“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. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.”
– Martin Heidegger
A prevalent misunderstanding is that technology is a tool, a means to an end and neutral in value. Heidegger wants to free us from this misunderstanding, to really bring to attention our attitude and relationship towards the technology that we have at hand – in use. That we accept and use technology without this attentiveness, without often being aware that we are using it at all, is what makes us unfree.
The mistake we make when confronted with the existence of this relationship – this dependence – is to either believe we have to escape from it or that we cannot escape from it. This mistake compounds our previous error by attempting to do the impossible or giving up our sense of agency.
What Heidegger wants us to do instead is examine our orientation to technology. Only by doing so, do we understand the difficulties of trying to do without it or trying to solve the problems it creates by a futile effort to perfect the technology itself.
Instead, we need to discover and pay attention to the essence of technology. This essence is not a technology itself. Discussion of the essence of technology is not a closed topic accessible only to technologists. It is and must be open to all.
In his essay, Heidegger takes a historical approach to understanding the essence of technology. Beginning with Greek philosophy, he examines the assumptions we take for granted about technology. By going back to basics, he hopes to find what is in front of our nose and thus hidden.
He arrives at two ways we see technology:
- Technology as a means to an end.
- Technology as a human activity.
These are the instrumental view of technology and it is not wrong, but Heidegger argues it does not go far enough. The blind spots in our understanding of technology prevents us from seeings its full essence and to appreciate fully our relationship to it. Our efforts to enforce this instrumental view, to control technology, can in the end destroy us. For example, the development and use of nuclear weapons.
“The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control”
To get past this instrumental view, we need to better understand what it means to achieve some ends or goal. This is the causal role technology plays in affecting something else.
Through examining the causal relations of technology, Heidegger focuses on two aspects of this relationship: the creators responsibility with its creation and the technology’s indebtedness to its creator. The creator brings forth the object of his creation and the object exists because of its creator. Despite the language this isn’t a moral relationship but rather the relationship of creation – both natural and in craft.
Heidegger relates this bringing forth with the notion of truth and unconcealing what was once hidden. We thus come to a way of seeing the essence of technology as a mode of revealing.
One may question whether going back to ancient Greece is relevant. What can we learn about the essence of modern technology in this way? Surely, instead we should look at how modern science has shaped modern technology.
Heidegger disputes that modern science is a cause or origin of technology, instead showing that science has depended on technology for its key activities: that of testing hypothesis and of measurement.
The difference between ancient and modern technology lies in how modern technology orients itself to the world:
“The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.”
These challenges are what exploits and exhausts our natural resources; transforms the natural world into a source of profit.
This difference in the mode of revealing is expressed by Heidegger as standing reserve: the transformation of the world into what is only instrumentally useful. By the world, Heidegger means also the people that inhabit it. We are all inventory to be used instrumentally. If we think of our modern corporate language about human resources, the financialization and commodization of every aspect of life, in fact life itself, we can see how we are all inventory for economies. We are technologies instrumentally useful to systems of activity whose goal is self-contained (think of the metrics of GDP and policy oriented towards it).
In Heidegger’s words, our relationship with the world is an attitude of enframing. The world is demarcated into frames, categories, or boxes, through which everything we experience is sorted and cleaved (divided and put back together).
This frame of mind towards technologies – not as tools, not in how they are produced but in the essential framing of how we experience the world – is driven by our need for greater precision, a more scientific perspective. It is modern science that has driven this mode of causal thinking, putting everything within models (frames) of theory.
There is the suggestion throughout Heidegger’s essay that this development is an inevitable part of being human and how we make sense of the world. The question concerning technology comes too late for it to challenge this way of thinking. We have already begun the mode of categorisation and cleaving the world around us before we think about the way we do it.
Even if enframing is inevitable (and Heidegger cautions against fatalism on this), we can still obtain a new perspective and understanding of our relationship with technology. We can in fact come into a free relationship with technology. To begin to do so, we must turn towards the primal relationship we have with the world, a relationship we have not lost, i.e. the world as it presents itself to us before we try to quantify it and regulate it within human concepts.
Only by accepting both our pushing forward with our enframing of nature – bringing order and structure – and by re-orienting ourselves to see nature as it tries to reveal itself to us, can we avoid the self-destructive path of modern technology.
The key danger to avoid is one where all we are is nothing but standing reserve, where our hubris about our powers to control nature and species-level narcism has blinded us to what the world is actually showing us. In short, the illusion of scientific precision and our eventual total control.
“The threat to humanity does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted humanity in its essence. The rule of enframing threatens humanity with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.”
Enframing as the essence of technology is not a property of all technology or a universal category as such. Instead, Heidegger points to giving as a mode of essence as crucial to understanding technology. The world opens itself to us in giving and it is our enframing response – our exploitative and instrumentalist view of the world – which creates the danger for us. It is humanity which drives technology’s use and thus the responsibility to care for the world is upon us. In fact, our primary responsibility as humans is to be responsible for the caring our being owes.
The way out of the paradox of enframing is thus ultimately to look to understand the world as it reveals itself and to give it poetic expression, without enforcing our destructive order upon it. This is not to say we should abandon science and engineering; to all become poets but instead to adjust our attitude and vision so we can be free in our relationship with technology.
Heidegger, M. and Lovitt, W. (1977) The question concerning technology, and other essays, Harper & Row New York.