Switch ContentsQuestions Concerning Music Technology

by Agostino Di Scipio

4. Technological understanding of being

Often times Heidegger spoke in explicitly anti-technological terms and denounced the exploitation of the natural environment and the pervasive consumerism of contemporary technological life style. He often seemed to propose a blind return to pre-modern civilization. He "has not always been clear about what disinguishes his approach from a romantic reaction to the domination of nature" [Dreyfus, 1995, p.97]. As a side-effect, even Heidegger's more mature formulations concerning technology have been translated into platitudes about the evils of technology, as well as into simplistic worries about the devastation of earth pursued in the name of a blind techno-scientific rationality.

In The Question Concerning Technology the philosopher seems to follow a different path: "We shall be questioning concerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it" [Heidegger, 1977, p.25]. He addresses a particular notion of technology, "the instrumental conception of technology [which] conditions every attempt to bring man into the right relation to technology" [p.5]. Explaining this instrumental conception, Dreyfus writes that for Heidegger "seeing our situation as posing a problem that must be solved by appropriate action turns out to be technological" [Dreyfus, 1995, p.98]. In other words, Heidegger's concern is less with technology as a set of practical solutions to human problems than a permanent, ontological disposition of human beings in modern times. In Discourse on thinking [1966] he called this disposition the technological understanding of being.

By bearing on technological understanding, Heidegger is actually saying that tÈchne is a most significant element of man's being-in-the-world, it is a way of dealing with the world and with being(s) - a mode of human understanding, indeed. However he observes that pushing the technological process to the extreme makes that particular form of understanding remain the only one, thereby ending up with a restriction and a leveling of our way of thinking. This is what happens when criteria of efficiency and optimization are pursued for their own sake, embodied in the technical code and hence internalized in our way of dealing with the world and with others.

Technological understanding projects a particular character into every thing that falls under its control and determination, the character Heidegger calls Bestand, i.e. standing-reserve, stockpile. Under that assumption, technology becomes primarily an activity meant to accumulate goods and commodities, readily available resources and products. Men and women themselves become just an other form of stockpiled good inasmuch as they always stand ready and available to the production and accumulation of Bestand. They "become a resource to be used, but more important to be enhanced [...], they become part of a system which no one directs but which moves toward the total mobilization of all beings. This is why Heidegger thinks the perfectly ordered society dedicated to the welfare of all is not the solution of our problems but the culmination of the technological understanding of being". [Dreyfus, 1995, p.101].

I should also observe that for Heidegger the primacy of technological thinking makes philosophy disappear and dissolve into a complex of disciplines whose shared foundational assumptions are the subject matter of cybernetics. The perspective taken in [Heidegger, 1984] describes the achievements of technology as something which in the end makes thinking itself become unnecessary. The emergence of cybernetics, as the most advanced and elaborated technological thinking, is seen as a manifestation of the human Will of Power. Or, to say it better, a manifestation of the human Will of Will. In the everyday life, this Nitschean power-of-two Will reflects into a growing emphasis on the production of things rather than things in themselves [Fabris, 1988, p.11; Heidegger, 1984]. In other words there is an emphasis on the design of design tools rather than the design of objects.

It is exactly here, I would say, that emerges techno-logy: The design of design tools requires knowledge and theories - i.e. it requires a logos - concerning how technical objects or processes should be constructed and should function. It is true that the very first theories concerning man's craft and technical devices dates back from Plato's times [see Cornford, 1935], but their major influence on socio-cultural life (and on the life of planet Earth) is a feature of modernity.

To conclude this section I would notice that Heidegger is not dealing with a vague notion of technology - neither with technologies, though - but with its essence (his term), i.e. technological understanding. That is among the many ways by which man can confront with and act upon nature and being, but its primacy becomes a danger to the extent that it obscures other ways of understanding. Though "it would be foolish to attack technology blindly [and] shortsighted to condemn it as the work of the devil" [Heidegger, 1966, p.53], still the philosopher suggests that something can be done and should be done to limit the harm caused by the thorough rationalization of our life and being.