Spool Five

Reading Note - Heidegger and Technology

Author: Eoin Carney Published: Mar, 2021

Heidegger: Heraclitus: The Inception of Occidental Thinking, Logic: Heraclitus’s Doctrine of the Logos

p. 174 - “modern technology…”

modern technology cannot be transposed into a few sentences. Only one thing can be indicated given even minimally attentive thinking: namely, that the sciences of inanimate and animate nature, and also the sciences of the historical and its works, are ever more clearly developing themselves in a manner akin to how the contemporary human uses explanations to gain mastery over the ‘world,’ the ‘earth,’ ‘nature,’ ‘history,’ as well as all else, in order to then use these explained sectors according to plan (or need) for a securing and bolstering of the will to become master of the world in the sense of ordering it.

Anyone familiar with the philosophy of technology will probably be overly-familiar with what Heidegger has to say on the subject. However, even though what he has to say can be broken down into a few points - technology as enframing (Gestell), technology as the late-stage of a Western ‘history of being’, etc. - there is still something so puzzling and intriguing about it.

There is something almost paradoxical about its core - it is about ‘Technology’ with a capital ‘T’, but this does not mean it is about what we generally call ‘technologies’ today. Heidegger famously opens his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” with this point:

Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology. When we are seeking the essence of “tree,” we have to become aware that That which pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees.

Yet, at the same time, it is, almost solely, pertinent to questions about ‘technologies’, in their manifold forms. And, as technologies and their capabilities grow, multiply, diversify, his thinking seems more and more relevant. But, again, at its core, it is not really about technologies.

The way to resolve the paradox, as I see it, is to accept that technologies are, firstly, things. Only secondly are they ‘technologies’. Or, rather, their ‘technology-ness’ is something that we project onto them.

When we see a technological device, we have a set of presuppositions about what this thing can do. These presuppositions aren’t merely cultural or social, they originate in a particular way of viewing or questioning ‘existence’ (Being).

We see a device as a thing that does something for us, and as something that allows us to extend our reach and control over our environment. It’s not as if we consciously think like this, these pre-understandings are built into the very way we are oriented toward existence. Through this lens, technologies offer massive potential, they can (and have) transform human society through industrialisation, they can bridge any distance through communication networks and complex flight paths, they allow us to map and edit our genes and cells with great precision, etc., etc.

But all of these ‘applications’ of the things we call technologies originate in us, in a particular mode of thinking and being. When we actually use technologies, however, a whole other set of elements are put into play. There arise from the things themselves. Technologies usually work in ways we didn’t intend/foresee. We usually chalk this up to a slight deviation from a larger path of ‘progress’. The next iteration of the software or device will correct the errors, or build upon them to form new technologies.

But, what if these deviations and unexpected outcomes are telling us something else about technology? Namely, that its potential lies beyond its mere ‘capability’ (if we understand capability in the sense of power to transform, to control, to index, to account for). As to what that capability might be, there are other philosophers who write about this (Simondon, Stiegler), here though, it is enough to say that Heidegger might want us to think less ‘technologically’ about technology, and to listen closer to the things themselves.

In the opening quote of this post, we have Heidegger’s typical formulation of the question of science/technology as a question of ‘mastery’ and ‘will’. The quote continues:

This will is the ground and essential domain of modern technology: a will which, in all planning and examining and in all that is willed and attained, only wills itself, all the while equipped with the ever-increasing possibility of this self-willing. Technology is the organization and the enactment of the will to will. The varied forms of humanity, peoples, and nations—these groups and the individual members of whom they are comprised are everywhere only what is willed by this will, and not themselves the origin and caretaker of this will. Rather, they are merely its often unwilling enactors.

A “willing that wills itself”, another famous formula. Simply put, we are like the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ in that Disney movie (Fantasia?), we take hold of a great power, first in the form of philosophical thinking (Plato) and later in the form of technologies, but this power ends up turning us into its slaves.

Anyway, as I said, these formulations are already familiar to anyone who has read Heidegger’s most known works on Technology. More interestingly, in this lecture, on Heraclitus, he also talks about the question of ‘logic’:

p. 144 - Logic thinking vs. the ‘logic’ of the thing.

The human ‘thinks’ often and about many different things: however, the thoughts thus produced are not necessarily reliable. True thoughts, which are quite rare, do not arise out of self-produced thinking, nor do they reside in the things themselves, like a stone in a field or a net in the water. True thoughts are thought toward the human and directed toward him, and only when he is in a correctly thoughtful disposition—i.e., when he is in a state of practiced readiness to think what approaches him as the to-be-thought.

The term ‘logic’ therefore reveals itself to us through a strange ambiguity. On the one hand, it means the logic of thinking; on the other hand, it means the logic of things; on the one hand, it refers to the regulatory dimension of the conduct of thinking; on the other hand, it refers to the structure of things themselves. Initially, we do not know from where this ambiguity of ‘logic’ and the ‘logical’ arises, nor in what sense it became necessary and why it has established itself as something common and familiar in which we scamper about thoughtlessly, tossed this way and that. In most cases, certainly, we understand the term ‘logic’ exclusively in the sense of a doctrine of forms and rules for thinking.

For Heidegger, there is no real dichotomy between ‘thought’ and the ‘logic of the thing’. Both the ‘thing’ (with its logic) and the thinker co-arise (to use the Mahayana term). The essence of the thing is also our own essence, and vice versa. ‘Understanding’ something is not a question of finding the right ‘formula’ to match the essence/properties of the thing. Understanding only emerges out of a practical, and practiced, relationship with the thing to be understood. And, even then, what you are really understanding is not the ‘thing’ itself, but the thing as it appears authentically to you within a certain context of existence.

