Perhaps it is no mistake that Borgmann's book follows the classic three-part sermon style; it has the distinct impress of a moral disquisition; and it is leisurely, too, in its parts, as if read out in a New England church where the congregation expected something to listen to, and think about, at length. Part One considers the problem of technology; Part Two delineates the character of technology; and Part Three proposes the reform of technology. Borgmann's thesis is that life ought to be organized around focal things, and to the extent that technology gets in the way of the good life centered in these focal things, it ought to be eschewed. Technology has signally failed to fulfill its promise: it has not freed human beings from physical slavery and mental boredom.
What problems does technology pose? Borgmann argues that technology is not a neutral tool, as is often assumed in modern liberal democracies; furthermore "...it is an equivocation to speak indifferently of tools in a modern and in a pretechnological setting. A means in a traditional culture is never mere but always and inextricably woven into a context of ends." (11) For instance, if a country decides to export paper, the modern paper mills that would support that policy would have a far different social effect than the mulberry strip paper made in the past. Technology, used only as a means to an end, demands and requires different political judgements than some other tool would require.
Scientific explanations of the world have gained such primacy, suggests Borgmann, that it behooves us to look again at the relationship between science and technology. The scientific explanation argues that the world is lawful; scientist sees the world in terms of laws to be discovered. "Scientific explanation is not a novel assault on the world but the radical precisioning of a procedure that is as old as humanity." (20) Modern science gives us "a more coherent and detailed view of the world." (21) Borgmann calls this the deductive-nomological view. Together, science and technology function as a pervasive but unseen ground for thinking. "Our common understanding is always -- and already -- scientific." (19) However, there are other kinds of explanations, among which are the deictic. As a Greek term, it means a direct line of explanation or logic, but as Borgmann uses the term it means something like a direct aesthetic, or spiritual or human-centered explanation. "Neither science nor technology, however, has a theory of what is worthy and in need of explanation or transformation." (27) Thus Borgmann asks for political arguments to incorporate both scientific and deictic explanations as reasons for action.
What is the character of technology? Borgmann presents a contrast between the device paradigm versus the focal object. A device controls and produces a commodity while reducing itself and its presence to a bare minimum. Examples Borgmann offers are a thermostat, which gives free access to heat but is entirely removed from the production of heat. A fireplace, by contrast, which requires a lot of work, and takes some time, to produce warmth, is a focal thing. A stereo is another device that allows for the enjoyment of music without the presence of working musicians; in effect, it makes music a commodity rather than an activity. In this context, and for this purpose, Borgmann's citing of the wheelwright Sturt is a masterful and enjoyable piece of pathos.
What is the global effect of the device paradigm? Having created a great many technological devices, corporations use advertising used to encourage consumers into a two dimensional world of endless, unrefined and ignorant consumption. A genuine aesthetic experience of the "other" is attenuated into frozen chicken paprikash at the supermarket. Human desires become "instrument specific;" wishing to move around equals owning a car; wishing to communicate becomes owning a phone; wishing to be entertained becomes owning a DVD collection. (62) Once this connection is made, then even powerful politicians and corporate owners cannot escape the net: "Their power is contingent upon their adherence to the technological paradigm. They can exercise power only in maintaining and advancing the availability of commodities." (63)
Even in the modern home of powerful corporations and consumption --America -- Borgmann rejects the Marxist analysis of technology as a means of domination of the many by a few. He agrees, however, that the power relationships Marx was concerned with are indeed a factor in technology; only, that power is more insidious, being made up of "the concrete and inconspicuous material environment in which people come to terms with their lives." (84) Turning to liberal democratic ideas, Borgmann says liberty and equality in a good society "depends on the kinds of opportunities that the society provide for its citizens." (91) Borgmann takes up the work of Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Jurgen Habermas and suggests that they have trouble distinguishing and disentangling the just and good society from the "radically novel means-character" -- in other words enforced ethical choices -- inherent in technological tools.
Given the pervasive character of technology, what choices do people have? Borgmann argues that they can engage or disengage. They can choose what devices they will allow into their homes and lives. And these choices are not necessarily simple. For example, the establishment of insurance as a commodity for managing risk took away social responsibility toward the aged, the infirm. Insurance "freed and impoverished us all at once." (118) And yet, who would choose to go without insurance? Furthermore, the sharp division between labor and leisure reinforces patterns of luxury commodity consumption. If the endless availability and non-stop consumption of such commodities is an avowed goal of society, then work as a kind of slavery will not change. While some dirty, hazardous and monotonous jobs are eliminated, most jobs will require higher and higher standards of reliability and productivity -- at all hours -- without consideration for the humans doing the jobs. Currently, inequalities in lifestyle encourage those lower down the ladder to aspire to technological devices for producing "luxury commodities." Because happiness appears to be a "positional good" -- or so the argues the research of Fred Hirsh that Borgmann cites (133) -- it is not only the possession of goods and leisure, but the sensation that one has more goods and leisure than others, that creates a feeling of happiness. One former source of happiness takes a direct hit: the family. Borgmann argues that the life competencies a father or mother would transmit to children have been rendered obsolete by our technology-bound lifestyle, and parents have so lost legitimate sources of authority as mentors and teachers.
How can technology be reformed? "If there is a way of recovering
the promise of technology, it must be one of disentangling the promise
from the dominant way we have taken up with the world for two centuries
now." (153) Re-organizing life around focal things and practices
is Borgmann's route to reform. Technology ought to be related to
a center of activity that incorporate and challenges body, mind and soul.
In this regard, Borgmann would praise the "sneaker technology" that allow
runners to run without injury. Deictic reasoning should dominate
discourse about the good life in an unashamed way: significance,
not efficiency is what ought to matter. Public goods ought to be
debated in these terms. (So he makes grudging allowance for highways
and the Superbowl). Borgmann's ideas here are strongly reminiscent
of Callenbach's Ecotopia, a charming and evocative book on a breakaway
nation-state (the American Northwest) that firmly subordinates technology
to the purposes of the good life. Whether not Borgmann's reforms
are possible, his point is well taken: "The question of the good
life, as said before, cannot be left open. What remains open is not
whether but how we will answer it." (178)