I’ve been reading and re-reading Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology‘ now for a couple of weeks. Its a difficult read, but it is starting to sink in. Its dawned on me that his warning is particularly potent for contemporary technologies … I’m talking about the products we use from Google / Apple / Twitter / Facebook / Amazon. This post explains that position. I start by summarising Heidegger’s approach:
Heidegger begins by observing that the common conception of technology is that it is a simple means to end that is executed as a human activity. Whilst this characterisation, encapsulated in the word equipment, is correct he argues that it does not reveal the essence of what technology is. For this he turns to the notion of causality and examines the four causes long accepted by philosophical thought. By asking the question of what makes these four causes operate together, he seeks to understand what is responsible for bringing things into being (which is what equipment does). Here, he turns to Plato’s Symposium:
Plato tells us what this bringing is in a sentence from the Symposium (205b): he gar toi ek tou me ontos eis to on ionti hotoioun aitia pasa esti poiesis. “Every occasion for whatever passes beyond the nonpresent and goes forward into presencing is poiesis, bringing-forth [Her-vor-bringen].” (Heidegger, 1977)
It is the term ‘bringing-forth’ that leads to the essence of technology. Technology is a way of revealing, in other words, technology is something that operates in the realm of truth. He goes on:
This prospect strikes us as strange. Indeed, it should do so, as persistently as possible and with so much urgency that we will finally take seriously the simple question of what the name “technology” means. The word stems from the Greek. Technikon means that which belongs to techne. … Techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic. (Heidegger, 1977)
And so technology is poetic. The word Poïesis is typically translated from the Greek as ‘to make’ but its derivation into the commonly used word ‘poetry’ perhaps better infers the meaning that Heidegger believes was intended by the Greeks.
Technology is poetic in the sense that it is a way of revealing. It is much more than mere means. In other words, technology is not something to be mastered as in equipment or tools, rather it is something that reflects our understanding of the world, just as poetry is.
The problem arises, according to Heidegger, when our understanding of the world sees the world as not much more than as a ‘resource’. He says that modern technology does this because it allows us to do such things as mine the earth for minerals which then act as a ‘standing reserve’ waiting to be used for no specific purpose. Those who then consume that ‘standing reserve’ have no real relationship with its provenance. It is known, ofcourse, that the energy, petrol, steel, electricity or whatever came from the earth … but that is all that is known. And so the earth is then cast as a nothing more than a provider of resources for us to consume. And this is dangerous.
Of course, environmentalists have jumped on absorbed Heidegger’s ideas but, as Dreyfus argues, this danger goes far beyond environmental issues. Dreyfus states:
Heidegger’s concern is the human distress caused by the technological understanding of being, rather that the destruction caused by specific technologies themselves …. The danger … is a restriction in our way of thinking — a leveling of our understanding of being.
If Heidegger were alive today, I’d hesitate a guess that he would not just be pointing the finger at the environmental issues we face. I’d guess that he’d be pointing the finger at Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google, Amazon … and all the companies who provide us with technology solutions which are so “easy to use” that we hardly notice their presence. Yet they cast our way of thinking in very specific ways. And those ways will be, by definition, ultimately designed to serve the business interests of those companies. In other words, our ‘way of thinking’ is cast into patterns which serve the profit of these companies. I’m not being cynical about these companies … their actions just reflect the nature of the order of business. But for our day-to-day thinking to be cast to suit this order, the order of business, is clearly not right.
As Heidegger explains, a symptom of this problem is that humans themselves become cast as mere resources themselves. If one were to look at the internal business models of these large companies, I’d hazard a guess that humans, or ‘customers’, just represent market resources to be collected and gathered up as ‘standing reserve’ … that is … as consumers ready to be sold to when the next new product hits the shelves.
Such thoughts are hinted at by Dave Winer, a technologist who thinks about the gap between how technology serves people’s interests and how technology serves the interests of the companies who create them.
As Dreyfus explains, however, the danger Heidegger alerts us to is not the technology in itself … it is not being aware how technology has cast our thinking. I’d extend Dreyfus’ interpretation even further: its not just technology that casts our thinking (it is culture, religion, language). Perhaps then the importance of Heidegger’s contribution is the recognition that technology is on a level par as religion/culture etc for ‘casting’ the way we think. Given the rapid pace of advancement of personal digital networked technologies, one might project that technology’s ‘casting’ of the way we think is going to get stronger and stronger and stronger.