Martin Heidegger and the Social Dilemma

Heidegger’s Essay in the 1950s on technology predicted social media, fake news, and the internet.

Jeff Orlowski’s recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma illuminates the profound influence that social media and technology has on our lives. The picture the film paints for us is one in which the technology we use every day collects a massive amount of data from us, and in doing so, competes for our attention by pulling at the strings of primordial human psychology. As a result, our privacy has been breached, the “truth” is uncertain, and misinformation runs rampant.

By collecting immense amounts of data from all of its users, Google essentially knows what you would like to hear from the search results. For instance, if you or those around you in your geographic area put in the search bar, “climate change is…”, what will show up next is heavily contingent upon your location. If you are in a location that is quite liberal, say, the first thing to come up might be “climate change is an existential threat.” By contrast, if you are in a location that is quite conservative, the first thing to come up might be, “climate change is a myth.”

In any case, the way modern technology is set up is with the intention of collecting as much data as possible. The pursuit of data collection ad infinitum has produced problems like wide-spread misinformation, fake news, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Due to the sheer level of information that technology collects and generates, reality has become blurred as a result.

It is doubtful that upon the creation of the internet that blurring the truth was the intention. Rather, the intention was the proliferation of truth. Indeed, one of the internet’s first purposes was to create a platform for scientists to communicate with one another.

How could things have gone so wrong? How could the pursuit of truth have so readily transformed into a tornado of untruth? How could anyone have known this was going to happen? Surely, it was impossible to predict this. Prior to the internet, technology was simply too different. In what way was the windmill anything like the internet? Undoubtedly, they were nothing alike, right?

Heidegger and the Question Concerning Technology

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s essay, The Question Concerning Technology, is concerned with one question: what is the essence of technology? Which is to say, what is the property of technology whereby when a thing does not possess this quality, it cannot be called “technology?” As Heidegger points out, most of us turn to the notion that the essence of technology is utility. We use the internet for a wide variety of purposes; we use factories to make things, and so on with all technology. Of course, this is true, but is utility something that is distinctive of technology? No, it isn’t. We use many things that aren’t technological. For example, we might use a border collie to herd sheep, but we would be remiss to call the dog a piece of technology — of course, unless we’re Descartes.

If the essence of technology is not pragmatic, what might it be? Well, a good way of thinking about the essence of technology is to see how technology affects human beings. After all, we aren’t just the creators of technology: we are also technology’s greatest benefactors. Heidegger instructs us to look into our Being — the way in which we are — as it pertains to technology. “Enframing” is what Heidegger calls this. Given the dominance of technology in our current society — and, according to Heidegger, even society in the 1950s — enframing is a necessary way-of-being for all of us. There is no escaping the predominance of technology. Our very Being is inextricably intertwined with technology.

Enframing itself is characterized by seeing the world around you as a place wherein resources are to be exploited and engineering problems are to be solved. Heidegger uses the example of a river: if you see a river through the lens of enframing, the river is not a beautiful spectacle of nature to simply behold, but rather a source of hydropower. Given that the state of technology in Heidegger’s time was almost purely industrial — rather than information-based — it makes quite a bit of sense that Heidegger gives many examples of the technological mindset as exploiting the natural world.

We can also see enframing enacted in the consumption of information: we consume information, like the news or books, for the sake of consuming resources — whether these resources are emotional or intellectual in nature, it is usually something that simply satisfies our intuitions and digs our heels deeper into the sand. Through enframing, we don’t read our eBook because we truly enjoy it: rather, we do so as a social resource to make ourselves look and sound smarter — albeit unconsciously. Under enframing, the world manifests itself to us as what Heidegger calls “standing reserve” — i.e. resources to be exploited.

The Technological Mindset

According to Heidegger, the idea of “challenging-forth” — which is translated to English from Gestell — is a motivational mode-of-being wherein the way that enframing sets up a world around you for resources to exploit and engineering problems to be solved, enframing also makes the domain of facts something to be exploited as well; in the way that technology exploits nature, so too it seems that technology pushes further towards gathering more facts — revealing more of the truth.

