Holiday Thoughts on Things and Devices

By Roger B. Blumberg

At a  family gathering last week, while the older folks sat in the living room, with a fire in the fireplace, complaining about how iPhones were ruining the country, and my six-year-old daughter sat with her cousins in another room, sharing and playing with a DS Lite in silence, I was thinking about Albert Borgmann’s distinction between a “thing” and a “device”.


In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, published 25 years ago this year, Borgmann described a thing as something characterized not only by what it does for us, but by the “world” constituted by the social practices and challenges connected with that thing. He argued that the significance of a device, on the other hand, had almost entirely to do only with what it makes available to us. (1)


The fireplace was one of Borgmann’s examples of a thing. We recognize the fireplace not only as a provider of heat but as the focus of various sorts of household activities and interactions that engage the minds and bodies of the people in the house in particular ways. It is through its particular combination of engagements and demands that a thing like a fireplace comes to have the significance it does for us. (2) Devices like electric space-heaters, or even central heating systems, on the other hand, have  the significance they do for us almost entirely because of the heat/warmth they make available. Although we can gather around space-heaters, radiators, or the baseboard heating vents, and we can make a great deal of the particular design or brand of the heating system or appliance, the devices make no significant demands on our attention or skills and could be what they are for us even were they to have completely different machinery “inside”. When we say that a heating appliance “lacks the character” of a fireplace, this speaks to Borgmann’s distinction between a thing and a device.


But the family gathering convinced me that Borgmann hadn’t appreciated the ease with which the device can become a thing for people, and the value there might be in our desire to carry out such a transformation. At the gathering there was indeed a fireplace in the livingroom; but it was not the focus of attention. (3) Like many American livingrooms, the focus of the room’s organization was the television which, unlike the fireplace, seems to fit the description of a device. A television is what it is because of what it makes available to us: programming. Televisions can be big or small, heavy or light weight, made of metal or plastic, and their machinery is really of no consequence to anyone except television makers and fixers.


Yet when you attend family gatherings in livingrooms like this one, you can’t ignore the social world that has developed around the television. True, the mechanism of the television requires little engagement and no virtuosity on the part of the user(s), and what’s on the inside of the box or panel doesn’t matter; but its role in family life goes well beyond making possible the consumption of programming, and its history as a place of family attention, communication, and memory in many homes is indisputable.


Whether we think this is a good thing for the social, mental or cultural life of human beings is not the point. Rather, the fact that a television can become a thing for us reveals an adaptability both impressive and frightening: we have the capacity to replace the things in our lives with devices, and to be careful or careless, acutely aware or oblivious, about the consequences of this kind of replacement.


New technologies always bring an anxiety about loss, and often raise the question of how such losses should be evaluated. When this is a question of comparing new technologies with old, the evaluation is comparatively easy: we ask what we can’t or don’t or won’t do anymore, and see how this compares with what is now made possible, probable or easy. Thus the replacement of the slide-rule by the handheld calculator in school makes easy all sorts of exercises and investigations, but we give up the development of a certain kind of intuition about magnitude. The cost-benefit analysis is relatively straightforward.


When it’s a question of comparing ways of life, however, the evaluation is more difficult. Borgmann wrote that the problem with devices is that they encourage us to focus on the consumption of what devices make available (i.e. commodities of one sort or another), and to turn away from the development of the skills and practices that characterize our full humanity (e.g. attention, conversation, physical interaction). In the conclusion to Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life he wrote that “there are forces that rightly claim our engagement and truly grace our lives, and …. to procure these things technologically is to eviscerate them…” (TCL, 247) Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify these forces precisely, except in grave and trivial cases, and between generations it’s often difficult to distinguish between nostalgia and genuine loss, or even between what cases should be considered grave and what cases trivial!


Ironically, what the elders (sitting around the television set) objected to in their grandchildren’s embrace of devices like the iPhone was a sort of profound distraction that these devices seem to facilitate and actively promote. What they were objecting to was not the usual problems of respect, knowledge, or communication – i.e. not the usual complaints about youth – but a more fundamental problem of presence. And, ironic as it was, they seemed to have a point.


In comparison with the social effects of the DS Lite, the television didn’t seem so bad. In past years my daughter had played with her cousins in ways that always involved a fair amount of talking and running around; but this year, after dinner, they sat silently, leaning against each other on the couch, staring at the tiny screens while exchanging hardly a word. In the living room, meanwhile, about a dozen family members old and young sat around the giant screen watching a football game. The older and younger people were separated at dinner, the different generations at different tables, but here in the living room they could and did sit together, and there were occasional conversations between parents and children, between cousins of different generations, between in-laws and outlaws. True, no one made very much eye contact, and most opinions were bouncing off the screen, but there was conversation, and some obvious personal connection, and perhaps this was as deep as the conversations and connections ever get in many families with or without the television. (5)


Our desire to transform our devices into things (or quasi-things) isn’t something wonderful, but perhaps it isn’t entirely to be lamented. For all we know the desire reflects one of the Borgmann forces that grace our lives. Perhaps my daughter’s generation will figure a way to integrate their devices into family traditions that affirm and strengthen their relationships with one another, and perhaps our job as parents and grandparents is to model a family life that will make them want to do that. However little we think of ourselves for creating things from devices, our desire to do so should probably be preferred to an embrace of devices that lets things go altogether.




1 Borgmann, Albert. Technology and the character of contemporary life (University of Chicago Press, 1984). See especially chapter 9, “The Device Paradigm,” pp. 40-48.

2 That a thing “demands” as well as provides is important in Borgmann’s distinction, and in the case of the fireplace one of the demands is that someone needs to make it work properly, effectively, well, etc.

3 As Borgmann noted, when he introduced the idea of “focal practices,” the English “focus” derives from the Latin focus, which is the Latin word for “hearth”.

4 The television was directly in front of a large(r) picture window that overlooked a beautiful pond, and the Atlantic ocean in the distance. Might the hearth not have been replaced just as easily by this view as with the television? I was secretly hoping that one of the cousins would start surfing channels and  find a nature show that documented the sun setting over a beautiful pond, with the ocean in the distance.

5 The screen metaphor comes from Randy Newman’s song, “My Country,” which along with Borgmann and the family gathering was the motivation for this piece. “My Country” is the first song on Newman’s album Bad Love (Dreamworks Records, 1999).


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