TANGENT: MARTIN HEIDEGGER ON TECHNICS

The philosophy of Martin Heidegger is difficult to pin down, so it is little wonder some of you may puzzle over what he is saying re technology. And a lot of the trouble comes from the fact that he is often ambiguous in his meanings and intentions. And he changes the meanings of common words to his own purposes. As for myself, he is made clearer (or a bit at least) by keeping in mind what he is writing in reaction to, namely, the common and naive notions that:

Technology refers to things "out there" that are independent of human consciousness and experience,
Technology is good (the utopian error) or that it is bad (the dystopian error), and
Human technological culture is distinct from nature.

These are all manifestations of thought derived from our failure to understand technology phenomenologically and to be constantly trapped in our culture's bias toward mind-body dualism (mental-physical, cultural-natural).

To understand technology phenomenologically means that we are grounded in our direct experience of the process of technology. This word processor in front of me is not a thing "out there" that I somehow relate to. Rather, the machine is an extension of my body- mind by means of which I harness energies available in the world-as-resource to fulfil my desire -- in this case the desire to communicate with you.

Actually, my desire to communicate with your will not be fulfilled without a whole system of technological extensions to my body-mind, including my computer, my modem, my telephone, the intervening telephone system with its grids and up and down links to satellites, the mainframe at Carleton University, your terminal or computer/modem situp, perhaps your printer and your eye glasses (if you wear them) -- and then the return process if your were to respond to me via e- mail. All of this (and this is vintage Heidegger) is:

Integrated into a single process from intention to fulfilment, and
It all "withdraws" from our consciousness to the extent that it does its work well.

The second claim requires a bit more discussion. By "withdrawal" Heidegger means that just as our body's activities get lost to consciousness when they are carried out well and with competence, so to does technology. Heidegger uses the example of someone learning to use a hammer (the famous "Heidegger's Hammer" metaphor). If I am just learning to use a hammer, at first I am very aware of the hammer and its activity as kind of alien to me. But with repeated use, I am transformed. My motor systems and neural systems adapt out to the new movements necessary to become a competent hammerer. And during this period of transformation the hammer recedes from my consciousness and becomes more and more an extension of my body-mind and its intentions and activities. And eventually, of course, the world becomes a collection of hammerable things. My entire consciousness of the world changes, profoundly or subtly, because the technology allows (in Heidegger's terms) nature to "announce" its functions to me -- i.e., the world reveals to me how it can be used. The meaning of the hammer becomes its hammering.

A word more about this "announcing" business -- for this is early Heidegger of Being and Time vintage. Nature can just be present for me ("oh, what a lovely tree!") or it can "announce" its properties to me ("the windmill tells me that the wind can produce power that lifts water out of the ground"). Technology transforms mere presence into announcement -- the world becomes "ready for us to use." The telescope did not merely change the presence of the cosmos, it opened up a whole new body of knowledge and applications of the cosmos. So, according to this early Heideggerian view, I not only learn to hammer, the hammerable world opens up with a new body of knowledge about the hardness and penetrateable-ness and penetrating-ness of things. I gradually begin to experience the world as a carpenter does. The world is not merely full of pretty trees, but of usable materials that can be hammered into knew configurations.

Now, the later Heidegger, of "The Question Concerning Technology" era -- the best source for Heidegger on technoconsciousness, by the way (see Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays , New York: Harper and Row, 1977) -- goes farther than this to say that for modern humans, technology is so all-pervasive that it conditions our entire experience. This is Heidegger of the "we dwell in the house we built" phase of his thinking. Technology "enframes" all of our knowledge and experience. This is neither good nor bad. It is just our nature. Our nature is technical. Technology is the extension into the physical world of our intentionality. And in more modern times, our capacity to extend our body-minds into the physical world has so radically changed nature that, for us, nature becomes a repository or resource of energy we can assimilate into ourselves, and use for our own purposes. It is our primary window into truth because technology allows nature to "announce" its properties to us.

For me, what is valuable from our vantage point (either re mind-machine interactions or re the evolution of the cyborg) is that Heideggarian phenomenology of technics allows us to avoid all those tacky, misleading dualisms (nature vs. culture, natural vs. technological, mental vs. physical, etc., etc.) that trap our thinking about technology and its lawful unfolding. Technology is a window into nature, and nature "announces" (reveals its nature, becomes transparent) itself to the inquiring mind. And to learn is to change. Consciousness extrudes into nature via technology and thereby changes itself. And as the body is part of nature, consciousness can extrude into its own embodiment. How we understand our own body opens up via technology and is changed thereby. And so on -- the whole evolution of the cyborg hypothesis.

For additional discussion of Heidegger's technics, see Rothenberg (1993:12-13, 79-86), and Ihde (1990:31-34). Ihde's book is the best single source on the phenomenology of technics ever written, I think. These references are found below. You may now return to our Day Nine discussion of technics, or back to the tutorial index.

REFERENCES

Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time. New York: Harper and Row.

_____(1977) "The Question Concerning Technology." in Basic Writings (trans. by D. Krell). New York: Harper and Row; or in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Row.

Ihde, Don (1990) Technology and the Lifeworld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rothenberg, David (1993) Hand's End: Technology and the Limits of Nature. Berkeley, University of California Press.