And insofar as technology pushes further towards gathering more facts, we as humans make greater demands upon technology to do so; in doing so, this becomes self-defeating, in the sense that so much information is broadcasted that, as “In whatever way the destining of revealing may hold sway, the unconcealment in which everything that it shows itself at any given time harbors the danger that man may quail at the unconcealed and may misinterpret it.”

In plainer language, technology has the propensity to pump out information to the point where one can no longer easily discern what is true and what is false. And in doing so, this undermines “revealing [the truth]”. It is often worried that the danger of technology is it's turning malevolent like in the terminator; Heidegger’s worry, by contrast, is that technology will undermine the very way in which truth is revealed to us. Too much information makes it all-too-easy for misinformation to become prevalent.

The more human beings are influenced by the technological mindset, the more we will push technology to reveal the truth. And the more we push technology to do this, the more its ability to reveal the truth will become undermined — and in doing so, the more human epistemology will be undermined. Our very ability to understand reality is under threat, and this is a direct result of technology.

Hence, the question concerning technology is, in essence, “the question concerning the constellation in which revealing and concealing, in which the essential unfolding of truth propriates.” Insofar as the question concerning technology is one concerning the unfolding of truth, “the essence of technology is in a lofty sense ambiguous. Such ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, i.e., of truth.”

It is simply breathtaking how right Heidegger was about technology. The very way we come to grasp reality has, over time, become more and more undermined as a result of the proliferation of technology. Facebook — and a plethora of delusional “news” sites like Infowars — has become a source of what is going on in the world for a great number of people. According to The Social Dilemma, big tech companies like Google gather as much data about their users as possible, for the purpose of curating their online experience in a manner that ensures that they will give said companies as much of their attention as possible. The film refers to this as the “attention economy.” Hence, if one collects data about someone, only to find out that they are obsessed with falsehoods, these algorithms will necessarily feed them more falsehoods. The danger of technology’s propensity to undermine our ability to conceal the truth of reality is becoming more and more apparent — we need only look at the recent insurrection on the Capitol to see this.

Can Art Solve The Problems of Technology?

What might be the solution to the ever-growing threat of technology? Heidegger’s solution might surprise you: art. Heidegger believes that art has the ability to offset the dangers of technology. This is clearly a bizarre statement. Yet, Heidegger justifies his claims: the Greek word techne is a word for “knowing in its widest sense.” Art, according to Heidegger, was something that humans used throughout history as a means by which we acquire knowledge. It is a way of “bringing-forth” as Heidegger calls it; “bringing-forth” is a term Heidegger utilizes from the Greek word, poiesis, which in simple terms, is the process by which something is brought about. For instance, my typing the keyboard is bringing about words upon my screen. Hence, my writing is a form of bringing-forth. It is the process by which non-being passes into being, in a causal manner. And the idea is that this sort of revealing is a manner by which we can come to acquire truth. The arts for the Greeks, for instance, was the highest method of acquiring truth according to Heidegger. The hope, he insists, is a return to something along these lines.

This is, of course, in a sense true. There are truths that aren’t exactly “objective” which can arise from art. Learning the psychological consequences of lying, for instance, is something that all-too-readily arises from a reading of Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment. Which is to say, if you are truly receptive to certain works of art, and you are genuinely engaging with them, there are valuable — indeed, some of the most valuable — truths to be found in some works of art.

Does this mean that art is the solution to our current technological crisis? Not necessarily.

There needs to be a serious conversation about what is meant by “art.” There are forms of art that are surely art, but will not unveil any valuable truths. Indeed, there is art that exists which has the intent of spreading falsehoods. Or, there is simply art that doesn’t have any meaning — or the meaning is so up in the air that there is no necessary relation between the work of art and truth. We cannot say that a blank canvas — you can see innumerable examples of this in your local modern art museum — or a Soviet propaganda painting unveils the cloak of truth, yet, both might be considered art. Hence, when we say that art can help unveil the truth, what sort of art are we talking about? Likewise, if something doesn’t unveil the truth, does that mean it isn’t art? I tend to doubt it, but it is worth discussing given the gravity of the problems for which art is supposed to ameliorate.

