Posted by: Kenn Hermann | November 8, 2007

Reformational Thought on Technology as Abstraction

Surprise! I’m back after a too-long absence. I am still snowed under with work that ought to take priority, but after looking over my dashboard stats on hits to my posts after so many months of nothing new, I was encouraged to begin posting again. Fortunately, I had started some initial drafts of posts that I will now release.

I am embarrassed to say that it has been over a year ago that I was engaged with Rudi Hayward and Macht on technology as an abstraction that I had begun in an earlier post. Rudi asked me if ‘all technology is an abstraction.’ Macht at Prosthesis offered his own response to this important question. Of course, I make no assumption that either of these two remember the conversation any longer.

This was Rudi’s original comment: “The problem with this abstractive characteristic of technology is that it makes it very difficult to fit such technology back into the rich normative fabric of human experience. Instead each technological devise, having been given a quasi-independent existence, begins to draw us into different rhythms and habits without us having thought through the implications it has for the many obligations integral to our total life.

Rudi is exactly right here: this IS the single most significant way that technological objects resist their role in a normative cultural expression. They can be brought to heel only with great determination and wisdom. A ringing cell phone virtually demands that it be answered; it is only with clear forethought that one can resist answering it and continue the dinner conversation. Reweaving the fabric of society once it has been ripped into isolated abstractions requires enormous effort, courage, and insight. It is in our understanding of this ripping apart that I believe the reformational philosophical perspective offers important insights.

Rudi goes on to ask:This is an enlightening series; however I do have some questions: Is technology necessarily abstractive? Are other human artefacts abstractive in similar ways, or is this unique to technology? Is this abstractive quality a wholly negative feature of technology, or can it have its own benefits?”

The short answer to Rudi’s question is ‘yes, all technology is an abstraction of some kind.’ Let me give a bit of background for my thinking on these important matters and a longer answer to Rudi.

First, I have circled around this important question from a number of angles in several of my posts. Rudi, and anyone else interested in this, might find them helpful in thinking through this issue.

Second, it might be helpful to know something about the background and context for making abstraction such a central feature of my understanding of technology.

  • I first became interested in the philosophy of technology in the early 1980s when I had the opportunity to teach a course on “Technology and Culture” in Kent State University’s Honors College. I had already had been immersed in the reformational tradition for over a decade. As an intellectual historian interested in Christianity and culture issues, I was deeply attracted to the philosophical and historical issues that the NCTT illuminated. As I was debating the relevance of Dooyeweerd with several friends and students, I became more and more interested in overcoming Dooyeweerd’s reputation as relevant only for the small niche of philosophers and theologians and began pressing for his relevance for the practical affairs of society. This challenge was coupled with what I was sensing to be a willful blindness to the profound questions that technology posed for our culture, including among Christians. The philosophy of technology was just becoming a recognized discipline in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Somehow, I felt that Dooyeweerd’s insights could be brought to bear on our technological society. Van Riessen and Schuurman further convinced me that the WdW could illumine important issues that technology raised for our society.
  • Perhaps the single most important insight I gleaned from Dooyeweerd was the profound relevance that analogies within each modal dimension, both retrocipatory and anticipatory, had for understanding the history of thought. (As an historian of ideas, this insight has played a fundamental role in my thought in this and many other areas.) Analogies, I felt, were a significant clue to disclosing the roots of all manner of distorted understanding of the modal dimensions: find the dominant analogies in a culture and you were on the track of its underlying worldview. Distorted analogies and reductionisms of various kinds went hand-in-hand. I was particularly struck by the ubiquity of technological analogies, both mechanomorphic and anthropomorphic, throughout our social discourse on technology. They were most striking in neologisms related to computers, e.g. ‘memory,’ ‘information,’ ‘communication,’ ‘network,’ ‘comptuer language,’ etc. What was most odd was that these terms were rarely recognized as analogies at all, just colorful figures of speech.

    (It has even gotten to the point where Blackboard, the online learning portal, uses a picture of a ‘real’ blackboard as an icon for its virtual blackboard. What cultural memories is Blackboard drawing on with this icon? Are users really supposed to think and act as though they were working with a real blackboard? Having taught on it for many years, I can testify that the experiences are united only by the common term.)

