TITLE: The Device Paradigm: a Consideration for a Deweyan Philosophy of Technology
In this essay I discuss Dewey’s philosophy of technology as articulated and advanced by Larry Hickman. I suggest that Hickman’s defense of Dewey’s instrumentalism is incomplete as it does not fully take into account the thought of key contemporary philosophers of technology. In order to make this clear, I discuss the work of Albert Borgmann who advances the notion of the “device paradigm” and that shapes much of everyday experience. Since modern technological devices separate means from ends and since Dewey advocates the pursuit of consumatory experience (that is contingent upon the integration of means and ends), a Deweyan philosopher of technology must take the device paradigm fully into account.
In John Dewey’s
Pragmatic Technology (1990) and Philosophical Tools for Technological
Culture: Putting Pragmatism to Work (2001), Larry Hickman takes significant
steps in articulating a Deweyan philosophy of technology.1 This
project is important since Dewey’s account of technology has gone largely
unnoticed by both classical and contemporary philosophers of technology. One
way to remedy this problem is to bring Dewey’s account into dialogue with
prominent philosophers of technology such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul,
Albert Borgmann, and Langdon Winner. Hickman follows a particular strategy as
he develops this dialogue. The philosopher’s central idea is explicated, is
criticized, and Dewey’s philosophy of technology is shown to be immune from such
criticism.2 The conclusion that the reader draws from both texts is
that, since Dewey’s philosophy of technology avoids such pitfalls, it is more
robust than those that do not.
With this said, I have a criticism that concerns the manner in which Hickman explicates the accounts given by other philosophers of technology. More specifically, I believe that certain philosophers of technology (classical and contemporary) are given rather short shrift and that if their accounts were given a fair shake, Hickman would need to spend much more time defending Dewey’s philosophy of technology. In order to make this point clear, I will focus on the philosophy of Albert Borgmann which, I believe, provides an important criticism of Dewey’s philosophy of technology. More specifically, Borgmann’s account of the device paradigm highlights a difficulty with Dewey’s instrumentalism in that instrumentalism, in light of the device paradigm, poses problems for the development and appreciation of consumatory experience. If Borgmann is right, the instrumentalism that modern technological devices are grounded in hinders the pursuit and appreciation of focal things and practices that characterize consumatory experience.
I’ll begin by briefly assessing Hickman’s treatment of Borgmann and will go on to discuss the elements of Borgmann’s philosophy that need to be taken into account by the proponent of Dewey’s philosophy of technology. I will then discuss what bearing Borgmann’s account has on Dewey’s notion of consumatory experience. My hope is that this will encourage a more rigorous discussion concerning the viability of Dewey’s philosophy of technology.
Since “technology” is a slippery term, at the outset I should clarify what I take it to mean. When I use “technology” I follow common usage and refer to the “science-based devices of the sort that began to emerge in the 19th century”. “Technology” is distinct from “the technical” in that the latter term refers, more generally, to the techniques that produce technological devices and processes.3
I. Hickman on Borgmann and the Device Paradigm
Hickman’s most sustained discussion of Bormann occurs in chapter six of Philosophical Tools (“Literacy, Mediacy, and Technological Determinism”). There, Hickman discusses Borgmann’s account of information and information technology and comes to the conclusion that Borgmann is a reductionist who believes that information technology determines human behavior.4 I don’t disagree with Hickman’s assessment, however, my concern is that Borgmann’s most significant contribution to the philosophy of technology has been overlooked. Indeed, Borgmann’s discussion of information technology warrants serious discussion but I believe that his earlier work is more comprehensive and deserving of serious consideration by any philosopher of technology.
In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann advances the notion of the device paradigm.5 Devices are technological mechanisms that have the capacity to make a commodity or product available to a consumer on demand. Devices are currently paradigmatic in the sense that they characterize much of contemporary life. The television set, cell phone, iPod, laptop, blackberry, and microwave are examples of the devices that we use throughout the day in everyday life. Indeed, devices such as these are ubiquitous to the extent that the social consequences of their widespread use usually go unnoticed. Why is this?
The consequences of wide-spread device usage go unnoticed since we have adopted Enlightenment ideals that reflect an optimistic attitude about science-based progress and since devices manifestly improve quality of life. Simply put, we are optimistic that devices can solve all social problems since they allow us to efficiently produce more food, build houses, fight diseases, and so on.