What ought to be excluded from the list of what is considered truth-reveling art? Anything with an ideology prompting the artist to produce a work of art and as the overarching guide to such art, ought to be excluded. There is no single ideology ever concocted by human beings that can in any serious manner be referred to as “true.” Or, more precisely, ideology as such is consists of partial truths at best. Look to a novel like Atlas Shrugged: clearly, this is a work of art, but it is a work of art full of shallow half-truths at best and lies at worst. This is a necessary result of Ayn Rand’s attempt to push objectivism — i.e., an ideology — through the mode of literature. The problem of misinformation at the moment is almost exclusively due to the problem of ideology. What is being spread online at the moment is being called “misinformation”, which is of course, true; however, what it can more accurately be called is the proliferation of toxic and false ideologies. Qanon is an ideology; Antifa is an ideology; Trump derangement syndrome is an ideology. If there is “art” which can help propagate more ideology, it ought to be excluded from the list of “art” that is supposed to help the problem of technology — as, all such ideological art will do, is make the problem of technology much much worse.

Finally, we need as a culture and society to give greater incentives for people to actively engage with truth-yielding art. At the moment, our society does the exact opposite. Artists are the poorest amongst us. Most artists never become successful as artists — though, those that do are certainly well-rewarded. Instead, we are incentivized to get whatever job will pay us the most. Finances and the status associated with fiances in our culture is much more important to us than the pursuit of meaning. The valences of value need to be flipped here. We need to prioritize engaging meaningfully in meaningful activities. Given the danger that technology has posed to our society, and the damage it has already done, you might be surprised to hear that this might be a perfect time for such re-prioritization.

Sooner or later, technology will become advanced enough to put a large percentage of the population out of work. This, however, is the mundane/life-sucking work of now, which we will be freed from. Ultimately, this will be a good thing. By contrast, it isn’t likely that technology will become advanced enough to take away jobs in the creative sector any time soon. Hence, the hope is to set up a society under which the disappearance of most jobs doesn’t destroy most people — rather, it should enhance the lives of most people, by creating the possibility of pursuing what is meaningful to them (which for some, will be art).

The Way Forward

Hence, what will really be the solution to the problem of technology — or, at the very least, the route to the solution — will be some form of universal basic income (UBI). Within the coming decade, at least a third of workers will have their jobs automated and thus lost. We cannot simply let such people slip into the cracks. Nor should we let those who are young and on their David Copperfield-Esque journies be deterred by the loss of these jobs. Their basic needs should be met due to circumstances they could not control, not neglected.

Next, we need a more humanistic economy. Which is to say, we need more jobs available that fulfill people — while also providing value external to such people — and we need to expand the idea of what we currently call “employment.” Andrew Yang — who I am borrowing from heavily here with these proposed solutions — states brilliantly that being a stay-at-home parent is in a sense a job, and in turn, ought to be compensated for. So too with any artistic pursuit. People should be rewarded for their efforts, not chastised and ostracized.

Imagine you have a dream-job — say, being a painter or a writer; in our current society and economy, the odds of you making a living off such endeavors are very little. The hope is to improve these odds exponentially as the more mundane jobs are delegated to technology. Education systems need to be taken into account in such changes — the interests of students should be catered to and cultivated, not disincentivized and deemed “useless” as it currently is, for the most part.

The hope under such conditions is that we have a society full of artists that produce truth-revealing art. Novels that teach us not to lie or paintings that teach us to be courageous and heroic in our lives. Of course, it won’t be perfect, but it will be better than the only other option — which is to let the problem of meaninglessness and inequality worsen. Art has a tendency to bring out the honesty from within people (in themselves, within the context of the art, and in the audience of such art) — hence, a society that incentivizes more of us to participate in producing and engaging with art is one that will help resolve the problem of untruth, as Heidegger so suspected it would.

Philosophy MA Student @ The CUNY Graduate Center

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