Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Was Heidegger right about technology?

When reading a text by Martin Heidegger, who died in 1976 at age 86, one is usually – provided one reads it carefully and attentively – startled by the almost tangible way in which one can sense the “unfolding” of the thinking that is embodied in it. I find it exhilarating. There are few philosophers who can make this quality of thinking as palpable as Heidegger can.

The text I am reading (for the umpteenth time) is Heidegger’s famous essay called “The Question Concerning Technology”, because I have to prepare it for a course I am teaching in the philosophy of technology. Even if the course includes the work of more recent figures who have pondered the meaning of technology (including Jean Baudrillard, Andrew Feenberg, Jacques Derrida, Paul Virilio and Sherry Turkle), one can hardly teach such a course without giving attention to this classic philosophical reflection on technology, its sources, its “correct” meaning as opposed to the “truth” about it, and where humans stand in relation to it.

A thought that crossed my mind as I was reading the Heidegger essay tonight is this: In the light of recent developments in technology such as smartphones, iPads and tablets, was Heidegger right about “modern” technology representing something very different from what techné meant for the ancient Greeks?

It is impossible to summarise the argumentative structure of Heidegger’s essay in just over a thousand words, so a brutal resumé will have to do. Heidegger begins by observing that the “essence” of technology is itself nothing technological, just as a tree is not the same as the essence of being a tree (which all trees share). He then points to the “correct” notion of technology, that it is considered something belonging to human activity, as well as being something instrumental.

He grants this – even modern technological devices are means to ends, such as jet aircraft. But what, he asks, is being “instrumental”? To understand what technology is, one would have to answer this question first, and Heidegger proceeds to do so by pointing to its link with causality – of which contemporary people have a very narrow grasp, compared to that of the ancient Greeks, notably Aristotle. The latter conceived of causality as being a fourfold unity of causes – the material cause (for example the silver of which a silver chalice consists), the formal cause (that aspect of a chalice that differentiates it from a chandelier), the final or telic cause (the ritual for which the chalice is required) and the working cause (here, the silversmith who fashions the chalice according to the final cause it is destined for).

Today (since the beginning of the modern epoch, in fact) people tend to reduce causality to the fourth one, namely the working cause, which is considered in mechanical, or more recently, electronic terms. But Heidegger goes further, teasing the true meaning of these concepts out of the Greek concepts. For the ancient Greeks, a “cause” meant something that was “responsible for” something else, so that the four causes together are responsible for the silver chalice, in the sense that they combine to “bring it to appearance”.

To cut a long phenomenological argument short, Heidegger then compares physis (spontaneously regenerating nature), poiesis (poetic creation or bringing-forth) and techné (a knowing kind of bringing-forth, in both crafts and fine arts, related to epistémé or theoretical knowing), showing that, as modes of “bringing forth” they all represent a kind of (what the Greeks called) alétheia (truth in the sense of “un-concealedness”).

Hence, what is the “alétheia” or “un-concealedness” about modern technology, compared to its “correct” meaning as a means to an end? Does it, too, bring something forth out of un-concealedness? Heidegger believes that it does, but while modern technology is also a mode of “revealing” just like physis, techné and poiesis, it is not a bringing-forth in the same sense that poiesis (poetry, art) or physis (nature) is, but a “challenging-forth”.

Instead of falling in with the rhythms of the wind’s blowing, as an old windmill does, modern technology puts to nature what Heidegger calls “the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such” – for instance in a hydroelectric power plant. This is why Heidegger can say that the “revealing” that belongs to modern technology is a “challenging” or a demanding of nature to yield certain things. One cannot overlook the implication of violence accompanying this technological “assault” on nature. In Heidegger’s words, which contrast two ways of producing food (The Question Concerning Technology p15):

“The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In the sowing of the grain it places the seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase. But meanwhile even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon [stellt] nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanised food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be released either for destruction or for peaceful use.”

Heidegger continues his phenomenological analysis by observing that modern technology proceeds by ordering things to “stand by” or to be available as a “standing-reserve”. This gives the impression that technology is there for human use, and that it is indeed, as the “correct” definition claimed, no more than an instrument. Nothing can be further from the truth, for Heidegger. In the first place, humans may be able to “control” technological devices such as aircraft, but they are unable to control “un-concealment” (alétheia) itself. This includes the manner in which the “real” manifests itself differently in various historical epochs in ways distinct and peculiar to that era. For instance, in ancient Greece nature showed itself as physis (spontaneously and cyclically self-renewing nature), in the Christian Middle Ages the world manifested itself as God’s creation, and in the modern epoch the world appears as a “standing reserve”.

Moreover, the fact that humans respond to this challenging of the earth by designing and building technological gadgets is an indication that human beings themselves “belong even more originally than nature within the standing-reserve” (p18). To demonstrate what he means, Heidegger reminds one that, instead of referring to a “personnel department” (at a company or university, as before), nowadays one talks of “human resources”.

The “challenging claim,” under whose sway human beings “order” nature to reveal itself as “standing-reserve”, Heidegger names “Ge-stell” (“Enframing”), which is a word that suggests a constant, never-ending summoning-up of everything in the world for mere use, without respecting its own being, or allowing it to “be” according to its own nature.

The hope-giving side of Heidegger’s essay lies in this, that while the overall impression is one of the perpetual, progressively reinforcing reduction of all things in the world (including humans) to mere resources, once one has understood that the essence of technology (“Ge-stell“) is “a way of revealing the real” among other such ways of revealing (in art, for example), it frees one from the impression – which keeps the vast majority of people captive – that technology is the ONLY legitimate mode of revealing. And once one realises this, it frees you from the tyranny of technology – it frees you to “use” technological devices without being “mastered” or possessed” by them.

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