Wow! Sweet!

The pleasures of a Mini Cooper; and other adventures in technology on a human scale.

This article originally appeared in Books & Culture, March/April 2004 (Vol. 10, No. 2), pp. 14f.

Walk into a well-appointed kitchen in mass-affluent America, and amidst the gleaming countertops, the tastefully displayed cookware, and the sleek appliances, you will find a 48-inch-wide tribute to both prowess and virtue. It is not just an oven, and it is certainly not just a stove. It is a range, cognate with the wide-open spaces of our national dreams. It is a Viking—a conqueror—or a Wolf—a formidable beast—or a Thermador—its orotund Latinate swagger encoding what another brand, Imperial, makes plain.

The range is the spiritual heart of the modern kitchen. Hidden dishwashers and refrigerators may be the latest trend, but who hides their range? Indeed, displayed in its full glory, the range can spark that peculiarly male form of conversation, the competitive exchange of technical specs—as in the New Yorker cartoon that shows a wine-drinking guest and his host contemplating an expanse of gas burners: “Wow! The big guy! And what kind of B.T.U.‘s am I looking at here?” (Probably about 18,000, by the way.)

The range is what the philosopher Albert Borgmann calls a device—a technological achievement whose hallmarks are, in Borgmann’s words, “commodious availability.” The range is commodious in two senses—first, its sheer size and potential output, and second, its concentration on a singular commodity, cooking heat, that can be measured with the precision of the British Thermal Unit. It is available in a way that the hearth, which it replaces, never was: with one turn of the pleasingly heavy control knobs, you have finely calibrated heat, from simmering to roaring, at your command.

The range, as it turns out, is not that useful for everyday cooking. Owners find that, absent dishwashing boys to do the dirty work, industrial-style ranges are hard to clean. The massive grates overlaying the gas burners reach cooking temperature so slowly that a Viking range takes longer to boil water than my mother’s Whirlpool stove. Then, of course, there is the cost, up to $10,000, which means that most homes graced by Viking ranges belong to two-income professional families already stretched to the limit by work and social commitments. Even so, it’s startling to learn from the Boston Consulting Group’s recent book, Trading Up: The New American Luxury, that 75 percent of Viking ranges are never used by their owners.

But if the typical range languishes with its BTUs untapped, it nevertheless fulfills its true function—to signal our enduring longing for a hearth. The purchase of a range by a family too busy to cook, however easily satirized, is an investment in a memory and a hope—the vision of life shared around a focus (the Latin word, as Borgmann reminds us, for hearth), glowing with nurturing warmth. The $10,000 range is a down payment on a future, focused life, and as such its presence in the kitchen is as fraught with meaning, even a kind of divinity, as the hearth’s ever was.

In Borgmann’s paradigm of technology, “focal things” like the hearth, possessing intrinsic value and demanding humble skill, have been displaced by “devices” that wait at our beck and call with a magical kind of “heedless power.” As technology progresses, our devices should become simultaneously more available yet also tinier and more invisible—disburdening us, but also disengaging us. In the case of furnaces or light bulbs, which have taken over the hearth’s commodities of heat and light, Borgmann’s paradigm fits. The Romans had a goddess for the hearth, but it’s safe to say no one has ever gazed worshipfully at their furnace.

Yet there are some devices, equally advanced in their technology, that don’t fit well at all in Borgmann’s paradigm. Like the Viking range, they take on an almost personal presence that turns heads and focuses conversation. Call them “focal devices.” Their emergence is a development, it seems to me, that one would not easily have predicted from Borgmann’s writing. And at times he seems to quite miss the qualities that make them so engaging.

Take the automobile, something that has certainly become more device-like with time. The days when automobiles called forth skill and even a kind of “focal practice” from their owners—the days when fathers taught their sons the workings of a V8 and people changed their own oil—are pretty much gone.

But is the monotonous ubiquity of an advanced device all there is to a car? You might think so after reading Borgmann. “There is at least a drowsy and perhaps even a dawning sense in the contemporary culture that the paradigmatic blessings of technology are vacuous,” he writes in Power Failure, underlining his point with this sardonic comment on a car advertisement: “Driving a car is not really an event that provokes us to shouts of ‘Wow!’ and ‘Sweet!’”

Well. Such sweeping empirical claims are dangerous territory for philosophers. It all depends on the car. Borgmann has apparently never been in a Mini Cooper, BMW’s revival of the classic—and tiny—British coupe. As I recall, both “Wow!” and “Sweet!” were words that came out of my mouth during my first ride. Indeed, one of the fascinating characteristics of the Mini is the delight it inspires even in passersby, let alone passengers and drivers. To drive a Mini is to enter a strange, altered universe where nearly everyone is smiling, not to mention staring, at you. (My few trips in a Mini have given me a taste of what it must be like to be exceptionally physically attractive.) And the Mini, like some other cars before it, is capable of inspiring loyalty, meticulous care, and even—online and in cities across the continent—a kind of community.

At some point the Mini’s appeal may fade. And Borgmann provides other, more compelling examples of technology’s vacuous pleasures. Yet there is something troubling about Borgmann’s apparent insensitivity to the pleasures that come from that certain kind of device that inspires respect, admiration, and even awe in and of itself—that is, as a kind of focal thing. What do we make of machinery that, far from retiring to the background like an unobtrusive English butler, becomes part of the family?

One such device, exhibiting all the characteristics of Borgmann’s devices and yet also reversing the usual technological pattern, is already on the market and is likely to become ubiquitous in the next decade: the digital video recorder (DVR), currently best known under the brand name TiVo.

