Thursday, May 11, 2017

On Heidegger's Essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”

Hold my mouse and watch this: Surfer Interview, which figures into the conclusion of this lecture

Near the middle of the twentieth century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger, one of the twentieth century's most widely known and influential philosophers, both generally and as a philosopher writing about technology, wrote an essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” that is of importance for the philosophy of technology. This essay has been dealt with in depth by the American philosopher of technology, Don Ihde, in his book, Heidegger's Technologies: Postphenomenological Perspectives. I don't understand yet what “postphenomenological” means for Ihde, beyond its being his attempt at a synthesis of phenomenology and pragmatism, two opposing approaches in philosophy; but the book is written in English...he seems to take it for granted that the reader already knows what postphenomenological perspectives are going to be, and how to relate them to Ihde's previous, phenomenological writings on technology – in, for example, his book, Existential Technics. Heidegger wrote a lot of phenomenology, which will not in itself be important to understand for our purposes here. Common sense and, mostly, “plain English” – not “Heideggerese,” where we have “the thingliness of the things that are thinging” and so on – will suffice.

Mention must be made here about Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi Party during WWII; we will also not delve into Heidegger's life, which would involve what stance to take regarding his membership in the Nazi Party during WWII, and his subsequent expulsion from his career as professor after the war. Let's do as phenomenologists might do, and “bracket” this personal history, so we can look not at the man but at one of his philosophical works, before asking the question, on our own time and in our own time, what relation his Party membership may have to his philosophy, specifically to his views on technology.

What is this “question concerning technology” Heidegger is talking about? Well, let's start with: "What is technology?” Is technology applied science? What leads us, having never yet read Heidegger's essay, to say, “Yes”? We may reason that, of course, Yes, because science, we say, precedes technology, that is, science is historically prior to technology – and here Heidegger is looking not at the invention of the wheel, for example, but “modern,” “industrial” technology, which brings into being such things as hydroelectric power stations and coal-fired electric plants – and, notably, as Heidegger was writing near the middle of the twentieth century, the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Today, we can point to solar panels, wind turbines, and computers, and I'm not sure how Heidegger would view these things as they exist and are used today. I'll leave that for us all to think about after we're finished here today.

Heidegger agrees with this; such artifacts came after scientific discoveries that made their construction possible. Heidegger also disagrees. Technology, in its essence, is not a “making” but a “revealing,” that is, technology is a mode of truth, but it is not the whole truth, it is not, Heidegger says, the only mode of truth. It is not “merely” applied science; it is a relationship human beings create, a relationship with and orientation toward the entire world, human beings possibly included, he says. Technology is not the products of science, and it is not technological objects; it is a stance human beings take, and, with echoes of Heidegger's notion of “thrownness,” – we find ourselves in a world “always already,” and we did not choose this prior to out existence in it – the technological approach to truth-finding is a stance many of us in this room have probably taken already. This stance, the essence of technology, is ontologically prior to science, Heidegger says; it is a logical procondition for science. Furthermore, Heidegger points out that modern physical science is dependent upon modern technology; the two feed each other. The most salient example today would be the Large Hadron Collider, perhaps, a technological feat upon which parts of modern physical science are dependent for their moving forward.

Heidegger also says technology is not morally neutral; let's look at that. Heidegger disagrees with a common notion of technology's relation to science and with a common notion of its relation to ethics. Technology ipso facto has ethical implications. Technology is not a thing but an act. We, many of us, protest that technology and science are morally neutral in themselves. It is how science and technology are used, we may argue, that has ethical implications; it is the use of technological capabilities that is important, not the capabilities themselves. This apparently was the common wisdom in the mid-twentieth century, and, having held this view myself, after having acquired it when I was a child, I think it is the common wisdom today.

Heidegger warns against this. Yes, that is the operative word, “warns.” Heidegger writes in this essay:
Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology. When we are seeking the essence of “tree,” we have to become aware that what pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees. 
Likewise, the essence of technology is by no means anything technological. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely represent and pursue 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 we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology. [pp.311-12, Basic Writings]

[Play part of Tom Lehrer song about Werner von Braun. ]
It seems to be saying that “von Braun” of the song was defending his role, in creating the V-2 rockets with which Germany bombarded England during WWII, by appealing to this common wisdom about technology's neutrality. The creation of a V-2 rocket, “von Braun” of the song was saying, was itself not a morally reprehensible act; rather it was other Germans who were responsible, not he, for the use of the rocket and ensuing human casualties and physical and emotional devastation its use caused. The choice in how to use the “morally neutral” weapon – or even the choice before that, of how to use von Braun's scientific knowledge, to make a functional V-2 rocket – was where the ethical responsibility lay. Lehrer appears to have disagreed – he lambastes Von Braun – and his popularity suggests many others were in agreement with him.

