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Ethics & the Enviornment 6.2 (2001) 106-113

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Book Review

Technology and the Good Life?

Technology and the Good Life? Eric Higgs, Andrew Light, and David Strong, editors. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 392. $65.00 ISBN 0-226-33386-8. (Hardback) $25.00 ISBN 0-226-33387-6. (Paperback)

This book is satisfying in several ways. It is large enough to deal with its topics from a number of angles and in considerable depth. It is focused enough to promote real understanding of its subject. It is clear enough to communicate with readers from a wide range of backgrounds. And it is urgent enough, in its intense desire to help usher in a better postmodern world, to set up positive resonances with the readers of this journal.

This said, I need to warn that the book is not primarily intended as a contribution to environmental ethics. Rather, it is self-consciously a statement within the small but vigorous field known as philosophy of technology. In particular, it is a celebration, a critique, and an extension of the philosophy of Albert Borgmann, a German-born, neo-Heideggerian visionary who has taught and published for many years at the University of Montana. The work inevitably has a great deal of "insider" flavor, since all the authors of the seventeen chapters leading to Borgmann's reply have [End Page 106] in common a strong conviction, whether fully agreeing with him or not, that the "device paradigm" he offers (and to which I shall soon return) is profoundly important to understanding our technological world, to shaping its social consequences, to mediating its impact on nature, and to issuing its challenge to "the good life" of the book's title.

Though not at the center, environmental philosophy is always a close presence, generally looked upon by these authors with a tinge of envy for its greater visibility and practical involvements. As someone who works in both fields, I was somewhat startled by the deference shown, time and again, to the efforts of environmental ethicists. Over here, we also sometimes worry about professional acceptance and making a difference to a heedless world. It may be energizing (or should it be embarrassing?) to see others looking to us as fortunate examples.

Readers of Ethics & the Environment will properly be interested in the environmental implications of this collection, not in technicalities or professional alliances within philosophy of technology. Therefore, doffing my technological cap and replacing it with an environmentally suitable topper, I plan to select boldly, with regrets to those whose good work in "pure" philosophy of technology must be ignored.

The fulcrum on which this book turns is Albert Borgmann's "device paradigm," rich in environmental and ethical implications. Sketching this subtle neo-Heideggerian position in a paragraph cannot do it justice, but without such a sketch no review of the book could make sense. Broadly, then, Borgmann distinguishes between "devices" (carrying a negative connotation) and "things" (with a positive connotation). Devices are instrumental in attaining conveniences; they are designed to vanish from consciousness and work in ways unknown to the average user. A smoothly functioning central heating system is an example: set the thermostat and don't worry about the electronic feedback system, the ignition system in the furnace, its type or location, the duct work, or the complex worldwide fuel delivery system. Just enjoy the steady comfort, and let the device take care of itself. Things, in contrast, are intrinsically valuable in the experience we have of them, though they can often be extrinsically useful, as well. They are "presences" over against us, pressing our consciousness of their being. An iron wood stove is an example: the stove is fully comprehensible, and the processes centering around it are clear and deeply satisfying. Walking in the wood lot; cutting, splitting, and stacking the wood; building the fire, tending it, enjoying the full consciousness of earned warmth as the stove overcomes [End Page 107] the morning chill--these are "focal" experiences that bring us in touch with being and make us whole. Other focal examples...


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