In the digital frame of Heidegger

Basic Writings: Ten Key Essays, plus the Introduction to Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, David Farrell Krell (Editor)Paperback, Revised & Expanded Edition, 464 pages Published February 26th 1993 by HarperCollins (first published 1964)
Basic Writings: Ten Key Essays, plus the Introduction to Being and Time
by Martin Heidegger, David Farrell Krell (Editor) Paperback, Revised & Expanded Edition, 464 pages
Published February 26th 1993 by HarperCollins (first published 1964)

The philosopher Martin Heidegger understood technology (Technik) as a “Gestell” or roughly a “frame”. It was written in the last century but it still reveals something for our digital present.

Martin Heidegger
The Philosopher Martin Heidegger forwarded some ideas on technology that are even more relevant to today’s world. Following his thoughts, even before a Selfie is put online, the smartphone user already lives in the digital frame. (Picture: Martin Heidegger at home in Freiburg/ Wikicommons)

Martin Heidegger speaks of technology as a “Gestell” or a “frame”. This is not a finished construction, but an activity of “ordering”. Modern technology, for him, is the culmination of the “conquest of the world as a picture”. For Heidegger, the word “image” means “the structure of imaginative creation” – an activity “of the calculation, the planning and the cultivation of all things.” The totality of this representational production, the framework, is itself not technical, but a fateful relationship of man to his world and to himself. In the placing and ordering of nature, according to Heidegger, man makes it a “standing-reserve “. Forests, coal seams, oil wells, ore mines belong to the  earth, materials and energies that man has turned into “standing-reserve” in the attempt to make a more efficient output.

The network of transformation

An idea that used to be the domain of science fiction has become more apparent in current reality: human beings are increasingly transformed into data. And the fact that we put ourselves – or what we hold to be true about ourselves – into the networks of information that make up the Internet, our reality is emblematic of our time. Around a third of the world’s population have uploaded their personal details on social media. In 1949, Heidegger pre-figured this idea using the example of the radio: “People are not incidentally a constituent piece of the radio. In their essence, they are already committed to this character of being a constituent piece.” Insofar as our personal information is scattered across, and stored within, various online databases, we are constituent parts of the digital framework. In the frame, all pieces are available, consumable and interchangeable.

This inevitably reminds us of the world of today’s consumer culture, to which Heidegger’s position marks the sharpest possible contrast. Heidegger introduces a seemingly banal object lesson: “Das Ding”. Heidegger’s “Ding” or “Thing” is used in the old meaning: after the meeting, a court meeting (Old High German: “thing”), in which something is negotiated. Heidegger brings the example of the pitcher. The pitcher is “chasing” us. That is, when we drink wine from it, it brings not only people together, but a fourfold: heaven and earth, divine and mortal. To be able to attend such a celebration of the pitcher may seem a bit stiff today.

Nevertheless, Heidegger addresses the contrast between two attitudes, which turns out to be quite contemporary: the contrast of collecting and dispelling. On the “consecration” of the pitcher, it could be emphasized that in certain moments it serves as a vehicle of the collection – not just of the wine, but of our attention to the wine. In this way he sharpened the contrast to the dispelling character of another vessel, the disposable cup. Meanwhile, “dispersion” now means the all-pervasive tendency to disassemble our daily work, tasks, problem solving, need satisfaction in procedures and modules and thus to separate life in a technical context more and more into maintenance, operation, repair functions, and discarding.

Heidegger’s standing-reserve seems muddled in the modern world of life. The total network in which new “body parts” such as smartphones, Google glasses or Oculus headsets entangle us can be viewed as the latest version of Heidegger’s “Gestell”.

A more practical version of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology comes from the American philosopher Albert Borgmann, who is far too little known in German-speaking countries. Born in Freiburg im Breisgau, he listened to lectures by Heidegger and did his doctorate with Max Müller, whose thinking was strongly influenced by Heidegger. For Borgmann, the role of the frame is taken over by the “paradigm of the device” (Paradigma des Geräts). Connected with this is an attitude which subordinates the world to the point of view of what is easily usable, available, and consumable. Device can be anything, and Heidegger calls it “Zeug” or “Equipment”.

In this sense, Equipment not only refers to technical devices, but also to houses, food, landscapes, animals, our own body, other persons. A house can be an Equipment for living and wine for drinking, The self can serve for his own. Such a consumptive attitude towards a device tends to distract us from ourselves, confuse our attention, stifle our everyday skills and abilities.

Borgmann confronts us with a “focal” attitude. Focal practices define literally flocks – the Latin “focus” is the “fire site”, a flock of a different, non-technical handling of things, especially with technical objects. Focal practices always involve the body, such as making music, gardening, eating and drinking, running and walking, but also motorcycling. They can be conceived as the “arts” of everyday life, as a dealings with things, which reverts to the one who cultivates them.

Learning and unlearning humanity

Take, for example, the modern handling of distances (Heidegger points to this). Today, distances are mainly “Equipment” to the journey. There is a departure and an arrival place, in between, there is literally nothing. We are closer to each other by the means of faster transportation. We measure distances in the abstract metric of numbers, and not in the physical metric of steps. This also speaks of the irony of displacement of our body from the distance between us. To develop a focal relationship to the distance, therefore, means that we measure it with our feet. In this way, if we really want to, we can recover an intimacy with the distance, which is actually familiar to every walker and hiker. A closeness to places and things, has been removed via the framework of the technical means of transportation.

The same could be said of the means of communication, generally of all the techniques that “order” us. In spite of this, we should not explicitly interpret Heidegger’s ideas as  hostile toward technology. Contrary to a current criticism, which concentrates on the risks posed by technical objects to humans, Heidegger and Borgmann give us a sense of a completely different kind of risk with their currently antique philosophy on technology. It is not in the use of technology, but in technology as a custom—as a way of life that always “had” us. In the “hopeless frenzy of the unfettered technique” (Heidegger), we learn to conceive of technology as an option: as a choice between “Equipment” (Das Zeug) and “thing” (Das Ding). We can still choose which way we will take, how we want to move forward. If we follow this argument on the human condition, then we can conclude that being human is something that can be unlearned.


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