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The Boundary and the Leak

No less than thirty years ago, Albert Borgmann introduced the influential “device paradigm” in his Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. His suggestion was that a distinction can be made between “focal things” and technological devices and, in the transition towards more devices, society is not only further distanced from but also loses touch with what connects humans to reality. The classic example used by Borgmann is that of the wood furnace in relation to the heating system: all of the work required to start and maintain a wood furnace in order to provide heat is replaced by the thermostat, which invisibly delivers heat to the house. As a focal thing, the necessity of the work involved with the furnace tied humans to reality, whereas the thermostat acts as more of a distancing agent. The logical next step for Borgmann was to suggest that this transition towards devices was paradigmatic of the modern era, which seems convincing when he was writing in the mid-80s. But the idea has since been grasped and modernized for the information era.

In 1999, Andrew Feenberg revisited Borgmann in an inquiry into Borgmann’s analysis of computer communication, as well as to discuss the focal thing as a gathering point in relation to Heidegger's understanding of technology. In Questioning Technology, Feenberg is right to call attention to aspects of the digital realm like the communal message boards for ALS patients and how it clashes with Borgmann (192), but perhaps could not go far enough in his analysis to suggest an extension of how the device paradigm acts in the modern era because of the limitations due to the time in which he was writing. Feenberg claims that what was missing from both Borgmann and an interpretation of Borgmann through the thought of Heidegger is the “essence” of technology. For Feenberg, this notion is congruent with one of the overall sentiments of the text: an inquiry into the reversal of technological determinism where society determines technological development instead of the other way around. This development of technology in relation to societal needs was a welcome addition to the discussion because of how interactive and social media have conformed to the will of the public, but the device paradigm was brushed aside in Feenberg for the importance of the “essence.”

Just a year later, Borgmann took on the issue of information technology in his book Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. Borgmann essentially adds weight to the device paradigm and its impact on the relationship that society has with the natural world by suggesting:

It is the misery of persons who lose their well-being not to violence or oblivion, but to the dilation and attenuation they suffer when the moral gravity and material density of things is overlaid by the lightness of information. People are losing their character and definition in the levity of cyberspace (232).

This remark is an extension of Borgmann’s belief in the divide between natural information and technological information – the latter makes information more accessible while pointing the user away from natural reality. The “loss of character” results from a substitution of the natural world with the technological one because there is no balance between information and technology (219-220). In other words, even fifteen years later, distance remains central to Borgmann’s philosophy when it comes to technological interaction, despite the addition of newer types of devices and modes of communication. This distance away from reality is what I want to call into question because I would argue that the opposite is true given the current milieu.

Before moving into examples, it is also worth highlighting the engagement aspect of Borgmann, as well as more modern critiques of it. My suggestion, which echoes that of Peter-Paul Verbeek, is that instead of our engagement with the technological reality completely replacing the natural one (and hence, not “holding on to reality”) by diminishing the interaction with it, the relationship with the digital is a way of augmenting the natural. In Verbeek’s words, “the role information technology actually plays in our culture does not consist in offering a substitute for reality, but in mediating our involvement with reality and with each other” and, as a result, “In our technological culture, [technologies] are the means par excellence for 'holding on to reality'.” While Verbeek seems correct in this assumption, his reasoning is due to stems from his sense of the engagement that he sees in the technological sphere as not only mediating, but as a form of intentionality. What I want to suggest is not only that engagement is crucial to the contemporary dependence on devices (following Bergmann and Verbeek), but that the idea of mediation should be extended to include a new paradigmatic element that includes intentionality within two forms of engagement – the element of the boundary. In order to fully flesh out this idea, we can first look at the impact of the leak and its ability to highlight this new paradigmatic element.

“The Fappening” – a combination of happening and fap, a slang term describing specifically male masturbation – is a name given to the recent leak of numerous explicit photographs that were stolen and disseminated through different channels of the internet. Because the photos contained images of well-known celebrities, the phenomenon created a decisive and far reaching cultural response. Beginning on the image board 4chan before spreading and receiving more exposure on the user submission site reddit, the event elicited reactions to the photos including: more than 100,000 reddit users simultaneously waiting for live updates and new photos; news media becoming outraged and, in the case of CNN, confused as to what (or even who) 4chan is; celebrities both denying the legitimacy of the photos and filing for lawsuits against those responsible; reddit removing the subreddit that was essential and dedicated to the leak – despite 250 million views over six days – sparking an outcry and inquiry by the users into the supposedly democratic foundation on which the site was founded.

