Some Notes on Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology (Essence is Social)
The world-view of the Greeks was different from the Modern world-view. As a result the nature of matter differs from ancient to modern. How we interact with the world is, unsurprisingly, different. For this reason, the ‘essence’ of techne drastically differs from the ‘essence’ of technology. So the ‘essence’ of our attitude toward the world (whether it be a technological attitude or an attitude based upon techne) is one that is tied to the history of world-views and the ontologies of matter that coincide with each of those world-views. In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger writes: “The modern physical theory of nature prepares the way first not simply for technology but for the essence of modern technology. For already in physics the challenging gathering-together into ordering revealing holds sway.”
For Heidegger, “Western history’s successive constellations of intelligibility are thus …grounded in a series of understandings of ‘the being of being’ (das sein des Seienden), understandings, that is, of what and how beings are, or of the ‘totality of beings as such’…”
So what is a world-view? Well, it is clear that a world-view is not something external to social life: it does not fall upon us from the Gods. We need not think of world-views from an Idealist position, as part of a teleological unfolding of (something like the Hegelian) Spirit.
Rather, a world-view is social through and through. Our understanding of the natural world and our reigning theories of nature are arrived at through a social process. Consider Thomas Kuhn’s famous insights into the nature of scientific paradigms. Kuhn’s insights in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions are twofold: Firstly, he dispenses with the notion that scientific paradigms necessarily build upon one another toward a grand, unified, ‘theory of everything’. Secondly, and more important to this discussion, is Kuhn’s assertion that social factors influence the paradigmatic theory of nature of a given historical period. (These social factors might fly in the face of an argument espousing that each scientific paradigm brings us closer and closer to the truth, or, in Hawking’s words “the mind of God”.)
Social pressures and influences exist both at the level of the individual posing a revolutionary theory of nature, and at the level of the society that choose to (or not to) accept the new theory. Both the theorizing and the decision to adopt a revolutionary world-view have social elements to them. Social decisions are influenced by the reigning ‘techniques’ of the day. The world-view a culture chooses to adopt is influenced by the material conditions of that culture. Kuhn’s work demonstrates that since the historico-political climate and the ‘techniques’ operating therein are indeed factors that affect the scientist, the ‘world-view’ that the scientist ultimately poses for society to accept as the ‘best possible fit’ is – to a certain extent – the product of historically specific ‘techniques’.
Don Ihde explains:
…if technology is a historically-culturally grounded way of seeing, as science in one of its manifestations is the particular paradigmatic way of a particular community’s way of seeing, one can say that both have similar structures. Kuhnian paradigms are clearly not simply individual, even if some individual first proposes a new gestalt. Nor are Heidegger’s more grandiose “epochs of being” individual. Both have cultural dimensions which, as culture, situate us and are not something any one can “control” as such. Culture displays certain recalcitrant features which are nevertheless clearly recognizable as human products. And that is precisely what Heidegger does with technology. Western, or as he calls it, Modern Technology, is a particular and historical, but also existential variant upon the human relation with the surrounding world.
The subject’s world-view is, to a certain extent, the product of the technical conditions of their society. So what about our current technological “essence”, what of our particular and historical human relation with the surrounding world? Young children weaned on open-source culture 2.0, surrounded by new ‘mashable’ media, will likely be inclined to comprehend the world in terms of a theory espousing ‘openness’. For instance, a hierarchical mindset maintained reverence for the biological sciences; a non-hierarchical mindset engenders the opposite – namely, the free play with biology and, as Jaron Lanier suggests, the possibility that genes might be designed, combined and shared in the way a file is torrented today.