Heidegger’s Virtual Reality

N.B: This post is the second out of three, in a series that comments upon a metaphysical stand towards VR technology. The entries are based upon an essay that was written for a doctoral course on the philosophy and ethics of the social sciences. The first post,  preceding this one, is “On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency“, while the third and subsequent to this post, is “The Mind as Medium“.

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In the previous post, we argued why existentialism was fit to explore our problem of VR authenticity. Although the post quoted several existential philosophers, we will further only go in depth into the work by Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976). Heidegger was deeply concerned with authenticity, and also discussed the role of technology in our relation to the world. Although he never lived to see the true emergence of IT, Heidegger’s 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology”, discusses the essence of technology in general, and our relationship towards it.

Martin Heidegger, Portrait, Oil on Canvas.

Questioning concerning Technology

In his essay, Heidegger does not just analyse technology itself – as part of this, he writes about how the technology implicitly alters the metaphysics of our world; how technology may change ourselves and our relation to the world. In the essay, which title is “The Question Concerning Technology”, Heidegger discuss the essence of technology as it appears in our relationship towards it. The reason for his questioning concerning technology, is that he believes we can have a free relationship towards technology when we know what it is, that is, its essence. Throughout his essay, Heidegger draws a distinction between traditional technology, which is ‘bringing-forth’, and modern technology on the other hand, in which the technology is ‘challenging-forth’ in a more brutal and hacky way. It is this latter technology that Heidegger is critical towards and wishes to discuss, more “traditional” technology, such as for instance a bridge, is not an example of a technology that is challenging-forth. Heidegger for instance writes of windmills, that, though they draw energy from the wind, do not extract the energy for storage as we do with coal: the wind can still “do it’s thing”, being as-it-is, unlike coal, which for us no longer exist as-it-is; its only given meaning is being a means to our end. Through rigorous analysis, that is where Heidegger ends up: through such challenging-forth technology, our relationship towards nature is changed, as nature is interpreted only as a means towards our end, the world is no longer interpreted as it is, as it manifests.

To fully understand how Heidegger comes to this point, however, we must back up a bit. We will start “in media res” with a quote by Heidegger that is relatively concluding as to the main point of the essay, and then further navigate backwards to introduce the terms necessary to understand it what he means.

Heidegger writes:

The rule of enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.

We see then, that Heidegger’s main concern is that man may be separated from truth, a more “primal truth”, or a more “original revealing” of such. He does not say bluntly that technology threatens man with this possibility, but rather speaks of “the rule of enframing”, which will be an important term for us to understand Heidegger’s proper meaning. Throughout his essay, Heidegger builds his philosophical argument with his self-composed terms from the ground up before getting to the point, and so to understand “the rule of enframing”, we must therefore go back to thoroughly define Heidegger’s concepts of bringing-forth and challenging-forth. Both bringing-forth and challenging-forth are modes of revealing, although they differ in how and what they reveal. Heidegger’s “bringing-forth”comes from the Greek “poiesis”, which means to bring something out from concealment to unconcealment. Heidegger speaks of this revealing rather poetically, and asks the readers to imagine what is being brought forth as already “being on its way” to existence, from unconcealment to concealment; and so we can say that poeisis brings that which was not present into presence. This “revealing” or “unveiling” that happens with poeisis, Heidegger describes by the Greek word “aletheia”, literally meaning “revealing”, but which also is the Greek word for “truth”. In this way, according to Heidegger, technology can reveal truth through poeisis, although, as Heidegger points out, this is exactly what modern technology fails to do in its challenging-forth.

Rotary Boilers, by Broux, P, from Les merveilles de l’industrie, vol. 2.

Bringing-forth vs. Challenging-forth

According to Heidegger, we find the difference between bringing-forth and challenging-forth in that challenging-forth treats “modern physics as an exact science”. This can be interpreted as such: modern science was on its arrival a dream come true for the human impulses to classify and understand the world: now we could understand the workings of the world according to our own scheme, and therefore also “own” them in the sense that they were perceived to be within our control. On the discovery of the atom, for instance, we finally had a graven image of the source code of reality, and we were closing in on a framework of the whole world (this was, of course, before quantum physics shattered our image of reality as something that could easily be pinned down). It is this “attitude”, according to Heidegger, which separates bringing-forth from challenging-forth: the implicit metaphysic we accepted along with the principles of Newtonian physics, that the world could be viewed as a clockwork of cause and effect, where the world is made up of manipulable materials that could serve as means to our ends.

Heidegger notes, however, that challenging-forth also reveals, but that it does not reveal truth in the same way that bringing-forth does. The point is to be found in that “the essence of [modern] technology, is not something technological”. By this, Heidegger means that technology bear a resemblance to its Maker; there is something in the essence of technology that it has inherited by us. Early in the essay, Heidegger notes that technology can be thought of both as a “means to an end”, and a “human activity”. We can therefore also say that it is a human activity to think in the context of means to ends, and it is this which technology represents to us, as in a mirror: our attitude towards the world, where everything is viewed and classified in terms of potential means to an end. Through the vision based on modern physics as an exact science, human beings view the natural world as materials for their endavours. It is a human tendency to look at the world and ask: “what is it good for?”; in the words of Albert Camus, “the world evades us when it becomes itself again”; we do not really relate to the world, but to our interpretation of it, which is an interpretation of utility or means to ends. Technology is in this respect mirroring ourselves as an expression and example of how we interpret things in light of our narrative, where things in the world fit in the degree to which they can be means to our ends. This is what Heidegger considers when he writes that the essence of technology is not anything technological, rather, its essence lies in how we approach and orient ourselves towards technology, and through technology, to the world.