Further, Borgmann observes that there is something about devices themselves that contributes to our lack of awareness of the manner in which they shape day-to-day life. That is, devices such as iPods, cell phones, television sets, computers, and microwaves are akin in that the machinery that they utilize renders a product readily available for consumption. At the same time, the machinery that characterizes modern technological devices has become less and less obtrusive. The laptop (the “notebook”), iPod (the “nano”), and flat-screen television are cases in point. The early instantiations of music producing devices, computers, and television sets were large and bulky. Their machinery was obvious. Technological developments, however, have rendered the machinery less obvious thereby encouraging the user to focus attention on the products that they produce. Modern technological devices are all about product, so to speak.
Bormann observes that the ends procured by devices are readily available but the means that the devices use to procure those ends are increasingly mysterious to the consumer. For this reason, it can be said that devices simultaneously reveal and conceal. They reveal a product for consumption in an efficient fashion but conceal the manner in which they do so. The means have increasingly become the affairs of experts and technicians in that the experts are the only individuals who understand the complex inner workings of the device.
What are the consequences of the prevalence of the device paradigm? It is clear that devices facilitate the consumption of products and increase quality of life. The faucet in my kitchen efficiently provides me with water and saves the time and effort that go into procuring potable water. The iPod provides me with music when and where I want to hear it. I need not travel to a concert as the songs are always ready to play. The microwave quickly provides me with cooked food, again saving me time and effort. These are clearly beneficial consequences in that they free up time to devote to other affairs.
However, Borgmann is concerned about the manner in which devices separate means from ends and undermine the significance of what he calls focal things and practices. I’ll consider these in turn.
As discussed a moment ago, the device realizes a given end but conceals the means that are instrumental in bringing it about. Borgmann believes that the device paradigm results in experiences of alienation as the devices mediate reality. Consequently the consumer begins to under-appreciate the processes that must be enacted in order to produce desired ends. For example, the microwave dinner and the microwave efficiently provide a hot, tasty meal, however, one who relies on heavily on the device for food production loses out on interaction with the means that go into food production since the device takes care of them. Assuming that I have the time to cook, I will not value the microwave dinner in the way that I appreciate the meal made by myself or by a loved one in a more traditional manner. But what is so valuable about enacting the means of production without the aid of devices such as the microwave?
When someone takes the time to cook food the human-reality interaction is greater. The cook must be engaged in that he must know the nature of the foods, know how to prepare them, know suitable combinations of different foods, and know the tastes of those he cooks for (including himself). By doing the work for us, devices take the place of the work that connects us with reality. The concern is that post-moderns who live in a world that is infused with the device paradigm increasingly become alienated from reality. Their lives are thoroughly mediated by devices that step in and do the work that would connect them to essential things and processes.6
Borgmann’s second concern pertains to focal things and practices. This concern can be illustrated by developing the example given above. Borgmann suggests that the “culture of the table” is a focal practice in that it is indicative of a socially-embedded process.7 Taking the time to prepare food and enjoying the fruits of one’s labor at a table with loved ones is “focal” since it characteristically focuses a broader social field. Dinner is a focal practice when the work that lies behind it culminates in the manifestation, expression, and enrichment of social relationships. Further, the dinner table itself is a focal thing in that it is a socially-embedded object. The table is meaningful in that it is part and parcel of social relationships. It is the object over which discussions are had, food is shared, games are played, and so on.
On the other hand, devices are context-less in that they can perform their function in any context and are not overtly tied to social processes. Indeed, they are designed to perform efficiently in as many circumstances as possible. My iPod can produce a recording of my favorite jazz group whenever and wherever I want but it cannot reproduce the focal practice that is the jazz concert and cannot stand up to the focal thing that is the musical instrument (the drum kit, saxophone, piano, etc). Similarly, the microwave can reliably produce warm food at any time but cannot reproduce the focal practice that is the dinner and cannot be constituted into dinner as can the dining table.8
For these reasons, Borgmann is concerned that alienation and the device paradigm go hand-in-hand. The consumer of the goods produced by devices becomes estranged from the processes that traditionally produced such goods. Further, an increasing indebtedness to devices undermines the enactment and appreciation of focal practices, practices that are characterized by the active interplay of means and ends and are characteristic of broader social relationships. In the next section I consider what bearing this approach has on Dewey’s philosophy.
