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Technology and Visibility

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Invisibility can be a mode of deception. Heidegger translates the Greek word aletheia (truth) as unconcealment (Unverborgenheit).

Borgmann introduces the term device paradigm to characterize the way technology conceals itself. In Borgmann's account, 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.

Process Invisible The Give and Take of Information

The role of visibility in systems (pdf)

veryard projects - innovation for demanding change

Process Invisible

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Fanatical vegetarians sometimes tell me that I shouldn't eat meat unless I am prepared to kill the animal myself. At one level, of course, this argument seems to lead to absurd conclusions. Should I avoid burning coal because I am not willing to go down the coalmine myself? Should I stick to pencil and paper, because I don't want to code my own wordprocessor or solder my own motherboard? We live in an interdependent society; the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker rely on people like me to consume what they produce.

But despite these logical objections, the vegetarian argument still makes many people feel uncomfortable. The slaughtering process is somehow different.

We can view what happens in a slaughterhouse as a remarkable, almost mythical process. It takes in pure innocent animals (lambs, chickens, calves, rabbits, and so on) and turns them into pure wholesome food (steaks, joints, mince, sausages, burgers). We want to believe that this happens almost by magic, we don't want to think about what happens in between. There are many processes we don't actually want to do ourselves, there are many processes that are too complicated for us laymen to understand, but this is a process that is simple to conceptualize and squeam-making to contemplate.

If a process works well, perhaps we can ignore it. But there are increasing social concerns about the slaughtering process. Some religions (notably Judaism and Islam) prescribe special procedures for killing animals and preparing meat; a few people object to these procedures for a variety of reasons or pretexts, a public debate is (reluctantly) initiated. Meanwhile, our belief in the pure wholesomeness of meat products is undermined by successive food scares, including salmonella in chickens and BSE ("mad cow disease") in beef. The meat industry can no longer contain these risks, which now reach into our kitchens. Those of us who buy and cook meat for ourselves and our families are now urged to treat raw and cooked meat as potentially dangerous products, and to follow careful food hygiene procedures. We can no longer trust in the myth; we have to accept the reality of the process.

In any large organization or institution, there are processes that cannot be spoken about; they are taken for granted, invisible, undiscussable. (Philip Boxer calls them "above the ceiling".) These processes don't appear at all on the nice clean business process model, but they are necessary for keeping the visible business processes going. Often it is just these processes that generate, or fail to contain, negativity and risk.

Instead of addressing process problems directly, people often prefer to paste layers of technology over the top, as if the white magic represented by technology would counteract the black magic embodied in these invisible processes. Crazy Paving for the Mad Cow Paths.
more Technology and Magic

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Last update November 14th, 2003
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