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by Eric Higgs, Andrew Light and David Strong (edtiors)
University of Chicago Press, 2000
Review by Brian Richardson, Ph.D. on Oct 28th 2001

Technology and the Good Life?When I anticipated receiving the book in the mail, Technology and the Good Life? held great promise. However, as I began reading the book, the promise faded, as the particularity of the book overcame the generality promised by the title. The book is a collection of papers dealing with the works of Albert Borgmann. An evocative title, likely arising from marketing decisions, had become a series of essays originating from a workshop. Because I was unfamiliar with Borgmann's work, and who told me I needed to be, what good was the book to me? Of course, such is the fate of edited books that deal with specific writers: they tend to appeal to people already engaged with the writers, and even then only those who are following the debates in academic journals.

But my disappointment was somewhat transitory. The editors and authors did their work well. The introduction to the book offered a useful summary of Borgmann's writings. At times, the collection reads like an encyclopedic accumulation of different intellectual perspectives - Andrew Light representing the reformed Nietzscheans, Carl Mitchum representing the Aristotelians, and Larry Hickman representing the Pragmatists. There is very little repetition between the essays - each of them assume at least a basic understanding of Borgmann's key concepts, which was offered in the introduction. Also, the references between the different essays were often insightful. Even without being familiar with the main texts being analysed, the essays became engaging.

As the editors ask in the introduction, "Are we allowing time for a genuinely good life?" (page 1) This is not a question that is directly addressed in the essays. In fact, one of the surprising absences in the work is a concern for what the good life is or how it can be determined. There are clearly different kinds of lifestyles - technological, luddite, craftsperson, consumer - but the relative value of each lifestyle is not addressed in any detail, and the criteria, such as they are, for favoring one over another, often involve either nostalgia for a less technological place in history or simply self-evidence.

To be fair, determining the good life is not the goal of the book. Instead, the point is to engage with the relationship between technology and humanity - "to give technology the quality of reflection it deserves" (page 2). But debates over the good life cannot be so easily excluded from the discussions.

The essays apply Borgmann's writings to specific fields or connecting them to other fields in philosophy. Borgmann's discussion of technology is connected to Heidegger, and so the vocabulary stresses materiality, situatedness, and authenticity in contrast to superficiality, abstraction, and consumerism. There was, unfortunately, little attempt to step back from Borgmann's writings to consider his assumptions about history, humanity, and the cosmos.

The core of the book is Borgmann's distinction between things and devices, and in particular the loss of "focal things" in modern technological society. As the editors describe the concept, a focal thing, "is not an isolated entity; it exists as a material center in a complicated network of human relationships and relationships to its natural and cultural setting" (page 23) These things once produced a centering, a stability, and an authentic connection with the cosmos. What technology does, Borgmann argues, is to substitute focal things with devices, which are designed to perform specific tasks very effectively. The drive towards usefulness, however, has reduced our devotion to community, to excellence, and to the world. Because of technology, because of the focus on devices that perform specific functions, people accomplish much more now than they did before. But one of the costs is that the devices separate us from the things we were once directly connected to. We no longer have fireplaces, we have central heating systems.

One of the important topics that is confusing in the book is whether the main contrast in Borgmann (and in the commentators) is between modern technology and an earlier kind of technology, or between technological objects (devices) and a world of found objects (things). Is the goal to escape technology's impact on us, or to adapt technology to other purposes.? This question is significant because it marks the primary moral divide in the collection. Does the good life involve no technology or only specific kinds of technology?

The answer provided by Borgmann and his commentators is equivocal, at times suggesting that people ought to relate to technology differently and that they ought to replace technology with older forms of life. Borgmann's general goal, shared with many of the writers included in this book, is the "retrieval of things" or "the redemption of physical reality" (page 333). But the response to our alienated situation, somewhat vaguely articulated, may involve either a renunciation or a reform. What is valuable about Borgmann's goals here is that the problem is not about how effective people are at doing things. The problem is existential: devices associated with technology take away our connectedness to the world and, by implication, to each other.

One assumption throughout the essays is that the primary distinction between things and devices can be determined prior to considering the historical situations in which the objects exist. Few of the authors in the collection attempt to historicize technologies - suggesting, for instance, that a device at one period can be an object in another. There is also no discussion of the possibilities of relativism (cultural, perceptual, contextual). Instead, the designation of "thing" or "device" applies to objects outside of context in which they exist, as an essential aspect of their existence. Fires are focal things, central heating systems are devices. Thus the question can focus on whether central heating systems contribute to the good life. One aspect of the debate that falls out of the discussion, however, is the role of history, society, and human agency in conditioning (or creating) how the technology becomes part of human life. Rather, the essays both depend on and affirm two contrasting systems of objects, in which the deep interaction with things is replaced with the bleak simplicity of devices.

The one example of human interaction with technology that is considered in the book is the discussion of Teletel, the French computer network considered by Andrew Feenberg. The system was initially developed for government and business communication, but quickly became the largest singles bar in the country. At the very least, people can adapt the explicit functions of the device to other purposes. For Borgmann, this is articulated in terms of primary and secondary instrumentalization. Devices never become things, but their functionality can increase in response to human adaptation. Objects offer essential qualities, and human action can offer mere accidents. While these accidental properties may change the functions, however, for Borgmann the good life does not involve the multiplication of devices or functions, it involves the move from devices to things (things which, presumably, are not understood in functional terms).

In short, the premise of the book is that what has been lost in the technological world is the ability to distinguish between the good life and the easy life, or between wealth and affluence, and it is this distinction that becomes richer through the discussions in the essays.

But I'm still not happy about the title.

© 2001 Brian Richardson

Brian Richardson recently completed his Political Science dissertation at the University of Hawaii, on the voyages of Captain Cook and 19th century understandings of empire. He is now researching the morality of reading in a digitizing world, focusing in particular on key moral arguments from the history of western philosophy.