Research: Borgmann’s device paradigm

When doing my initial literature review I came past a book with articles on Borgmann’s device paradigm, which I kept on rumbling in the back of mind as it was not directly applicable, but touches on something I am after. When hearing a talk by Holly Robbins from the Connected Everyday Lab at the TU Delft at NordiCHI 16 conference referencing the concept and using it to inform design that makes the user aware of the impact of technology use, I decided to go back and dig deeper into it.

In my understanding Borgmann compares the use of devices with so called ‘focal things’ and outlines that devices do one thing very well, but limit our experience as they do not require much skill or attention. They do not shape our behaviour as focal things do, thereby distancing us from the effects of the technology. His main example is the hearth, whose function of warmth we have replaced by central heating, which has freed time. But according to Borgmann it has also deprived us of the exercise of preparing wood, of the turning of time by the rythm of the fire.

While I understand the reoccuring criticism that Borgmann’s view are quite nostalgic, I find aspects of his theory resonate with my project. Many tele-health technologies focus on one aspect of health, e.g. medication monitoring or monitoring of physiological signals but do not take the full experience into account: emotional state, general well-being or the impact of human contact. We do not yet know which important factors we leave out, but the devices used in tele-health seem to limit our expectation and understanding what care means. Can knowing where someone is be equaled with knowing they are safe?

A comparable point is made by Fry (2012) who argues that the technologies we use today are black-boxed which does not allow us to get close to it. We are not able to fully understand it, respond to it, repair it on our own and we might not know how it works.

I am interested to see how we could bring a more hollistic approach to dementia care. While I think participatory design is an excellent method to do so and I am looking forward to new methods being developed that will make it easier to engage people with dementia throughout the design process, I think limits to time and expertise will hinder the full implementation of these methods to all projects, particularly in a commercial setting. I therefore aim to use methods of bringing empathy into the design process by identifying more with the potential user group. Designing for ones own future is one method which I explore throughout.


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