Sunday, May 22, 2011

The 'Essence of Technology' and Addressing Anti-Technological Philosophies

“Inquiry that does not achieve coordination of behavior is not inquiry but simply wordplay.” R. Rorty

This post could be titled "Understanding that the 'Cable Guy' isn't our buddy: Why technology is not controllable, but being okay with that." (Just watched Cable Guy again and noticed the theme of the 'Inability to Control Technology.')

This post examines the following questions:  is there an essence to technology which causes and stems from our seeing nature as something to control or as something to manipulate? Is technology something that controls us or do we control technology? Is there anyway to separate ourselves from our technologies?



I think that this is an important question to ask, given that as this post is being written, the country of Bolivia is about to pass a law that intends to give Mother Nature equal rights as humans as a means of limiting our use of technology. And while I find it interesting to give more rights to non-humans life forms (for example, I'd support legislation that makes it illegal to kill dolphins and apes), I think that it's a dangerous idea to think that the goal of human life is to maintain Mother Earth in its present state or in a past state where there was less technology. There is danger in endorsing a nostalgia for pre-industrial society, and for this reason, my goal here is to analyze and then to refute the arguments of one of first anti-technologist of the 20th Century (Martin Heidegger.) While many people have heard about Heidegger because of his grotesque political affiliations, I think that less people are aware of the fact that some of his writings were deeply against the use of technology, and have been used in the anti-technology movement that has developed since roughly the 1960's. My goal here is to analyze Heidegger's arguments regarding the danger of the 'essence of technology' and how they relate to current nostalgia for pre-industrial society.

 In order to refute the anti-technology philosophy I see around me ("conserve energy", "minimize entropy production",  "HAL's gone crazy", "It's only good if it's green energy", "there are too many people on this planet", "we need to keep Mother Earth the way she was when we found her", "An earthquake at a nuclear reactor means we need to stop all nuclear power plants", and "Stop Franken Foods" to name a few), I think it's best to really delve into the arguments against technology. This is the first of many posts I'll be writing about anti-technologists, and I hope to make some good arguments for the use of technology, even though we can't control the precise effects of technology. My goal is to attack philosophies that are anti-technological in much the same way that Samual Florman did in "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering." [However, as you may have already guessed from my posts, I disagree with Florman's main thesis that we should study engineering for the existential pleasure of it. Instead, I believe that we should study engineering because engineering is part of nature's drive to consume available energy...exergy.] After delving into Heidegger's arguments against the mindset that technology brings with it, I'll discuss where we are today compared with where we were 100 years ago when people thought that engineers could save the world, enlighten the masses, and bring lasting peace. The claims of our engineering predecessors have not come true. Instead, we live in a technological society with a largely anti-technological philosophy. In order to reconcile our fractured society, it is necessary to address or to refute our anti-technological philosophies so that our society can grow and be in accord with that force that drives life to expand. We can know that the goal of life is to expand life without needing to agree on or even know what is the best way to reach that goal.

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The Essence of Technology in a Society that Controls Nature: An Analysis of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology”


Heidegger’s argument on the danger of the 'essence of technology' rests on his ability to think philosophically about technology as more than a 'tool' and more than just a 'means to an end.'  He begins by analyzing definitions so that he can separate 'technology' from the 'essence of technology.' To begin, Heidegger attempts to reveal the human state by arguing the following: as humans we are chained to technology, and when we regard it as something morally neutral, this conception will make us “utterly blind to the essence of technology." (312) This points out one of Heidegger’s major claims: that 'technology' has a technical side known only to scientists and engineers, but that the 'essence of technology' can be arrived at through deep reflection and thus can be understood by non-scientists and non-engineers. This seems like a plausible claim because most of us in today’s society realize we don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to understand that our stockpiling of nuclear weapons has the possibility of eliminating the entire human race a hundred times over. Reflection on the ability to destroy mankind starts one off on the road to understanding what Heidegger means when he says ‘the essence of technology.’ 
