The main thing in common between “progressives” and “conservatives” today is that both are believers in “progress”; despite the ‘conservative’ label, Republicans, for instance, are even more incensed than Democrats at the idea that anyone is standing in the way of “progress”, for instance ecologists, socialists, etc.
“Progress” though, like “Democracy”, “Republic” and “Capitalism”, not to mention “Freedom”, remains largely undetermined. If there is a determination common to all the participants it is to keep it undetermined. Any determination of what “progress” might have as a goal would involve the necessity to make difficult decisions, and the latter is precisely what none of the participants wants. “Progress” is left with the vague connotation of some sort of “more” but more of what is never stated. As such it tends to default to more money and/or power in the individual case, but that can hardly be a goal of society overall.
The American anthropologist Robert Redfield distinguished ‘traditional’ societies’ from ‘modern’ societies as ‘moral vs technical’. While this is an over-simplification (as Redfield himself acknowledged, it was based on ideal types) he made the distinction because it points towards a truth that is difficult to formulate any other way. The Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Eriksen made a list of things that were common in traditional societies versus things that are new and unique to modern society:
- Slow time; silence
- Security; predictability Sense of belonging, and of personal identity
- Coherence; understanding
- Organic growth
- Real experiences (i.e., ones not mediated by the mass media).
- Recognition that death is a part of life
- Chips and computers
- Ubiquitous mobile telecommunications
- Genetic engineering
- Electronically integrated global financial markets
- Interlinked capitalist economy embracing the entire planet
- Majority of urban labor force working in information processing
- Majority of planetary population living in urban centers
It’s not difficult to recognize the Gestell as Heidegger termed it, the Enframing effect of modern technology at work in the latter set. Enframing as the essence of technology, for Heidegger, turned everything into a ‘standing-reserve’ that was always available, including people. It can be argued that human history has always been fundamentally about technological improvement, of course, but there is also a sense that in the radical difference in degree, for example a tally stick versus the modern global financial system, there has also been a change in kind. Even so, this change in kind can only bring out what was already implicit in technical know-how from the start, but hidden.
The notion of Heidegger as some sort of romantic Luddite is nonsense. In fact it’s specifically repudiated in the main work thematizing technology – The Question Concerning Technology. Heidegger notes there that any attempt to repudiate technology is simply an inverted attempt to master it, and as such doomed to failure.
While technology has brought some obvious improvements, a quick look at the list above, whether you agree with every point in each list or not, brings the idea that progress in any human sense is assured into serious question. While the left sees technological progress as evolutionary, and the right appears to view it as a transformation of Christian eschatology, this only serves to promote the idea that technological progress is in fact primary for both, and the various arguments between an evolutionary understanding or an eschatological one merely a ruse to hide the fact that they are fundamentally in agreement.
Technological artifacts, however, have unusual aspects not found in other ‘things’, whether those of nature, art, or even those of common sense. The more technologically defined an artifact is, the more it is both itself and a prefiguring of what will replace it. This sense of a prefiguring, an outline, while it is never filled in until something in fact does replace it, is immediately ascertainable in what is known as ‘high tech’, and the more advanced the technology, the more obvious the limitations of the artifact that make it such a prefiguring become.
The second unusual aspect is that they do not conform to the notion of ‘property’ or even ‘real thing’ that is generally accepted in Western thinking. Words such as ‘virtualization’ attempt to deal with this, but really don’t clarify in what way a technological thing is different from a ‘real thing’, which always at base means ‘property’ in the West. An example might therefore assist: a book is both what most people would consider a thing, a made thing, and simultaneously fits the notion of both property (it’s fully ownable) and real (it has location, extension, durability). An e-book, by contrast, has none of those properties. Yet an e-book is equivalent to and substitutable for the real book.
