Technology, Tocqueville, and Freedom

On the technological understanding of being, according to Heidegger, we feel called upon to constantly enhance, optimize, and render ever-more-manipulable everything that exists, which we treat as flexible resources or means to ends. We don’t ask whether enhancing something will enable us to accomplish anything concrete; we’re just constantly on the alert for enhancement opportunities. The same is increasingly true for how we think about the norms that shape human behavior: human beings are the ultimate in flexible resources. There’s a compulsive dimension to our attitude to technology: we upgrade to the next upgrade whether we need to, or not. Technological objects have no enduring value; any given commodity is merely the latest stage of the endless process of perpetual improvement.

Precisely because everything is always being improved, we are haunted by the idea that nothing is as good as it will be. Already in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that Americans were “restless” in the midst of prosperity. This was because the idea of equality, which denies the supreme authority of any one standard of achievement, and suggests that new standards will always continue to appear, further suggests that humankind is indefinitely perfectible – but, since new standards are continually coming into being, what one is progressing towards necessarily remains vague. All one knows is that everything will soon be obsolete. Tocqueville illustrates the point as follows:

I meet an American sailor and ask him why his country’s vessels are constructed to last for so short a time; he answers with no hesitation that the art of navigation is making such rapid progress that the finest ship would soon outlive its usefulness if it extended its life more than a few years. Behind these words, spoken casually by a crude man about a particular fact, I glimpse the general and systematic idea by which a great nation directs its every action. (Democracy in America II.1.8.)

Without knowing what is perfect, we know, vaguely, that new is better – but never best. One is tempted to say that the essence of technology is Americanism, but Heidegger denied it: Americanism, he insisted, is something European. (See “The Age of the World Picture.”)

In the technological understanding of being, action is fabrication, the world consists of fabricated objects, and humanity’s guiding aim is to render everything ever-more-amenable to fabrication. The ever-deferred-goal is a fully artificial world, complete with artificial humans.

A free relationship to technology is one in which, although technological devices are part of our lives, our lives are not dominated by them. Another way to put it would be to say that although we would make and use technological devices, we wouldn’t have a technological understanding of what it is to be. At least, it wouldn’t be the ultimate semantic horizon of what it means for anything at all to be.

An alternative would consist in using technological devices for something other than optimizing them or us. Hubert Dreyfus once offered the Woodstock Music Festival of 1969 as an illustration. To be sure, Bert had a decidedly romantic view of Woodstock. But the idea was that, although it required technology, the world disclosed during “three days of peace and music” was not itself technological. It was a world of spontaneity, innovation, and the sharing of practices and experiences. Without the technology of electronic instruments, amplifiers, and communications Woodstock would not have happened, but what happened was not merely the technological enhancement of music.

Someone who has a free relationship to technology can see in technological devices something other than the essence of technology. Such a person is inspired by technology to disclose something non-technological. For Heidegger, the non-technological has to do with other ways of “building, dwelling, and thinking,” and more specifically with “dwelling poetically.” Poets, like technicians and engineers, fabricate: they make poems. But that means making meaning, for example by means of metaphors: Life is a journey, love is an adventure, Juliet is the sun.

If the language of poetry were to grip us as powerfully as the technological understanding of being, we would be less concerned with enhancement and more concerned, for example, with what Heidegger called the “fourfold”: earth, sky, mortals, and divinities. We would dwell poetically, wondering about what it means to be, rather than technologically, fabricating efficiencies for the sake of efficiency.

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