Device paradigm

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In the philosophy of technology, the device paradigm is the way "technological devices" are perceived and consumed in modern society, according to Albert Borgmann. He introduced the term to help in understanding the nature of modern technology. Borgmann recommends the development or restoration of what he calls "focal things and practices" as a way of overcoming the device paradigm.


The term is meant to signify or distinguish between technological devices and "focal things and practices." The term, Device Paradigm, was introduced into the literature of philosophy of technology by Albert Borgmann in his 1984 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry.

Borgmann introduced the term to explain the hidden nature and power of technological devices operating in our world. According to Borgmann postmodern culture is infused with technological devices to such an extent that humans are incapable of perceiving how bad human life has been affected by this hidden model of living. He believes people are unable to live the good life. To rectify this situation Borgmann recommends developing "focal things and practices" as a way to mitigate the harmful effect of this hidden technological paradigm and overcome our reliance on these devices.


In Borgmann's terminology, a device is an artifact or instrument or tool or gadget or mechanism, which may be physical or conceptual, including hardware and software. According to Borgmann, in the postmodern world that we now inhabit the trend of technology is to develop mechanisms and devices that are increasingly hidden behind service interfaces.


As technological devices increase the availability of a commodity or service, they also push these devices into the background where people do not pay attention to their destructive tendencies. To use a metaphor, there is a two-edged sword operating here. Technology increases the availability of goods but the devices that we rely upon to provide us these commodities lie hidden in the background and have a profound adverse effect on people's lives.

Borgmann does not take issue with the increase in the quality and quantity of goods. As he says, "Goods that are available to us enrich our lives and, if they are technologically available, they do so without imposing burdens on us. Something is available in this sense if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy."[1]

For example, the technology of central heating means that warmth is readily available. Borgmann contrasts this with the effort required (and imperfect results achieved) by log fires. Log fires may be replaced by gas boilers, or by hot water being piped from a municipal facility.

"In the common view, technological progress is seen as a more or less gradual and straightforward succession of lesser by better implements."[1]

However, Borgmann does take issue with the hidden nature of the technological devices. Warmth is now achievable but it is now detached from the device, not only physically but socioeconomically. Warmth has been changed to a commodity or utility that can be delivered wherever and whenever it is required. This may be entirely separate from how and when the energy is generated and stored. This concept of separation is essential to Borgmann's notion of availability and to Heidegger's concept of technology.

Heidegger's notion of standing-reserve ("Bestand") is relevant here. He says, "In our time, things are not even regarded as objects, because their only important quality has become their readiness for use. Today all things are being swept together into a vast network in which their only meaning lies in their being available to serve some end that will itself also be directed towards getting everything under control."[2]


Heating Systems

The device paradigm can be illustrated through comparison of a wood-burning stove, a "thing", versus the central heating system, a "device". The central heating system derives its technological qualities from the fact that it is easy to use, safe to operate, ubiquitous, and the user generally needs to understand little of the way in which the system operates. The wood-burning stove, on the other hand, takes more skill in its operation in that it requires wood to be chopped beforehand, and prepared for use in the stove. The act of lighting the fire is not safe enough to be done by, for example, a child, and requires a degree of vigilance over its operation. The stove is not ubiquitous because it orients the senses and commands attention for its user throughout the time of its operation. It also requires some knowledge of how the stove works in order to make successful use of it.

Information Technology

In his 2000 book Holding onto Reality, Borgmann uses the concept of the device paradigm to analyze an emerging postmodern culture heavily reliant on digital tools. He notes that "information technology is currently the prominent and most influential version of the device paradigm" (page 352).

Focal Things and Practices

Borgmann's response to the device paradigm is to urge a restoration of what he calls focal things and practices. A focal thing is something of ultimate concern and significance, which may be masked by the device paradigm, and must be preserved by its intimate connection with practice. "Focal things require a practice to prosper within."[3]

Borgmann's examples include: music, gardening, running (especially long-distance), the culture of the table. These modern (or postmodern) examples are inconspicuous, homely and dispersed, in contrast to the grand awe-inspiring things on which our ancestors were focused - such as temples and cathedrals.

"The technological environment heightens rather than denies the radiance of genuine focal things"[3]

"If we are to challenge the rule of technology, we can only do so through the practice of engagement."[4]

"Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to technological distraction, and it is also to engage the peculiarly human strength of comprehension, i.e. the power to take in the world in its extent and significance and to respond through an enduring commitment."[5]


The concept of the device paradigm has been widely discussed by philosophers of technology, including Hubert Dreyfus, Andrew Feenberg and Eric Higgs, as well as environmental philosopher David Strong.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Borgmann (1984), p41.
  2. William Lovitt, introduction to Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology
  3. 3.0 3.1 Borgmann (1984), p196.
  4. Borgmann (1984), p207.
  5. Borgmann, (1984), p210.


  • Borgmann, Albert. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry, University of Chicago Press, 1984. ISBN 0-226-06629-0
  • Higgs, Eric et al., Technology and the Good Life University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN 0-226-33387-6
  • Tatum, Jesse S., Technology and Values: Getting beyond the "Device Paradigm" Impasse. Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 19, No. 1, 70-87 (1994).

External links