How does this relate to technology? Well, Technology (with a capital T) is the supreme example of a mode of thinking (logic) which denies this fundamental practical relation between the thing and the thinker. The most simple and obvious example of this is the effects of modern science (including economic science) and technology on the climate. A technological mode of comportment sees the ‘thing’ (the ‘environment’ in this example) as a kind of ‘resource’. Something that can be ‘known/studied’ and then ‘transformed/utilized’.

From a certain perspective, this in entirely ‘logical’. Science does know what it studies so well. Our modern technologies are excellent and efficient at extracting oil, heating the globe, making plastics, generating wealth, and so on. Their thinking is entirely ‘correct’ when taken on their own terms.

But, from a hermeneutic perspective, their thinking is totally blind. There is a great cost in what is achieved by ‘correct’ and ‘logical’ thought, and that cost is what is ‘hidden’ from view in the process. What is hidden is both metaphysical - an alternative mode of existence - and practical - the global and irreversible destruction of the planet.

In this sense, the ‘way out’ of the problem of technology isn’t to try to think more ‘correctly’ about technology, be that in the form of reforming it, abstaining from it, and so on. We can neither engineer nor philosophize ourselves out of our dilemma.

What, then, is the solution? Well, to think that there is a ‘solution’ is already to think technologically about the problem of technology. The only clue Heidegger gives is in relation to the ‘work of art’. The true work of art is an inaguration, a gathering together of many disparate elements - mortals(the social), divinities(the transcendent), earth(materials), sky (context) and a presentation of these elements as work. A work is a making, a ‘bringing-forth’.

If we think of technologies as ‘works’ in this sense, their hermeneutic potential will always exceed their simple ‘functionality’.

Maybe re-using and re-cycling old machines expresses this. When I reboot, revive, an old ‘obsolete’ laptop to browse the web in a minimal way, for example, I circumvent the technological protocols that pervade contemporary patterns of computer and network engagement. Old thinkpads, prime ‘executive’ machines in their day, become hacky stations for writing and scripting. Windows, iOS are forcible deleted, the machine takes on new life. This meaning and potentiality was always present in the machine, it was just eclipsed by other business and computing practices which hold sway. Now, old thinkpads are cultural symbols of alternative forms of computing practices, when once they sat on executive desks or, worse, in military bunkers.

The most radical expression of this ‘alternative’ use of the ‘thing’ would be having a thinkpad or old computer as a utility in a household, with its presence being similar to an oven or a fireplace. Computers today are hyper-visible, persistently present. Having a minimal computer, capable of only maybe sending emails/sshing/browsing via lynx, etc., i.e., severely ‘restricted’ in its technological capabilities would be to deny the ‘technology-ness’ of the thing, in the name of bring-forth and alternative significance. The device would become one piece within a broader, alternatively-organised life, one which denies constant connectivity, constant digital consumption, attention economies, and so on.

Actually, when I was growing up, this is how computers seemed. We had a ‘computer room’, a kind of ‘office space’ for my parents. When we wanted to do something computery, we went to this room, maybe disconnected the phone to use the internet, and when we were finished, we left the computer where it was.

The philosopher Albert Borgman has criticised technology by contrasting modern ‘devices’ with traditional notions of the ‘hearth’ in the home. The hearth, typically in the kitchen, was a central ‘node’ for the household. It demanded something of the household. Someone would have to chop the wood, tend to it. When it was lit, it became a gathering place for the household, a place to chat, eat, tell stories. The ‘kitchen’ stood in contrast to the more austere dining room. ‘Devices’ on the other hand, are more ‘invisible’ in some ways, but more ‘present’ in others. An electric heating system, for example, no longer demands the same kind of labour as the wood-burning stove did. But, it is difficult to imagine a family gathering around a radiator in the evenings. Its ‘presence’ is felt in what it pushed away - traditional modes of gathering and socialising. Microwave dinners make the chore of cooking easier, but the result is a family eating silently around a television, instead of gathering together at a table.

A stripped-down computing set-up, however, might achieve a similar effect to a hearth or a meaningful household utility. This could be a non-technological use of a technology. The computer wouldn’t be a tool for making things easier (entertainment, communication), although it could, at times, serve that role. Instead, it would be a kind of curiosity, a point in the household for looking-in on the global state-of-affairs. It could be logged into for a while in the evening, and then left on its own most of the time.

To return to the Heidegger quotes (God, this has gotten off-track), the ‘logic’ of the computer, the thing, is found not only in what it can enable us to do, but also in how it can be integrated into various kinds of practices. In other words, its ‘logic’ is highly flexible. This is Heidegger’s simple point, I think. We tend to think of ‘logic’ as something fixed, something you learn in a textbook, but ‘logic’ can refer to the ‘way’ of the thing in relation to the ‘way’ of human action/practice (caveat - the term ‘human’ here is un-Heiddegerian).

Anyway, this has gotten much too long to be a simple ‘reading note’. That’s the thing with Heidgger, his thought is very encompassing. It’s really difficult to talk about Heidegger without going in many circles (spirals). I haven’t really done justice to even a fraction of what he says about technology.

I’ll try boil down the message I’ve gotten from these Heidegger quotes: Do more with less. That is, stop letting technology run your life, even though it is so good and effective at it. Restrict the power of technologies, and try discover the hidden potentials in micro, localised applications of technological things.

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