  • Soon I was working hard at deploying the WdW framework for understanding what was happening in our technology. As powerful as Dooyeweerd’s understanding of the way that reality is refracted into irreducible modal dimensions, I felt that it needed to be modified in order to address the unique character of technological objects. Technological objects, because formed according to the technological-scientific method, are distinctly different from creationally-given or natural things. The technical/artificial was a distinctively different milieu of human habitation than the natural. Somehow, Dooyeweerd’s modal analysis of a linden tree did not seem immediately relevant for analyzing suburbs, computers, cars, cell phones, or electrical grids. Our modal analysis of technological objects required a different modal analysis than natural objects. Dooyeweerd and Schuurman provided a start, but it needed to be extended to technology if it was going to have any ‘bite’ in our technological society.
  • The key, I felt, lay in recognizing the unique way that abstraction plays a fundamental role in forming and experiencing technological objects. Schuurman has given sustained attention to this technological method employed by technologists. Other historians and philosophers of technology have recognized this unique characteristic of the development of technology. Just as the history of science has developed through the scientific method of isolating and then abstracting modal dimensions of reality for sustained attention, so, also, technology has advanced by isolating and then abstracting some way of doing a task from its embeddedness in creation. It has then given that specific way of doing a task material form, e.g. a watch, hammer, lathe, telephone, or computer software. Technology gains its power and control precisely by zeroing in on the technical/formative side of making and doing to the virtual exclusion of all other post-technical norms. That’s how abstraction comes to play a dominant role in everything that technology does. At this point I disagree with Macht. Yes, technological objects are ‘concrete’ objects, but all the fullness of creation is not present in them. In fact, the way they are designed and manufactured ensures that the modal richness of creation is not fully present. Technologies proliferate horizontally in piling up more and more stuff. Rarely do they disclose or open up the fullness of post-technical norms. Even in the few cases where they do, they do so accidentally, not intentionally. [Requires more elaboration.]

    As an example, the telephone [more to come here]

    Schuurman points the way in TF . . . [more to come here]

    How often has the Best Buy sales rep urged you to consider the normative framework in which your new HD TV will be used? Don’t they rather focus entirely on the technical features of the TV? In fact, don’t they urge you to consider the ‘wow’ features of the TV to the exclusion of the fullness of its normative cultural setting? The result is that technological objects, simply do not disclose the fullness of reality the way that a natural object does. Our modal analysis, I claim, must take into account the unique and distinctive characteristics of technological objects.

  • Technological objects, then, so it seems to me, inhibit or squelch the post-formative cultural norms that ought to shape the way they are used in our society. My essay on “Slopping Hogs in a Technological Society” is a metaphor for how post-cultural norms that were once embedded in ordinary cultural practices are now abstracted from those practices. It becomes more and more difficult to teach urban people environmental stewardship because their (our!) lives are abstracted from the web of environmental relationships that their forebears observed necessarily and unconsciously. No one had to be taught that manure from the barn should be spread on the field as fertilizer; modern people have only a faint clue about this cycle of life. Wendell Berry’s understanding of the dramatic difference between biological and mechanical rhythms makes this point.
  • Macht brings in many of Borgmann’s examples to illustrate what I have in mind. Indeed, these are good ones. In fact, when I first encountered Borgmann’s work when it first came out, I felt that his analysis would have benefited greatly from Dooyeweerd’s modal analysis.
  • Macht, then, is correct in pointing out that Dooyeweerd typically discusses modal abstraction, not the kind of technological abstraction I refer to. But that is not the only way that abstraction has been and can fruitfully be understood. Fundamentally, the epistemic use of abstraction historically has been to break down a whole into its component parts, whether those parts are modal dimensions, as in the kinematic modality that Newton isolated, or specific tasks, as Adam Smith identified in the division of labor, — or, we must say, in the way that women are often treated as sex objects. Once armed with this understanding of abstraction, we find it everywhere in our society. Why do many workers find their jobs in a technological society ‘meaningless’? It is precisely because the whole of the task in which the meaning resides has been broken down into smaller and smaller units of abstraction. E.g. flow charts are ways of breaking apart the coherence of an organization into its component layers of bureaucracy. Unless these are understood as abstractions — unless we have a sense of the whole from which we are abstracting, we will gain little insight into the technological phenomena. I believe that Dooyeweerd’s use of modal abstractions — and Schuurman’s analysis of the technological method of forming technological objects — can fruitfully be extended to provide insight into the peculiar nature of technological objects.
  • It is our ability to incarnate these abstractions into concrete technological objects that gives us the power to control our environment and to bring all things under the feet of La Technique.

I will be adding more in coming weeks (months?) as time and inspiration lead. For the moment, I wanted to unburden myself of this little bit.


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