Heidegger’s “Question of Technology”

By Justin Richards

When we consider technology from the perspective of instrumentality, when every thing is merely a means to an end, there reigns the will to mastery. The will to mastery extends its reach over humankind, and turns individuals into things to be used towards ends. This dehumanizing process of technologization is not essential to technology itself, but proceeds from out of an instrumental understanding of technology towards domination of all things in an attitude Heidegger calls enframing.

Heidegger instead advocates a responsibility characterized by starting something on its way, which lets the thing come into presence: to bring forth an occasion. In order to bring forth one brings into unconcealment that which is concealed, bringing forth is a revealing. Technology is a mode of revealing that reveals what does not bring itself into appearance. Technology makes things. Heidegger calls our attention towards a technology that does not proceed from out of the will to mastery; poesis, the process which makes works of art.

What characterizes modern science and technology is the harnessing of things which not only do not appear by themselves, but which only are revealed through instrumentalization. This links together science and technology, because science can only proceed in particle physics to the extent that technology succeeds in making subatomic particles appear before instruments. Solar energy is in this respect no different, the ordinary appearance of the sun is discarded for an unordinary technological appearance, the vibrations of photons. Modern technology is an instance of the will to mastery being extended over and into Nature. Modern technology sets itself upon nature, and challenges nature. All of nature becomes reduced to instrumentality, to what it can be used for, and this is the origin of enframing which turns every thing into the standing reserve. What is it for, what can it be used towards — the will to mastery reigns over all presencing appearances: the objectivity of the world is discarded for the ordering of material.

The problem of technology is that the human who uses technology becomes technologized. The rank order that turns everything into the ready at hand also orders the human being. Heidegger calls this ordering enframing, enframing is the metaphysical position that mediates between the user of modern technology and the world. Not only is the “world” threatened by enframing, but so is a human’s relation to the world and to themselves. How is this so?

John Morfis. “Old Cast Hammer”, 2015.

One must remember, for Heidegger, that things take ontic priority to there being any such thing as a World at all. It is only on the stability of things that a world is able to come into being at all. Things are introduced to us through work, and tools are a great example of things, but the thinging of a tool is not self-sufficient. A tool is made to do something, it is made of durability which becomes exhausted with use, a tool is a useful thing.

The standing reserve takes its mode of existing not from tools and the realm of work upon which a world is constructed, but rather from the realm of labor. The standing reserve is deprived of its durability, it becomes something to use-up and to discard, the results of labor are subject to spoiling, and they must be used before they spoil. They are not stable and are not capable of supporting a world. While work creates things, labor produces goods for consumption, technology considered from out of the realm of labor creates consumers.

What a tool can do is create things which are not possessed of durability, cannot be used up, and which certainly do not spoil. This kind of thing is stable, yet it requires preservation and care. This kind of thing is made through work and technology, but it is not itself technological. Of course, we are talking about the kind of thing made through poesis, and this includes the art object as much as a temple, and also, as much as a dwelling place centered around a hearth. These kinds of things certainly do something, but they are not of the order of cause and effect from out of the will to mastery. The temple sets holiness upon the ground, but does not cause the holiness itself, it is already there waiting to be unconcealed. A dwelling place sets locality upon the ground, primordially, locality creates space. We tend to think of space from out of the mode of enframing, we would say that space is already there, everywhere that there is anything space must already be there in order for it to be at all. However, this sense of space was preceded by an understanding of a space, a bounded clearing, or a location. To build is to establish locality and space, which enables dwelling. Dwelling is not caused by locality any more than locality is caused by building, but building and locality create the opportunity for dwelling. Building is an occasion that sets forth the possibility of dwelling as it creates locality and space.

Laurens van der Hem, “Bay Of Tangers”, Scan by Bibliodyssey.

Heidegger wants us to see that technology creates not only from a sense of “in order to”, but also from a sense of “from out of”. This creating from out of opens up possibilities which are neither intended nor caused by the act of creation, and, from the perspective of the thinking ego — as opposed to the will to mastery or the willing ego — is the horizon of freedom. Freedom for the will lies in an attitude and comportment towards the future and its predictability. Freedom for thinking instead creates an event, an occasion, or a beginning, but does not determine what it has begun. Rather it allows the world to gather itself in the event of its own revealing.

Just like a visual artist and a poet gather meaning into a work of art without fully determining the meaning that it has upon a viewer, every act of poesis gathers without fully determining. Stand before a painting by Van Gogh and the work of the work of art is to presence the World. Holderlin’s poems are not simply about rivers, for instance, but about how rivers create the possibility of human dwelling along the banks, the river makes arable the land, building turns the river bank into a location, location allows dwelling. Dwelling turns the land into something more than mere earth, it established a World. The World is gathered into Being by such things, but this gathering was originally an event of the realm of freedom.

Vincent Van Gogh, “Village Street in Auvers”, (1890).

The question then for those in the tech sector, and the problem concerning technology, is then how does one ensure that one is creating without determining? How does one let the world presence itself through modern technology, rather than determining how and for what it appears? The problem for most human beings concerns how to authentically appropriate technology such that it does not extend its technologization into areas that dehumanize: not all technologization is necessarily bad, a hammer and a pencil both technologize the user every bit as much as a computer keyboard does. A hammer extends the authentic action of human swinging and grasping, while a nail gun harnesses the same phenomenon but more forcefully pulls the user into a specific mode of interaction. A pencil forces one to engage in a certain type of grasping that we must learn, just like we have to learn to tap the keys in a keyboard, but the pencil imitates the fluidity of spoken language more than the seemingly random tap tap tapping away at keys. It is no accident that we think a million monkeys with typewriters would eventually “write” Shakespeare by accident, but make no similar expectation in regards to a million monkeys with pencils. At bottom, we hold a pencil in a specific meaningful relationship to human being that does not endure in the keyboard or typewriter. We become accustomed to the typo, and the typo determines our relationship to the keyboard such that we imagine a million typos by non-human animals could create something as meaningful as the greatest achievements of the pencil.

We consume keystrokes, relying ever more on auto-correction of spelling and grammar to the point where we often abandon proper spelling and grammar completely, in order to more quickly convey information. Our relation to language itself is being threatened by the inevitability of the typo, and we have begun to learn a form of communication which minimizes the typo: the truncated language that dominates text messaging, for instance. How long before the human being technologized by the keystroke begins to think from out of a truncated language enframed by instrumentality. Could we create technology, and or interfaces with such technology that undo this kind of enframing that is characteristic of the typo?

Originally published on Quora

About the author: Justin Richards is nobody interesting, just a grad school dropout doing concrete work — and the occasional garden — but who cannot stop incessantly thinking nevertheless. He likes skateboards. Find more of his writing on Quora.