Albert Borgmann Reflecting on Facebook and the iPhone

On occasions this blog will have guest posts by authors who have expertise in areas related to our central themes.  We are lucky to hear today from Albert Borgmann, a world renowned philosopher of technology and author of Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Here Borgmann reflects on Facebook and the iPhone and the hidden costs of their charms.

Earlier this year, the academic year at Harvard ended with a commencement address by Mark Zuckerberg and at MIT with one by Tim Cook. Mark Zuckerberg needs no introduction. To be sure about Tim Cook, he is the CEO of Apple. Both men come off as thoroughly decent persons who support promoting social justice and taking responsibility for climate change. Both admonished their graduates to seek a purpose that serves a community and a higher purpose. Both, of course, are accomplished and successful. I admire both of them, and ours would be a better world if more people shared their views. I’m not blind to the objections that have been levelled against the businesses that they direct—that they jeopardize, if they do not undermine, privacy and intellectual property rights and that they are inevitably part of a corporate economy that has greatly increased inequality. I share these objections as well. But as I was reading their speeches, I began to have the disquieting sense that there was a deep and invisible connection between their world view and issues of GMO’s discussed previously on this blog.

iPhoneTim Cook in his address said of his meeting with Pope Francis: “It was the most incredible meeting of my life.”  Cook’s reaction made me like and envy him both. But evidently Cook did not read the Pope’s Encyclical, Laudato Si, that speaks most directly and widely about issues that concern Cook—global justice and global warming and, yet more germane, technology. Cook did acknowledge that the Pope “knew an unbelievable amount about technology.” So what did the Pope say that Cook should have learned about?

Like almost everyone of significance, Cook (and Zuckerberg for that matter) thinks of technology as value-neutral, neither good nor bad. What matters is how you use technology. The Pope agrees in many places of the encyclical and agrees that we have to tackle the problems of technology. But then he goes on say: “The basic problem goes even deeper: It is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm” (these are papal italics). What does that have to do with the two kinds of salmon that were discussed in the earlier blog post? And with the two commencement speeches? The wild salmon in the Tongass is the focal point of many dimensions, of the seasons, of the weather, of the river and the ocean, of the trees; of bears, eagles, mink, fishers, and insects.  In the other salmon, the AquaAdvantage salmon, all these dimensions are reduced to one—the dimension of “an artificial protein factory,” as Christopher puts it.

The connection that dawned on me is between the Pope’s concern with the basic problem of technology and those two kinds of salmon, the salmon that has been reduced to a protein factory and the wild salmon that centers and discloses a magnificent world. Note that there are no evident problems of abusing technology when this particular salmon has been genetically modified to serve as a protein source. The so-called AquaAdvantage salmon is nutritious and safe for consumption according to Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration.  As for the environment, AquaAdvantage has put numerous safety measures in place so that their salmon can’t escape into the ocean, and even if it does, it can’t reproduce in the wild. Technical problems may yet surface, but what the Pope wants us to see is that, even if there are such problems, “the problem goes even deeper.”

Technology has become part of the cultural fabric, and it has woven a pattern into that texture, a paradigm that “shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society,” as Pope Francis has noted. The AquaAdvantage salmon can serve as an illustration of the paradigm that should worry all of us. The paradigm rests on the assumption that we can detach something from its original context, the something that we take to be the crucial aspect. The salmon originally lives in a context of many aspects. The one that is of concern to AquaAdvantage is its protein content or perhaps a little more broadly salmon fillets. That’s the aspect we maximize by replacing the salmon’s original context with a context that’s engineered by science and technology—genetic modification, controlled bodies of water, artificial nutrition, etc.  And voila—amazing amounts of salmon meat.

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And what is lost? The rich world that has been replaced by technology and that opens up when you look at the salmon.  You can think of that world as being centered in the salmon. You understand the salmon— and you understand and marvel at the world that surrounds it. You look at the AquaAdvantage salmon fillet in the freezer—and all you see are the opaque surfaces that surround it. Facebook and the iPhone have done their part in making life as impoverished as the AquaAdvantage salmon is in comparison to the wild salmon in the Tongass. Common Sense Media tells us that “parents of children 8-18 consume screen media for more than nine hours each day, and of that, these parents devote nearly eight hours to watching movies, playing video games and scrolling through social media.” Instead of what? Talking to each other, talking to their children, going for a walk, playing games, cooking dinner, sitting together at the dinner table. Any one or more of these engagements has to give way to make space for what is physically one and the same thing—sitting and looking at a screen. If instead the family set aside all electronic devices, got together in the kitchen, cooked dinner, sat down at the table to enjoy the meal and talk to each other, their world would be centered at the dinner table and open up to conversations that can range from school to community, to region, to the country, to the world,  and to the problems of global warming and global justice.

Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook are environmentalists and cosmopolitans. But they seem unaware of the damage their work is doing to their avowed convictions.

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Albert Borgmann is Regents Professor of Philosophy (emeritus) at the University of Montana.

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