Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”

(I’m writing this text as part of my exams-reading project that is part of the impetus for this blog. As I’m now getting closer to the exams this fall, and my summer travels are behind me, I hope to be posting lots of these little pieces.)

Heidegger, M. (2003). The Question Concerning Technology. Philosophy of Technology. R. C. Scharff and V. Dusek. Malden, MA, Blackwell: 252-264. (German, 1954; English 1977)

In this essay, Heidegger articulates ways the west currently conceptualizes technology, the dangers inherent in such coneeptualizations, and a strategy for avoiding those pitfalls. He points out that we think about technology in only two ways: as a neutral instrument and a human activity. As a result, we end up limiting our development and applications of technology within the scope of efficiency and productivity. However, we need to think about technology as more than the static tool we see before us. Instead, he returns to classical (Aristotle’s) ideas of the four causes: the material, the the form, the end, and the production. Because these causes are inextricably combined and collaborative, he suggests that there must be some other force which directs them. He points to the term “physis” which means “the arising of something from out of itself, … a bringing-forth, poiesis” (254). In this sense technological developments exist outside of the producer, and we merely occasion the revealing, also closely related to the word “techne.”

However, in shifting his focus to modern technology, Heidegger suggests that we no longer work in concert with nature (farmers, windmills), but instead frame the natural world as “standing-reserve,” or a wealth of resources for our purposes. We engage in an “enframing” in which we increase our understanding of the natural world through science, with an impulse toward measurement and predictability, to improve our efficiency in extracting energy and material. We end up with an overwhelming impulse toward ordering for our own purposes in the face of those which might offer themselves as alternatives.

Then he returns to the the idea of physis, and suggests that “freedom” and innovation can only happen when we listen for that which emerges from technology (in the larger sense of the four causes). Here’s where he makes a weird turn: “…it is technology itself that makes the demand on us to think in another way what is usually understood by “essence” (262). Instead, we need to get away from thinking about technology as merely an object for human activity. Instead, we need to study it in a much larger, less directed sense. What would technology want? From where in this project does beauty emerge? What is the essence?

(This is about as much clarity as I can get at the moment. I guess I’m trying to hit the major ideas in less than 300 words. I missed it by about 75. Rats. Now onto my reflections on this piece.)

I want to respond first to what I see as Heidegger’s notion that “it is technology itself that makes the demand on us…” (262). On the surface this sounds crazy. No really… bonkers. Technology has a consciousness? Maybe it has something to do with the translation, or maybe he really is just a mystic; I don’t know. It reminds me a lot of his assertion in “Language” that Language speaks man. Maybe I’m being too generous, or maybe reframing him into a more palatable theorist, but I seen here an affinity with Walter Benjamin, Raymond Williams, and Bruce Horner (and many others, I’m sure). I’m thinking that it’s a Marxist foundation that forges this link. Instead of thinking about technology as having a consciousness, it might be that he uses “technology” (in the larger sense) to refer to the material social conditions which form the context around any given technology. In this sense, when he calls for us to sit back and listen for what alternatives might be revealed, I can hear him calling for a cultural materialist critique of a given decision, situation, object, or instance.

Further more, I can see the legacy of this position in the work of Andrew Feenberg (Questioning Technology, 183-199).

In terms of how these ideas might be related to issues of digital composition, I see Heidegger laying the foundation for an apparatus, but I don’t think he’s specific enough on his own. Two imortant questions remain: How does this reflection happen (the nature of the reflection and toward what ends)? And how does a critic identify moments most appropriate for these activities? Raymond Williams goes a long way in articulating how an analysis and critique might be structured (Marxism and Literature, 1977). Andrew Feenberg argues that these practices might be most useful at instances where human action and technology are in conflict. This seems to be the impulse toward much of HCI. I’ve only heard a very short intro to her work, but Phoebe Sengers seems to be hot on this trail, too.

This is great. I’m starting to see how these text are, and might be put, into conversation with each other. Who says theory never informs pedagogy? Well for me, it doesn’t yet, but I can see it coming.

Citations/Relations

Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning Technology. New York, Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (2003). The Question Concerning Technology. Philosophy of Technology. R. C. Scharff and V. Dusek. Malden, MA, Blackwell: 252-264. (German, 1954; English 1977).

Sengers, P. Software 2008: Software Studies Workshop. http://workshop.softwarestudies.com/ (see her video here– http://emerge.softwarestudies.com/files/18_Phoebe_Sengers.mov)

Williams, R. (1977). Marxism and Literature. New York, Oxford UP.

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