Over the past couple of days there has been even more fuel added to the already raging fire that is the debate on social media. With Stan Collymore, Edward Snowden and the truly tragic context of the death of Tallulah Wilson, the social and ethical issues around Twitter, screen-time, omni-present smartphones are, thankfully, getting a lot of air.
Having recently finished a long period of work focusing on fiction, I’ve been turning thoughts back to some ideas that have been percolating for a follow-up to Mutiny and After Magic. I’m hoping to write this over the next few months. The working title is On Limits and will examine our enduring fascination with the infinite, the problems and harm that this can do, and how we might be better served by a world-view that is honest and accepting of our limitations. (I’ll be posting this sort of stuff here rather than on kesterbrewin.com now, so do follow @VauxLondon for updates.)
A significant part of this will focus on technology. I had an email from Yahoo recently, offering me ‘infinite web-space’ if I signed up for their email package. Infinite? Really? This is classic techno-bullshit: the promise that technology will unfetter us and leave us able to live limitless lives. But it is bullshit that can do real harm if left unchecked, and I believe we are beginning to see the social effects of that.
In preparing to write on this I’ve been reading some Heidegger, in particular his 1950 essay The Problem Concerning Technology. His governing question in the piece is simply this: what is the essence of technology. In other words, what does technology do? His answer is this: technology always undertakes a work of revelation, but in doing so it works to ‘enframe’ the world we live in. As Paul Nadal has commented here:
If I understand Heidegger correctly, the essence of technology, then, is the poetic process of bringing something forth into presence and, as a mode of revealing, “frames” a world that is unfolded or unconcealed in the process.
In what way does technology work to reveal? Think of a tractor: this technology ‘reveals’ a field as a place for the intensive cultivation of food. But in doing this it also ‘enframes’ the world – it creates a field of vision in which fields are places for intensive cultivation. As Maslow neatly puts it, ‘to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ In Heidegger’s terms: the hammer has enframed the world as a series of things to be hammered.
One of the key debates that recent events have thrown up is the question of whether technology is neutral. Heidegger is clear on this:
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 do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.
What I think he means by this is that to say that technologies are neutral would be to deny their power of revelation and enframing. Technologies always reveal and enframe, and so, for Heidegger, to claim that they are neutral is absurd: technologies create vectors within us, even though those vectors might be of different direction magnitude and direction in different people.
However, the nature of this revelation is multi-dimensional and it’s to this that I really want to look more closely, also exploring the idea that what matters most for Heidegger is our orientation towards technology.
The first dimension of technology’s revelation is back into the self. The hammer we wield reaches back through our hand and reveals something of our own drives and desires. We could use it to nail a beautiful wooden box together, or to smash a window of McDonalds. These actions by the hammer are physical extensions of our desires that reach out through the hand.
This is technology as revelation: in our use of it the hammer exposes to the world something of our self. But Heidegger also says that technology enframes. By this he means that the act of picking up a hammer doesn’t just give a channel for our desires to be revealed, but also changes our desires by changing the way we frame and see the world when we are holding the hammer.
The second dimension of revelation is into nature. Technology changes materiality and uses materials. In our use of technology we are revealing something of our orientation towards how we treat the material world. The constant upgrade culture of mobile phones, the rampant consumption of rare-earth metals: these reveal something about the worth we place on the earth. They also work to enframe too, and Heidegger uses the example of a hydro-electric plant on the Rhine:
The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station.
The third dimension of technology’s revelation is into social relations. Because technology reveals something of our inner drives, it also works to reveal something about how we view the worth of people around us. This has a major impact on labour relations. Steve Jobs was big on ‘living the dream’ and pursuing your goals, but for anyone who worked at FoxConn, with suicide nets around the factories, this is nothing more than a sick joke. From the introduction of mechanised farming to the introduction of the iPhone, technology reveals something about how we value those around us.
But it also works to enframe us into modes of working; it reveals to us something of our relationship to economics, to the worth of others within our socio-economic frameworks, the worth of our families in our labouring with tools or in offices. As Nadal continues:
“The culmination of Western Enlightenment in the early 20th century is precisely technology’s domination of nature, which, as [the Frankfurt school of Marcuse etc.] argue, ineluctably leads to the domination of man by man. In Adorno and Horkheimer’s words: “What human beings seek to learn from nature [physis] is how to use [techné] to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.”
In other words, the society which venerates technology risks being one that venerates power-structures that lead to domination and oppression. This may be by huge corporations (Google / NSA / Facebook) or by military might. But the enframing action of technology can also take us into unhealthy routines.
Technology is sold as a means to unshackle us, but can end up limiting us by prescribing modes of being: modes of communicating, of relating, of performing and living in a routine and automised way. In other words, the ads tell us that this new gadget will leave us unlimited… what it actually does is enframe us, orientate us a certain way to ourselves, to nature and to others. This links to the post I wrote recently on resistance to 24/7 culture of always-on – and understanding its ‘unlimited’ promise as utterly false.
OK… a whole load of theory. So how is social media relevant here?
Using the above we can see that social media performs a dual work of revelation and enframing. Twitter draws out of people something about their inner desires, and the Twitter troll is a perfect example of this. But it also performs a work of enframing, of presenting the world to us in a different way, with different norms and different assigned worths.
Some would argue that this is continuity between old media and new: one could equally have written to a newspaper to ‘troll’ someone. But there is a key difference. With the smartphone, the reach of social media has been amplified way beyond that of the tractor or hammer. The handset is compact enough to be permanently portable, but powerful enough to connect us to people all over the globe, many of whom we don’t know.
This creates serious problems because we are aware of the huge potentialities of this technology, the huge power of its revelatory functions, the huge promise of being able to speak up and be heard by so many – but we don’t yet seem to have adapted well to the effects of this revelation, nor to the massive work of enframing that it has effected. This means that we end up with a massively powerful and toxic revelation of our inner self, our relationship to nature and our orientation towards others.
In conclusion – long post, I know, but this is first draft stuff for book – I think Heidegger offers something important to the debate on digital technology by encouraging us to consider what our orientations are to it, and how it reorientates us.
But, most importantly, because of this powerful revelatory nature, of our relationship to self, others and the earth, I strongly believe that the people best placed to provide a helpful critique of technology now are not writers at Wired or TED or Bill Gates, but theologians (and see this post on what I mean by that term). Rather than tie themselves up over issues of dogma, sexual politics or wordings to baptisms, theologians should be committing themselves to understanding this powerful ‘big other’ that is techno-culture, and offering wisdom on how we might understand ourselves and properly orient ourselves within it.
None of this is to denigrate social media, or argue against its use. It is to offer a push-back to a naive view that somehow social media is no different to a chat in the pub. It is. Not just because of the wider reach, but because the enframing that this different technology does is very different to the enframing that speech has offered us. Confusion on this is perhaps at the root of the scandals engulfing Twitter right now.