With this, we are approaching the point of Heidegger’s criticism of technology: if we only interpret the world as potential means to an end of ours, we don’t really see the world as it is, or as it reveals itself. Heidegger uses the example of technology to pinpoint that it is the human aspect of technology that is dangerous about it: because we as humans are used to interpreting the world to concepts, terms and classifications, these now stand in the way as a medium or interface between us and the world. This is Heidegger’s definition of the essence of modern technology, and it is this that we shall mean by the term Enframing that we set out to define. Enframing comes from the German “Gestell”, and has associations to that of order, system or framework. It should be noted, however, that Heidegger uses it as an active verb, and so instead we talk of “ordering”, or “gathering together”, or an “enframing” of the world. Enframing is in this case a mode of human existence, it is how we navigate and present the world to ourselves, relative to ourselves.

Illustrator: León Benett. From Jules Verne’s “Les cinq cents millions de La Bégum”

We set out to answer what the challenging-forth reveals, as both bringing-forth and challenging-forth are modes of revealing. It is by its enframing that challenging-forth reveals, and the enframing categorizes human and machine alike, and what it reveals, it reveals as standing-reserve. The concept of standing-reserve is the utmost point of criticism for Heidegger, and is what will be discussed in the next section.


The Danger

Heidegger’s critique then, is that the attitude of enframing is dangerous. Technology as examined here, have worked to reveal this dangerous tendency in humans. The humans themselves are not safe from their orientation of enframing: the enframing of the world also include the enframing of human beings, and humans are also in this system reduced to “human resources”; the degree to which they are beneficiary resources in this system of their own creation. Enframing is the consequence of what happens when this attitude of ours is enforced and instantiated through technology; “standing-reserve” is a role that the world and its inhabitants has been given in its enframing.

This category or classification of “standing reserve” is illustratively speaking exactly of this: technology, with its essence, does not, and can not, view anything in the world “as it is”, it is only judging in terms of utility and means to ends; it is seen not as good, but good for. This is being in the standing-reserve: an airplane has no meaning or value out of itself – it is purpose incarnate, and its value is therefore only in relation to human beings and a certain activity, and so it’s role is otherwise as standing reserve. For Heidegger, however, it does not end there, as humanity is also caught up in this system of technology: the system of the world is increasingly becoming a system in which technology is heavily incorporated. Within sociology, this kind of society with non-human agents as equal affectors, has seen new theories reflecting these relationships, for instance in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. The theory describes one system, where technology and humans are both treated as actors in the society. Similarly, according to Heidegger, humans are equally likely to be put into standing reserve to fit this system as any other: he describes the forester as put in standing- reserve by the paper industry: his role and worth is defined there only in so much as he produces for them; when he does not, his being is one of standing-reserve, not as-he-is.

The Solution

At this part of the point, we should revisit Heidegger’s initial point of inquiry: that we inquire into technology in order to establish a free relationship to it. Heidegger is not just concerned with the existence of the technology, he is also definitely concerned with our orientation towards it, our standpoint towards it, and so our relationship with it. We initially set out to establish a free relationship towards technology, and now we see that it in fact is our relationship with the world, and the technology’s relationship to the world as well as to humans and other agents that is the issue at hand. This is a critical point, because it also means that this is not a problem that can be solved even in the extreme case choosing to discontinue technology as a whole; the essence we want to avoid comes from us. On this, Heidegger writes:

We shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.

We are limited then, in that we can not change technology in its essence. Heidegger does not want to create “better” technology: he wants to see technology for what it is, to prepare a relationship to it – and it is here that we find Heidegger’s curious path of “technological determinism”; a view that can be defined as the lack of control by humans over technology, that the development of technology is somewhat deterministic, instead of perhaps more commonly viewed as an expression of our needs through tools that we create (i.e. social constructivism). Therefore Heidegger does not want to change technology, but change our relationship towards it. The approach is almost stoic in its basic philosophy: it is only concerned with ones own relationship to the situation, the situation itself is at any rate given. And again, the orientation which we normally have to both normal technology and to the natural world, is one of enframing. It is not just in technology, it is a human mode of being and connecting to the natural world in itself: enframing is the human tendency of categorizing the world, into objects, events, or other terms or conventions. We “frame” things in the sense that we “box” them, and this Heidegger considers to be a human activity in general, not a technological one in particular.

Heidegger does not offer a plan for humanity to solve this, but rather encourages us to stray from the enframing attitude of mind, to the more poetic: in poeisis, we can see the world as it reveals itself, not just as raw materials to be used by us. By adopting the vision of the artist, we can take part in the world instead of analysing and categorising it from the outside, indirectly alienating us from the world. Although not very specific in the approach, Heidegger is still clear on the role of action towards the problem, as he writes that “humanity is needed and used for the safekeeping of the essence of truth”.

Literature list

Want to read more? This essay is continued and finalized in “The Mind as Medium“. In the final entry we revisit VR and Heidegger’s relevance for VR technologies. The entry that you just read was a continuation of the entry On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency.