Inquiring Into the Essence of Technology:
According to the TOK Guide 2015, the TOK course has been developed in order to examine the “conceptual tools” that are used to “produce knowledge”: how we come to know the things that are either in our own experience, our “personal knowledge”, or from the “shared knowledge” that has been handed over to us from our traditions and other social contexts. In looking at the Venn diagram that is used as a model for the course, the overlapping area of the two circles entitled “Personal Knowledge” and “Shared Knowledge” is that open region that we consider to be our Ways of Knowing (WOKs) for it is in this region that what we call “knowledge” comes to be and it is in this area that we experience what we call our “freedom”. This overlapping region could also be called “cognition” or “consciousness”. A third circle might be added to the original two and encompass both and this third circle might be called “world”.
This writing’s objective is to investigate how technology can be said to be a “way of knowing” and as a way of knowing how does it determine our “cognition”, our “mindset” and thus how we define ourselves as human beings. What does “freedom” mean in relation to “technology” and why and how do we need to reflect on technology in order to prepare for a “free relationship” to that technology itself?
How do we relate to technology? How do we think about it? What do we imagine it to be? How is technology a “way of knowing”? What is technology’s relationship to reason as a way of knowing and to the principle of reason that determines and drives it? How does technology determine our cognition and thus our understanding of what personal knowledge is and what the things about us are i.e. how does technology determine our current “mindset”, our current “hard wiring”?
How do we stand, or what is our under-standing, with regard to technology? The problems that have arisen and are posed by technology cannot be answered simply by making technology better and we cannot ignore these difficulties simply “by opting” out of technology.
We cannot experience the essence of what technology is so long as we are merely conceiving and pushing forward the technological, putting up with it, or evading it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it. Technology is our fate as human beings. Why and how has this become the case?
In looking for the essence of technology, we will be looking for something that is not “technological”; the essence of technology actually precedes the historical emergence of the “concrete” forms of technology in the 18th and 19th centuries. To understand the essence of technology and thus our “key concepts” that we use to understand knowledge in our AOKs and through our WOKs, we must go back to Greek philosophy for some guiding concepts to help us with our analysis.
Our method of questioning will strive to expose the unexamined assumptions that shape our understanding of the world we live in and the “key concepts” that we use to understand that world. Our purpose is to attain a more “empowering” way of conceiving the world and our place in it, even though we hesitate in using the word “empowering” and must pose it in an ironic mode since the idea of “empowerment” is itself a product of, or a predicate of, the technological world view.
Our Current Understanding of Technology:
How do we generally think about technology? In two ways: 1. Technology is a means to an end; 2. technology is a human activity. These answers indicate what is the current “instrumental” (aimed at getting things done) and anthropological (a human activity) definition of technology. These definitions define technology accurately; however, they do not go far enough. They do not give us the essence of what technology is. (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” trans. Lovitt) We will examine the instrumental and anthropological views of technology more closely in this writing.
Our everyday understanding of technology as instrument has many implicit assumptions that prevent us from understanding more fully our relationship to technology. Even our attempts to maintain control over technology, to master it so that it doesn’t destroy us, are informed by our “instrumental conception” of what technology is. “The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control” (Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”). This fear of “loss of control” over technology is emphasized in the current discussions and critiques of Artificial Intelligence or AI.
For a fuller understanding of how humanity stands in relation to technology, we need to consider what we mean by “instrumental”: what assumptions lie behind our understanding of “getting things done” or “achieving our goals”? The basic idea in any attempt to “get something done” is that one thing (e.g. a student in the Arts class) has an effect on something else (the paper, paints, etc. that make up the student’s next piece of work). Our effects on other things to achieve an end is sometimes referred to as the application of “algorithms”, a schema for organizing the world we live in. “Algorithms” and the question concerning the meaning of “instrumentality” (tools used to solve problems) leads to an old problem in philosophy: the question of causality. We will look at the role of reason as a WOK as the primary approach to “how” we solve the problems that we encounter.
Historical Background: The Four Causes: A Tea Ceremony Cup
We will examine the question of causality by examining Aristotle’s understanding of causality and applying his four causes to the making of a tea ceremony cup. For Aristotle, there are four components to what can be understood as causality:
- the material cause (clay)
- the formal cause (the form; its “cupness”, its “outward appearance”)
- the final cause (the end or purpose for which it is to be used; a tea ceremony)
- the efficient cause (the tea cup maker; the artist)
What exactly do we mean by “cause” anyway? Let us look at a cup prepared for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony to illustrate the traditional model of the four causes. What do these modes of causality all have in common?
Our English word “cause” comes from the Latin word causa. Causa stems from the verb meaning “to fall”, and is used to designate “that which brings it about that something turns out as a result in such and such a way”. Our current use of the word “algorithm” carries this Latin meaning of “cause” within it.
