Heidegger tends to refer to agency only in terms of a response to a call. Our response to the call can be more or less superficial or it can be more or less thoughtful. The problem with modern technology, according to Heidegger, is that it can limit our capacity to respond in a thoughtful manner. He refers to this danger of technology as 'Gestell' which roughly translates as 'enframing'. Imagine you phone the local council to ask a thoughtful question about their environment policy and find you have to select one of five possible areas of questioning and when you select one of these you have to further select one of five possible answers. That is being enframed and limited. Modern technology, Heidegger complains, has always already decided for us that the most important questions to ask are all about calculating and measuring. Instead of nature being a mystery to be related to it becomes a 'standing reserve' of resources to be used by us for rational economic ends. Forests become just so many metric tonnes of cellulose for paper production and the great river Rhine itself becomes just a standing reserve of potential energy to be harvested by hydro-electric dams. We ourselves are in danger of becoming lost in this framing such that we forget even our most fundamental role of world revealing, understanding ourselves as information processing machines maximising economic rationality.
For Heidegger it is caring about things that 'unconceals' them in everyday life. There is no truth unless you care enough first to want to find it. If you do not care enough then things stay hidden. And since our capacity to care is limited we are always surrounded by much that which remains hidden to us. The things we care about, the things that are revealed to us, depend upon our histories, the cultural traditions that we are part of and the tools that we use. If we are led through involvement in modern technology to only care about economic rationality or the best way to get what it is presupposed that we want, then we might fail to ask the more important questions, the questions which might help us find out who we really are and what we really want.
In his lecture ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ Heidegger goes back to the original Greek use of the term techne to refer to arts and craft. Techne in this sense is to be understood as making things (poeisis) that reveal the world in new ways unconcealing that which was previously concealed. In a way, reading Heidegger, it becomes clear that his ideal of poeisis is poetry, especially the poetry of Holderlin which he frequently quotes. A poem is a work, a construction, taking words in the form of signs and arranging them on a page such that, taking up that work and living it from within by reading it attentively, the world is revealed in a new way and things that were once hidden swim into view. But Heidegger gives us instead of a poem, the example of an ancient Greek craftsperson making a silver chalice intended for sacrificial offerings. Heidegger describes this process of creation as a collaboration in which several elements participate, the idea (eidos) of the chalice, the context of its use (telos) and the material to be fashioned (hyle) which is the silver. All of these elements are, he says, co-responsible for the finished artefact. The role of the craftsperson is not to impose their autonomous separate human will, taking on all the responsibility, but to bring careful thought (logos) to bear on how best to combine all the elements in the most right, most truthful and most beautiful design. The craftsperson is responsible for realising the chalice but this responsibility is precisely, as the word responsibility implies, a response to the needs of the context that calls for the chalice. Agency here does not lie only with the human but is distributed across the whole system.
‘the threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth’ (Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology)
The sort of thing Heidegger is worried about can be illustrated by recent articles in education and education technology research journals responding to the Pandemic. There was much research about the 'learning loss' that occurred when children did not go to school and calculations about how much this learning loss would impact on the economy in decades to come. There were no articles published, to my knowledge, researching how being unable to go to school led some children to a more profound encounter with Being than they would have had otherwise and further discussing if this sort of encounter was not perhaps more authentic 'learning' than the countable variety which consists only of scores on standardised tests. How much calculable learning on standardised tests is equivalent to one lightening flash of insight into the nature of being? The danger Heidegger is referring to here is that our participation in modern technology networks determines already in advance what questions can be asked and the kind of answers that count such that we end up losing even our own awareness of ourselves as anything other than a 'standing reserve' for economic productivity. The most significant product of such an education system might be suicide and mental illness rather than real 'learning'. Heidegger is right to be concerned.
Heidegger's turn to the future
Heidegger writes that technology is a destiny. A destiny in Heideggerian language is something given to us as a responsibility. If a child is gifted with a great talent for dancing, for example, that would be a destiny that they ought to work with. In a similar way it seems that technology is a destiny that humans should take up. Modern technology is not, in fact, all bad, it is, Heidegger writes: ‘in a lofty sense ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, i.e. of truth’. Interestingly this is what Bernard Steigler claims about technology, that it is a ‘Pharmakon’ a word which means both poison and cure. Modern technology, Heidegger writes, produces the great danger of closing down our openness to Being but at the same time it seems to open up a prospect of salvation or of ‘freeing’. But what does Heidegger mean here by 'freeing'?
Writing about how the greatest danger of technology, closing us off from Being, can also be the greatest hope of salvation or ‘freeing’ Heidegger continues: 'But where is the danger? What is its locus? Insofar as the danger is Being itself, it is nowhere and everywhere. It does not have a place, as something other than itself. It is the place for all presenting, itself without a place’. If the danger is in this no-place beyond place, then so is the salvation or ‘freeing’ that is bound up with the danger. This freeing is not, of course, the idea of the freedom from constraint or freedom of the individual to do whatever they want. Heidegger dismissed this kind of individualism as an inauthentic product of a lack of self-awareness. (He associated this childish idea of freedom with America) By contrast freedom, for Heidegger, comes from responsibility, from responding to the call of destiny and in this case human destiny seems to be bound up with technology.
‘Man is indeed needed and used for the restorative surmounting of the essence of technology. But man is used here in his essence that corresponds to that surmounting. In keeping with this, man's essence must first open itself to the essence of technology.’
The essence of man for Heidegger is being open to Being and serving as a kind of steward for Being’s coming into unconcealment. Being comes to know itself from the inside through us. The essence of technology is poesis or revealing by making. For Heidegger then the next stage or the ‘turn’ (Kehre) – perhaps the epoch in which the absent god returns - seems to depend on a collaboration between human essence and technological essence.
Heidegger writes of this:
Do we see the flashing of Being in the way to be of technology? The flashing that comes from out of the stillness, as the stillness itself?
Heidegger's language of ‘restorative surmounting’ implies that as technology builds a new kind of body for Being this might initially appear to us in the form of a great danger, the danger of becoming entrapped and lost within a rational calculating cage, but if we continue through the danger we might eventually reach the other side which is when the human essence joins with the essence of technology in a new kind of truth-revealing. Could modern technology in fact be preparing the way for us to come to a new place beyond place where the lightening flash of Being might be even stronger than it was once in ancient Greece?
The challenge for education technology raised by Heidegger is how can we avoid simply inducting students into a world already pre-understood by human centred instrumental technological ways of thinking. The potential for education technology here is: can we use modern digital technology to build new collective dialogic spaces in which truth is unconcealed and the lightning flash of insight can occur?