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Heidegger on technology, and technodeterminism

I’m leaving tomorrow night for a few days in Germany as a fellow at the University of Stuttgart’s International Center for Research on Culture and Technology. I’ll be giving a two-day workshop with about 35 students, which I am both very excited about and totally at sea about. Except for teaching a course with John Palfrey, who is an awesomely awesome teacher, I haven’t taught since 1986. I was good at the time, but I forget the basics about structuring sessions.

Anyway, enough of that particular anxiety. I’m also giving a public lecture on Thursday at the city library (Stadtbibliothek am Mailänder Platz). It’ll be in English, thank Gott! My topic is “What the Web Uncovers,” which is a purposeful Heidegger reference. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write this, and finally on Sunday completed a draft. It undoubtedly will change significantly, but here’s what I plan on saying at the beginning:

In 1954, Heidegger published “The Question about Technology” (Die Frage nach der Technik). I re-read it recently, and discovered why people hold Heidegger’s writing in such disdain (aside from the Nazi thing, of course). Wow! But there are some ideas in it that I think are really helpful.

Heidegger says that technology reveals the world to us in particular ways. For example, a dam across a river, which is one of his central examples, reveals the natural world as Bestand, which gets translated into English as “standing reserve” or “resource”: power waiting to be harnessed by humans. His point I think is profound: Technology should be understood not only in terms of what it does, but in terms of what it reveals about the world and what the world means to us. That is in fact the question I want to ask: What does the world that the Web uncovers look like? What does the Web reveal?

This approach holds the promise of letting us talk about technology from beyond the merely technical position. But it also happens to throw itself into an old controversy that has recently re-arisen. It sounds as if Heidegger is presenting a form of technodeterminism — the belief that technology determines our reaction to it, that technology shapes us. Against technodeterminism it is argued quite sensibly that a tool is not even a tool until humans come along and decide to use it for something. So, a screwdriver can be used to drive screws, but it could also be used to bang on a drum or to open and stir a can of paint. So, how could a screw driver have an effect on us, much less shape us, if we’re the ones who are shaping it?

Heidegger doesn’t fall prey to technodeterminism because one of his bedrock ideas is that things don’t have meaning outside of the full context of relationships that constitute the entire world — a world into which we are thrown. So, technology doesn’t determine us, since it takes an entire world to determine technology, us, and everything else. Further, in “Die Frage nach der Technik,” he explains the various historical ways technology has affected us by referring to a mysterious history of Being that gives us that historical context. But I don’t want to talk about that, mainly because insofar as I understand it, I find it deeply flawed. Even so I think we want to be able to talk about the effect of technology, granting that it’s not technology itself taken in isolation, but rather the fact that we do indeed come to technology out of a situation that is historical, cultural, social, and even individual.

So, how does the Web reveal the world? What does the world look like in the Age of the Web? (And that means: what does it look like to us educated Westerners with sufficient leisure time to consider such things, etc.) Here are the subject headings of the talk until I rewrite it as I inevitably do: chaotic, unmasterable, messy, interest-based, unsettling, and turning us to a shared world about which we disagree. This is very unlike the way the world looks in the prior age of technology, the age about which Heidegger was writing. Yet, I find at the heart of the Web-revealed world the stubborn fact that the world is revealed through human care: we are creatures that care about our existence, about others, and about our world. Care (Sorge) is at the heart of early Heidegger’s analysis.

9 Responses to “Heidegger on technology, and technodeterminism”

  1. Good luck, have fun, safe travels!

  2. I’m really heartened to see that in spite of your general reservations about Heidegger’s project you continue occasionally to refer to him. (Because, evidently, unlike you I see Heidegger’s fundamental “history of being” proposition utterly compelling, providing as it does a place from which to understand both the phenomenon and the expression of the care with which we can’t help but to experience…well, our experience.)

    I suppose you’re familiar with the book *All Things Shining*. It seems to offer a solution to the awful “enframing” Heidegger describes at the heart of technology. Dreyfus and Kelly point to a skillful engagement with the world (and I assume with the hi-tech gadgetry that makes up so much of it, including “The Web”) as I think an antidote to the enframing. They’re careful though to caution that “technology flattens out human life.” I think (hope) they will conclude their argument by saying that there is a way to use technology “skillfully,” i.e., in such a way as to restore meaningful distinction to our experience. Maybe this is what’s also behind your project (including *Everything Is Misc.* and 2B2K?

  3. Jeff,

    Heidegger has been the thinker who has most influenced me. I find his historical elucidations always helpful — simultaneously sympathetic and radical. But I’m with Thomas Sheehan (and others) in thinking that we need more to explain and understand our history of thought than simply the history of thought. And Heidegger’s concept of destiny — insofar as I understand it, which isn’t far — seems to me to have shown itself to be dangerous. So, despite his many arguments and warnings, I remain distressingly ontic.

