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ATPM 10.04
April 2004




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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Living With Technology

For too long I’ve been reading thinkers who say technology’s ills may outweigh its benefits. They say it opens up too many possibilities for us to separate ourselves from other people. They say we are prone to replace an activity with a technological alternative, rather than only to supplement it. I don’t dispute their point of view; these are legitimate warnings about human nature and our tendency to take the path of least resistance.

Rather than cave in to the gloom, though, I want to resist. I want to say we can choose not to allow technology to rule us. We can choose to ride a bike to the store instead of driving the car. (Even though a bike is still a technology, it puts us in a less removed position from the world in which we wish to live.) We can turn off the TV and the computer now and then, and go outside. We can write a handwritten letter rather than typing an e-mail. All these approaches are not as efficient as their more advanced siblings, but there comes a time when efficiency is not the point.

In this mindset, I was thirsty for a writer who had something positive to say about co-existing with technology, and I finally found one. Albert Borgmann acknowledges that we have at our disposal many technologies that separate us from each other. His initial distinction is between the Thing that we were doing, and the Device that we now use to do it. This example of his best illustrates what he means: a water well is a thing. It is a place we went to draw water to use at home. There we used our muscles to draw water and carry it home. There we sometimes interacted with people from our community. Now, we have chosen to arrange for clean water to be available at our homes, with the turn of a handle. The engineering and effort that make it possible is hidden from us, and we are removed from the work that makes it possible. The well is the Thing, and the spigot is the Device. Borgmann’s device paradigm shows us a way to think about the ways in which we no longer interact with the core Thing.

Another great example is a music CD. We do not arrange for a group of musicians to play for us; we just buy a CD with music on it. We can play it anytime we like, but we are removed from the musicianship and the production efforts and all the stuff that goes into the creation of this device. All we know, most of us, is that we pop in this shiny thing, and we get fulfillment from it. As good as the recording may be, it is still not the same experience we have when we listen to live music. It is more consistent, but that is not the same as being fulfilling. I don’t mean to say that we should toss our CDs and only attend live concerts. I mean, and I think Borgmann means, that we can acknowledge the separation that comes with this device, even though it increases our options.

The great revelation from Borgmann is that he says we are further separated from the Thing, and we are further separated from each other, but we can mend some of that distance. His solution is a concept he calls Focality. A focal idea, for him, is one that does not involve a Device. It places us in contact with something that is of value purely on its own. Some of the categories he discusses are sport, art, and religion. Each of these avenues gives us a way to connect with a Thing, and with each other, in ways that Devices often do not. It is telling that baseball purists are very resistant to a new machine that calls balls and strikes, rather than leaving that task to human umpires. The computer may be more accurate, but players and fans prefer the human element regardless.

If you have that one focality, that one activity you do that gets you back in contact with nature, or with other people, or yourself, you know what I’m talking about and what Borgmann is talking about. You spend time with your dog, and it’s not about going faster or scoring more or being efficient. It’s just about spending time with your dog. I don’t like dogs, and even I get it.

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Reader Comments (1)

M. Cashaw · April 5, 2004 - 13:51 EST #1

I understand your point, but I think your logic is flawed. The well is not the thing, but the water is. The well is the technology, and the bucket is the means of transport. Is not equiped to live without technology. This is why we have the big brain. We do not have the speed to run down animals, the claws or teeth to deliver the death blow. The last time Man may have lived without technology was when we lived in trees like the apes, but even apes use technology: sticks to tear open ant hills and the such.
Some people bemoan technology to much, and it is normally the people who do not know how to benefit from it, or use it; the grandmother and VCR. I think man will always and eventually bend technology to his benefit without losing contact with his fellow man.

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