availability.
Borgmann goes on to distinguish between things and devices. While devices tend toward technological availability, what things provide tend not to be instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, or easy. The difference between a thing and a device is a function of the sort of engagement that is required of user. The difference is such that user might not even be the best word to describe the person who interacts with a thing. In another context, I’ve suggested that practitioner might be a better way of putting it, but that does not always yield elegant phrasing.
A thing, Borgmann writes, “is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely, engagement.” And immediately thereafter, Borgmann adds, “The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the things world.” Bodily and social engagement—we’ll come back to that point later. But first, a concrete example to help us better understand the distinctions and categories Borgmann employs.
Borgmann invites us to consider how warmth might be made available to a home. Before central heating, warmth might be provided by a stove or fireplace. This older way of providing warmth, Borgmann reminds us, “was not instantaneous because in the morning a fire first had to be built in the stove or fireplace. And before it could be built, trees had to be felled, logs had to be sawed and split, the wood had to be hauled and stacked.” Borgmann continues:
“Warmth was not ubiquitous because some rooms remained unheated, and none was heated evenly …. It was not entirely safe because one could get burned or set the house on fire. It was not easy because work, some skills, and attention were constantly required to build and sustain a fire.”
The contrasts at each of these points with central heating are obvious. Central heating illustrates the device paradigm by the manner in which it secures the technological availability of warmth. It conceals the machinery, or the means, while perfecting what Borgmann calls the commodity, the end. Commodity is Borgmann’s word for “what a device is there for,” it is the end that the means are intended to secure. The term usefully suggests both commodiousness and something captured by the market.
The device paradigm, you’ll recall, is a pattern that Borgmann sees unfolding across the modern technological spectrum. The evolution of modern technology is characterized by the progressive concealment of the machinery and the increasingly available commodity. “A commodity is truly available,” Borgmann writes, “when it can be enjoyed as a mere end, unencumbered by means.” Flipping a switch on a thermostat clearly illustrates this sort of commodious availability, particularly when contrasted with earlier methods of providing warmth.
It’s important to note, too, what Borgmann is not doing. He is not distinguishing between the technological and the natural. Things can be technological. The stove is a kind of technology, after all, as is the fireplace. Borgmann is distinguishing among technologies of various sorts, their operational logic, and the quality of engagement that they require or invite. Nor, while we’re at it, is Borgmann suggesting that modern technology has not improved the quality of life. There can be no human flourishing were people are starving or dying of disease. I would add, too, that the point of this example is not that everyone should be chopping wood. Ultimately, we do all need a set of what Borgmann elsewhere calls counter-practices, a set of deliberately chosen practices that refuse the default settings of the device paradigm. But this entails a measure of wisdom and an understanding of one’s own setting and limitations.
Like Tim Wu, Borgmann does believe that the greater comfort and ease promised by technology does not necessarily translate into greater satisfaction or happiness. There is a point at which the gains made by technology stop yielding meaningful satisfaction. Wu believes this is so because of “our biological need to be challenged.” There’s certainly something to that. I made a similar argument some time ago in opposing the idea of a frictionless life. Borgmann’s analysis, however, adds two more important considerations: bodily and social engagement.
“Physical engagement is not simply physical contact,” Borgmann explains, “but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body.” He then adds, “sensibility is sharpened and strengthened in skill … Skill, in turn, is bound up with social engagement.”
Consider again the example of the wood-burning stove or fireplace as a means of warmth. The more intense physical engagement may be obvious, but Borgmann invites us to consider the social dimensions as well:
“It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house its center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks.”
Borgmann’s vision of a richer, more fulfilling life secures its greater depth by taking seriously both our embodied and social status. This vision goes against the grain of modernity’s account of the human person grounded in a Cartesian dismissal of the body and a Lockean conception of the autonomous individuality. To the degree that this is an inadequate account of the human person, a technological order that is premised upon it will always undermine the possibility of human flourishing.
Wu and Borgmann have drawn our attention to what may be an important source of our discontent with the regime of contemporary technology. As Wu points out in his third piece, the answer is not necessarily an embrace of all things that are hard and arduous or a refusal of all the advantages that modern technology secures for us. Borgmann, too, is concerned with distinguishing between different kinds of troubles: “trouble we reject in principle and accept in practice and trouble we accept in practice and in principle.”
In the former category, Borgmann has in mind troubles such as car accidents and cancer. By “accepting them in practice,” Borgmann means that we must cope with such tragedies when they strike. But these are troubles that we oppose in principle, so we seek cures for cancer and improved highway safety.
Against these, Borgmann opposes troubles that we ought to accept in practice and in principle. Here the examples might be the preparation of a meal or hiking a mountain. These sorts of troubles or challenges, not altogether without their real dangers, could be opposed in principle — never prepare meals at home, never hike — but such avoidance would also prevent us from experiencing their attendant joys and satisfactions. If we seek to remove all trouble or risk from our lives; if we always opt for convenience, efficiency, and ease—if, in other words, we aim indiscriminately at the frictionless life—then we simultaneously rob ourselves of the real satisfactions and pleasures that enhance and enrich our lives,
Making this distinction will help us recognize and appreciate what may be gained by engaging with what Borgmann has called the commanding presence of focal things and what Wu calls demanding technologies.
Admittedly, that can be a challenging distinction to make, but learning to make that distinction may be the better part of wisdom given the technological contours of contemporary life, at least for those who have been privileged to enjoy the benefits of modern technology in affluent societies. And I’m of the opinion that the work of Albert Borgmann is one of the more valuable resources available to us as we seek to make sense of the challenges posed by the character of contemporary technology.
A final note. I suspect that one of Prof. Borgmann’s last published pieces will be the essay appearing in this new volume, Thinking through Science and Technology: Philosophy, Religion, and Politics in an Engineered World, edited by Glen Miller, Helena Mateus Jerónimo, and Qin Zhu. As Shannon Vallor notes, the book is “is a rich and urgently-needed contribution to our understanding of the built world and our vital human bonds with it.” It is also a tribute to another giant in the field of the philosophy of technology, Carl Mitcham. As is often the case with academic titles, this might stretch your book budget, but I’m glad to share this 30% discount code with you thanks to Prof. Miller and the publishers: RLFANDF30.