When a Device Becomes an Instrument

In my last post, I hinted that Borgmann’s “device paradigm” can become a bit problematic when we consider some historical cases, and in this post, I want to explain what I meant by that.

Borgmann illustrates his concept of the device paradigm in a few different examples, but the one that caught my attention was his contrast between playing music on an instrument, such as a violin, and playing music via a stereo. In the former, the musician is participating in the creation of something new that exists only in that place and in that time. In the latter, the stereo recreates a commodified recording of music, something that has been divorced from place and time. The player of the violin must have some degree of skill and familiarity with the material aspects of the instrument, built up over many hours of practice. The player of the stereo needs only to have the sufficient amount of money required to purchase the stereo and some recorded music, and a basic understanding of which buttons to push to start the playback.

I found this example to be intriguing, for I too am a musician. I started playing clarinet at age nine, switched to saxophone about three years later and have played ever since. I have experienced that transcendent moment when the music produced by the ensemble achieves a quality that goes beyond the sum of the individual contributions of the players. It is a feeling that is fundamentally rooted in that time and place, and even if it is captured on a recording, the playback can never quite recapture that moment, especially if the listener was not there for the original performance.

As a musician, I am sympathetic to Borgmann’s example, but as a historian of technology, I find that it needs some clarification. The trouble with the example is that it seems to assume that a stereo has only one possible purpose or use. It assumes that the device has some kind of intrinsic meaning that is inherent in its design. But is the playback of commodified, pre-recorded music the only thing that one can do with a stereo? Can it, in fact, also be used as an instrument in its own right to create new music?

ScratchingConsider the technique of “scratching” that was popularized by hip-hop artists, but has now spread to a number of other genres. The artifacts are all the same–the turntable, vinyl record, amplifier, and speakers–but the meaning ascribed to them has changed. They are no longer simply devices for playing commodified pre-recorded music. They have been transformed, by the hands of the artist, into a new instrument, capable of creating new sounds and new kinds of music. The ‘device’ has been reclaimed (or should we say ‘redeemed’?) as a new tool for human creativity.

This example, I think, points towards a deeper and rather important dynamic in the interaction between technology and culture. We often assume that artifacts have singlar and stable social meanings that arise out of their very designs: a stereo is for playing pre-recorded music; a bicycle is for riding from one place to another; a plastic payment card is a vehicle for consumer credit. But when we look at the detailed historical contexts surrounding the development and adoption of these artifacts, we can see that what they were “good for” was not immediately obvious to everyone when they were first introduced. The social meanings we now attribute to those artifacts were the result of social negotiations between the inventors, producers, marketers, legislators, and consumers.

This process of “working out” the meaning and purpose of a new artifact or system is often referred to as the process of “domestication” (see the introduction of Oudshoorn and Pinch, How Users Matter). I love that word. It makes one think of new technologies as a kind of wild beast that eventually gets tamed by the culture that adopts it. It might ascribe a bit too much agency to artifacts, but it does make clear that the users of these new artifacts play an important role in deciding how these artifacts will be adopted and used. In some cases, they even play a significant role in (re)shaping the material aspects of artifact to better suit their desired use (for example, the bicycle fractured into racing, pleasure, commuting, and eventually mountain varieties, each driven by a different social group ascribing a different meaning to the bicycle).

Of course, we can’t ascribe any sort of meaning we wish to a given artifact. Artifacts are stubborn things; they are obdurate. Some artifacts have only a few possible uses, and others seem to have a certain political meaning inscribed into them by their designers (see Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?“). But this is not to say that the meaning of an artifact is deterministic; all artifacts, even the most stubborn, are still “underdetermined.” People can ascribe multiple different meanings to the object, and those meanings can change over time.

So where am I am going with all of this? The trouble I see with Bormann’s device paradigm is that it focuses our attention too much on the artifacts themselves, and not enough on our relationship with those artifacts. It tempts us to think that artifacts have intrinsic meanings and purposes, which further tempts us to brand some artifacts as inherently ‘bad’ and others as inherently ‘good’, regardless of the ways they might be reinterpreted by the adopting culture in the future. This leaves us no room to redeem these artifacts, to ascribe new meanings and purposes to them, and to relate to them in a different way. It robs us of our potential for “creative destruction,” the tearing down of that which we feel is unhealthy and oppressive in order to rebuild something more life-giving.

Ultimately, I agree with Borgmann about the evils of commodifying that which should remain sacred, but I think we need to be careful about where we place the blame for that activity. To play with a familiar phrase, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within our devices, but within ourselves.”

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7 thoughts on “When a Device Becomes an Instrument

  1. Andy Edwards

    I like your analysis, Dave. This past week I led a workshop on instructional and research technologies, in which I highlighted my own idiosyncratic use of Mendeley. While it’s meant as a fusion of social networking with research (last.fm meets academic journals is how they’ve billed it), I prefer to create and use private research “groups” to organize my own individual research projects and use the discussion wall to brainstorm different ideas with no one other than myself. But the main point I tried getting across in the workshop was a quasi-Marxist one, emphasizing that we–as scholars and educators, as the workshop was for graduate students–must own our own “means of production” or “instruments of labor.” That is, if you’re going to use any technology in the classroom, rather it be a chalkboard or Adobe Connect, master it and use it as YOUR tool, doing what YOU want to do, rather than forcing your work to match its requirements and apparent limitations. So I’m thankful for your critical examination here of Borgmann…good stuff!

    Reply
  2. Marcus Goodyear

    I love this post because it brings a lot of the philosophical ideas of the retreat down to specific technologies we deal with every day.

    I do wonder what is your relationship with this device, your blog. (Or is the Internet the device, and the blog just one use of the device?)

    Also, I featured this as a community post over at The High Calling.

    Reply
  3. David Stearns Post author

    Great question Marcus. Let’s take the blog-as-device case. If we follow Borgmann’s analysis, we would have to ask “what does it commodify?” A group conversation? A set of ideas? In either of those two cases, print journals, books and pamphlets have done the same thing for centuries, so in some ways, blogs are really nothing terribly new, but in other ways, they clearly are innovative. Because blogs are self-published and typically free to set-up, they differ from most books in that there is no publisher or peer-review that filters or tempers what an author might want to say. This can, of course, lead to authors that say irresponsible or hateful things, but it also can lead to the flourishing of new, helpful ideas that might otherwise have been squelched by the established publishing houses. So blogs enable both kinds of cases to occur, but do blogs encourage one kind more often than the other? I’m not sure–we’ll have to wait and see.

    Reply
  4. L.L. Barkat

    It takes a certain kind of courage to interact with technologies in ways that weren’t “meant.” Yet this is what artists of all kinds encourage, in relation to their art (people “get” different things from a painting or poem or we could say they “make” different things as they encounter it, and excellent artists want this).

    Anyway, perhaps the makers of technological artifacts should smile that the word “art” is in artifact. And consider themselves artists too. And be happy when others make something different of it.

    (Came over from TheHighCalling, btw :)

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Flickering Pixels (A Review) | tech.soul.culture

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