Information and the Future

This is the blog of the Information and the Future task force of the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University. The IF task force exists to explore the role of libraries in the future of Christian higher education.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Reality, Virtue, and Virtual Reality

I've been reading a couple of books by Albert Borgman (Power Failure and
Holding on to reality: the nature of information at the turn of the millennium) on the philosophical and theological import of technology. Although I'm still working my way through them I would like to share some of the ideas here.

An important adjective for Borgman is "focal." Here he defines focal things and activities:

"Generally a focal thing is concrete and of commanding presence. A focal practice is the decided, regular, and normally communal devotion to a focal thing." (Power Failure, p.22)

For example musical instruments are focal things. First they are intriguing physical artifacts that we tend to want to touch or look at. Second, playing an instrument requires us to engage them physically, mentally, and emotionally. It also requires patience and discipline. Playing a CD by contrast does not require patience, nor does it demand attention and physical exertion.

In another example he compares whipped cream (a focal thing) with Cool Whip. Whereas the ingredients and origin of Cool Whip (where does non-dairy whipped topping come from?) are obscure and removed from our physical context. Whipped cream is rooted in biology and we can conceive of its origins (though we may prefer not too!).

Borgman acknowledges that Cool Whip is healthier than whipped cream, is easier to preserve, cheaper to produce, has a more consistent taste and texture etc. He would say it is more available (PF, p.19). Similarly a CD player makes music more available than a guitar and interstate highways and airports make cities more available. But turn travel (a focal activity) into transportation a passive non-focal activity.

I don't think the point of this is too denounce technology and I don't read that in Borgman. Instead, I am challenged to think what kind of life do we want to live and as an educational community promote and how do we appropriate technology towards those ends. If we accept the dominant consumer paradigm we can use technology to produce cheap, safe, available experiences tailored to our preferences. I'm intrigued by Borgman's argument that we need focal practices to center our life and that virtue is acquired by these practices.

I could probably go on and on but will stop here. I'm not to the part of Power Failure where Borgman explicitly talks about Christianity but I found that fascinating as well the first time I read this book. As always I'm curious on your thoughts and questions. I'm trying to decide if part of this would make good IF reading material.


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