II. Consumatory Experience
In Art as Experience, Dewey develops the notion of consumatory experience.9 Consumatory experiences are those that that are characterized by the interplay of means and ends, a movement to a culminating moment, and are characterized by a pervasive quality. Consumatory experiences are distinct from those that are overtly chaotic and do not move toward a culminating moment or those that are humdrum and have no novelty or element of tension. A good meal can be consumatory if it involves robust conversation, shared enjoyment of the food and company, and is characterized by a characteristic quality such as conviviality. Dewey also observes that trials and tribulations can constitute consumatory experiences as well, that is, consumatory experiences are not necessarily pleasant, happy, and so on. The pervasive quality of a dinner can be antagonism, for example, if a heated political discussion develops as the meal unfolds. Likewise, a difficult voyage can be consumatory as it stands out in experience and is characterized by a pervasive quality, namely, danger.
Of course, what concerns us is Dewey’s emphasis on the interplay of means and ends that characterizes consumatory experience. For example, in creating a meal, the cook utilizes foods, seasonings, utensils, and techniques to create the finished product. Likewise, the artist works with the medium with which she is most familiar (whether paint and canvas, stone, sound, language, etc.) along with the relevant tools and techniques to create a work of art. In either case, the means of production are consciously manipulated in order to realize a desired end. Further, the means culminate in the end as the food, seasoning, utensils, and methods are brought into accord in order to produce an organic unity. Consumatory experience is characterized by the interplay of means and ends and, more specifically, this interplay is characterized by the organization of energies that brings about a fulfilling end.
This concerns us since the device paradigm drives a division between means and ends. Again, devices efficiently realize ends but they conceal the means that are necessary for realizing them. The microwave efficiently and quickly produces hot food ready for consumption but the active development of means toward a desired end is lost. Likewise, the computer program that can be used to produce a work of art (whether poem, song, or painting) precludes the work of the artist who consciously works with the means of production to create a meaningful work. In either case, the device, instead of the cook or artist, does the work and the end, nevertheless, is produced. Is it the case then, that the device paradigm is antithetical to consumatory experience?
The first thing to note is that devices are not, strictly speaking, antithetical to consumatory experience. That is, particular devices such as my iPod or cell phone do not necessarily thwart enriching experience in which means coalesce in fulfilling ends. I can have a consumatory experience as I listen to jazz on my iPod or on the stereo in my car. I can have a consumatory experience as I have a conversation with my wife on a cell phone. Further, I enjoy screening films (and have had many consumatory experiences in doing so) and film-making is an inherently technological affair that incorporates one device after another (cameras, lighting, editing programs, green-screens, and so on). It would be extremely counter-intuitive to say that film—say, Hitchcock’s Rear Window—cannot produce consumatory experience since it is the product of multiple devices.
No, the issue is not whether devices can be incorporated into consumatory experience (for, clearly they can) but whether the predominance of the device paradigm threatens the development and appreciation of consumatory experience. If Borgmann’s analysis of the device paradigm is correct and if everyday life can largely be characterized as being shaped by the device paradigm, then one may justifiably be worried about the viability of consumatory experience. I believe that Borgmann’s analysis of the device paradigm and more, specifically, his observations concerning the nature of modern devices and their tendency to divide means from ends is correct. The question concerning the predominance of the device paradigm is an empirical one. I do not think that the device paradigm is deterministic in the sense that every experience had by post-moderns is mediated by devices, however, observation reveals that much of experience is, in fact, mediated by devices. Since the device paradigm characterizes much of everyday life and since consumatory experience and focal practices are contingent upon the integration of means and ends, it follows that the device paradigm does interfere with the cultivation and appreciation of consumatory experience. With this said, the question becomes whether Dewey’s advocacy of consumatory experience and his philosophy of technology can go hand-in-hand.
Dewey and Hickman champion the advance of technology and instrumentalism, more generally. The first thing to note is that Dewey and Hickman do not define technology as narrowly as I do. Dewey writes, “‘Technology’ signifies all the intelligent techniques by which the energies of nature and man are directed and used in satisfaction of human needs; it cannot be limited to a few outer and comparatively mechanical forms.”10 Hickman defines technology broadly as involving the “invention, development, and cognitive deployment of tools and other artifacts, brought to bear on raw materials and intermediate stock parts, with a view to the resolution of perceived problems.”11 For Hickman “technology” is what establishes and maintains the tools, artifacts, and skills that allow us to function and flourish. Those familiar with Dewey’s instrumentalism can see that this broad definition captures Dewey’s account of intelligent inquiry.12 Technology, in this sense, just is the intelligent resolution of problematic situations. Technological artifacts such as iPods, cell phones, microwaves, computers and television sets just are the fruits of intelligent inquiry. They reflect the resolution of problematic situations and allow us to function and flourish.
