Technology: Have we lost control?

Technology is a defining feature of our time and it is becoming more and more pervasive. One of my professors in philosophy used to say: „Philosophy cannot reflect about our time without reflecting about technology. Any philosophy of our time has to be a philosophy of technology“. What are the chances and dangers of technology? Martin Heidegger has developped a very inspiring and insightful analysis and critique of technology. And also quite alarming…

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An Irreversible Evolution

Technology is becoming more and more pervasive in our everyday life. The use of smartphones and tablets shows this very well. When I was still a child, few people had a mobile phone. The internet was only accessible from desktop pcs and not everyone knew how to use it. Today, almost everyone has a smartphone and communicates all around the clock via social media plattform such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and co.

The progress of technology brings huge benefits. It allows us to communicate with friends and family all over the world and at any time. Through the use of mobile devices and digital communication, many aspects of everyday life have become much simpler and quicker. At the same time, there are new risks and constraints related to security, privacy or psychological aspects. We have become prone to cyberattacks, mass surveillance and the constant availability is blurring the lines between professional and private life, paving the ground for a state of permanent stress. Yet, we cannot stop the evolution of technology. Even though some people question or even refuse to use the new technologies, they have become an unavoidable feature of our life. It seems that we have lost control: The evolution of technology is irreversible.

Heidegger: Technology as a Form of Being

Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential German philosophers of the 20th century, has prominently criticised technology in his late work. In his essay Die Technik und die Kehre (engl. ‚Technology and the Turning‘), he challenges the assumption that technology is something neutral: „Am ärgsten sind wir jedoch der Technik ausgeliefert, wenn wir sie als etwas Neutrales betrachten; denn diese Vorstellung […] macht uns vollends blind gegen das Wesen der Technik“ (engl. „The worst surrender to technology is when we consider it as something neutral; because this conception makes us completely blind against the essence of technology“ [all translation are own approximation]). A common assumption is that technology refers to something instrumental, a means to given ends. If something bad happens because of technology, then it is because our intentions were malevolent or because we have been careless.

The reason why, according to Heidegger, it is insufficient to think of technology as merely something instrumental is that modern technology has not simply facilitated activities that we would have been carrying out anyways. Modern technology has deeply changed our world, the organisation of society and life itself. It has created new needs and desires that would not exist otherwise. And more importantly for Heidegger, our self-conception has changed and our attitude toward nature and ourselves. This change goes back to the invention of modern natural sciences. Modern physics conceive of nature as inert matter. The key feature of modern physics is research through experimentation with mechanical equipment to produce calculable and repeatable results. Knowledge has taken the form of facts that can be demonstrated in such experiments.

A new attitude toward nature has come along with modern natural sciences. The age of technology implies a treatment of nature as stock, to be exploited to produce energy. This is a qualitatively different treatment of nature than it used to prevail in agrarian societies. Nobody describes this in a more poignant way than Heidegger: „Das bäuerliche Tun fordert den Ackerboden nicht heraus. Im Säen des Korns gibt es die Saat den Wachstumskräften anheim und hütet ihr Gedeihen. Inzwischen ist auch die Feldbestllung in den Sog eines andersgearteten Bestellens geraten, das die Natur stellt. Es stellt im Sinne der Herausforderung. Ackerbau ist jetzt motorisierte Ernährungsindustrie“. (engl. „The peasant activity does not claim from the cropland. By sowing the seeds, it leaves them to the forces of growth and tends their thriving. Meanwhile, the cultivation of fields has been drawn into different kind of ordering, which sets nature. It sets in the sense of claiming. Farming is now motorised nutrition industry“).

Heidegger highlights a mindset that is marked by permanent exploitation of resources and permanent production. It is not difficult to discern a slightly regretful and lamenting undertone when he compares this to the caring and tendering attitude of a farmer. The age of technology is marked by a pervasive striving for optimisation, permanent producivity and efficient use of resources. This is manifest not only in the exploitation of natural resources with its devastating consequences such as deforestation, animal extinction or pollution. Technology also makes a claim on us, human beings.

Not only have we also become resources for experimentation – the manipulation of genes or chemical and technological enhancement (an interference into the human body that would have been unthinkable in premodern times). Technology drives us into constant availability and self-optimisation. The permanent operating of businesses, which has become possible with the use of electrical light, industrial machinery that never halts and digital communication due to which we are constantly reachable. Besides this, there is an increasing trend of steering physical and psychological performance, as through the use of apps to organise our daily lives, measuring physical performance or calculating burnt calories, for instance.

In sum, Heidegger presents technology as a larger ensemble that forms our general way of living and attitude towards the world. It encompasses own specific practices (e.g. natural sciences), instutions (industries, research centres, etc.), machines, social behaviour or ways of organising society. This ensemble which Hegel would perhaps describe as ‚Geist‘ (engl. Spirit) is what Heidegger refers to as ‚Sein‘ (engl. Being). It is a supra-individual whole which confers meaning on our behaviour and provides rules for our behaviour at the same time. One could think of it in analogy of Christinaity in medieval times: Christinanity was not only the relgious belief in God, but it also provided a worldview, an understanding of nature, a legitimation of social and political institutions, rules for everyday life, etc. Technology fulfils the same function in modern times. One could say: Technology has become the Christinanity of modernity.