The third unusual aspect shows itself in that I don’t own an e-book, I purchase a right to have it available on my reading device(s). As such, as a standing-reserve, always available, it perfectly meets Heidegger’s determination of Gestell. But Gestell is not a technological thing, as Heidegger says “the essence of technology, Gestell, is itself nothing technological”, yet an e-book, which is definitely something technological, can serve as the essence of technology itself, can substitute for it. While it is easy to see in the e-book, essentially the same is true of the device that I read it on. While in the latter case it does have extension and location, it functionality is not located there and itself does not have extensibility in a spatial sense, because it is found in the network and formats that allow the device to transparently display the e-book that I purchased a right to, wherever it may or may not be located. A change in those could quickly make it worthless, even though nothing has been done to the device itself. By the same token, if it is stolen very little is lost, since my e-book library can simply be read on another device and the device manufacturer can disable the stolen device at my request. Whether for good or bad, I do not ‘own’ a technological artifact in the sense, for example, that I own a painting or a stone in my garden.
The question that Heidegger raises is “how can we attain a free relation with technology”? In a free relation we are neither bound by it nor master of it. Man has attempted to master technology since the first use of tools, but as the list above shows, we appear to be further from that mastery than ever. A rejection of technology also leaves it master over us, but in an inverted way, so that we would no longer properly have a relation with it. What exactly does Heidegger mean by “free” relation to technology and how does understanding its essence help in any sense?
The answer lies in the unusual aspects of the technological itself, that it can substitute for and be itself substituted for its essence frees the notion of essence itself as well as the notion of thing from being defined by essence as extension, location, and property status. If a thing is property, we cannot be in a free relation to it, just as if a person is property, we do not call the resulting relation free. As far as I know there has been no civil rights movement to free things, but it appears as if technology itself has done so in a certain sense.
What of technology in the larger sense? If we look, we will find the same substitutability and infinite exchangeability in the larger context as we do in the context of a single technological artifact. As technology, the global financial system can be replaced by a more efficient one, and in fact that has already happened multiple times in the last few decades, which is a fundamental part of the instability we have witnessed but one usually ignored. That it can be replaced should change our relation to it: we are no longer dependent on it (this is the biggest failure of the current governments just about everywhere) since we can simply change it, substitute another and if that has issues, try a third. The paranoia and money-grabbing of bankers is simply that without admitting it perhaps even to themselves, they are aware that they are more easily replaceable than workers on an assembly line, and that if replaced not only do they lose wealth, prestige and power, for the most part they have no real skills to fall back on. For the rest of us, though, we can take up a free relation with it: if it works, all well and good, if not we try something else. Something will replace it in any case, the question then becomes why do a certain group of people, who neither operate the system efficiently (creating banking inefficiencies is really the only way to continue to make money beyond a small fee chargeable for running the servers) have the wealth, prestige and power they in fact have?
Bitcoin is a first attempt at a system based on more tangible premises, because money itself is no longer currency, but merely information. As such it costs nothing, it is 100% seignurage. Bitcoin costs energy to make, as such it parallels the gold standard in that it costs a certain amount to create money. That cost is both the strength and the weakness of the gold standard. But what if energy cost so close to nothing that it was largely irrelevant? Money is the measure of exchange, Kairos, the appropriate measure, in ancient Greek. But any measure is only as good as people’s trust in it, since as universal measure it must itself be arbitrary. Ideas such as a gold standard attempt to remove the arbitrariness from what by definition must be arbitrary, and so only shift the arbitrariness, in that specific case from currency to the price of gold, itself determined in currency. This of course creates a dangerous effect loop, and is the reason every nation abandoned the gold standard. People’s trust in the currency tends to be more stable, overall, than the relation between valuation of gold and that trust.
Another crisis of the size of the one in 2007/2008 might not be recoverable with the system we have today (that one, as few realize, was the largest in world history, with total bailout costs approaching $19 Trillion). What if another bailout isn’t possible? Or the government simply gets tired of being bullied by bankers who have become unnecessary?
Having a free relation takes the fear out of such potentials. Things may be uncomfortable for a bit, but at the end of the day it’s just the discomfort of having to replace a system that can no longer handle the workload efficiently with something else. Anyone who’s been through a system change at their place of business knows there will be teething problems but that eventually things get back to the way they were, occasionally even better than they were.
I think we can all agree that such a free relation with technology would be something that might actually be worthy of the term ‘progress’.