Skip to main content

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life by Albert Borgmann

Read November 2022

This book may be the densest thing I’ve ever read; its subtitle, A Philosophical Inquiry, is quite accurate. In spite of the difficult reading, I enjoyed the book. It made me reconsider the ways in which technology shapes my life without my realizing it, and it felt remarkably relevant despite having been written in the early 1980s.

In the book, Borgmann essentially argues that modern life is defined by the “device paradigm”, in which technological “devices” procure commodified versions of what were previously “focal things” in an effort to liberate us from our burdens. These devices are not adequate replacements, and the paradigm must be reformed through a renewed dedication to focal things. Reform is not accomplished by eliminating technology but rather by centering our lives around focal things and giving technology a more supporting role.

As an example of focal things versus technological devices, Borgmann compares walking or running with traveling by car. Both transport us from place to place, but in “freeing” us from physical exertion, cars also rob us of the opportunity to engage with the natural environment, to feel the terrain and strengthen our bodies. Some other examples are live musical performances versus stereo sets, home-cooked meals versus fast food, and the hearth or fireplace versus central heating. I would add in-person communication versus social media as a twenty-first century example.

It’s hard for me to expect that anyone read this book due to its dense philosophical style. (Although I’d encourage those willing to stick it out!) There is a very high-level summary on Wikipedia, and Jonathan Lipps has a chapter-by-chapter overview (as well as interviews with Borgmann) on his blog that looks promising. I also think that Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism emphasizes similar ideas (albeit more narrowly focused) in a much more practical format.

[This page was last updated on November 11, 2022]