Critical Theory and Technology “Technology promises to bring the forces of nature and culture under control, to liberate us from misery and toil, and to enrich our lives. … [Implied] in the technological mode of taking up with the world there is a promise that this approach to reality will, by way of the domination of nature, fuel liberation and enrichment” Albert Borgmann (Strong 151)
Strong and Technological Subversion • Strong, like Marcuse, wants us to re-think technology. He wants to “reform technology in a deep way” (150). • What does he mean by “a deep way”? • Rethink our relation to technology; re-evaluate our vision of technology. Why? • “Technological forces are shaping people’s lives that they have little control over” (149)
What is the good of technology? • What is the promise of technology? • Borgmann: “Technology promises to bring the forces of nature and culture under control, to liberate us from misery and toil, and to enrich our lives” (Strong 151). • Recall Marcuse’s notion of the telos of technology (124). Note the twin ideas of disburdening people’s lives and the idea of domination of nature.
What is the good of technology? • Strong does not reject technology (151); his critical engagement of technology applies to those who have too much of it.. • For him, technological change would make good the promise of technology if it does not present us with far worse burdens than those from which it has relieved us. • Weigh up the costs and benefits of, say, ecosystem destruction with ease of transport.
The promise of technology • What drives this promise of technology? • Strong: “A vision of a good life that is free and prosperous” (152). • Yet, for Strong, the existing system of technology only offers a “flattened vision of freedom and prosperity” (152). • What might ‘flattened’ suggest?
The promise of technology • What is the idea of freedom offered by technology? • Technology disburdens us. Freedom is equated with freedom from toil. • What about prosperity? • Accumulation of wealth. How does this compare with the idea of eudaimonia (flourishing).
Strong’s argument: the distinction of things from devices • Things are “inseparable from [their] context, namely its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely engagement. The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the thing’s world” (153). • Devices provide “a commodity, one element of the original thing and disburdens people of all the elements that compose the world and engaging character of the thing” (ibid).
Things vs. Devices • Strong’s example: a hearth vs. central heating? • Things—say the hearth—are associated with practices: hearth—what needs to be done; who does what, when; etc. • Things act as a focal point in our practical engagement with the world both physically and socially. • What do devices do?
Things vs. devices • Central heating delivers warmth as a commodity. • In delivering a commodity, we lose sight of our engagement with the original thing • Devices disburden “people of the thing’s world and its claim upon [us]. The device is considered more refined if it lifts these burden from [us]. The idea device is one where, from an experiential standpoint, a commodity can be enjoyed unencumbered by means.” (154).
The separation pattern of technology • Strong: “In a device, the relatedness of the world is replaced by a machinery, but the machinery is concealed, and the commodities, which are made available by a device, are enjoyed without the encumbrance of or the engagement with a context” (154). • A device allows us to think about our relation with the world in terms of resources and commodities.
The separation pattern of technology • Resource (electricity) → device (central heating) → commodity (warmth). • Nature, and people insofar as we are part of nature, then appear only as resource.
Technology: structure experiences • How does technology structure our relation to the environment? • Strong: Technology allows us to think of the relation with nature in terms of instrumental reasoning: nature appears as mere means for the production of commodities, mere ends (154).
Technology as ‘non-neutral’ • Technology shapes our experiences in a ‘non-neutral’ way (154): a device will amplify certain features of experience while reducing other features at the same time. • The commodity, warmth, flattens our experiences, our engagement with our environment: allows only “slim points of contact” (155). • Strong: a device calls for the consumption of a commodity (ibid.)
Strong on technological subversion • Strong: “What seemed promising at the outset—relieving people of burdens—leads ironically to disengagement, diversion, distraction and loneliness” (155). Why? • Disburdening ourselves should “free us up for other things” (ibid.). What things? • Those things that make up a good life. • In our culture we have a flattened sense of a good life: the good life is just the accumulation of more goods (ibid).
Strong on technological subversion • Strong’s diagnosis: “our aspirations for freedom and happiness go awry when we attempt to procure them with devices” (159). • Devices can’t yield a life in which people flourish. • Question: Is Strong proposing a rejection of technology then? What is to be done?