Philosophical tradition traces the doctrine of the four causes back to Aristotle, but the Greek words Aristotle uses are quite different from the later words for “cause” that emphasize effecting as used by the Latins. Instead, the Greek word aition carries the sense of “that which is responsible for something else”, or “that which is obliged to” something else for its being as it is. So our word “education” comes from the Latin educare “to lead out” combined with the Greek suffix aition “that which is responsible for” or “obliged to” something or someone else: education is that to which we are obliged to for the “leading out”. Think of this as our “shared knowledge”. “To educate” means that which is responsible for the leading out (think of Plato’s Cave here), or that which is obliged to something else for the leading out. The “leading out” cannot occur on its own initiative. We have to hear the words “responsible” and “obliging” in a different tonality than what we normally hear these words. Think of these terms in relation to your “shared knowledge”.
Let us return to our example of the Japanese tea ceremony cup and try to understand it in a Greek way as opposed to our understanding which comes from a Latin interpretation of the Greeks. The “key concepts” that we use are Latinate in origin because philosophical English language is Latinate in origin.
Clay is the material (hyle) that is shaped into the form (eidos) of “cupness”. Both the clay and the form are responsible for or are obliged to the tea ceremony cup being a cup. These are known as the “material cause” and the “formal cause”, but we must not hear the words as “causes” which bring about “effects”. The cup has been produced in order to be used in a particular kind of activity—a Japanese tea ceremony. Its existence is determined by this context, which literally defines the cup in the sense that it gives it clear boundaries: it is neither a water glass nor a coffee cup. This drawing of defining boundaries is telos and is responsible, along with the material and the form, for the tea ceremony cup’s existence as a tea ceremony cup and not something else.
Aristotle and the Greeks had no such category as the “causa efficiens”. Instead of seeing the cupmaker or artist as the agent that “effects” the production of the cup, Aristotle’s model would view the careful consideration of the artist—the logos, a term derived from apophainesthai, “to reveal”—as a kind of point of departure for the cup’s coming into being. Rather than mastering the material by wrestling it into a particular form, the Greek version of our Japanese artist brings together the various potentialities of clay, the abstractness of “cupness”, and the context in which the cup will serve, and through this method allows the Japanese tea ceremony cup to come into being.
For the Greeks, the way in which the material, the form, the context, and the thought or consideration of the artist all “give themselves up” to the existence of the cup, is bound up with the Greek idea of Being. Giving as a “giving to” the existence of the cup, helps us understand the Greek word aition as “that to which something else is indebted” or “obliged”, “responsible for”. The cup is indebted to the clay, the idea of cupness, and the artist. The artist is responsible for the Japanese tea ceremony cup; the cup is “indebted” to the artist for its being. The artist, in turn, is indebted or obliged to the material and the form for the making of the cup. These are not products of the artist’s mind or “creativity”; they should not be understood as the artist imposing on the material but as being obliged to the material, much as I am obliged to the young student who offers me her seat when I am travelling on the public bus and I respond to her offering with “Much obliged”, “Thank you”.
But what do responsibility and indebtedness mean here?
It should be clear that our method here is to return to earlier and more fundamental meanings of commonly used terms and concepts, what we understand as our “key concepts” or the conceptual tools that we use to understand what we call “knowledge” or to produce what we call knowledge. All of us constantly “skip over” what our words mean (see Language as a WOK) and in this “skipping” gaps are created so that we lose our way (or have lost our way) and become exhausted and despair because of our neglect of the real, original sense of our basic ideas. I’m sure many of you have experienced this “exhaustion” in many of your TOK class discussions.
We do not want to think of “being responsible” or “being indebted” in an overly moralistic manner; we’ll think of them, for the moment, as “to occasion”. We sometimes think of “to occasion” as “to cause” such as “His presence in the room occasioned much concern”. For the Greeks, however, the sense of “responsibility” and “indebtedness” was more “to make present”, in the sense of bringing something that was not present before into time and space. Being responsible for is a “bringing that thing into appearance” or “starting something on its way to arrival”. Think of your oral “presentation” in this fashion: that which is responsible for bringing the event of the present-ation into “presence”. The four causes in the example of the Japanese tea ceremony cup all serve less to “create” the cup than to assist the potential cup in the clay, in the idea of cupness, and in the context of the tea ceremony, in making its appearance. All four causes are contributors to the cup’s appearance and the maker of the cup is not the sole or primary contributor. Our modern emphasis on the human being as the centre of this making is attributable to our historical, Western “humanistic” or “humanism” world view. In this view, the “effect” (the artist’s purpose and the artist himself) are the primary “cause” of the cup’s coming into being.