Indeed, Dewey and Hickman are optimistic that intelligent inquiry can be used to solve various social problems and can contribute to the development of democratic communities. Dewey writes that “When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion.”13 Even though it warrants consideration, I do not have the time to consider the relationship between democracy and technology. However, we do need to consider Dewey’s and Hickman’s optimism regarding technological advance and consider what bearing this perhaps naïve optimism has on the viability of consumatory experience.
Hickman stresses that productive pragmatism refuses to see any technological artifact or process as having a fixed essence. He writes, “What I urge, then, is that we put an end to speaking of tools … as having complete essences that predetermine and provide the measure of our ways of involvement with them. I suggest that we instead speak of the ways in which [tools] can and do serve to enhance delight and to resolve problems, that is, to enlarge the meanings of our experiences.”14 It is clear, however, that the devices that characterize the device paradigm do have something of an essence. This is not to say that one can make a universal claim about all devices but it is to say that devices enforce the separation of means from ends that concern both Borgmann and Dewey. If this is correct, then a pure instrumentalism is impossible. Modern technological artifacts can shape experience as they separate means from ends and influence the appreciation of focal things and practices and the cultivation of consumatory experience more generally.
Consequently, a thorough consideration of the device paradigm reveals an inconsistency in Dewey’s philosophy. Dewey’s instrumentalism is at odds with his account of consumatory experience since the proliferation of devices is an expression of instrumentalism and since devices can hinder the development of consumatory experience. To return to quotes given above, devices guarantee a “means of life”, “enhance delight”, and “resolve problems” but pose problems for the “enlargement of the meaning of our experiences.” As discussed above, devices do not determine experience, however, the prevalence of the device paradigm shapes experience in that it prioritizes desired ends over the means that must be enacted to bring them about. Since the integration of means of means and ends is essential for consumatory experience, the device paradigm poses problems for those who advocate the experience be enriched by such integration.
1 – Philosophical
Tools for Technological Culture: Putting Pragmatism to Work (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2001) will hereafter be referred to as “TC”. John Dewey’s
Pragmatic Technology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990) will hereafter be
referred to as “JD”. I should also say that the standard references employed in this essay
are to the critical edition The Collected Works of John Dewey, 1882-1953, edited by Jo Ann
Boydston (Southern Illinois University Press, 1969-1991), and published as The Later Works
2 – For example,
Hickman briefly discusses Albert Borgmann in TC, 115-118, Walter
Benjamin in TC 123-125, Martin Heidegger in TC 151-153 and 172-175, Langdon Winner in
TC 168-170, Andrew Feenberg in TC 170-172. Jacques Ellul is briefly discussed in JD 146-
150 and 161-163. For a much more sustained analysis and critique of these and other
philosopher’s of technology see Hans Achterhuis (ed.) and Robert P. Crease (trans.),
American Philosophy of Technology: The Empirical Turn (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 2001). Also see Peter-Paul Verbeek, What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on
Technology, Agency, and Design (University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
3 – In section three,
it will be shown that this definition differs from that of Dewey and Hickman
in that their definition would lump “technology” and “the technical” together. It will be clear
in a moment that the definition that I am using is essential as it makes the distinction between
technological artifacts and the processes that lead to their production. This distinction is
important to make as it will play into my criticism of Dewey’s philosophy of technology.
4 – See TC 115-119.
5 – Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1984. For an excellent account of Borgmann on the
device paradigm see Verbeek (2005), 173-202. Also see Pieter Tijmes, “Albert Borgmann:
Technology and the Character of Everyday Life in Achterhuis (2001), 11-36.
6 – This would be of
great concern for the realist who believes that devices separate consumers
from “truth”. Since realism is not a universally held position, I will not develop this point
but will instead develop what I take to be a more practical concern.
7 – Borgmann (1984), 219.
8 – This is not to say
that all devices are antithetical to focal practices (Verbeek discusses how
designers can render their products more hospitable to focal practices in the final chapter of
What Things Do). It is to say that the design that characterizes devices tends to suppress the
development and appreciation of focal things and practices.
9 – LW.10.30-46.
10 – LW.5.270.
11 – TC, 12.
12 – See Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (LW.12).
13 – LW.2.350.
14 – TC, 122.