The Question Of Technology

Stefan Kalt
excerpt of article
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Because we generally regard technology as no more than a tool (albeit one of tremendous power), we tend to believe that it is amenable to human control. Consequently, if we live in an age of technological excess, the fault is thought to lie only in ourselves. Since the charge of technology-run-wild is frequent, we are often told to assert – or to reassert – control over our tools: We must master technology.

In opposition to this popular maxim stands Martin Heidegger. Although barely given a hearing in the United States and England, Heidegger’s influence as a theorist of technology continues to be felt on the European continent. He has spawned a large brood of disciples and schools, decisively influencing the evolution of philosophy in Germany and France, where his views about the nature of technology have been seminal.

Heidegger claims that, in the West, technology does not merely designate a set of tools or a mode of production: It designates a cast of mind. The Western technological mind-set is not new, however. It can be traced back to the very beginning of Western philosophy, back to Plato. However, Heidegger suggests that Platonic metaphysics only hints at a technological worldview which comes to full flower two thousand years later in the thought of René Descartes, the Demon King of the modern Technological Age. Descartes famously asserted “I think therefore I am.” Upon this allegedly indubitable proposition he attempted to construct a philosophical system which would serve as the foundation of all the sciences (of physics, for example). In Descartes’ view, tradition and faith should bow before a more potent criterion of knowledge: “certainty.” Armed with a method for achieving certainty, the human subject will be able to decide for himself what counts as knowledge and thus what genuinely exists. Heidegger argues that, whatever their particular disagreements with Descartes, later thinkers (e.g., Immanuel Kant) merely modified this central idea, extending it to include moral and aesthetic values. In their view, human reason – or in some cases human feeling – “creates” or “produces” the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. Thus the dream of humanism, a dream harkening back to the Italian Renaissance, finally crystallized in a form which placed the human subject at the center of the universe. Having displaced God from the center, mankind now banished Him from the sidelines. Soon humans assumed God’s creative role in all aspects of life: Man became God.

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