We have to imagine that the cup is “on its way” to existence; the four ways of “being responsible” help it to “arrive” there. They are responsible for what the Greeks called hypokeiesthai, which designates how something that we see as “present” is made present for us. From the roots of this word comes our word hypothesis and we should remember the relationship of hypothesis to “theory” or the “looking” that is prior to the bringing into “presence”.
Here are two different types of cups. Each contains the form of “cupness” but their material, purpose and sufficient causes are quite distinct. Comparing and contrasting these two cups will give us a much better understanding of causation as it is understood today and how it was understood by Aristotle. With the Styrofoam cup, one can arrive at an understanding of what is meant by technology in the writing here. The essence of technology is shown in the “arrival” of the Styrofoam cup. The cup is a “com-posit” of materials brought together by human beings whose “pose” is to “impose” on Nature in their “com-posing”. Their “bringing together” is of something not found in Nature; the polystyrene molecule is the invention of human beings. The end purpose of the cup, its usefulness, also demonstrates the essence of technology and an understanding of human being in the modern world. The cup is intended to be “disposable”
The Japanese tea ceremony cup represents an arrival or a “bringing into presence” that is of a different essence of technology, an ancient understanding of technology. Whereas the Styrofoam cup is replicable to an unlimited number, the tea ceremony cup is unique. The “bringing forth” of the tea ceremony cup is what the Greeks understood as poiesis. The “bringing forth” of the Styrofoam cup is not a poiesis. What do both these artifacts say about the nature of “bringing forth”? What do these two things “say” about the “cultures” of which they are the products? What is valued as “useful” and not “useful” in the making of these two products in each of the cultures of which they are products?
For the Greeks, this “making present” and “being responsible” is termed poiesis from which our word “poetry” is derived. That the Greeks would designate poiesis as what we understand as poetry shows the regard they held for poets in their society and how important language was in the “making present” of things for them.
Poiesis means “bringing forth” and there are two forms of bringing forth. The first is directly associated with poiesis, as it is the bringing forth into existence that the craftsperson and the poet (and anyone who “produces” things) practices. The activities, the making of poets and craftspeople, was called “techne” by the Greeks, “know how”. The products of these activities are brought forth by something else (en alloi—“in another”), that is, the poet makes the poem, the artist makes the tea ceremony cup, etc. The second type of “bringing forth” is physis, the bringing forth that occurs in nature, in which things such as flowers are brought forth in themselves (en heautoi). Both instances, however, fall into the category of poiesis in the sense that something that was not present is made present.
This “bringing forth” out of concealment into “unconcealment” is what the Greeks termed “aletheia” which literally means “revealing” or “unveiling”. It is the Greek word for “truth”. This disclosing or unveiling is of something that was always already present and the four causes all participate in the revealing of this thing that was always already present. We need to keep this original concept of truth in mind when we discuss the other theories of truth: correspondence, coherence and pragmatic.
- we began with our everyday understanding of technology as instrumentality, as a way of getting things done
- we moved from what we mean by instrumentality into a discussion of “cause”
- the examination of “cause”, in turn, lead to a discussion of poiesis as a bringing forth, a revealing of something that was concealed
- we arrived at the conclusion that this “bringing forth” was related to the Greek word aletheia or “truth” and that all bringing forth, “production”, is related to what the Greeks understood as “truth”.
Technology as “Techne” + “Logos”:
But what has poetry to do with technology? Technology is a kind of poiesis, a bringing forward, a revealing. In this way it is associated with “truth”. We need to grasp a different view of “technology” than our current view of it as “instrumentality”. What does the word “technology” mean? We overlook this word and assume that we know its meaning because we are surrounded by technological things like a fish is surrounded by water.
Our word “technology” comes from the Greek technikon, someone who uses techne. This is where the word techne comes from and means “know how” or “knowing one’s way about or in something”. For the Greeks, a techne was a “maker”, whether of shoes or of poems. In the sense of “technique”, techne refers to both manufacturing (the techniques of shoemakers and tailors, for example) and to the arts (the techniques of poets and graphic designers, for example). Techne is part of poiesis. “Know how” is one definition of a type of “knowledge”.
In Greek thought from Plato on, the word techne is used in connection with the word episteme, from which we get the word “epistemology”–the branch of philosophy that examines how we know things. Our course is called “Theory of Knowledge”. It is a course dealing with “epistemology”. The Latins interpreted this type of knowledge as “science”: “Science is the theory of the real”.
Techne is a kind of knowing. We might think of it as “expertise” which we generally understand as more than a set of practical skills. It is “know-how”. What is decisive in techne does not lie at all in making and manipulating nor in the using of means, but rather in the revealing mentioned before. Our word “technology” thus means “making” (“making” as “producing” or “bringing forth”) + “knowing” (knowing as a kind of expertise or “know how”). It is the kind of knowing that makes the “making” possible.
If we understand technology as deriving from this concept of techne, then we will see that its essence lies not in the instrumental production of goods through the use of tools or manipulation of materials or data, but in “revealing”. The artisan, through his techne, brings together the form (a cup) and matter (the clay) of the tea ceremony cup within the idea of “cupness” to reveal the cup that has been “on its way” to existence. The cup was always already there. Its coming into being or presence was the partial responsibility of the artist but not the sole responsibility.
So far, we have been focusing on the arts and their relation to “technology”; but when we think of technology, our focus is on the sciences, in particular the physical sciences. We think of “technology” as a product of the physical sciences, the computers we use, the medical achievements that we have made.
The example of the tea ceremony cup might seem irrelevant to a discussion in the technological age in which virtually all of our artisans’ work can be performed by a machine. One of the differences, we might assume, is that modern technology is based on modern physics. But the development of the physical sciences has been so dependent upon the technological development of devices for testing, measuring, etc. (the enhancement of our sense perception as a WOK), that science cannot be viewed as a “cause” or “origin” of technology.
The difference lies elsewhere. It lies in modern technology’s orientation to the world. Modern technology’s mode of revealing is not poiesis, according to Martin Heidegger.
The “revealing” that rules in modern technology is a challenging which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such. (Money is really “congealed energy”, for instance. It is stored energy.) This challenging, demanding viewing of nature is grounded in the principle of reason: we challenge, demand reasons for why some thing is the way it is. The principle of reason determines how we understand causality.
The difference between older forms of technology (the windmill, for example, which draws its energy from the wind but does not extract and store that energy) and modern technology which exploits and exhausts–“challenges”–our planet’s resources is an example of the difference of our orientation to the world. Our challenging looks at the environment as “disposables”, how the resources can be of some use to ourselves. Unless they have some relation to ourselves as “usefulness” for our conceived ends, then they are not allowed or recognized as having any independent being in their own right; they are not allowed “to be”. They are not “objects” as these have traditionally been understood. Reflect on both the Styrofoam cup and the tea ceremony cup once again. The Styrofoam cup has no reason for its existence beyond its “usefulness”; and once used, it is disposable and meant to be disposable.
Another example illustrates the difference between technology’s “challenging forth” and poetry’s “revealing”. Let us look at China’s Three Gorges, a potent symbol in Chinese national culture, to show how technology transforms our orientation to the world. When we build a hydroelectric dam on the rivers, the meaning of the rivers change: they become an energy resource. There is a contrast between “the Three Gorges” viewed as a source of hydroelectric power and “the Three Gorges” as it appears in the work of many Chinese artists and poets, in which the rivers appear as the source of philosophical inspiration and cultural pride. It is interesting to note here that technology also includes the tourism industry, which in its own way transforms the natural world into raw materials, a source of profit. Now, Chinese pride is in their mastery of nature and millions of tourists, both domestic and foreign, flock to see this Chinese mastery of nature at its height.
It might help to recall at this point the Greeks’ description of things being “on their way into arrival”. The tea ceremony cup “arrives” when the artisan’s work brings it “out of concealment”. Before, it was only potentially a cup; in the work of the artisan (techne), that potentiality is realized and the cup is “revealed” or brought into actuality.
Modern technology also reveals. But its revealing is different from that of the older crafts. To explain this difference more fully, we need to introduce the idea of the “resources” or “disposability”.
“Resources” is closely related to the idea of technology as “instrumentality” with which this writing begins. Technology’s instrumental orientation to the world transforms the world into “resources” or “disposables”; it transforms the world into “disposables” so that all the things we encounter, including other human beings, are “disposables”. We might say that for technology, nothing in the world is “good” in and of itself, but only “good for” something. In the grip of technology, things that are always already present no longer get to “arrive” (see discussion in Reason as a WOK and the short discussion on an understanding of the shadows in Plato’s cave); our striving is to “change the world”, but this changing is to make the things of the world “disposables”. The airplane that stands on the Changi airport runway, for example, has no meaning or value in and of itself; it is merely a means of transportation and its value to humanity is completely tied to its being at humanity’s disposal. The computers we use have no meaning outside of their uses; after a short period of time we “recycle” them with the loss of an incredible amount of wasted energy that has gone into their making. Our networking and relationships are turned into what “use” we can make of the human beings (resources) we are in contact with.
Technology transforms humanity itself into resources; humanity itself becomes “disposable”. We have become “human resources” or “human capital”. Here in Singapore, the burning of Sumatran forests to replace them with palm oil trees is perhaps a better example of how our own well-being and health is placed at risk; and for the majority of people, this goes well beyond the profits of the palm oil companies. The chemical sciences have determined the “value” of palm oil, which is used in many, many products that we use as consumers.
Our use of the expression “human resources” aligns human beings with raw materials such as coal or petroleum or palm oil or agricultural products (and this use of human beings as “resource” by other human beings is what is called “cybernetics”.) If one reflects on the consequences of such thinking and viewing, one may understand why there are so many reservations regarding AI among many learned people. AI is the outcome of a particular human way of thinking and viewing the world.
But because humanity is, as it were, in the “driver’s seat” of technological advances, humanity never completely becomes mere raw material. By the same token, nature and nature’s mode of revealing never fall completely under human control. Even though humanity has now acquired the capacity to destroy nature utterly (atomic energy), the natural world reveals itself to human beings on its own terms. Humanity doesn’t directly control the formation of coal deposits or the accumulation of nitrogen in the soil; we can only control the way we orient ourselves, our thinking and our actions, in relation to such resources and to other human beings.
This fundamental relationship between humanity and the world gives rise to a particular human orientation or comportment to the world, an orientation or attitude referred to as Framing which in turn determines our “composing”.
What is framing? The “Hard-Wiring” of Our World-Views
The German word Gestell has a number of meanings: rack, skeleton–the basic sense is of an armature or framework. In the history of philosophy, it finds its origins in Leibniz and Kant, and through them to Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. This term is used to describe how human beings have come to relate to the natural world. It can also be found in the poetry of William Blake where he refers to the “framing” of the “fearful symmetry” of “The Tyger”. (Blake in an earlier draft, originally used “German forged manacles” for “mind forged manacles” in his poem “London”. See “Imagination as a Way of Knowing for a further discussion of Blake).
Let’s return to the Greek word eidos, familiar to us from the example of the tea ceremony cup, and explain how Plato redefined this word. Eidos originally designated the outward, visible appearance of an object; Plato, however, uses the word to mean the abstract, universal essence of that object: the “cupness” of the cup is the eidos, not the individual outward appearance of any individual cup. From Plato’s redefinition comes our word “idea”. The use of Gestell, or “Framing”, follows a similar path: a word meaning something concrete (a bookshelf, for example), is used to designate something abstract when given its philosophical applications.
We often hear people criticized for wanting to “put everything into boxes”; we are exhorted to “think outside of the box”. This expression usually means that a person thinks uncreatively, narrowly, with too high a regard for established categories.
The “frame” in the concept of “Framing” corresponds to these “boxes”, but all of us have a tendency to think in this way. It is our “mindset”.
We noted before that nature reveals itself to us in its own terms, and all that humanity can directly control is its orientation to the natural world. We should think of “nature” here in the broadest sense, as the entire realm of the non-human–but also including such things as our physical bodies, over which we have only limited control. What characterizes the essence of modern technology is the human impulse to put the world “into boxes”, to enclose all of our experiences of the world within categories of understanding–mathematical equations, physical laws, sets of classifications–that we can control. The need to domineer and control is what has determined our “looking” at nature as calculable, orderable and this is grounded in the axiom that is principle of reason.
When the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, for example, states that “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological”, he means that technology’s driving force is not located in machines themselves, nor even in the various human activities that are associated with modern modes of production. In the example of the computer, the parts that make up the machine as well as the labor of the factory workers all belong to technology, but are not its essence. The “frame of mind” that views the world–its reserves of rare earth metals ore, its chemical structures, its human population–as raw materials for the production of computers approaches more closely what we mean by the essence of technology. The technological world-view, however, is still more far-reaching. Framing or the viewing of the world as disposables stems, historically, from the human drive for a “precise” and “scientific” knowledge of the world. (See Reason as a WOK and the discussion of the principle of reason).
What is technology’s place within the history of the modern sciences? In at least one sense modern technology comes before the development of modern physics and actually shapes that development. This claim will make sense to us if we remember that the essence of technology is that orientation to the world called “Framing”. Insofar as the human drive for a precise, controllable knowledge of the natural world paves the way for modern physics, we can say that “Framing”, and thus the essence of modern technology, precedes and determines the development of modern science. Technology is not applied modern science; modern science is applied technology.
The essence does not reveal itself till the end. The instruments and devices, the tools of technology, are the revealing of what technology is in its essence in much the same way that the oak tree is the revealing of the essence that is contained in the acorn or the full human being from the fertilized embryo.
Where does this Framing tendency of human thought begin? The philosophical context in which that question can be asked must be considered here. The task for ourselves in TOK is to question the implicit assumptions in our thinking, assumptions that are in the “key concepts” that we use to understand what knowledge is. To do this, we must undertake the painstaking effort to try to think through still more primally what was primally thought. Greek philosophy and the tracing back of the meanings of words is closely related to the larger project of uncovering the implicit significance of important concepts. What is most “original” or “first” is also that which is most enduring; the most fundamental concepts are those that will continue to shape the concepts that come after. I am here pointing to the principle of reason.
One of clearest statements of what we mean by “Framing” appears in the dilemma of modern physicists, who are discovering that the physical world does not lend itself to measurement and observation as readily as they once thought. Physics is bound to a particular way of looking at the world: that nature reports itself in some way or other that is identifiable through calculation and that it remains orderable as a system of information. This system is then determined by a causality that has changed once again. As Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum physics, has said: “”What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.”
The model of causality that shapes modern physics is neither the “original” Greek one of “ways of being responsible” nor the traditional Latin one of the four causa, but a model of “numbers crunching” in which things exist and come into existence only insofar as they can be measured.
We often think of technology as the “application” of the discoveries of science. Much of the discipline of “Applied Physics” is devoted to the construction and testing of useful devices. It is not enough to have identified Framing as the essence of modern technology. We need to determine how we, as human beings, stand in relation to technology. The essence of technology precedes the historical emergence of both modern science and modern machine production. In that sense, we might view modern science as the “application” of Framing. But what, exactly, is Framing?
Is Humanity’s “Framing” orientation to the world an inevitable outgrowth of the history of human consciousness as is suggested by many of the latest biological and sociological studies? The question about how we are to relate to technology always comes “too late”, since we are already caught up in a Framing view of nature which sees nature as disposable as much as we are caught up in the concrete realities of technological development. We can, however, gain some perspective on our own orientation to the world, and thus achieve a perspective on technology.
How is human history related to the historical development of technology, and how can humanity come into the “free relationship to technology”–which is, remember, the aim of this TOK course for both the teachers and the students and are questions we must consider throughout our studying and questioning.
Geschichte, the German word for “history”, and Geschick, the word for “destiny”, deriving from the verb schicken, “to send”, are related etymologically. The human drive to obtain a quantifiable and controllable knowledge of the world “sends” humanity on the way to an orientation that views the world as a set of raw materials, as “resources”, disposables, culminating in modern technology. From the primal relationship in which the physical world reveals itself to humanity on its own terms, humanity moves or is sent into a Framing relationship with the world. Within this relationship, however, the earlier relationship is maintained: humanity is still experiencing the world as the world reveals itself. Oedipus is “sent” on the road to his destiny, ironically, once he visits the oracle of Delphi and learns that his destiny is to marry his mother and murder his father. Oedipus attempts to escape this fate by fleeing Corinth and the parents that have adopted him only to meet his fate, his real parents, and realize his fate in his journey. Oedipus completes his fate because of his “blindness” to the things that are and through the rashness of his character. We, too, are in Oedipus’ position and we, too, must open our ears and eyes in order to re-orientate ourselves to our being-in-the-world.
Because Framing does not utterly change humanity’s connection to the world, there is room, even within Framing, for a different–we might say “renewed”–orientation to the world, according to Heidegger. It is not exactly right to speak of Framing as an inevitable development of humanity’s interaction with the world—we must caution against a fatalistic view of technology’s incursion into our lives. We can neither throw up our hands in the face of the problems brought on by technology, nor can we “rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil” (Heidegger).
Once we realize that our own orientation to the world is the essence of technology, once we “open ourselves” to this essence, we find an opportunity to establish a free relationship to technology. We have a choice, according to Heidegger:
Humanity can continue on its path of Framing, of “pushing forward nothing but what is revealed in ordering”, seeing the world as disposables, and structure our lives according to the rules and values of this orientation. This is the world view that ultimately devolves and arrives in nihilism, meaninglessness.
The continuation of this viewing would cancel out the other possibility:
Humanity can come to realize that it, too, is “on its way” to an arrival, and that only by re-orienting itself to the way in which nature reveals itself can humanity establish a relationship with the world that is not ultimately self-destructive. Our self-destruction does not come about through atomic weapons or climate change or any of the other problems or crises that our technological world-view has brought about. Our self-destruction is the ultimate loss of the essence of our own humanity. We have intimations of this loss of our essence when we view our world situation today.
The danger associated with technology is not so much the direct effects of mechanization. The danger is the threat to humanity’s “spiritual” life. This danger has four main elements:
- In continuing on the path of Framing, humanity will eventually reach a point at which the human, too, becomes only so much “resources” or disposables.
- Humanity’s overinflated sense of its power over the natural world will result in humanity’s coming to believe that humanity has control over all existence.
