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Focal Things

Albert Borgmann
The German-American philosopher Albert Borgmann is professor at the University of Montana and author of several books on the effects of electronic media on the human person. He rejects both technological determinism -- the view that technology is a irresistible force that forces our hand as we shape our culture, and technological instrumentalism, which sees technology as a mere collective of neutral processes and structures that can be used either well or badly. Like Marshall McLuhan, Borgmann is aware that the medium “is” the message, highly transformative in and of itself, and requires critical analysis and understanding. For example, he writes:
Using or not using the interstate highway system is not a matter of choice anymore for most of us, and neither are the moral consequences of long commutes and the neglect of family, neighborhood, and inner city. When we finally come home, late and exhausted, greeted by a well-stocked refrigerator, a preternaturally efficient microwave, and diverting television, there is little choice when we fail to cook a good meal and summon the family to the dinner table.

Borgmann is concerned that human work today is often unfulfilling and our leisure is not ennobling, and that at a deep level, the culture knows this and is profoundly uneasy. We continuously compensate for this unease by using more and more technologies. He calls this state of increasing reliance on technological conveniences device paradigm, which refers to the cluster of technological phenomena that include “the cultural displacements, the commodification and mechanization, and their embedding in contemporary culture.”

 To illustrate life in device paradigm: we no longer need to wait until evening and gather in the living room, pub or town square in order to share entertaining stories. Stories are now available from the comfort of our couches, at will and at any time. This convenience (television) is a good example of how one device now largely substitutes for other human activities. It also represents the basic premise of the technological mentality: the expectation of ever-greater liberty and prosperity. Borgmann confirms, “the promise of technology is one of material and social liberty, the promise of disburdenment from the pains and limits of things and the claims and foibles of humans.” Thus the process remains essentially in a certain "opposition" to incarnate reality and human sociability, even as it fosters the simulation of greater “connectedness”.

Yet there are counter-practices to device paradigm that are alive and well in our culture, above all the practice of reading, which still makes profound impressions. Literacy, while in on ongoing struggle with its more titillating competitors of the digital realm, remains an important means of recollection, silence and even wisdom. Why is reading so important to our minds and souls? Borgmann analyses what occurs when we read:
The answer is that literacy on the part of the reader generates the wealth of information a viewer receives without charge. Literacy is a many-storied skill, rising from word-recognition via parsing to comprehension. To read comprehendingly is to follow the author’s instruction in the construction of an imaginary world. The author gives us the blueprint, but we must supply the materials and situate the structure. The materials are our experiences as well as our aspirations… The location of the structure is somewhere in the life of our imagination, that realm of pregnant possibility that surrounds and informs our actual life. Thus to read is to gather our past and illuminate our present. It is a focal activity that collects our world as a convex lens does and radiates back into our world as does a concave mirror.
When reading this statement, one is struck by how much reading is essentially a contemplative pursuit, an act (like prayer) that exemplifies “active receptivity” while engaging the deeper dimensions of the intellect and soul. Reading has perhaps a certain pride of place, but is nonetheless just one of a multiplicity of human activities that Borgmann terms focal things or practices – that can help us resist becoming pell-mell denizens of device paradigm.

According to Borgmann, focal things and practices are the human activities that make life meaningful. Focal things include books, musical instruments, athletic equipment, good art, and the treasures of nature. They are correlated to focal practices such as reading, reciting poetry, playing instruments, dining, walking, sporting activities, painting, sculpting, fishing, gardening, rock collecting, and so on. They might be characterized as activities that engage our better sides: our creativity, ingenuity and sociability, and are re-creative even as they require investment of self. When magnified in scale, they are also the basis of all communal celebration. “Community,” wrote Borgmann in another book, “gathers around reality.” While the pattern of the device paradigm has become dominant, it is by no means the exclusive force in our culture: “in most cases consumption of commodities and engagement in focal practices are found in one and the same life. But they cannot substitute for one another, and if one expands, the other must shrink.”

Device paradigm vs. focal things and practices is therefore a useful analytic for balancing technology in our lives. Borgmann is not anti-technology, but as a "philosopher of technology" he holds that as the major benefits are largely recognized, his job is to help us pay attention to the cultural and human liabilities and losses. Not all conveniences are healthy, and certain focal practices, ostensibly burdensome, should not be blithely abandoned without reflection:
Consider, for instance, the burden of preparing a meal and getting everyone to show up at the table and sit down. Or the burden of reading poetry to one another or going for a walk after dinner. Or the burden of letter-writing –gathering our thoughts, setting them down in a way that will be remembered and cherished and perhaps passed on to our grandchildren. These are the activities that have been obliterated by the readily available entertainment offered by TV.
That the more “incarnational” focal activities usually require greater investment of effort than their electronic replacements is axiomatic – at least something every parent will readily observe. It’s far easier to let children turn on the television, gaming console or otherwise “plug-in”, than it is to get them to settle into a book, draw pictures, play board games or act in imaginative playing. The large amount of time that can pass in the virtual world is also noticeable by anyone who has engaged it, as well as the resulting phenomenon of listlessness, boredom and irritability after these activities are finished. This is in direct contrast to the general consolation and vitality that usually results from focal practices. There is an investment of effort, however, that needs to be made in the focal practice – the acquiring of envelope and stamp, the actual composition of pen on paper – that is often a deterrent. Yet that added organizational or willed effort is often proportionate to the payoff – the pleasure that both writer and recipient feel. Low threshold, low rewards; greater threshold, greater rewards.

There is a key characteristic of focal practices, however, that bears noting, namely that “the burdensome part of these activities is actually just the task of getting across a threshold of effort. As soon as you have crossed the threshold, the burden disappears.” Once we are writing the letter, cooking the meal, dining at table, walking in the outdoors, reading the poem, playing the piano, or doing one’s morning prayer, the burden has lifted and the deeper sense of satisfaction usually arises. After an initial “cross” comes the grace of resurrection. There is a purposeful, even contemplative quality to these activities as opposed to the more frenetic and multitasking spirit of our electronic activities. Focal practices require either actual silence or an open disposition to achieving an inner silence.

In order for such activities to prosper and compete with device paradigm temptations, it is important that one loves the focal practice, so it not simply become pursued out of guilt or mere necessity. This love, along with the healthy habits it conveys, will be transmitted to one’s children either in the present or future.

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Excerpted from my M.A. thesis, "The Priority of Silence: Recovering an Anterior Sense of 'Active Receptivity' to Acquire Right Relationship with our Digital Environments" (2012).

For an excellent talk on discerning the use of technology in one's life, see the article/transcript entitled Technology and Man by Madonna House priest, Fr. Denis Lemieux.


  1. I enjoyed your take on Borgmann: beautifully written and helpful to anyone wishing to know how to deploy Heideggerian concelt without hurting themselves.


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