CriticaLink | Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology | Guide to pp. 319-324

"In opposition to this definition of the essential domain of technology. . ."

Is it valid to go all the way back to Greek philosophy and to apply its concepts to modern technology? Even the example of the chalice might seem irrelevant to a discussion of a technological age in which the virtually all of our silversmith's work can be performed by a machine. One of the differences, we might assume, is that modern technology is based on modern physics. Heidegger very quickly shows that this objection misses the point: the development of the physical sciences has been so dependent upon the technological development of devices for testing, measuring, etc., that science cannot be viewed as a "cause" or "origin" of technology.

The difference lies elsewhere, in modern technology's orientation to the world. Modern technology's mode of revealing is not poeisis.

The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging [Herausfordern], which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.
Heidegger's argument in the next few pages may seem quite familiar. It is, in a sense, an ecological argument. Heidegger views the difference between older forms of technology (the windmill, for example, which draws its energy from the wind but does not extract and store that energy) and modern technology which exploits and exhausts--in Heidegger's terms, "challenges"--our planet's resources.

Another example illustrates the difference between technology's "challenging forth" and poetry's "revealing." Heidegger uses the Rhine River, a potent symbol in German national culture, to show how technology transforms our orientation to the world. When we build hydroelectric dam on the river, the meaning of the river changes: it becomes an energy resource. Heidegger contrasts "the Rhine" viewed as a source of hydroelectric power and "the Rhine" as it appears in the work of the German poet Friedrich Höderlin, in which the river appears as the source of philosophical inspiration and cultural (and, for some readers, nationalistic) pride. It is interesting to note here that Heidegger extends his critique of technology to include the tourism industry, which in its own way transforms the natural world into raw materials, a source of profit.

It might help to recall at this point Heidegger's own poetic description of things being "on their way into arrival." The silver chalice "arrives" when the silversmith's work brings it "out of concealment." Before, it was only potentially a chalice; in the work of the smith, that potentiality is realized and the chalice is "revealed."

Modern technology, Heidegger has told us, also reveals. But its revealing is different from that of the older crafts. To explain this difference more fully, Heidegger introduces the idea of the "standing reserve."

"Standing reserve" is closely related to the idea of "instrumentality" with which the essay begins. Technology's instrumental orientation to the world transforms the world into "standing reserve." We might say that for technology, nothing in the world is "good" in and of itself, but only "good for" something. In the grip of technology, things no longer get to "arrive." The airplane, for example, has no meaning or value in and of itself; it is merely a means of transportation and its value to humanity is completely tied to its being at humanity's disposal.

To a certain extent, Heidegger argues, technology transforms humanity itself into standing-reserve. The forester, for example, is at the mercy of the paper industry, which in turn is at the mercy of the print industry, which in turn transforms the reading public into a source of its own profits. He also notes that our use of the expression "human resources" aligns human beings with raw materials such as coal or petroleum.

But because humanity is, as it were, in the "driver's seat" of technological advances, humanity never completely becomes mere raw material. By the same token, nature and nature's mode of revealing never fall completely under human control. Even though humanity has now acquired the capacity to destroy nature utterly (Heidegger does not omit a reference to atomic energy), the natural world reveals itself to human beings on its own terms. Humanity doesn't directly control the formation of coal deposits or the accumulation of nitrogen in the soil; we can only control the way we orient ourselves, our thinking and our actions, in relation to such resources.

Heidegger goes on to describe how this fundamental relationship between humanity and the world gives rise to a particular human orientation to the world, an orientation or attitude he calls enframing.

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