Technology, Interrupted

We tend to think of technology as a way of producing this or that. Simple technologies produce obvious results: a match produces fire. More complicated technologies, such as computers, also produce things, though sometimes it is less obvious what they produce. Our messages may get lost in ether space, but that metaphor is a recognition that I produced something using my computer, namely whatever it was that got lost. There are good reasons to understand technology in terms of production.

The 20th-century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), argued however that technology is less a matter of production than it is a matter of revealing: technology reveals something as this or that. Aristotle (384-422 B.C.E.) gives us an example through which we can understand technology as essentially revealing: The craftsperson produces the chalice. And he or she does that by revealing what is in silver and in this particular social context through smelting and pounding and carving and polishing. Through the work of the craftsperson, the chalice appears. It is revealed.

But, Heidegger argues, modernism has shown us that technology goes further than it might have seemed to in ancient times. It not only reveals things like the chalice, the ends of production. It also reveals the world itself in a particular way, namely as powers in reserve waiting to be ordered (unlocked, transformed, stored up, distributed, switched about). It reveals things in the world as good for something or other and ready to be used for that something.

The match reveals sulfur and wood as good for making fire. The computer reveals the intangibility of my message, and to do that it reveals electricity as good for writing and sending complex messages almost instantaneously.

The river is a reserve of raw power, a power that is given the order of a reserve by the dam. From that reserve the dam's turbines produce electricity that is circulated in a distribution system, another reserve. My computer draws on that system and uses the switching properties of electricity to perform a variety of acts. It too is a reserve, a potentiality to be used in the circulation of powers, each one more thing that is good for producing some other thing. Each a link in a continuing chain of production.

Not only the tools, but also the acts done with those tools, such as the messages sent through my computer, are part of circulating powers of production, such as work management and arranging for conferences. My department and the conferences I take part in are both products of production and parts of further productions. And so on, with each production from a reserve showing itself as a reserve for the next thing to be produced: everything is always good for something, something else.

This understanding of the world as powers in reserve for use in a circulation of production isn't the result of some perversity on our part. It isn't a defect in our psyche, something to be changed by a change of attitude or psychological or social therapy.

Understanding the world as a resource to be used to produce other things and acts, things and acts that themselves then become a further resource, is a genuine way in which the world reveals itself. In our lives within the world, we find the world that way: we don't impose on the world its ability to be a storehouse of circulating powers. Rather, the world presents itself to us with that character. In fact, it presents itself to us as if its "natural" state is to be a storehouse, to be a reserve of resources.

That appearance of the world is unavoidable. It is a fact with which we must live. The problem is that the more we live in the technological world—the world revealed as powers in reserve to be manipulated for production—the less we are able to see the world and the things we encounter in it in any other way.

In a world reduced to a resource, the multiple ways in which things can show themselves (their truth we could say) are reduced to one: things as reserve. The truth of technology covers over any other truth of the world. In that case things cease to be unique things, becoming instead merely entities replaceable for one another in the circulation of production. Each thing comes to be defined merely as a good for something else.

The pen with which I love to write, the mug from which (as a former-coffee-drinking convert to Mormonism) I drink my roasted barley, the flowers in my garden—all would lose their identity as individual things and become merely one more thing like another, useful as cogs for producing notes, or holding my drink, or decorating my home. And those notes, my drink, and the act of decorating my home would themselves be merely further cogs in the production machine, a machine that takes up everything as a resource for production but has no telos beyond continued production.