Heidegger argues for this separation of the 'essence' from the 'technological' when he says that the anthropological definition of technology does not cover the essence of technology. He sees the anthropological definition as three-fold. Technology is 1) a human activity, 2) a means to an end and 3) the use of equipment. Heidegger says that coming up with definitions for technology might be correct, but a correct definition does not necessarily reveal or uncover the truth. Heidegger spends the rest of his essay attempting to show that we must go beyond this definition, and beyond simply looking for definitions of technology in order to analyze the 'essence of technology.'
Heidegger sees a problem with defining modern technology as a means to an end because it suggests that we control technology (and not the other way around.) The following quote will hopefully start one seeing that, although it may be correct to see technology as a means to an end, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something deeper. “The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control” (313). I think that this point hits home, especially in today’s society in which we spend billions of dollars attempting to buy back nuclear weapons from Russia in our attempt to lower the number of nuclear weapons. If technology (I’m assuming that nuclear weapons can safely be called technology) is merely a means to an end, then it is easy to see that, in this case, technology is not just about the means to the end (providing security) because it also generates unintended insecurity from having to be controlled in order to avoid being sold to black market arms dealers. Also, parts of old nuclear weapons are being used today in ways that were not originally conceived by their designers. For example, some of the ICBM rockets for old nuclear weapons are being used to transport satellites into orbit. Technology has unintended consequences that both help and hurt the original 'ends' as well as having consequences unrelated to the original goal.
From the last quote, Heidegger brings up a point that shapes the rest of his essay—It may be possible that technology is no mere means. The necessary follow-up question is: in what sense can we say that we can master technology if technology is more than just a means to an end? Heidegger quickly ties means and end together with cause and effect. This makes sense to do because the ends that one chooses can be thought of as the cause of the means one chooses. Heidegger phrases it as follows, and adds in a kick about instrumentality. “Wherever ends are pursued and means are employed, wherever instrumentality reigns, there reigns causality” (313). The connection and insight I think that Heidegger is attempting to make here is that there is a reason for all of the inventions we make. A person’s ID card (such as a driver’s license) functions in certain ways, but yet it was also designed so that it would fit into a person’s wallet. The ID card, as an object, is no mere means to an end; the driver's license has uses that were not originally intended, such as allowing us to get beer at a bar or helping pick a lock on a door. The questioning of causality lies deeper than simply asking and answering the following series of questioning: Why is my ID card shaped the way is it? Because it has to fit into my wallet. Why is my wallet sized the way it is? In order to fit inside my pant’s pocket. Why are the pockets on my pants the size they are? Because somebody found it to be aesthetically pleasing… This line of thinking highlights what Heidegger sees as a common misinterpretation of causa finalis, “the end.” Heidegger sees this causa being bound with the Greek word telos, “which is all too often translated as ‘aim’ or ‘purpose,’ and so misinterpreted” (315). The misinterpretation here is that ‘purpose’ implies a sense of human purpose, or as Heidegger sees, it implies a sense that there is a ‘will to mastery’ inherent in such thinking "I'm getting my driver's license in order to drive my car." There will be unintended consequences of getting a driver's license, such that getting the license is no mere 'means to an end.'
Heidegger sees a way out of this possible straying into the Cartesian realm of questioning all of nature. What Heidegger is doing here is saying that one can better understand the essence of technology when one becomes ‘responsible,’ rather than getting stuck questioning oneself about the metaphysics of causality (which he assumes stems directly from discussion of means and ends.) This possibly controversial topic of responsibility is discussed later in this paper. The following argument is very important in understanding Heidegger’s goal for this essay and also in how this essay fits in with the nostalgia of his later writing. He begins by drawing from Plato the word ‘bringing-forth,’ defined roughly as every occasion when something makes the transition from the nonpresent into the present. I have paraphrased with the assumption in mind that ‘present’ is not taken in a temporal sense, but rather in sense of physical awareness of something at hand. The following Heideggerian argument has many subtle inferences that he wants the reader to take. He begins by arguing that physis is a bringing-forth. The inference here is that physis can be swapped with science. This will be useful once one sees the relationship between science and technology. Heidegger then argues that for the artisan or the artist, the bringing-forth he/she does (poiesis) occurs within himself.   (1)[1]
This argument sets the stage for a split between the scientist and the artisan. This argument of his deserves a lot of scrutiny, and it will be focused on because it is deeply tied to Heidegger's sense of nostalgia for pre-industrial society. So far, Heidegger has gone from discussing means, the relationship of means to causality, and finally how one can go beyond causality discussion by addressing the issue of responsibility and bringing-forth.
