Saturday, November 8, 2014

From Monsters to Machines: what is Philosophy of Technology?

2001: A Space Odyssey (image from IMDb)

When you read ancient myths from Greece, Norway, or Britain, the monsters are dragons or giants.  In today’s stories, they are machines.  Take, for example, many of our science fiction and superhero movies.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, we see the HAL 9000 computer murder an entire space crew, with the exception of Dave Bowman, who barely survives.

Darth Vader (image from IMDb)

In the Star Wars movies, we see Anakin Skywalker’s ruinous fall as Darth Vader, becoming, in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “more machine now than man.”

Leviathan monster from The Avengers 

(image from Marvel Movies Wiki)


And in the latest plethora of superhero movies like The Avengers, we see cybernetic soldiers and mechanical monsters attempt to destroy human civilization.

Need I even mention the Terminator machine?

Terminator (image from IMDb)


If today's mythical monsters are machines that threaten human existence, then there is clearly a conflict between our technology and our humanity.  For artists and philosophers alike, this conflict that raises an existential question.

How do we relate to modern technology without losing our humanity?

Heidegger's writings on technology
(from Amazon.com)

This question characterizes what’s called the Philosophy of Technology.  Perhaps the most important introduction to it is a famous essay by 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

In his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger gives insights into how we use technology, or how technology uses us.  Now Heidegger’s writings are notoriously difficult, so here I’ll give you the gist of the essay—then you can guide yourself through it, if you dare.

Basically, Heidegger asks, what is the meaning or “essence” of modern technology?

His answer: Gestell, which is German for “enframing.”

For Heidegger, “enframing” [Gestell] is when we use technology to isolate something in nature.  We take entities like trees and waterways (which we then refer to as “natural resources”) and treat them as a “standing reserve” [Bestand]—that is, as a “stock” of utilities to be stored for later use.

Hydroelectric dam in China 

(image from Wikipedia)

Heidegger was writing before the Digital Age, so he gives mechanical examples to illustrate “enframing.”  Take the example of an hydroelectric plant, which isolates a river and transforms it into a power supplier.

In the enigmatic words of Heidegger, this transformation “sets upon nature . . . in the sense of challenging it. . . .  This setting-upon that challenges the energies of nature is an expediting. . . . Yet that expediting is always itself directed from the beginning toward furthering something else, i.e., toward driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense.”

Say what?  Allow me to translate . . .

Heidegger is telling us that technology is more than a tool.  It’s a way of relating to the world.  In particular, modern technology is an expedient way of relating to nature, because it objectifies nature and turns it into a natural resource that can be quantified, calculated, and rationed.

Now the tone here may sound alarmist, but Heidegger was no hippie (quite the opposite, but that’s another story).  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with using technology to “enframe” nature.  But there's a real danger: we may use technology to “enframe” ourselves.  Heidegger warns us:

“As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall, that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.”

In other words, we may use technology to turn ourselves into “human resources.”  And when technology threatens to turn us into human resources, we may try to compensate by pretending we are masters of the universe, or so says Heidegger: "man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth."  (This self-exaltation was, of course, the fate of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.)

As I pointed out in the previous post, this understanding of modern technology ignores the original meaning of technology, which meant art or artistic skill (from the Greek word techne).  Heidegger explains this understanding of technology as art:

The Aqueduct Bridge of Segovia,
a Classical example of technology as art
(image from Wikipedia)

technikon means that which belongs to techne . . . techne is the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman, but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts. Techne belongs to bringing-forth, to poiesis; it is something poetic.”

So originally, technology was understood as a kind of art.  My favorite examples of technology as art include Classical architecture.

Heidegger, like a good philosopher, ends his essay with some advice.  He argues we should not give modern technology a monopoly on how we relate to the world (i.e., relating to the world through the value of expediency, seeing nature as nothing more than a resource.)  For instance, we can also relate to the world artistically or poetically:

“There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name techne. Once that revealing which brings forth truth into the splendor of radiant appearance was also called techne. Once there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was called techne. The poiesis of the fine arts was also called techne.

Here's the bottom line: modern technology is useful and necessary, but we can balance it with a more holistic perspective on technology, especially an artistic perspective.

In this light, it may be a meaningful coincidence how cinema has embodied Heidegger’s advice by producing movies that use technology to make art, express our humanity, and help us to think about philosophical questions concerning technology.  (For instance, what do mechanical monsters tell us if they are metaphors for the conflicts between our machines and our humanity?)



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