Heidegger & digital technology

A while ago I accidentally came across Faris’ post “The Invisible Web”, which is fine enough, and in which he refers to Heidegger’s concept of “invisible technology”. Now, I am not sure if I should even volunteer this information, but did I read Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” a few summers ago (at a beach ;) No, it’s actually a major pain in the butt to understand what the guy meant. In fact, I strongly suspect that those water stains on the pages above are actually me crying and cursing the day I picked up the book. and yes, i sometimes write on books. I am lame. So anyway, Faris is half-right in that “the web is becoming invisible” and that “tools become integral aspects of how we live in and experience the world, extensions of ourselves”. [and truth to be told, his is the most popular reading of Heidegger = the one that is most frequently mentioned in the everyday culture]. But there’s more to it & and find that “more” super-interesting. Which is a somewhat paradoxical position of digital tools in relation to people. Yea, it can certainly be said that they may go invisible [for us] when helping us conduct mundane & less mundane tasks but what makes it all fun is that we first need to engage — to interact — with them [to figure out how something works?, to explore something, to find it interesting, appealing, useful, delightful, etc]. And from there, we never stop interacting. To stop interacting in digital equals death. Just think banners. Anyway. Our attention is not only directed at what we accomplish (with tools), but also in the engagement (with the tools themselves) that takes over parts of interaction. With digital technologies, we are part of their functioning. That’s in fact what makes them unique (it’s not very clear where do they start, and where do we end? think Twitter, FB, iPhone apps — they would not make any sense w/o our engagement = our continuous activity & provision of information, connections, content, and relationships). Better yet, all the fun is in engagement (hence the constant new versions of all stuff digital). Engagement is inevitable in order for something to happen or to be done & experienced (if you refuse to click, you would be left staring at your home page. or even at your desktop). The relation between digital tools and people is the one that BOTH does something AND provides experience in itself (otherwise, why would we seek ever new apps or better versions of software?). Digital technology is thus positioned somewhere between “presence-at-hand” (Heidegger’s term for tools in use. this is where they become invisible) and “readiness-to-hand” (Heidegger’s term for toolsseeking attention for themselves). So digital tools occupy this somewhat paradoxical position as they merge the above two modes of functioning. Digital tools = “engaging technologies” as they simultaneously provoke user involvement in their functioning AND user attention. I guess the bottomline is that sure, digital technologies can be regarded as extensions of ourselves, but these extensions require our constant involvement in their functioning — and as such, they are hardly invisible.

This post was first published on January 10, 2009