It is because Heidegger argues that the 'essence of technology' and 'revealing' have everything to do with each other that he is able to say that technology is no mere means to an end (318). The technology created to tap the energy from the River Rhine is more than simply a means of getting electricity to people wanting to using a reading lamp in bed back in Bonn. The hydroelectric dam reveals an underlying attitude and belief system of the engineers who constructed it and the readers back in Bonn. It reveals their mode of being. Heidegger's major thesis in this section is that the revealing brought about by modern technology does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis. It is a revealing that challenges nature and that demands an extraction. Heidegger’s two examples of past technology that did not command nature are the windmill and the peasant growing crops. Heidegger sees the problem being one of unlocking energy to be stored and of transforming energy.  (2)
     As absurd as this argument sounds for us today, I'm going to try to follow this logic and see where it goes. He assumes that the windmill never stores the energy that it gets from the wind, but on the other hand, assumes that the hydroelectric dam on the Rhine taps the energy in water, transforms it into electricity, and stores it for further use. The example of comparing the peasant’s use of the land and the ore miner’s use of the land highlights a key concern for Heidegger. The peasant definitely extracts nutrients from the land and the sun in order to grow a crop (just another form of energy, which has been transformed.) Yet, Heidegger argues that the peasant remains a background against the earth, the forces of growth. By Heidegger’s definition, a piece of land is challenged when we haul out coal, oil or plutonium. “The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit” (320). I feel that it is safe to say that the earth itself is transformed when it is forced to yield coal, oil and plutonium. And water itself is transformed when it is forced to yield deuterium (when we eventually reach the point of being able to have nuclear fusion reactors.) But I see no difference between the farmer and the coal miner or between the farmer and the nuclear engineer. I see them all as part of the natural goal of expanding life. Heidegger, on the other hand, sees a difference between the farmer, who works with nature, and the coal miner or nuclear engineer, who see nature as something to control.
    Heidegger, and others concerned about technology, views negatively the ordering around of nature, i.e. the sense of a ‘will to master.’ To them, this ordering around of objects in nature and objects manufactured is that we treat them and perceive them as standing-reserve [Bestand]. In Heidegger’s understanding of 'standing-reserve', these objects, like a 747 waiting to take off at LAX, conceal what they are and how they are because they are viewed as simply waiting to be ordered around. In the case of the Boeing 747, we understand it as standing-reserve because what we take it to be is something that will ensure the possibility of our transportation to a distinct location. But the 747 might be used in ways that even today we can't predict. Perhaps a Boeing 747 might one day be used as a part of giant radio antenna. Who knows??? We can't predict the future. Robots are waiting for our commands everyday, just like 747s. Is it fair to say that we control robots?
