veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Albert Borgmann - A sketch of his work

veryard projects > people > borgmann
Albert Borgmann A sketch of his work
Albert Borgmann is a profound and original thinker.  His 1984 book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to engage reflectively with technology.  His later books are also strongly recommended.

On this page are some quick and crude sketches of the key concepts of Borgmann's work. Please read his books if you want to understand them properly.

Web links

Book details

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (1984)




Focal Realism

Patient Vigour

Communal Celebration

Crossing the Postmodern Divide (1992)



Holding on to Reality (1999)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Device Paradigm

veryard projects > people > borgmann > device paradigm

A device is an artefact or instrument or tool or gadget or mechanism, which may be physical or conceptual. Includes hardware and software. According to Borgmann, it is a general trend of technological development that mechanisms (devices) are increasingly hidden behind service interfaces.

In his classic 1984 book, Borgmann introduced the notion of the device paradigm. This means viewing technology exclusively as a device (or set of devices) that deliver a series of commodities, and evaluating the technical features and powers of such devices, without having any other perspective.

Technology is thus regarded as a means to an end, an instrument or contrivance, in German: Einrichtung.

Technological progress increases the availability of a commodity or service, and at the same time pushes the actual device or mechanism into the background. Thus technology is either seen as a cluster of devices, or it isn't seen at all.
more Technology and Visibility

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change


veryard projects > people > borgmann > availability

"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."
[Borgmann, 1984, p 41]
For example, the technology of central heating means that warmth is ready available. Borgmann contrasts this with the effort required (and imperfect results achieved) by log fires.

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

[Borgmann, 1984, p 41]
Thus log fires are replaced by gas boilers, or by hot water piped from a municipal facility. But Borgmann adds something important to this common view. What makes warmth more available is that it is now detached from the device - not just physically but socioeconomically. Warmth is now a commodity or utility that can be delivered wherever and whenever it is required - and this may be entirely separate from how and when the energy is generated and stored. This separation is essential to Borgmann's notion of availability.

Heidegger's notion of standing-reserve (Bestand) is also relevant here. "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."

[William Levitt, introduction to Heiddegger, The Question Concerning Technology]

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Focal Things and Practices

veryard projects > people > borgmann > 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." Borgmann 1984, p 196

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" Borgmann 1984, p 196
"If we are to challenge the rule of technology, we can only do so through the practice of engagement." Borgmann 1984, p 207
"Countering technology through a practice is to take account of our susceptibility to 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." Borgmann 1984, p 210

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change


veryard projects > people > borgmann > hyperactivity

"A state of mobilization where the richness and variety of social and cultural pursuits, and the natural pace of daily life, have been suspended to serve a higher, urgent cause." (CPD p14)

Hyperactivity is often described as a pathological syndrome for the individual - both children and workaholics. Borgmann extends this notion of hyperactivity to society as a whole.
more See also Web Time

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Web Links

veryard projects > people > borgmann > web links

On June 19th, 2001, I did a web search for "device paradigm" using Alta Vista, and got 59 hits. Some of these were clear references to Borgmann's work, and some were entirely spurious. On June 20th, 2001, I did a web search for "focal things" using Alta Vista, and got 23 hits. Most of these were clear references to Borgmann's work. Please contact me to update this section.
Author Papers 
Albert Borgmann > Online Extract from Holding on to Reality
> Interview/dialogue with Albert Borgmann and N. Katherine Hayles on humans and machines
Eric Higgs > PresentationWrap Up
> What is Information Technology? (with Jim Hoover)
> The Great Indoors: Disney's Wilderness Lodge (with Jennifer Cypher)
Andrew Feenberg > From Essentialism to Constructivism: Philosophy of Technology at the Crossroads
> Review of Technology, Time and the Conversations of Modernity, by Lorenzo C. Simpson

see also On Feenberg's Questioning Technology (Andrew Light)

Hubert Dreyfus > Highway Bridges and Feasts: Heidegger and Borgmann on How to Affirm Technology
> Heidegger and Foucault on the Subject, Agency and Practices
Douglas Kellner > Theorizing New Technologies
> New Technologies, TechnoCities, and the Prospects for Democratization
> Review of Borgmann's Holding onto Reality
Dr. Ged McLean
IESVic Director
"In the early 1980's the American philosopher Albert Borgmann devised the 'Device Paradigm' to explain the way cultural practices are disrupted by the introduction of technology. Although it is doubtful that Borgmann ever anticipated his work would be used by engineers for practical purposes, I have found his ideas about technology evolution to be a useful conceptual framework for helping to both understand and predict the way technological change occurs. This is particularly true in the case of energy systems development where we are witnessing a fundamental shift from combustion to post-combustion energy conversion technologies. In this presentation I will introduce Borgmann's 'device paradigm' which is rooted in the concept of technological availability. I will then provide examples from energy systems to illustrate the device paradigm in action, leading to some ideas about how our energy system will evolve for the foreseeable future. The role of fuel cells and easily produced energy currencies such as hydrogen will be reviewed from Borgmann's perspective."
Other > Computers and Us (Bruce Hearn)
> Euthanasia considered as device paradigm (Pieter Tijmes)
> The semiotics of the web (Philippe Codogent)

see also reviews of Borgmann's books (below)

book details reviews order
borgmann Albert Borgmann

Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A philosophical inquiry. 

University of Chicago Press, 1984.

An excellent study of technological change, already a classic.

Highly recommended.

Review by Laurence Rietberg (The Hanging Garden)

NETFUTURE (Jan/Feb 1998)

buy a copy - uk
buy a copy - us
Albert Borgmann

Crossing the Postmodern Divide 

University of Chicago Press, 1992

  buy a copy - uk
buy a copy - us
borgmann - holding onto reality Albert Borgmann

Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium.

University of Chicago Press, 1999.


Review by Stephen Jones (Centre for Society, Technology and Value)

Review by Douglas Kellner

Interview/dialogue with Albert Borgmann and N. Katherine Hayles on humans and machines

buy a copy - uk
buy a copy - us
technology and the good life? Technology and the Good Life?

Edited by Eric Higgs, Andrew Light and David Strong

University of Chicago Press

Short Review (University of Aberdeen) buy a copy - uk
buy a copy - us

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change veryard projects > people > borgmann
This page last updated on November 6th, 2003
Copyright © 2001-3 Veryard Projects Ltd