Heidegger and Technology

In his perceptive book entitled The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum describes the times in which we live thus:

Of the many diverse and fascinating challenges we face today, the most intense and important is how to understand and shape the new technology revolution, which entails nothing less than a transformation of humankind. We are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, what I consider to be the fourth industrial revolution is unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

We live in an era of great technological innovations, whose proliferation is at a pace that is truly unprecedented and whose scope covers many different fields.

Schwab supplies a list of these new technologies whose full potential has yet to be realised: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, internet of things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing. This list, which is by no means exhaustive, is really quite astounding especially when we consider the fact these technologies emerged within a relatively short period of time.

Although these new embodiments of technology do bring new concerns to the surface, many of them, it may be said, amplify the issues that theologians and philosophers have already been grappling with.

In his book The Question Concerning Technology published in German in 1954, the philosopher Martin Heidegger offers some profound insights on technology that are still relevant today. In this article, I wish to highlight some of the salient points that this existentialist thinker of the previous century makes in his important book.

Heidegger maintains that the traditional ways of understanding and conceiving technology have failed to grasp its true essence. Both the anthropological view of technology, which sees it merely as one form of human activity among many others, and the instrumentalist view, which sees it merely as a neutral tool are, in Heidegger’s opinion, inadequate.

The essence of technology, Heidegger argues, is not found in the tools we create but in the mode of being. Thus Heidegger could write: ‘technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology.’ ‘Likewise’, he asserts, ‘the essence of technology is by no means anything technological.’

To merely focus on the different types of technologies that are already in use is to fail to grasp the true essence of technology. ‘Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it,’ he writes.

The essence of technology, for Heidegger, is a way of relating to reality, and as such it has to do with more than just the tools that we fashion and use. It must be properly understood as a culture or an ethos of which we are a part and (for this reason) over which we do not always have conscious control.

Due to the pervasive influence of the technological culture that we inhabit and from which we are unable to extricate ourselves, we see everything through the lens that it provides. Heidegger uses the metaphor of ‘enframing’ (German: Gestall) to describe this.

According to William Lovitt, by enframing Heidegger is referring not just to a framework within which reality is forced to fit, a procrustean bed. Enframing is more pro-active that this. It is a calling-forth, a selection, an assemblage and a re-ordering. ‘It puts into a framework or configuration, everything that it summons forth, through an ordering for use that it is forever restructuring anew.’

Such selections and rearrangements, however, seriously distort and obscure the way in which we understand our selves and our world, and leave us with a truncated and anaemic vision of reality. ‘Enframing’, Heidegger insists, ‘blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth.’

In addition, modern technology, according to Heidegger, has transformed all of reality into what he calls a ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand). What does he mean by this?

Gregory Bruce Smith provides this example to illustrate what is meant by this Heideggerian expression. Through technology, he writes, ‘matter is transformed into energy, which is stored and kept “standing by” for future use, manipulation and ordering.’ ‘Modern technology’, he adds, ‘takes what is, transforms it and keeps it in “standing reserve” until it is wanted.’

Thus, for Heidegger, modern technology is not simply an apprehending or reconfiguring of the gifts of nature in novel and creative ways. It is rather a ‘challenging forth’ of Nature itself, that is, an unravelling, manipulation and reordering and use of matter and bits of the material world.

Consequently, technology transforms reality into an abstract idea that is itself without self-sufficiency and grounding. As Smith explains:

This projecting or ‘enframing’ (Gestell) of Nature transforms itself into standing reserve. Reality comes to be understood as primarily determined by abstract categories as “capital” and “energy”. Reality, in being transformed into something abstract, becomes simultaneously something absent. Absence takes precedence in our lives.

Put differently, we may say that modern technology has led to the loss of the world.

Most significantly, modern technological culture has warped our understanding of what it means to be human and therefore the way in which we view our selves and others. Even human beings are ‘enframed’ and regarded as ‘standing reserve’.

Thus, we see human capabilities only in terms of technological procedures, and the worker as very little more than an instrument for production. The same applies to workers of every stripe, who are seen merely as human resource that can be arranged, rearranged and disposed of, regardless of their qualifications and contributions. As standing reserves, human beings are, as Jones puts it, ‘calculated as an abstract interger qua productivity, unemployment, demographic shifts, population statistics, etc.’

Overcoming the reductionism that technology introduces to our vision of reality requires nothing less than a new conception of the reality that is itself not shaped or trapped by the assumptions and dictates of technology. It must come from outside the noetic and ontic parameters that the technological culture has imposed.

This can only be accomplished by poetry and art. Heidegger believes that even philosophy cannot overcome the hegemonic vision of reality that the technological culture has established. Both poetry and art, Heidegger argues, are ways of ‘bringing-forth’, that is, ways of revealing and of uncovering what is hidden or concealed.

To poetry and art, I add religion, especially Christianity.

The Christian faith does not only require technology to be assessed on the basis of God’s creational intentions and the requirements of stewardship on the part of human beings. It also helps us to understand that in the fallen world, even God’s gifts can be turned into idols, and the good things that are meant to serve human beings can also enslave them. Christianity can save us from the tyranny of technology.

In other words, Christianity enables us to see technology for what it is – its potentials, its limits and its dangers – and, as a result, helps us to relate properly to it. In the words of Heidegger, this proper relationship frees us from ‘the stultified compulsion to push blindly with technology or, what comes to the same, to rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil.’

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