- This excessive pride leads ultimately to the “delusion” that humanity encounters itself and only itself everywhere it looks–a kind of narcissism at the species level an the extreme end of “humanism”.
- Finally, such an orientation to the world will blind humanity to the ways in which the world reveals itself. In spite of (in fact, because of) the entire set of scientific apparatuses and theories which are meant to guarantee our precise knowledge of our world, we will miss the truth of what the world is (See Natural Science as an Area of Knowledge).
In Heidegger’s words: “The threat to humanity does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted humanity in its essence.” The rule of Framing threatens humanity with the possibility that it could be denied to us to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.
Another Orientation to the World: The Return to Plato’s Cave
Within the “supreme danger” of humanity’s Framing orientation to the world lies the potential of a rescue from that very danger.
To help us to understand this paradox, we turn our attention to the meaning of “essence”. The traditional philosophical sense of “essence” means “what” [in Latin, quid] something is. (See the unit “Knowers and the Things Known”). It names a genus, a class of things that are all the same kind of thing. All trees, for example, have “treeness” in common; “treeness” is their essence. From their inquiries into essence, the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, developed the concept of eidos, which we have already encountered in the example of the tea ceremony cup.
This traditional understanding of essence, however, does not apply to modern technology. For Plato and Aristotle, the essence is what “remains permanently”, what outlasts any particular manifestation of a thing. The particular oak that has grown out of the acorn has its essence in being both an oak (and not an elm) and in being a tree (treeness) already, permanently held in the acorn. In trying to “get behind” the assumptions and established formulations that shape traditional philosophical thinking, the model of essence as a “genus” does not adequately represent the relationship between the essence of a thing and the thing as it appears before us. This raises questions for all of our AOKs and WOKs.
If Framing, as the essence of technology, cannot be thought of as a category to which all technological things belong, how are we supposed to think of it? We can return to Plato’s Cave at this point. For Plato, the eidos and “idea” are in Being and allow beings (things) “to endure permanently”. The Sun’s light “grants” the appearance of beings to humanity (remember that the Sun is a metaphor of the Good in the Cave analogy and this light is a metaphor for all of our ways of knowing). There is a connection of the concept of “enduring”–a quality of essence in the traditional model of essence–and “granting.” This “granting” is the sense of “otherness” that is “given” to humanity and not “created” by humanity.
The idea of “giving” or “granting” is crucial, and the phrase “to be” is, in German, es gibt–literally, “it gives”. If we return for a moment to the example of the tea ceremony cup, the ceremonial cup is used in a “transformative practice”, in particular that of “wabi-sabi”. “Wabi” represents the inner, or spiritual, experiences of human lives (Being). Its original meaning indicated quiet or sober refinement, or subdued taste “characterized by humility, restraint, simplicity, naturalism, profundity, imperfection, and asymmetry emphasizing simple, unadorned objects and architectural space, and celebrating the mellow beauty that time and care impart to materials.” “Sabi”, on the other hand, represents the outer or material side of life. Originally, it meant “worn,” “weathered,” or “decayed” (being). Particularly among the nobility, understanding emptiness was considered the most effective means to spiritual awakening, while embracing imperfection was honored as a healthy reminder to cherish our unpolished selves, here and now, just as we are – the first step to “satori” or enlightenment (Wikipedia). The tea ceremony and its cup is the opposite of the technological fast-food industry and its ubiquitous Styrofoam cups, plastics and other petro-chemically composed and produced materials. The Japanese tea ceremony experiences life as a ‘gift’ while the ‘quick’ breakfast is efficient, useful and non-reflective and emphasizes that there are other more important things to be done.
The world “gives” itself to us insofar as it reveals and opens itself to us. Our response to this “gift” as “Framing” is at once a grave danger (our instrumental, exploitative, disposable, blind orientation to the world sets us on a self-destructive course) and an opportunity to see ourselves as a part of the coming-into-being, the revealing, and the “granting” of the world, what has been called the “otherness” of the world in other writings here. Life gives us a choice: to view it as a “problem to be solved” or as a gift to be cherished.
Furthermore, since humanity is as we have said “in the driver’s seat” of technology, we must realize that our capacity to manipulate nature entails a solemn responsibility to “watch over” nature. Again, we can easily see the argument in terms of today’s environmental movement, but we need to remember that it is not simply speaking of nature in the sense usually assumed by environmentalists. Everything that exists must be cared for–humanity’s responsibility is to care for Being itself. In this activity, memory as a WOK is of crucial importance. It would also be a simplification of the argument to associate it too directly with the anti-nuclear movement, but the specter of the total devastation of the planet does bring home the gravity of our/the concerns with our technological world-view. In the question concerning technology as a way of knowing everything is at stake.