The Threat of Technology

It is not difficult to identify threats that result from the rapid evolution of technological means. When Heidegger first addressed the issue in 1949, the memory and desastrous consequences of World War II were still very present. The brutal warfare and heinous acts that were committed exemplified the danger posed by new technologies. Allusions to the industrialisation of mass murder and the possibility of self-extinction through the use of an atomic bomb can easily be found in Heidegger’s lectures on technology.

Today, the threat of self-destruction through atomic warfare has not disappeared. Meanwhile, there are numerous new ethical, social or political challenges. Biogenetics confront us with the question to what extend we are allowed to experiment with the organisms of living species, not least with our own. I am sure that one day, it will be possible to graft claws and a tail to the human body, and create a real human squirrel – a hurrel. But should we dare this, just because it is possible? And once it is possible, can we actually avoid it? Meanwhile, digital technologies allow new forms of mass surveillance, while subverting the traditional social security system of our economy. Pollution and climate change have gained an unprecedented urgency – a solution is still pending.

Heidegger acknowledges all these threats. From his philosophical perspective, he is however concerend with a different kind of threat. He points out something that we can call an ‚ontological‘ threat, because it pertains to the realm of being. A threat in how we relate to ourselves and to the world. Heidegger addresses a new conception of ourselves that emerged in modern times and lay the foundation of the age of technology: „Indessen spreizt sich gerade der so bedrohte Mensch in die Gestalt des Herrn der Erde auf. Dadurch macht sich der Anschein breit, alles was begegne, bestehe nur, insofern es ein Gemächte des Menschen sei. Dieser Anschein zeitigt einen letzten trügerischen Schein. Nach ihm sieht es so aus, als begegne der Mensch überall nur noch sich selbst“ (engl. „Meanwhile, the so threatened human spreads out as the master of the earth. This propagates the impression that everything that encounters is only insofar as it is made by man. This impression brings forth a last deceptive illusion. It is the illusion that man would encounter everywhere only himself“).

Heidegger’s criticism aims at a conception that describes human beings in terms of individuality and rationality. It is the image of the self-determined, self-conscious subject which was the foundation of the Enligthenment’s optimism for progress and which eventually led to a striving for discovery, political emancipation and scientific research. He thus inserts himself in a tradition of philosophers who argue that human consciousnsess is part of a bigger whole by which it is conditioned if not determined. What for Hegel was Geist, for Nietzsche the Will for Power, or later language for the structuralists such as Saussure, is Being for Heidegger. What is distinctive about human beings, according to Heidegger, is that they have an understanding of Being. Being is what makes the world and our lives have meaning. However, we do not have this understanding of being by virtue of an own activity such as thought or language. It is rather a fact that we are open to Being and Being reveals itself to us.

For Heidegger, the modern self-understanding is not only misled, but it is also poses a threat. The threat is that a particular way of relating to the world becomes all-pervasive; that everything is only approached in terms of calculating, control and exploitation: „Wo das Ge-stell waltet, prägen Steuerung und Sicherung des Bestandes alles Entbergen. Sie lassen sogar ihren eigenen Grundzug, nämlich dieses Entbergen als ein solches nicht mehr zum Vorschein kommen“ (engl. „In the realm of the Set-Up [Heidegger’s untranslatable term to refer to the ways how being as it disclosed in the age of technology], all disclosure is marked by steering and securing of the stock. They don’t even let their own founding trait appear, which is disclosure as such“). The only ‚truth‘ admitted in the age of technology is that of repeatable, calculable and presentable facts. This becomes problematic when this mindset takes over into our lives – when we start planning our lives according to what ’scientists‘ tell us is good, when we start to control – maybe even modify – our body in order to optimise it.

Modern sciences and their methods are not the only means through which we may discover truth. Other ways which figure prominently in Heidegger’s philosophy are art and philosophy. They presuppose an attitude that doesn’t try to control everything, but rather an openness to something unexpected. They presuppose that we play with the world and let the world show itself by itself. Just think, for instance, of the erroneous ways we delve into when writing poetry or improvising music.

These genuinely human activities are loosing importance in our self-understanding. Science is engaged into the race of revealing the biochemical processes in our brains that make consciousness possible. Biologists and neuroscientists look for reductionists explanations why art matters as a human activity. Informaticians and robotics are getting closer everyday to designing artificially intelligent systems that will soon be even more efficient then human beings. Are we slowly turning into machines? Has the machine become the paradigm through which we understand ourselves? Will we be replaced by machines someday? These questions that might still have sounded like science-fiction half a century ago are getting more and more pressing.

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