The TiVo is a Borgmann-style device par excellence. True to type, on five sides it is a blank gray box, the essence of simplicity. The complexity is inside: one or two beefed-up hard drives and a stripped-down computer running the Linux operating system. Only the back of the unit, with no less than 19 jacks for audio and video cables, exposes the device’s complexity to its user. Once the cables have been successfully connected, the TiVo sits between its owner’s television service (cable, satellite dish, or antenna) and the television itself. It then puts its capacious hard drives to work recording television programs its owner wants to watch, much like a VCR—and yet with improvements over the VCR that make it a revolutionary, not evolutionary device.

As Borgmann shrewdly observes, every technological advance is promoted in terms of some combination of liberation (“You no longer have to …”) and empowerment (“Now you can …”). The TiVo makes both sets of promises. The most remarkable liberation it delivers is from time. Once the TiVo starts recording a program, you can watch the program whenever you want—and stop watching whenever you want, resuming later if you wish. You can pause, fast-forward, and rewind, just as you would with a movie—which also means you can fast-forward through commercials.

This capability was already present in VCRs, of course, though they lack the TiVo’s recording capacity—it can hold scores of hours of programming—and its random-access ability to record and play back simultaneously, so that you can play, rewind, and pause a program just a few minutes behind real time. But VCRs never allowed you to forget about time altogether. The TiVo presents its user with a list of upcoming shows sorted not by day and time but by genre, title, and starring actors, and accompanied by plot synopses. Recording an entire season’s worth of—here one must pick suitably highbrow examples—Nova or The West Wing is as easy as recording a single show. Equally easy is recording every Alfred Hitchcock movie that happens to come along, on whatever channel at whatever time—a surprising number, it turns out, if you get the five-dozen-odd channels that many cable companies provide.

After a week or so of letting the TiVo silently record based on your preferences, you turn on the television and see a well-organized list of programs that the TiVo has saved for you—including, spookily enough, programs that the device’s algorithms think you might like even though you haven’t requested them. You are likely never to watch live TV again.

The TiVo is a device’s device—it is a device that controls another device, a meta-device. As such you might think that it would be doubly invisible, even if it is also doubly ubiquitous. In one sense it is—the complex workings that allow the machine to keep track of programming schedules and record hours worth of video are hidden from the users. But TiVo owners do not seem to treat their TiVos the way they treat other meta-devices like, say, thermostats. Rather, they become passionately attached to them. It is not hard to see why. Broadcast television, even in an age of myriad channels, is a remarkably totalitarian medium. If you want to see the latest episode of The West Wing, you must be on your couch at 9:00 sharp on Wednesday night, or you have to wait for the reruns. A TiVo restores a dimension of agency to the viewer—disturbingly so for the television and advertising industries, who are properly terrified about what the widespread adoption of DVRs will do to consumers’ already dwindling willingness to sit through their ads. In one stroke it both makes adherence to a network’s programming schedule unnecessary and all but eliminates the phenomenon, so painfully familiar to millions of Americans, of passively flipping channels trying to find something to watch.

Interestingly, TiVo users—who can be found in the voluble tens of thousands on the site—routinely say they spend less time watching television after purchasing a TiVo than before, and not just because they are skipping through the ads. With a TiVo, you stop watching “TV” and start watching programs. Add TiVo to the Internet, with its promise of purposeful “searching” and interaction, and the availability of full-length movies, and the television industry is right to be alarmed—its grip really is slipping.

Now, I am not myself a convert to the TiVo, or to television itself. Last year I bought a TiVo and hooked it up to the basic cable service that we have happily ignored for years. (We have never owned a television; the video monitor in our basement is hooked up only to the DVD player and—honesty requires me to admit—a rather sweet surround sound system.) I tried the TiVo for 30 days, then packed it up and sent it back.

It’s not that the TiVo wasn’t useful. I got to see much of the first season of the finely written and acted series Joan of Arcadia, which I never could have managed to watch at its appointed hour on Friday nights. My wife and I arrived home from the orchestra one evening—just being able to say that gives me a warm Borgmannian feeling inside—and were able to catch up on the climactic game in the Red Sox-Yankees series, already well underway, by fast-forwarding through commercials and instant replays, thus rounding out the evening with the modern world’s equivalent of Greek tragedy. The TiVo even found and recorded for me a luminous hour of live music by the fiddler Alison Krauss and her band Union Station on CMTV, a network I didn’t know existed. Still, in the end, our lives are too full, and too short, to fit in enough television to make the TiVo worthwhile.

Yet I still consider the TiVo a salutary development. Unlike banal improvements like wider, flatter screens, the TiVo deviates from the device paradigm in some crucial respects. While in one sense it “disburdens” in classic device fashion, in another sense it restores the proper burden of making choices about what you want to watch. It invites its users to engagement, not disengagement. It is not impossible to imagine that restoring a degree of agency and responsibility to millions of TV watchers will fundamentally change the products that media companies offer. Perhaps their response to such pressure will be ever-more-debased forays into concupiscence, but the TiVo provides a kind of built-in conscience by inviting you to choose your fare ahead of time. Who would admit, even to a device, that they want to watch Baywatch?

If this middle category of “focal devices” does exist—if some of technology’s products do not merely disburden human life, but enrich it, don’t simply play to our appetite for godlike power but humble and channel our God-given powers—then Borgmann’s scheme may need some refining. Such refinement would help us understand the times—admittedly all too rare—when technology is genuinely worth celebrating, when it brings us and our world back into focus.

To that end, may I humbly suggest a test drive. The Mini Cooper is small, it is beautiful. It is not expensive. It is not arrogant or boastful. It entices drivers off the expressway toward the twists and turns of the local. It demurely exposes the folly of the road-devouring leviathans that have embodied our age of heedless power. And when you push its pedal to the floor, it sings. Is it not worthy of the words wow and sweet? Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.