Let us sum up the major points:
We tend to think of technology as an instrument, a means of getting things done as shown in the Styrofoam cup and the fast-food breakfast. This definition, however, misses the actual essence of technology, and tends to make us think that by making the technology better–better able to “get things done”–we will master technology and solve the problems that technology has itself created (the environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists remain within the technological way of revealing).
This instrumental way of thinking stems from our assumptions about causality. If we come to understand modes of causality as ways of being responsible for the arrival of things into existence, we can begin to understand that the essence of technology has to do with the way we are oriented to the coming-into-existence, or the “revealing” of the world.
Humanity’s orientation to the world takes the form of a Framing which views the world only as “resource”, a source of raw materials, disposables, as “good for something”. In this Framing, however, lies the potential for another orientation.
Framing is the essence of technology. Framing is ambiguous, in that contains two possibilities:
It is a danger that sets man on a destructive and self-destructive course. “On the one hand, Framing challenges forth into the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view into the coming-to-pass of revealing and so radically endangers the relation to the essence of truth”. (Heidegger)
At the same time, it is a “saving power” and an opportunity: humanity’s Framing orientation to the world makes clear the responsibility of human beings to the world. If we reflect upon the Framing as the essence of technology, we will find not only that we are a part of the world, but that the world “needs” us to care for it, that humanity “is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth” (Heidegger).
Let us try to clarify the relationship between these two opposing orientations contained within Framing.
The danger of technology’s essence and the saving power inherent in it are joined in the way stars are joined in a constellation: part of a whole, but separate entities. We might also use the TOK diagram to illustrate the point here: the individual is one part of a whole that is encompassed by Life (Being). Enclosed as we are within our Framing orientation to the world, what can we do to save ourselves from the consequences of Framing? How can we nurture an alternative way of looking at things that will help us to change the ways of thinking that drive technology and thus to evade some of the horrific dangers that inhere in technology?
Against an orientation that investigates all aspects of the world and assumes that the world can be grasped and controlled through measurement and categorization (classification), an alternative may be found in art (although the saving power of art was denied by Socrates). In the history of the West before the onset of Framing, in ancient Greece, where the concept of techne–which, as we have seen, is the source of our word “technology”–included both instrumentality and the fine arts, that is, poiesis we may find the source of a possible alternative. In Greece art was not a separate function within society, but a unifying force that brought together religious life, political life, and social life. The art of ancient Greek culture expressed humanity’s sense of connectedness with all Being. Art was a kind of “piety”; it was the outgrowth of humanity’s care–in the sense of “stewardship”–of all existence. It was no one less than Socrates who said, however, that art cannot be the “saving” of humanity: only reason can do this. This is something that must be pondered for what is the “reason” that Socrates is talking about here and is it how we have come to understand reason? Is it the principle of reason and causality as algorithm?
In our own time, the paradox of how “Framing” can hold within it a saving power can be resolved by viewing the artistic or poetic orientation to the world as the alternative dimension of “Framing”. The poet looks at the world in order to understand it, certainly, but this reflection does not seek to make the world into a “standing-reserve”, a resource, or a disposable; the seeing does not seek to change the world. The poet takes the world “as it is”, as it reveals itself—which is the world’s “true” form (remember that the Greek word for truth, aletheia, literally means “revealing” or “unveiling”).
“Truth” is a “revealing,” the process of something “giving” or “showing” itself. Art is the realm in which this “granting” of the world is upheld. Art’s relationship with the world is different from technology’s in that art is less concerned with measuring, classifying, and exploiting the resources of the world than it is with “taking part” in the process of coming-to-being and revealing that characterize our existence and our essence as human beings.
In the second Bremen lecture of 1949, Heidegger said the following extremely controversial statement: “Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and extermination camps, the same as the blockading and starving of countries, the same as the production of hydrogen bombs.” Such a statement shocks our liberal humanist sensibilities and “values” when the deaths of millions of human beings are said to be essentially the same as our slaughtering of animals to provide food in the most efficient way, but here Heidegger is being consistent in his thought regarding the uncanny essence of technology. Within the technological world view, that there are human beings to whom no justice is due, to whom nothing is due but extermination is the stuff of today’s headlines. What is the alternative to this?
We are not suggesting that we all go out and become artists, but rather that we incorporate more of the artist’s and poet’s vision into our own view of the world. In “Imagination as a Way of Knowing” I have tried to illustrate this through the example of William Blake. In incorporating the artist’s vision into how we view the world, we can guard against the dangers of Framing, and enter into a “free”–constantly critical, constantly questioning, constantly listening and hearing–relationship with the technology that in its persistence is constantly making new incursions into our lives. No matter how we view and live within the technological, the issues are of the most importance for ourselves as human beings and our future on this planet.