Heidegger sees “the decisive question” as: “Of what essence is modern technology that it happens to think of putting exact science to use?” Leaving aside any further development of the concept, “essence,” which is often used in a technical (philosophical) sense, let's assume we know what Heidegger means by it; let's talk in “plain English.” We'll say: “The essence of something is what it 'really is'.” The essence of technology, for Heidegger, is a stance humans take, toward the world, in which we view the world and everything it as “standing-reserve”; I think we can safely say “resource.” We, when engaged with technology as its users or its creators, no longer see a tree as a tree in itself and for itself; we see wood, shade for new residential or recreational areas, paper, fuel to use for warmth or electricity, or to power a locomotive. We see a resource to be used for our own ends. This “enframing” (Gestell) of the world as standing-reserve may extend, Heidegger worries, to our enframing even ourselves and each other in the same way. Here are a few terms now in common use:
  • Department of Human Resources
  • manpower
  • man hour
  • man month, as in The Mythical Man Month
  • wetware, that is, human beings considered as cognitive resources
  • brain drain
In all of these, it can be argued that the term is “correct,” that is, the term is true as far as it goes, and it should be obvious also that the term is not the whole truth. It seems that Heidegger's worry was prescient, or he may have been behind the times; he himself mentions human resources. “Scientific management” techniques may have already led to some humans “enframing” themselves and others as “resources,” as standing-reserve, though Heidegger argues that humans escape being merely standing-reserve. Given some of the absolutely deplorable actions of his fellow Germans during WWII, this should have been obviously false, and it seems incredible that he failed to see this, and he published the text in 1954, long after WWII. Such examples serve to demonstrate what the enframing of human beings can lead to; but does it necessarily lead to such enormities?

In the technological approach, we don't see the world as “world” but as resources that are ready-to-hand for our purposes. We view them as having no purpose, Heidegger says, but to be put to our use. This view was exhibited by Oscar Wilde when he said something like, “Nature is a magical place, where birds fly about un-cooked.” With enframing as a viewing of nature as nothing but a resource for human use, it is not clear that viewing human beings ourselves, as standing-reserve, as mere means, is a morally neutral act. It goes against Immanuel Kant's dictum: that such a use of human beings as mere means to an end is morally wrong. Its wrongness may be argued, but it is not clearly a neutral act. It would appear to be the essence of what it is to dehumanize human beings, and would therefore be inhumane, a term with moral implications. It is not a new idea with Heidegger, that having a certain attitude is morally wrong. The attitudes of jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, vanity, narcissism, prejudice, bigotry, even “mere” intolerance, have all been widely condemned at various points in human history. It is the psychopath who views other humans as mere means for his own ends; it is not, ideally, the view of the beatified saint. Enframing goes against the ideas of humans and nature as having intrinsic value.

Technology, or, as comedian Sascha Baron-Cohen's character “Ali G” says,“tech-MOLOGY” – “is it good? Is it whack?”... Much in the way that the essence of comedy is not the sum of all jokes, technology, the essence of technology, goes beyond things. Comedy and technology are stances humans take with respect to the world and to each other, even to ourselves. They are views onto the world, ways of being in the world. There is a TED talk in which a woman tells of her experience of having a stroke, which temporarily changed her perception of the world, which in turn changed her longer term perception of the world and of herself and others. The issue arises – often, it seems to me, this is brought about by some change in our experiencing of the world, my favorite vehicle being art, about which Heidegger has written an essay – how should we or how would we like to experience the world, ourselves, and each other? The same question concerns modern technology. What do we want our relationship with the world, ourselves, and each other, to be in essence? We are able to choose our way of being in the world. Heidegger wants us to choose not blithely but deliberately and with wisdom.

I encourage each of you to read this essay. We are already, most of us at least, relatively familiar with a scientific, technological approach to the world. Each of us has a unique relationship to the world, ourselves, and each other; I leave you to consider the possible relationship to the world, himself, and to others, that the surfer (in the video I showed several minutes ago) might have, in light of Heidegger's terms “enframing” and “standing-reserve.”

What kind of similar thing might be happening with the surfer, who seems to be so immersed in the world of surfing that he is unwilling or unable to translate his experience of surfing waves, into academic English, but sputters in slang, much to the amusement of a television audience and Web denizens? What differences might there be between the “enframings” of: the surfer; an engineer attempting to construct a system for electricity generation from wave motion; a fisher on the shore attempting to cast a line past the breakers; a plein-air painter; and, finally, a shell-seeker walking the beach in search of intact, unblemished sand dollars?

I'd like to conclude with a passage from Heidegger's essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”:
Techne is a mode of aletheuein. It reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another.Thus what is decisive in techne does not lie at all in making and manipulating nor in the use of means, but rather in the revealing mentioned before. It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a bringing forth... Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing.

Aletheia is a Greek word for “truth,” which Heidegger sees, with etymological justification, in his phenomenological writings, as “a revealing.” Technology is not just a means to an end, it is a way of approaching and mapping the world. Philosopher Don Ihde comments on this passage:
Technology as a mode of truth assumes the overall shape of Heidegger's truth theory. “Technology is a mode of revealing. Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens.”

Open in new window:

Truth for Heidegger is more complicated than a statement's “mere” correctness. Technology shows part of the truth by being “correct”; but, Heidegger warns us, to mistake this correctness for truth would be, in an analogy drawn by Don Ihde, like mistaking a part for the whole. Consider how the ontologies of the surfer, engineer, fisher, and beachcomber might overlap and where they might not. What differences in their individual experiences of the waves might these overlappings and non-overlappings lead to? That is something to consider as we make our ways through the world and encounter the “worlds” of others. The predominance of a technological view, a single way of getting at only partial truths, by way of mere correctness, should strike us – ironically, in light of the attempts by technologists to optimize – as a sub-optimal situation. Seeing is always a seeing-as, so it makes sense to see a thing as all the things it is that we can, and not only one aspect of it, if we are to be human beings in the fullest sense.

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