The Question Concerning Digital Technology

05/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Martin Heidegger's 1954 piece, The Question Concerning Technology transformed the way I look at technology (it's really dense). I read it in 1995, a decade before I got implicated in the web, and 40 years after it was published. When I first started writing on the web in 2004, I had a draft post, consisting of one sentence, called "The Question Concerning Digital Technology," which was to be an attempt at an update of the Heidegger piece for a networked world. That draft has long since disappeared, but I've been thinking about it again of late.

A rough summary of Heidegger's argument is:

  • the purpose of technology is to order nature for human use
  • humans are part of nature
  • in ordering nature through technology, humans become part of that which is ordered
  • in becoming part of the ordered universe, humans lose humanity
  • this is a bad thing
  • we might be able to save ourselves, by appealing to the greek root techne, which means, in part: "art"
It's a compelling description of technology in general, and the web in particular: that the prime driving force is ordering "nature" (in a broad sense), with the result being, more or less, efficiency. If you look at what we've all been doing over the last few years on the web, much of the most exciting things had to do with ordering - specifically information, for more efficient access:
  • google as a high-level orderer of information on the web
  • RSS as an orderer of information sources I want to stay aware of
  • as an orderer of information I want to keep track of & share with others
  • flickr as an orderer of photos
  • wikipedia as an orderer of encyclopaedic information
The list can go on and on, and of course "technology" does many different things, beyond "just" ordering, but in general the force propelling technology often seems to be mastery of the world around us for our use, one way or another. Which, as Heidegger points out, has worrisome implications for all of us.

I've always come at technology from something like this angle: I'm not particularly interested in technology per se, I am interested in the ways we might use it to make our lives richer and more meaningful. And in general, I think that creating things is the activity that gives humans the greatest sense of meaning and richness in their lives. Certainly that's the case for me, and from my beginnings on the web, it was the confluence of free software (that is, the building and dissemination of free tools), collaboration, and unlimited distribution that excited me. "Everyone" could create things now, and share those things with the world. The projects I am most proud of (LibriVox, Atwater Digital Literacy) are platforms for people to create things that, I hope, bring richness into their own lives. I've always considered LibriVox as most important for what it does for our volunteers: it gives them a way to deepen their connection to a text they love, to read it and record it, and give it away; to make connections with literature that they might not have made otherwise. That we're also making a free library of audio literature for the world is in some ways a fringe benefit. [Interestingly, and as a side note, coding itself is, to coders, a deeply creative and satisfying enterprise].

Of late, I've been feeling cold about the web. So much of what is going on is the ordering of nature, which, if you believe Heidegger, is the inevitable drive of technology. And "dangerous" for our humanity. I know many people involved in working on tranches of this ordering, and I have a few projects along this line as well (datalibre, earideas, collectik). Just off the top of my head: Evan's Wikitravel tries to better order travel info; Vinismo order's wine information; Dopplr tries to better manage your travel, and intersections with others who are moving around too; pal mat is working on google maps, ordering geography; the praized guys are building a better system to organize places and preferences. More will come. All of it is "good," in the sense that it makes it easier to do the things we want to do, but I often hear Heidegger's warning echoing through my mind: in ordering nature, we are becoming that which is ordered, and so we risk losing our humanity.

Here are some of the things that are coming, I think, from the inevitable drive of technology to order nature, and our human desire to have efficient sorting systems:

  • We'll continue to cataloging everything (from books to people to places) online, and find better ways to sort all that information, using objective authority (eg authoritative incoming links, aka google juice), personal network authority (links/preferences from your chosen network) as relevance indicators.
  • We will map this network on the web, and increasingly apply it to physical space (starting with google maps, and becoming more customized and personalized)
  • Mobile technology will mean both that our access to cataloged information becomes ubiquitous, and our efforts to catalog things will be unconstrained
  • RFID, or something like it, will mean that this sorting of physical objects will move from its current general state (eg. tracking & finding something like "any copy of a certain book"), to specific (eg. tracking & finding something like "a particular copy of a certain book"), and will touch people to.
  • We'll get all the media we want, when we want it
  • We'll get most of the data we want, when we want it
  • Our mobile devices will increasingly interact with our physical surroundings (point at an object, get info on it; buy it; sell it), and will become our bank, and keys, our thermostat, and more, as well as everything else it already is (telephone, email, library, map etc).
  • All data on the web will become structured, and mostly available
  • More data sets (eg government-owned) will arrive on the web, and more people will participate in using that data to understand the world, and make decisions, to order nature
  • Data about people will become structured, and mostly available [For a well-networked human in my circle, this has already happened: I can track their interests, on a daily basis (, google reader shared items, digg etc.), their movements (dopplr), their public thoughts (blogs, twitter), books they like (librarything, gutenberg bookshelf), things they buy, etc etc.]

Lots of money will be made (if all goes well, some of it by friends of mine) finding new and different ways to do all this, and more and more. In essence, we'll continue to use the web (and increasingly, mobile devices) to better order nature. And we'll become better ordered at the same time.

Looking at this very brief list of what's going to happen, I can't help but think: "so what?" Is any of this going to make people's lives richer or more meaningful?

My suspicion is "no." I say this as a digital native, if a relatively recent, adoptive native (starting in 2004). For myself, I have found that the price of the benefits of the web has been heavy: while the web has allowed me to do all sorts of things, to build things and relationships, and projects, I find the quality of my time on the web so often unsatisfying. In a comparison of value to me between a random "leisure" hour on the web and a random hour doing something else in the real world, the real world trumps the web almost every time. Yet the web still usually wins the battle for my time (this says as much about me as it does about the web, of course).

I had a dinner a while back with Mike Lenczner, of Ile Sans Fil, and Jon Udell and some others, and this was the question Mike was asking, more or less: "so what?" Is free wifi access for all really such a great thing for people? Free encyclopedia? Free audio books? That's not to say there is no value in those things, but we in the tech world imbue this stuff with a magical capacity to improve people's lives, and I don't think it's clear that it has. Much less RSS feeds and online bookmarking. Free Software we see as a moral victory; OLPC as a revolutionary project that will save Africa; global voices online, as a dialogue builder that will transform our understanding of each other. All these things are good, great even, and there are countless other examples of wonderful online projects. But part of me agrees with Michael: it's not clear that on balance they are truly improving people's lives in any real sense.

But the point of all this is not really to criticize the web, nor to gnash teeth about the things people, including me, are building with it. Rather it's a call to look at technology from a different angle, a call to designers and technologists and webbies and to consider a different approach, inspired by Heidegger's solution of technology as art.

The web provides us enormous and efficient access, but a problem seems to me that it strips away the intimacy of our connection. Consider reading a book, versus reading on line; conversing in IM versus having a coffee; viewing a photo versus touching an object. This is not to criticize any of these experiences, or to say we are stuck with the modes and interfaces and tools we have now. I'm not saying that the web means less intimacy, exactly.

But what if we, those of us trying to make the world better with what we do on the web, rethink our projects in these terms. Leave the ordering for a moment, and consider intimacy instead.

What can we, as a community interested in making lives richer and more meaningful, do with technology to help humans experience more intimacy with the things that are important to them?

I don't really have any answers, but it seems to me that it's a challenge worth considering.

The web, and technology, will continue to order the world, there is no doubt about that. Your participation in this process is fine -- and probably lucrative. But there is more, and more exciting things to think about.

A truly radical and creative use of technology, will find ways to help humans become more intimate with the things that matter to them. Those things might be art, books or songs; and people; probably food, and family. I don't really know what else, and I don't really know what I expect this to mean, but I think it's worth thinking about.