The vagaries of technology

Well, I’d been working for the last hour on an awesome post about a fictional battle between my DS Lite, my iPhone and my iPad.

But, because Firefox decided to crash, you will not have the pleasure, at least not today.

Instead I’ll give you something a bit more philosophical, I think.

Yesterday I was given an occasion to reflect on and discuss why I am passionate about technology. Not in a nerdy, “I can build my own computer” passionate, but more in an intellectual, “technology is an expression of the realm of human possibility” way.

Now I’m going to be unashamedly literary, so bear with me a minute.

Take this quote from Martin Heidegger’s famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology“:

Likewise, the essence of technology is by no means anything technological. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely represent and pursue the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this Conception of it, to which today we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

I will not pretend that I ever understood anything that I had to read from Heidegger back in my undergrad, but somehow I remembered that he wrote an essay about technology. Anyway.

I do remember yesterday that I referred to technology as something “neutral”, something that doesn’t have value in itself but only becomes so when used by humans. But here Heidegger argues that we are in the worst position when we think about technology that way.

To make a long essay short, Heidegger tells us that technology is a way of revealing, based in some Greek vocabulary that I swear I don’t understand, either:

Techne is a mode of aletheuein. It reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does not yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another. Whoever builds a house or a ship or forges a sacrificial chalice reveals what is to be brought forth, according to the terms of the four modes of occasioning. This revealing gathers together in advance the form and the matter of ship or house, with a view to the finished thing envisaged as completed, and from this gathering determines the manner of its construction. Thus what is decisive in techne does not at all lie in making and manipulating, nor in the using of means, but rather in the revealing mentioned before. It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a bringing-forth.

In more simple words, technology isn’t about the thing that’s built with it: it’s about what the thing means.

This is really an over-simplification of Heidegger and I urge you to give it a look if you can stand the translation. (Heidegger is notoriously difficult to translate–if you can read German, lucky you!) There’s a bunch more stuff about causality and truth and revealing and poetry and my head started hurting at this point.

However, I think it’s a good enough explanation to get us started.

* * *

Let’s focus on a current event, Occupy Wall Street. OWS and its predecessor the Arab Spring is sustained by many technologies: smartphones and laptops and tablets, Wi-Fi Internet and 3G networks and the entire social media infrastructure enabled by Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Youtube and blogs.

In its intention, social media wasn’t about creating a worldwide activist movement fueled by the crashing economy and the growing disparity between the very rich and the rest of the world. If we assume that Facebook was the first social medium, it was just about using Internet to stay in touch with friends in college.

What happened?

Social media and the entire Internet infrastructure supporting it enabled people to realize that they all shared the same situation. That (in the US) the American Dream was just an illusion. A few hundred showed up in Wall Street and tweeted about it. Then more came, and more and more, until we ended up with the global occupation movement that we have now. Saturday, October 15th, is going to be World Revolution Day. No government declared this: the children of the Internet did.

The myth of the American Dream: shattered in a million pieces.

At one point, Heidegger talks about the will to mastery, that technology is about mastering nature and harnessing it for human needs.

A few years after the Internet became mainstream, people started asking: is the web isolating us? Are we not less connected on an emotional level and relying on the technological too much? With social media the question remained: are people using social media in lieu of personal interactions?

In the last month, the Occupy movement has demonstrated that social media can and does create real, solid, bodily movements (no pun intended). Every day I am moved by the tweets, videos and posts of people realizing that they are all in the same position.

Technology revealed our true position in the world: as one of 99%.

What do you think of the role of technology in the development and spread of the Occupy movement? In the end, what does technology mean? Is it a neutral tool that we use badly or well or is its role to reveal our condition to ourselves?

Disclaimer: I am totally not a philosophy scholar and don’t pretend I understand Heidegger at all, nor do I pretend that I understand all the implications of the Occupy movement for the media, the economy, politics and social policies. I’m just trying to put some thoughts out there and make sense of this historical moment from one angle.


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