Tag Archives: device paradigm

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.”

Do Re Mi

Last weekend I attended an engaging conference on technology, culture, and faith down at Laity Lodge in Texas. The primary speakers were Albert Borgmann and Eugene Peterson, but there were also several others who presented their research, or participated in panel discussions grouped around different perspectives (practitioners, pastors, and theologians). It was thoroughly enjoyable, but what struck me as particularly strange was that none of these presenters ever defined what they actually meant by the words ‘technology’ and ‘culture’, much less articulate their understanding of how the two interact.

This was even more surprising given that Borgmann’s definition of ‘technology’ is quite different from the way most people use the word in everyday speech. In his classic philosophical inquiry into technology, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann defines technology as “the characteristic way in which we today take up with the world” (Borgmann 1984, 35). For Borgmann, the word ‘technology’ does not refer to human-built things in general (artifacts), nor does it refer to the general practice of designing and building those artifacts (craft or engineering). For him, the word refers to a particular way of relating to the world, a way that is dominated by what he calls the “device paradigm” (40ff). This paradigm seeks to commodify all things, even those things which we once thought of as sacred, so they can be delivered via devices, about which we have little to no understanding.

One of his classic examples is the distinction between playing music yourself via an instrument like a violin, and playing music via a stereo set. In the former case, the music is something made through participation, and the product is unique and located in both place and time. In the latter case, the music has been commodified into a recording that can be mass-produced, bought and sold, recreated at any time and in any place at the whim of an owner who no longer needs to know anything about how to play an instrument, nor how the stereo set actually works. This example is provocative and appealing, but as I will argue in a later post, somewhat problematic when we consider a historical case that challenges where the distinction between these two cases actually lies.

I say all of this not because I want to critique the conference itself; after all, most of the people there knew the conference revolved around Borgmann’s work, had read him before, and probably knew how he was using the word. But there were some who were new to this conversation and were somewhat confused as to what he really meant. Eugene Peterson then confused these people even more by talking about “pre-technological societies,” a phrase that makes sense only if you use Borgmann’s definition of the term.

After talking with some of these folks, I realized that if we are going to have this discussion in such a way that the rest of the church, and especially technological practitioners, can follow along, we need to define our key terms up front. Only then can we think and communicate clearly about what technology is, how it relates to culture and Christian spirituality, and how we can reshape that relation into something more aligned with the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.

So as Julie Andrews once taught us, “let’s start at the beginning / a very good place to start.” When we sing we begin with “do-re-mi”, and when we talk about this subject, we must be begin with that slippery word ‘tech-nol-o-gy’! (yes, this is a bad joke, but anyone who knows my sense of humor should expect it!)

Alan Kay, the computer pioneer who developed object-oriented programming, once quipped that for most people, technology is “everything invented after you were born.” That is, most people use the term to refer only to the “stuff” of technological production, and usually restrict its scope to fairly recent innovations (often those involving electronics). Most people readily call an iPhone a piece of technology, but many will hesitate to apply that same term to paper, pencils, ink, or even manual typewriters.
But this colloquial definition clearly won’t do. It’s too subjective and far too limited. It doesn’t capture the rich array of techniques and artifacts that make up our human-built world. It doesn’t acknowledge the creative act of making things that every artisan and engineer tacitly understands. Ultimately, it leads us towards the unhelpful conclusion that everything that existed when we were born is ‘good’ or even ‘natural’, and everything that came later is ‘bad’ or at the very least suspect.

To form a better definition, we need to start with a little etymology. Although the literal meaning of the word bears only a faint resemblance to our anemic use of the word in practice, it does point to a deeper foundational meaning that can provide us with some insights. Those of you who remember your Language Arts classes probably recognize that it has a rather common suffix: ‘-ology’. ‘Biology’ is the study of life (bios), ‘theology’ is the study of God (theos), so it would follow that ‘technology’ in its literal sense means the study of something. But what?

The root of the word ‘technology’ is the Greek word technê, which is commonly translated into English as ‘art’ or ‘craft’. In its most literal sense, the word ‘technology’ simply means “the study of art or craft.” The artist who draws, paints, sculpts or plays a musical instrument employs technê, as does the carpenter, blacksmith, craftsperson, architect, and engineer. In English, we typically use the word ‘artist’ to refer to someone who makes decorative things, and ‘artisan’ for someone who makes practical things, but the line between these in practice is always blurry and permeable. The arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrated just how misleading this distinction can be, and inspired industrial design of recent times (a la Braun, Breville, Dualit, and Apple Computer) continues to blur the lines.

The word ‘technology’ first entered English in the seventeenth century, and it was used at that time in its literal sense: a systematic study of one of the arts (Nye 2007, 11). A book on glassmaking, for example, would be called a “technology of glassmaking.” Even as the English-speaking world began to industrialize in the eighteenth century, those developing the new steam engines were most commonly referred to as “mechanics” who practiced the “mechanical arts” and not “technologists” who built “technology.” It wasn’t until after World War I that English speakers began to borrow the German word technik (translated as ‘technics’) to refer to the entire compendium of the mechanical arts as well as their resulting products and social influences (see for example, Mumford’s 1934 book Technics and Civilization). In the subsequent decades, this capacious understanding of technics was poured into the English word ‘technology’ and ‘technics’ fell out of fashion.

This was all well and good, but in the latter part of the twentieth century, Americans in particular began to narrow the term’s meaning to apply only to electronic and then digital devices. To “work in technology” came to be a simple pseudonym for working with computers or other forms of electronics, and with the adoption of the Internet and World Wide Web in the 1990s, it narrowed even further, primarily referring to electronic media, communications, and social networking.

If we are to think more clearly about technology, culture, and Christian spirituality, we must recapture two elements that are revealed in this rather brief etymology: first, technology is fundamentally linked to human creativity; and second, technology encompasses not only human-built artifacts, but also the techniques, practices, and the cultural contexts that surround those artifacts.

Because this word is so slippery, historians of technology often avoid overusing the word itself, and instead rely on more specific terms. When we talk about the ‘stuff’ of technology, we tend to use the word ‘artifacts’ (in opposition to ‘naturafacts’ which exist apart from human intervention). When we talk about technology as knowledge, we use the term ‘technique’. When we talk about technology as a form of practice, we use terms like ‘artisanal’ or ‘engineering’. And when we talk about technology embedded in culture, we use terms such as ‘sociotechnical systems’ and ‘actor networks’.

In my thinking, the term ‘technology’ encompasses all of these more specific meanings, and points towards our basic human impulse for creativity, a desire that arises from being made in the image of our Creator. Technology is also fundamentally a part of what we call ‘culture’, and is in fact one of the key mechanisms we use to continually reestablish and propagate that culture across space and time…but that is a topic for another post.


  • Albert Borgmann. 1984. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. University of Chicago Press.
  • David Nye. 2007. Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. MIT Press.