In his Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry , Albert Borgmann makes a crucial distinction between a technical device and its machinery. This is “a specific instance of the means-ends distinction” (43), the machinery being the means by which the device becomes useful to its user.

Devices and machinery can tend in opposite directions, as they do in computer technology: “The theories and technical processes that underlie the production of microcircuits are too complicated and too much in flux to be known in detail by more than a handful of people. And the microcircuits themselves are realized at a functional level so minute and dense that it does not permit the intrusions necessary for repairs even if structure and functions are fully understood.” You can’t raise the hook on your iPhone and jiggle a few belts.

The divergence of the machinery and the device is what makes computers more and more “friendly.” According to Borgmann, “‘friendliness’ is just the mark of how wide the gap has become between the function accessible to everyone and the machinery known by nearly no one. And not only lay people are confined to the side of ignorance of this gap, but so are many, perhaps most, of the professional programmers” (47).

More on: History, Science

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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