The Device Paradigm

Posted: July 14, 2009 in Consciousness, Culture, Media, Philosophy, Science, Technophilia

In 1984, fully a quarter century ago, Albert Borgmann came out with a book of social criticism and philosophy called Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. (The link is to the paperback from 1987; the hardcover is from 1984.) The book appears on lots of syllabi in college sociology courses, so it’s hardly an obscure academic tome. One of the book’s principal metaphors is the device paradigm, which is how technological devices are perceived and consumed in modern society. Borgmann contrasts the device paradigm with focal things and practices, which are things of ultimate concern and significance that are often masked by the device paradigm. It’s worth noting that Borgmann’s insight was in 1984, just after the appearance of the first video games but before the advent of the personal computer, the Internet, the WorldWideWeb, the pager or cell phone, the Blackberry, the iPod or iPhone, and texting or twittering.

Our relationship with technology has been a concern since the appearance of radio, and more ominously, television. However, despite many varied warnings that our very humanity might well be imperiled by uncritical embrace of every new electronic medium that appears in the marketplace, the device paradigm has only intensified with time. And so when such an insightful surveyor of cultural trends as Oprah.com profiles a family who went cold turkey without their individual electronics, it should come as no surprise that the family discovered each other and some of the quiet, contemplative joys so easily masked by being too plugged in. The related joke in the movie Wall-E is humans walled in by video screens who never even look out the window of the spaceship at the stars (or bear their own weight on their legs). We’re certainly on that trajectory.

Curiously, one of Borgmann’s focal practices is the culture of the table. This is found especially in the ritual of the family dinner, with which the family members profiled at Oprah.com apparently had little experience. In the context of Borgmann’s focal practice, the idea of eating well takes on an entirely different meaning from the obvious notions of eating healthily or having high-quality foodstuffs instead of junk food. The culture of the table is in fact about more than just food; it’s perhaps foremost about cultivating a refined palate, good manners, and stimulating conversation. In short, it’s a social behavior, not just feeding.

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