Heidegger questions what control man does have over technology in order to focus more clearly on the question: does man have the ability to chose how it perceives the world to be? i.e. does an individual human being have the choice over the way that he/she/it/they perceive their mode of being? Heidegger doesn’t want to give man too much control in the matter. “But man does not have control over unconcealment itself” (323). The following line of thinking gives a possible explanation of how 'unconcealment' of nature can be seen as outside human control. Man himself is constantly being challenged to exploit the energies of nature. For example, the fusion scientist in New Jersey is working in hopes that he might be able to eliminate the use of fossil fuels that contaminate the air and that cause harm to his fellow U.S. citizens. There is a drive within him that is non-selfish that causes him to exploit the waters for deuterium. The scientist responds to the call of 'unconcealment' in hopes of creating a better place to live for future generations. In order to get to the heart of this problem (of where the drive for better technology comes from), one might want to determine at what time in history this drive for technology became the dominant mode of being. In the following sentence Heidegger attempts to argue what he sees as part of the drive for technology outside of human control. “Thus when man, investigating, observing, pursues nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve” (324). I take this sentence to say that the drive or curiosity that creates scientists (investigators of nature) is something that is taught to a person as he grows up. He learns to treat nature as standing-reserve because this is the dominant mode of being of the people surrounding him. Heidegger’s sentence can be construed this way (with an emphasis on the individual and also on science) because it is necessary to determine the role that science plays in the 'essence of technology', and especially how 'technology' relates to the scientist who will create new 'technologies.' Heidegger therefore sees both good and bad news in this 'essence of technology.' The bad news is that, for people living today, he sees a world whose dominant mode of 'being' is one of controlling nature. As for good news, he sees that the question of living in a different dominant mode is still up for debate.
Heidegger calls the “challenging claim that gathers man with a view to ordering the self-revealing as standing-reserve: Ge-stell [enframing]” (324). Heidegger might have chosen the word ‘enframing’ because it has its roots in the word ‘skeleton.’ The poetic license taken here is that the skeleton is the frame of the body. So enframing is taken to mean that we piece together our conception of the frame of nature. The idea of a skeleton also rings well because of the eerieness of thinking that we could ever understand the universe through our use of language. Heidegger argues in the essay that 'enframing' is a part of modern culture. Heidegger believes that “modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces” (326). Heidegger’s concern for modern physics is that nature is first put forth as a pure theory, and that through a set of ordered experiments, physicists set nature up to show herself as is set up by the pure theory. Heidegger has a few good points here, along with some weak points. This is what I take him to be saying. Modern physics (since Newton let's say) has come up with theoretical ways of describing nature, yet nature is not completely independent of humans. What physics has done is to mold the way people think about nature (as standing-reserve), and has in turn transformed her through the use of technology. If nature is merely an object that follows the laws that humans can derive, then it is easier to see it as a possible energy source to tap and use in our will to power. But Heidegger is rightfully worried to some extent that we don't actually know the laws of physics, and even if we did, we can not actually predict the outcomes of our actions.
But so far all we have discussed in this post is that science sets nature as standing-reserve. To continue now with Heidegger’s thesis that technology sets nature as standing-reserve, we need to link science and the 'essence of technology.' This can be done by arguing that technology and science have the same fundamental base of beliefs about how to observe, to objectify and to experiment. If technology were simply the application of science, then we leave the opening that the engineer (creator of technology) could somehow design a power plant without ever trusting in the physics that sets nature as standing-reserve. To continue Heidegger's argument, one has to argue that the scientist enframes, the engineer enframes, and that their enframing gets passed down to the public. One could have once seen technology as separated from science by looking at the early examples of science, such as studying the motion of the planets (with no engineering applications at the time), and early technology, such as gun powder (no real science went into this.) Yet, in today’s business field, it is much harder to see where the scientist leaves off and the engineer picks up. What is important to pick up from Heidegger in this section about technology and science is that it was first modern science’s entrapment of nature into formulas that allowed for the later ordering and commanding of nature. This is why Heidegger says; “Modern physics is the herald of enframing” (327). This concludes Heidegger’s second part of his essay, which has focused on the relationship between man and technology.
