Friday, March 4, 2016

Ten reasons to read the existentialists (#9)

'...Take technology. Heidegger was a pioneer in noticing how much it has changed the very nature of human experience. In a lecture on the subject in 1953 (attended by Werner Heisenberg, among others), he said that the essence of technology is not itself anything “technological”. That is, it has nothing to do with making machines more user-friendly or efficient or productive. The real question is about our own way of being: investigating technology takes us into deep questions about how we work, how we occupy the Earth and who we are. He also warned against our endless desire to make everything on the planet more exploitable and storable. Ultimately, we even challenge and store ourselves, as is evident in the phrase “human resources”.

'Heidegger was mainly thinking of 1950s contraptions such as combine harvesters, hydroelectric dams, typewriters and cinema projectors, to name just a few things he didn’t like, but one can’t read this today without thinking of our online lives, and computerised surveillance. One prescient German commentator, Friedrich Heinemann, remarked in his 1954 book Existentialism and the Modern Predicament that the coming “ultra-rapid computing machine” would raise the most “truly existential question” of all: that of how we can remain free. In 2001, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus described the internet as the ultimate Heideggerian device: one that sought to convert everything (including the stuff of our own lives) into a smooth network of stored “resources”, instantly available but stripped of depth and privacy.

'Fifteen years after these words were published, many of us are already so immersed in that network that we can hardly find a separate vantage point from which to think critically about it. Heidegger is there to remind us not just to question the technology itself, but to question ourselves.'

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