    Also, I find Heidegger’s concept of Enframing (“Ge-stell”) much more appropriate to the Information Age than to the Network Age.

    I haven’t read All Things Shining, but I should. I have long given up any pretense of being an academic, and thus there are many things I should know but don’t. In any case, the last thing I read by Dreyfus was “On the Internet” in 2002, which I found quite unconvincing. (My review: Too bad, since I’ve been a fan of Dreyfus’ work overall, including his work on Heidegger and on the limits of AI.

    (Also, fwiw, the most flat-out Heideggerian book of mine is Small Pieces Loosely Joined.)

  4. Thanks for the response — makes me wonder where you find the time. And so it’s probably unreasonable to ask why you find enframing more appropriate to the Information Age than the Network Age.

    I think I’ve read enough of your stuff to appreciate your general optimism regarding networks (especially those enabled by digital technology). The problem I’m wrestling with at the moment is the ongoing influence of whatever is behind enframing. And how — to borrow terminology Dreyfus uses — this background understanding of human being also “infects” the Network Age. Simply, the experience of the network age most familiar to this corporate citizen is of a lot of “networked” people conducting commoditized transactions with an increasing number of others. That is, the others networked to me (and each other) are meaningful only insofar as I (and they) can transact business efficiently. Sounds like we’re all still pretty enframed. This in spite of the wonderful (and to me compelling) vision you and others have for digital networks.

    Thanks again for your earlier response. I guess it’s the only example I need (for the moment) of how the Network Age has the potential to undo the enframing.

  5. Good luck! Sounds interesting! I feel strongly about the subject and I’m convinced that Heidegger has something to say to us today. He is a much-needed counterweight against our self-deceptive view of new media as a voice of the masses, the scene of our uniqueness, and a path to human happiness (and Sorge?). I think the modern technology, as Heidegger understands it, still reveals something about being.

  6. Jeff, our experience of the Net is quite different. I don’t find it to consist primarily of commoditized, efficient business interactions. I find it to be social, although of course I also engage in a whole bunch of automated transactions, some of which are business related. The fact that our experiences are so different is an argument against technodeterminism and perhaps against phenomenology. It may not be amenable to a single global or epochal explanation, which would make it difficult for Heidegger to fit into a history of Being. But perhaps the same is true for all the other ages that Heidegger characterizes…which is one reason I tend toward the ontic and don’t find his history of Being to be very satisfying (although, as I said, it contains some great insights into particular philosophers).

    My problem with the enframing is that I’ve always assumed — quite possibly erroneously — that the framework is relatively stable and orderly. That makes sense in the info age when phenomena were reduced to bits and what would fit within schema. But the Net is an overabundance of uncontrolled efflorescence. It doesn’t fit things into a frame but extends a chaotic relational context.

    Niclas, I’m going to be too positive about the Web in my talk. I do this because time is short, because I think the positivities are more often ignored, and because the Net’s openness is under threat so I feel a responsibility to advocate for it (especially when time is short). A longer presentation would consider what the Web’s unconcealing also conceals. I do think that the Web is not just self-deceptive, however. I think that it makes manifest some true (yes, I used that word!) understandings of our being in the world with one another.

  7. I think I was overstating my unsatisfying experiences of the Net (in a fashion similar to how you describe being too positive about the Web in your talk). The threat to openness that you’re concerned about might be a residue of the same background understanding that also infects so much human interaction, be it on the Net or elsewhere.

    I really like the descriptions: “overabundance of uncontrolled efflorescence” and “chaotic relational context.” They bring to mind crazy-looking systems diagrams (with their reinforcing and [the other kind] feedback loops) and the sense that one could, given the time and inclination, continue drawing those feedback loops and arrows of influence ad infinitum. And maybe I’m mistaken but Heidegger’s history of being could be appended to embrace this new background understanding of human being articulated by the Net — and also articulated by recent discoveries and perspectives gaining favor in the sciences — because that’s what the Net maybe is: an articulation of a new background understanding. Or to put in Heideggerian: a epoch in the history of being. And after all, doesn’t he finally strike a pretty optimistic note in the Technology essay, when, quoting Holderlin, he says something to the effect that in the danger (technology) is the saving power (the Net)? And I think you pretty well sum up that saving power when you say “…it makes manifest some true (yes, I used that word [a use that seems right especially on the heels of your ‘overabundance…’ and ‘chaotic…’ descriptions] understanding of our being in the world WITH ONE ANOTHER [my emphasis, duh!]).

  8. […] Heidegger on technology, and technodeterminism […]

  9. David and others

    You might want to consider reading “The Question Concerning Technology” in tandem with “The Work of Art ” essay, especially in relation to the concept of The Open. I”ve used these essays to develop a critique of technology where the technology is seen to stand against itself. That is, it has a poetic relationship with itself, which we call art. This relationship makes the technology turn otherwise, into openness or what Heidegger calls “the other beginning”



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