In the philosophy of technology, the device paradigm is the way "technological devices" are perceived and consumed in modern society, according to Albert Borgmann. He introduced the term to help in understanding the nature of modern technology. Borgmann recommends the development or restoration of what he calls "focal things and practices" as a way of overcoming the device paradigm.

Concept Edit

Borgmann distinguishes between "technological devices" and "focal things and practices." It is meant to define the difference between things of a technological nature and things of an inherently "focal" nature.

Devices Edit

In Borgmann's terminology, a device is an artifact or instrument or tool or gadget or mechanism, which may be physical or conceptual, including hardware and software. According to Borgmann, it is a general trend of technological development that mechanisms (devices) are increasingly hidden behind service interfaces.

In his classic 1984 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann introduced the notion of the device paradigm. This means viewing technology exclusively as a device (or set of devices) that deliver a series of commodities, and evaluating the technical features and powers of such devices, without having any other perspective.

Technology is thus regarded as a means to an end, an instrument or contrivance. The German word used by Heidegger was "Einrichtung".

Technological progress increases the availability of a commodity or service, and at the same time pushes the actual device or mechanism into the background. Thus technology is either seen as a cluster of devices, or it isn't seen at all.

Availability Edit

"Goods that are available to us enrich our lives and, if they are technologically available, they do so without imposing burdens on us. Something is available in this sense if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy."[1]

For example, the technology of central heating means that warmth is ready available. Borgmann contrasts this with the effort required (and imperfect results achieved) by log fires.

"In the common view, technological progress is seen as a more or less gradual and straightforward succession of lesser by better implements."[1]

Thus log fires are replaced by gas boilers, or by hot water piped from a municipal facility. But Borgmann adds something important to this common view. What makes warmth more available is that it is now detached from the device — not just physically but socioeconomically. Warmth is now a commodity or utility that can be delivered wherever and whenever it is required - and this may be entirely separate from how and when the energy is generated and stored. This separation is essential to Borgmann's notion of availability.

Heidegger's notion of standing-reserve ("Bestand") is also relevant here. "In our time, things are not even regarded as objects, because their only important quality has become their readiness for use. Today all things are being swept together into a vast network in which their only meaning lies in their being available to serve some end that will itself also be directed towards getting everything under control."[2]

Examples Edit

Heating Systems Edit

The device paradigm can be illustrated through comparison of a wood-burning stove, a "thing", versus the central heating system, a "device". The central heating system derives its technological qualities from the fact that it is easy to use, safe to operate, ubiquitous, and the user generally needs to understand little of the way in which the system operates. The wood-burning stove, on the other hand, takes more skill in its operation in that it requires wood to be chopped beforehand, and prepared for use in the stove. The act of lighting the fire is not safe enough to be done by, for example, a child, and requires a degree of vigilance over its operation. The stove is not ubiquitous because it orients the senses and commands attention for its user throughout the time of its operation. It also requires some knowledge of how the stove works in order to make successful use of it.

Information Technology Edit

In his 2000 book Holding onto Reality, Borgmann uses the concept of the device paradigm to analyze an emerging postmodern culture heavily reliant on digital tools. He notes that "information technology is currently the prominent and most influential version of the device paradigm" (page 352).

Focal Things and Practices Edit

Borgmann's response to the device paradigm is to urge a restoration of what he calls focal things and practices. A focal thing is something of ultimate concern and significance, which may be masked by the device paradigm, and must be preserved by its intimate connection with practice. "Focal things require a practice to prosper within."[3]

Borgmann's examples include: music, gardening, running (especially long-distance), the culture of the table. These modern (or postmodern) examples are inconspicuous, homely and dispersed, in contrast to the grand awe-inspiring things on which our ancestors were focused - such as temples and cathedrals.

"The technological environment heightens rather than denies the radiance of genuine focal things"[3]

"If we are to challenge the rule of technology, we can only do so through the practice of engagement."[4]

"Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension, i.e. the power to take in the world in its extent and significance and to respond through an enduring commitment."[5]

Significance Edit

The concept of the device paradigm has been widely discussed by philosophers of technology, including Hubert Dreyfus, Andrew Feenberg and Eric Higgs, as well as environmental philosopher David Strong.

References Edit

  • Borgmann, Albert. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, University of Chicago Press, 1984. ISBN 0-226-06629-0
  • Higgs, Eric et al., Technology and the Good Life University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN 0-226-33387-6
  • Tatum, Jesse S., Technology and Values: Getting beyond the "Device Paradigm" Impasse. Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 19, No. 1, 70-87 (1994).


  1. 1.0 1.1 Borgmann (1984), p41.
  2. William Levitt, introduction to Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology
  3. 3.0 3.1 Borgmann (1984), p196.
  4. Borgmann (1984), p207.
  5. Borgmann, (1984), p210.

External links Edit

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