Even more recently, the web experienced the latest development in the Wikileaks saga: the second iteration of the intellectual property chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In relation to the last leak of the document a year ago, the new version suggests alterations to the scariest sections that focus on the relationship between Internet Service Providers and their users, as well as the impact on patents and the international pharmaceutical industry. Regardless of how the TPP will impact the average U.S. civilian, the main reaction has been adversity to the secrecy of the document, as well as praise for Wikileaks for providing the sole avenue for civilians to monitor the development of the document.

Both leaks highlight a new engagement with our world that hinges on directionality and distancing with regard to the subject and object. In both cases, the leak can be seen operating within a boundary system dependent on information (as opposed to class, race, etc.). In doing so, the leak makes apparent the gap between relational engagement and experiential engagement in relation to the viewed material that exists because of this boundary. Most of the time, these two engagements exist on similar, perhaps slightly alternating levels. Your relationship to your friends on Facebook, for example, could adhere to this tedency where the people you know and have a relation to are also experienced in your everyday life. Scandalous photos of a celebrity, on the other hand, contain a very low level of relational engagement but increased experiential engagement – anyone following the live updates of new photos can experience them without actually knowing or having any relationship to the celebrities. Likewise, the leak of state documents causes a similar recognition of the breakdown in boundary between released and unreleased information. What differentiates the Snowden documents or the secretive TPP from Watergate is the actual documents that you can find and have at your disposal in a click. The scandal maybe similar, but technological devices and modes of communication or transmisiion now allow for unparalleled levels of experience despite the large relational distance to the information.

This boundary paradigm also explains the phenomenal success of Twitter which, during its nascent stage, seemed to most people as nothing more than a Facebook feed. But the allure of the medium is through the interaction with celebrities or other figures with whom most users have very low relational engagement. Picking up Feenberg, then, the development of Twitter makes perfect sense. While Feenberg focuses on technological development that is closely tied to societal needs like safety regulations, his example of French Minitels in the 1980s offer another instance of technology adhering to simple communicational desires of the public (126). Hence, society desires to listen to what public figures have to say and technology follows.

On some level, then, this augmented paradigm closely mirrors the divide between public and private life, with the difference being directionality. In other words, something like the breakdown of the divide between work and leisure time – like that mapped out in Hardt and Negri’s Empire – is founded on the direction of information from a source to the user without the user’s consent. Within the boundary paradigm, the direction is reversed in connection with the engagement of the user: you decide whether you read over the new TPP or wait in front of the computer for newly leaked celebrity photos. While one is more related to capitalism, labor, and the state, the other is focused on how users are interacting with their technologically mediated realities.

This notion of the boundary is one that, despite always being at work, can only be underlined with certain events; the leak is one such event that is perceived as something else from the surface. It should be noted that the boundary and device paradigm are not mutually exclusive, but exist and operate within the same technological demands of its users. The importance of the boundary lies in its potential allure that has become a part of human interaction within their realities. It is not as simple as “we want what we can’t have,” because often leaks occur without the users even knowing they wanted something in the first place. It also transcends a call for completely open information because privacy still remains crucial. But the boundary does offer explanation for responses to societal and cultural phenomena and acts to push the device paradigm further in the age of information. The paradigm of today is less concerned with the distance to natural reality caused by the tension between focal thing and device, but more so with the distance between information and consumer that takes place in mediated realities where the interplay between relational and experiential engagement is dictated by those devices or new modes of communication.

-Chandler Warren

Borgmann, Albert. Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1999. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 October 2014.

---. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press. 1984.

Feenberg, Andrew. Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge. 1999.

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Devices of Engagement: On Borgmann’s Philosophy of Information and Technology.” Techne: Research in Philosophy and Technology. 6.1: Fall 2002.


#chandlerwarren #digitalhumanities

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