This last section of Heidegger’s essay focuses on the danger of enframing, but it leaves room for the hope that it is precisely this danger that will reveal the extent of our standing-reserve. This danger lies deeper than the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. The danger is not deeper is a sense that it could kill more people, but that it lies at the essence of human history. To argue that the 'essence of technology' is dangerous Heidegger attempts to reveal that the 'essence of technology' is not wholly within man, nor is it wholly outside of man. He picks up where he left off in the last section discussing what set man on this way of 'enframing.' He argues that what started man ordering nature is not merely a human drive. Heidegger does another vocabulary check here. He calls “the sending that gathers, which first starts man upon a way of revealing, destining [Geschick]” (329). This idea of 'destining' is exactly what I outlined early in the good and bad news of enframing. Living today we are destined to be surrounded by people whose dominant mode of being is enframing. Destining is not within the individual. The individual does not chose to live in a society that treats nature as Bestand, i.e.  'waiting reserved.' I did not chose to live in the U.S. at the turn of the century rather than living in Tibet, a culture that arguably does not treat nature as Bestand. This is why Heidegger says that technology is the fate of our age, “where ‘fate’ means the inevitableness of a unalterable course” (330). Heidegger’s argument for getting from the engineer to the people in the public is that “the essence of technology starts man upon the way of that revealing through which the actual everywhere, more or less distinctly, become standing-reserve” (329). However, this is one of the places that I feel Heidegger is weak in his argument. Heidegger does not demonstrate how the creation of technology causes the public to see nature as standing-reserve. (3) Though, I will attempt here to provide that what I find to be the missing argument revealing how one links the enframing of scientist and engineers with a general mode of being for an entire society. (Not because I necessarily believe in Heidegger's arguments, but rather because I think that it's important to understand his arguments to the fullest extent possible before I criticize them.)
To make this missing argument, I will include a definition used by philosopher W. Quine in his essay “Ontological Relativity.” Quine makes a distinction between direct ostension and deferred ostension. The example given in his essay for direct ostension is when a native Australian points at what we understand to be a rabbit and says ‘gavagai.’ In this case, the object in question is directly being pointed at. An example of deferred ostension is when we point at the gas gauge in our tank and say, “I’m running low on gas.” Deferred ostension is symbolic in nature, quite metaphorical, but quite possibly very dangerous. I will argue that the technology created today causes the public to enframe because modern technology has so many layers of abstraction. The notion of deferred ostension fits in here because we, as a society, use deferred ostension too often without realizing this. For example, there are so many layers of abstraction between my thoughts and what shows up on the computer screen. My thoughts turn into typing, and the typing is converted into motions of keys, which is converted into electrical signals, and then into a basic code. From there, the code picked up by the operating system, and set to the program running the currently out program. That program converts the bits of data into stored data, and then tells the program to change the lights on the computer screen to reflect the changes in the stored data code. What has happened here is that so many layers of abstraction have been passed through without my concern.The layers of abstraction are clear when I say "I'm writing a new post for the blog." Where does this post exist? As electrical signals? As stored data? As thoughts in my head? As the lights on my screen right now? We are able to abstract to such a great extent that most of us have loss the ability to understand the layers in between. Although it seems as though complexity drives abstraction, at a much deeper level, Heidegger is afraid that it is the drive for complexity, which technology demands, that causes us to view objects such as computers as standing-reserve. The question is: what could be driving us for more complexity? What could be driving us for more and more layers of abstraction? Heidegger argues that enframing is due to fact that technology builds a gap between the user and nature through the use of high-level interfaces on most devices, through layers of abstraction. {Like not knowing what happens inside a slaughter-house when we buy meat at a grocery store.} However, he does not answer what is the driving force for the higher layers of abstraction, and therefore, he is not able to explain why he thinks we in the US are 'destined' by the 'essence of technology.'

It is important to realize that Heidegger is not a determinist. Heidegger argues that we don’t need to see nature as standing-reserve. He believes that we can’t try to run away from technology, but there are things that we can do because the essence of technology is also partly within man. Heidegger's assumption here is that people have free will. I believe that this is a crucial assumption Heidegger makes at this part of his essay when he discusses ‘going into the free,’ but this is a necessary assumption because a belief in determinism at this point in time flirts with the idea that there is nothing that individuals can do to project a new mode of being. Heidegger suggests that if we listen to our Being, instead of being one who simply orders nature and obeys the challenges set forth for him, then “we are already sojourning in a free space of destining that in no way confines us to a stultified compulsion to push blindly with technology or to rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil” (330). Summarized, this says that reflection on this subject allows a person to slowly change his mode of being away from 'enframing.' However, here is one place where Heidegger is being too optimistic. He couches that last phrase with poetic words such as ‘sojourning in a free space.’ From my own personal experience, deep reflection on the essence of technology does not lead one to the comfort that I think that Heidegger is spelling out here. Deep reflection leads me to believe that the 'essence of technology'  is really just a part of the 'essence of life", i.e. that the goal of life is to expand life throughout the universe. The drive for more layers of abstraction and the drive more more technology will occur only if this helps expand life.  For me, the 'essence of technology' is in accord with our desires and are in accord with nature's goal of expanding in order to consume more and more available energy (i.e. exergy).
