Heidegger and technology
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) completed what he considered his most important work, Contributions to Philosophy (from Enowning) in 1939. Yet the book was not published until 1990. The reason was that Heidegger thought his readers would need manifest proof and factual experience of the predicament the book discusses before they could grasp its essence. And this, he thought, would take fifty years.
The predicament in question is the reign of technology. ‘Technology’ is here understood not as a concept of technical science, but as a general relation towards beings : Technology as a basic relation to the world means relating to the world as an object under human control. Nature is manipulable, not as one aspect among others, but essentially so. And that, says Heidegger, is how we (now) primarily conceive it: our basic relation to nature is that of “matter” and reservoir to our manipulation. The essence of any “thing” is thus that it is analyzable, calculable, comprehensible and ultimately makeable. Nothing, no aspect of reality, is principally beyond our reach, because science has taught us to analyse it and reproduce it: we know the recipe, and thus we know the truth of being.
This was something people in the thirties were not in any position to fathom, for the advance of science was still far from touching on the basic delimitations of man and being. But eighty years later it is something that permeates western life. Nothing is impossible; we are used to the idea that the thinkable is also feasible, that it is only a matter of time and resources. Scientific theory and reality have merged. This indicates that we only think of reality in one way, namely as that which we can understand, use and, ultimately, produce.
This is the essence of technology then; that we are unable to think and relate to being itself in ways that transcend the notion of our scientific control and, ultimately, our subjectivity. We do not realize that the moment something is understood only in this way, beings have been reduced to “things” of the simplest kind, their status is one adhering to human mastery. This is why with the reign of technology all other ways of relating to beings are deemed obsolete, as something only acute in (past) times of confusion, fear and human impotence. (Nietzsche’s exclamation “God is dead” is the metaphysical precursory to ‘technology’ as a manifest global paradigm.)
The prime example of the Heideggerian predicament is Dubai. In 2007 and 2008 fifteen to twenty percent of the world’s construction cranes were operative in this desert kingdom. (Dubai is an emirate of only about a million and a half people) The world’s highest building is arising there, the Burj Dubai. It will not only be the highest building but the highest man-made structure on the planet. Its final height is kept secret, but estimates range from 700 metres to 950 metres, some even higher. The number of floors will exceed 150. Thus it will be at least 50 percent higher than The World Trade Centre, perhaps nearing on twice the height. And The Burj Dubai is just the tallest of a multitude: a full circle scan of the urban horizon will reveal a mind-boggling vista; an unrestrained and unquestioned, endless construction boom. Out in the Persian Gulf artificial islands and replicas of continents are shaped. The old saying “buy land, they stopped making it a long time ago” no longer applies. Pouring sand into the sea and creating dry land seems unremarkable, even banal. It is not. What we are witnessing is the unchallenged and unquestioned reign of technology; a total mobilization.
This concept was coined during WW1, and the wartime content of the concept is clear enough: spare nothing, hold nothing back, include all in the effort, and unleash everything conceivable, on all levels and in all forms, in order to win.
However, the total mobilization in Dubai is quite different, for there is nothing to win. The effort is bereft of any reason or goal other than itself. The word ‘total’ does not pertain to resource-parameters but to the lack of questioning; and the absent question is: how is this phenomenon, Dubai, based on human decision? Certainly, the authorities claim they are trying to build a future economy independent of oil revenues, and that the current financial surplus must be invested in making the arid desert attractive for other reasons than energy. So there is supposedly a rationale behind what is going on, and it presents itself as forethought, for the benefit of man.
But what this reveals is that the objective, the future economy, is something essentially artificial and that it is an anticipated consequence of and not a predetermined reason for the construction boom. And so there is a fundamental phenomenon in place of man having passively forsaken the determination of his destiny under the guise of forethought. And this misunderstanding unveils technology’s reign over us: the human element, man, is reduced to the “content” of a form that in itself is not, inceptually, designed for human benefit. Man has become the “responsive matter”, that which is mindless and fills the form unquestioningly, like water in a cup.
In a way Dubai’s logic of investment is the technological paradigm’s version of the well-known phenomenon of totalitarian regimes bullying crowds to attend sham events in order to make them appear popular to the outside world: Just like the concept of popularity cannot be reconciled with that of threat, the concept free will cannot be reconciled with a human will that has been subjected to that which is offered. -Not when the offering itself has accelerated beyond the mindful scrutiny of the supposed beneficiary, man.
The total mobilization in Dubai is the total mobilization of antropocentric subjectivity, i.e. of man forgetting every notion of the world as something in itself, of value independent of man, immeasurable by man. Thus it represents the full bloom of the will to power; power over the earth. As Nietzsche also knew, this detachment from essential ground –replacing human grounding, i.e. a relation different than mastery, with power to manipulate the same ground– soon turns into the will only to will.
The will to will is the state of oblivion towards anything but the possible, the limitless and the exclusively self-affirming: The only point is possibility itself. The will to will is a closed circle where the action is the only factor. In 21st century scientific nomenclature the correct term is cybernetical, which refers to a process that takes as its only input and feedback data on the process itself and has no relation whatsoever to any subject matter exterior to the process. Thus it is a self-enclosed, circular system that can only refine itself and accelerate and that has no exterior objective and no exterior determination in the form of a governing will; one which would use the system as a tool and a means for a purpose that had some “true” human benefit in mind. In this way technology, as a fundamental relation to beings, has usurped the position of decision maker.
The casting of no shadow: being-there no more
In Dubai the technological and economic activities have outpaced the possibility for any mindful human questioning. Having transcended all delimitations of size, scale, speed and expense, the most basic question why? has been silenced by the clamour of pursuing the possible. And the same with other questions: Is it right? Is it good? What will it entail? What will ensue?
When this happens all human audit is gone, and thus all human control, for there is no longer an imprint; an effect on humanness, to be gauged and navigated by underway. We have outpaced the phenomenon of mankind’s reflexivity, which tells us who we are by identifying our reflections with ourselves. For we have outsped light, and Dubai casts no shadow.
Heidegger thought that the technological relation to beings would exhaust itself, as an intrinsic principle of this deportment. (I.e. as a reaction to the existential barrenness we have now reached.) And the likeness to Marx’s ideas regarding capitalism is of course acute. But unlike Marx, Heidegger did also open up for the possibility that technology would indeed outpace its internal regulation and make man oblivious to the original mandate, point and limitation of science. If so man has outpaced himself and the entity denoted Dasein; our being-there –somewhere not of our making– the property we might call humanness, is no more.
But to have been
Once, even though only once:
This having been earthly
Seems lasting, beyond repeal
All that we
Can achieve here
Is to recognize ourselves completely
In what can be seen
Ninth Duino elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke