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Technological Criticism: Heidegger and Enframing

Is technology good or calamitous? Do we control the development of technology or does it control us? It never fails to amaze me how few technology professionals ever approach these questions. Perhaps it is our desire to avoid cognitive dissonance related to our work. Perhaps it is simple intellectual dishonesty or cowardice. It could also simply be that criticism of technology is not easy to come by for us - nowhere in the traditional canon of blogs, books, and papers is an engagement with these questions easily found. It is for this reason that I'd like to propose a series of articles in which I'll share the thoughts of influential critics of technology by outlining their basic arguments in an accessible fashion with some of my own commentary attached. In the end the judgment is, of course, yours.

Martin Heidegger and The Question Concerning Technology

Martin Heidegger was the philosopher of Being. His magnum opus, Being and Time, sought to re-examine what the meaning of the word is is and what human beings must be like such that questions regarding their own existence are even possible for them. He was incredibly influential in the 20th century and his thought inspired existentialism, phenomenology, and deconstruction. His critique of technology, originally written in 1955, was also quite influential and inspired many ecological thinkers.

The argument begins from the instrumental definition of technology - technology is a means to an end - and, after a thorough deconstruction of the inadequacies of such a definition, works to uncover what is new about modern technology that makes it so destructive and potentially dangerous. Heidegger tells us that there are two ways for things to be brought forth into existence. The first, physis, is through capacities already contained within the entity itself - the example he gives is a flower bursting into bloom. The second, contained along with physis in the Greek word poiesis, is through another entity - for example, a chalice through the craftsman or a painting through the artist. Technology primarily concerns itself with the latter, and modern technology does so in a particular fashion that "sets upon nature" and "challenges forth the energies of nature" [Heidegger] [1]. This challenging and setting upon causes us to order the entities in our world in such a way that they are always standing ready to be put to use - for example, the blender is always ready to blend or the airplane on the runway is always prepared to take off. This challenging relationship with nature also means that it is no longer viewed ecologically - as something that we have a symbiotic relationship to - but instead as the "chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve" to be set upon, unlocked, transformed, stored, distributed, and redistributed [Heidegger] [1].

Heidegger does not think that we are exercising our free will when we attempt to go at nature in this way, but instead that a particular mode of revealing entities and understanding our relationship to them has got hold of us here since setting upon, unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and redistributing are all different methods of revelation. He calls this mode of revelation Enframing (Ge-stell in German) as it emphasizes ordering over all else. Enframing represents an extreme danger. It opens the possibility for humans to forget their own essence as beings uniquely capable of revealing the world in different ways - as beings capable of revealing ever new ways of being. More and more it causes humans to see themselves exclusively as orderers and everything, including themselves, as orderable.

Despite the bleak outlook on the future of Enframing, Heidegger saw a "saving power" contained within it as well. That saving power was its potential to clearly reveal to us our own essence as well as the essence of Enframing, and thereby to avoid our being enslaved to a single mode of revealing. The essay concludes with his call to the arts to help reveal to humanity in general the insanity of Enframing and our fundamental essence as human beings.

Commentary

It helps, when evaluating the above argument by Heidegger, to understand what he thinks human beings are. For Heidegger, we are entities always already immersed in a world. Our world here consist of our social conditioning, geography, history, art, and so on. We are so immersed in it that it envelops us and we can only in rare moments actually get a glimpse of aspects of our world itself. Our world is a byproduct of our way of understanding ourselves. Our way of understanding ourselves ultimately determines what kinds of societies we have, art we produce, and our relationships to each other and our environment. This "way of understanding ourselves" is a part of our world also.

Upon looking back on history Heidegger claimed to have uncovered a hidden history of the west in which human civilizations inhabited different worlds and understood themselves and their place within these world differently and thus conducted their lives differently. For example, the Medieval world was one centered around God that viewed humans and animals as His creations (hence the name creatures). Enframing is what defines the technological world in which we now live. Its byproducts - alienation, widespread poverty, environmental destruction, species extinction - can be understood as results symptomatic of our Enframing mode of revealing. If we believe these things to be catastrophic then the question is not how to fix them within this world, but how to enter into a new world that does not have these as byproducts of its mode of revealing.

Throughout several of his later essays Heidegger leaves hints as to what he thinks such a world would possibly be like. It is a world that would seek to bring us into harmony with the Earth rather than desecrate it, but for which we would not have to give up all the knowledge we have gained over human history. It is, instead, a world based on an understanding of our symbiotic relationship to the Earth and an understanding of our role as guardians of modes of existing. A world that would respect what he called the fourfold - Earth, Sky, Mortals, and Divinities. That would encourage multiple modes of revealing rather than overemphasizing a single one as Enframing currently does.

Bibliography

[1]: Martin Heidegger. "The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays"

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