I question whether it is good or ever possible to have a large-scale society whose dominant mode isn’t 'enframing'  and isn't expanding. While it's clearly true that there are some people in society who might be anti-technologists (like Heidegger or Jacques Ellul or Lewis Mumford or Rene Dubos or Charles Reich or Theodore Roszak or perhaps Robert Lindsay and his Thermodynamic Imperative not to waste free energy), I don't believe that it's possible for the dominant mode to be one of anti-growth because, inevitably, there will be a part of society that does believe in growth and expansion, and this part of society will end up growing and dominating over the other parts of society. This growing part of society is living in accord with the force that drives life, and hence I see this side in a positive light.
It is possible that I am too critical of Heidegger by lumping him together with anti-technologists with a deep sense of nostalgia for the past, so I will analyze his quote above in another way by saying that Heidegger would argue that man should be responsible for the technology that he creates. And I would agree with the statements, "Humans should be responsible with the technology they create. Humans should realize that technology is no means to an end because technology can both be used to expand life and to destroy life." Yet Heidegger wouldn’t go as far as to argue what the following bumper sticker argues, “Guns don’t kill, people kill.” Heidegger would object to that type of bumper sticker because it suggests that man has the capability to control the technology, and more importantly because it denies that very 'essence of the gun' to the 'gun' itself, leaving it standing-reserve for our control. It can be seen that the topic of responsibility of technology is an interesting question that will not be easily solved. Heidegger ends this essay with a strain of hope, though a hope that has barely began to be noticeable in today’s society.
The hope for Heidgger is not that technology will eventually solve our crime, our population, or our hunger problems. Rather, the hope is that humans will eventually realize that the danger of technology is outside of their control, and eventually realize the demands that technology (rather than a drive for social hope and utopia) makes on them. Here within lies what Heidegger sees as the saving power that keeps humans from assuming the crown as ‘lord of the universe.’ Heidegger gets this idea of the saving power from a poem by Holderlin, “But where the danger is, grows / The saving power also.” Given Heidegger’s work so far, I take the poem to mean that the saving power of technology does not come hand in hand with 'technology', but rather it lies within the 'essence of technology' just as the danger comes not from 'technology' as a means-to-an-ends, but as the 'essence of technology.'
My understanding of Heidegger's thoughts is that the 'essence of technology'  is the the same underlying driving force for life itself. We can't control the 'driving for life' and therefore we can't control nature. We are nature, so it's meaningless to ask the question: can nature control nature? Instead, the question for us to tackle in one of our more meditative moments is "how is it that 'I' and 'nature' are one and the same because most days it seems like 'I' am really in control of 'nature' ?"
Heidegger would be correct in saying that the twentieth century has demonstrated that history is not a mysterious entity guided by progress towards a utopian society made so by technology. But I believe that we would be incorrect in saying that there is no such thing as progress. The progress I speak about is not in our control of nature, but that nature via humans now has the capability of expanding to even more plants. The progress is not in the fact that humans are more evolved. (It may be impossible to agree to a definition of 'evolved'.) The progress can only be seen in the fact that we are growing. Our technology is helping us grow. We don't control technology, but that's not a bad thing. We aren't making new technologies just for the sake on new technologies, and we aren't making new technologies to make us happier or to bring world peace. Technology is making more technology in order to bring the universe to equilibrium at the fast rate possible.

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