It ain't [just] about the iPads

by James C. Edwards

This essay is adapted from a reflection provided by the philosopher Jim Edwards for the Capita Board of Directors during their meeting on April 15, 2019.

Edwards is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Furman University. He is the author of The Authority of Language: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and the Threat of Philosophical Nihilism and The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism among numerous articles. He won Furman’s Alester G. and Janie Earle Furman, Jr. Meritorious Teaching Award in 1975 and again in 2011. A graduate of Furman, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

No surprise here, but I’m writing this on a laptop, the same one I used earlier this morning to read the New York Times and to check a couple of philosophy blogs, and then to buy a couple of e-books and to move some money from one account to another, and later I will send this piece wirelessly to Joe across town — or perhaps across the ocean, given his travels on Capita’s behalf. This week the Capita board will meet by video-conferencing, making wide representation in the foundation’s leadership a reality, unrestricted by the burdens of travel time and expense. So in some large ways contemporary technology is an undoubted boon to us all. But everything is not sweetness and light. Many of us also fear that that same technology with which we effortlessly click our way around the world presents particular impediments to our proper life with one another, impediments of the sort that Capita might legitimately work to identify and to mitigate.

I think that’s right, though I suspect my account of those impediments wouldn’t be the typical one. Usually when one hears about the dangers of current technology, especially the dangers it presents to children, one most often hears about the addictiveness of screens; the insidious seductions of video; the way screen-time rewires the brain and turns into mush a child’s (or even an adult’s) capacity to focus for long periods; the way it saps one’s ability to defer gratification; the way it primes us to wait impatiently for the next brand-new thing to pop up in the feed; the way it encourages enticing and simple moving images to take the place of the words necessary to carry complex thinking and feeling. Screens can and do damage us in these ways, leaving us with, as Faulkner said, “gross and simple hearts,” but they also turn us inward, away from others, becoming thereby a barrier to the world. We’ve all seen — perhaps, sadly, we’ve all been — the couple sitting in a restaurant staring at their phones and rarely saying a word to one another. I-Phone narcissism — perhaps even I-Phone solipsism — is a phenomenon we cannot help but recognize. The increasing presence of these screens in all our lives, and in our children’s lives, and particularly in our children’s educational lives, raises the fear that we are, to use Neal Gabler’s pungent phrase, “entertaining ourselves to death.”

These are genuinely pressing concerns, as is the grave threat to personal privacy; but my worry is different. When a philosopher hears the word ‘technology’ she’s almost certainly going to think about Martin Heidegger, a very bad man but a very great thinker, who late in his life — he died in 1972 — wrote some famous essays (famous among philosophers, I mean) about technology and its dangers.[1] The problem, he says, is not machines and techniques of a particular kind, digital or otherwise. No, technology is larger and scarier than what is visible on our desktops or in the IBM commercials about Watson; it now defines our whole approach to human life, and that, he thinks, is a very bad thing. Today I want to say a few words about this claim.

Although technology is the touchstone concept in Heidegger’s essays, it is for him not really the fundamental notion in play here. That fundamental notion is — and sorry for the odd German here — what he calls Ge-Stell, usually translated in this context as “En-Framing.”[2] Heidegger believes that in this present era almost all our thinking and acting is ultimately devoted to a single task: we want to En-Frame reality; that is, we want to impose upon it a comprehensive conceptual and institutional grid, a way of conceiving it and acting upon it, a grid that makes reality totally available to us to use as we wish. We want a way of conceiving reality that shines a bright light on all of it, even into the darkest corners, so that we can see it all and see it plain. We want a vocabulary for describing reality that leaves nothing out, that leaves no mysteries behind, that, as Heidegger puts it, “orders everything for the sake of maximum order.” To understand something, to make sense of it, is to fit it in as a part of that total order, to place it securely on the grid. And En-Framing is not just a set of concepts; it’s also a set of practices, a set of institutions. We don’t just want to see reality plain; we want that plain sight of things to make them totally available to us for our use. We want to impose order as a way to furtherordering: making reality conform finally to the total order we have decided it ought to exhibit. Thinking, therefore, is a mode of self-assertion, of the human will to power.

As a fundamental consequence of our attempt to En-Frame, the things that show up on the grid — i.e., ideally everything — show up there in a particular way. They show up as what Heidegger calls ‘Bestand’, as “standing-reserve,” as what we English-speakers would ordinarily call stockor raw material. They show up as resources to be put to use in some particular way. It’s a familiar concept to us; we are accustomed to thinking about a truckload of iron ore, or a toothbrush, or a field of grain, or a suburban house, as Bestand, as stock, as supplies, as things sitting there awaiting our use of them. What else could they be? It seems silly and sentimental not to see a toothbrush as a thing merely for our use; to see it otherwise is to make it a fetish. But — and this is Heidegger’s point — what about the child who uses it to brush her teeth? Is she “raw material,” too? Our Midwest’s amber waves of grain are a crop, which is a sort of supply, a sort of stock. But what about a piece of wild ground, a mountain range, say, the purple mountains’ majesty we sang about in middle school? What about our own Blue Wall, as the Cherokees reverently called it? Is it sitting there waiting for us to use it? Are those mountains merely “raw material” for vacation homes and ski lodges and automobile parkways and power line rights-of-way? Are their slopes just stands of timber to be cut and sold, turned into toothpicks and picket fences? What about the whole earth itself? Is it ours to conquer and to manipulate; is it ours to put in order for the sake of ordering?

For Heidegger, and I think he’s right, the extent to which we think and act in terms of total clarity and total ordering is the extent to which we En-Frame the objects of our thought. And that means: the extent to which we see them as instances of Bestand. I was a teacher for a long time, and I was teaching 20 year-olds in a liberal arts college, not elementary school students; but on reflection I am shocked and ashamed how much the practices of teaching and learning ultimately valued a pre-determined order over individuality. Whether we wanted it to be so or not (and many of us didn’t), much of the work of (what we called) “higher education” was done for the purpose of shaping up students to do the jobs that society needed done: we taught them to read carefully and to write clearly, to think critically and to imagine unconventional alternatives, because those things would make them better lawyers or doctors or middle-managers or even better CEOs — and we unashamedly said this in our promotional material. Whether we realized it or not, we saw those students as Bestand, as “raw material” to be ordered for the sake of proper ordering.

To think in these “technological” terms is not, according to Heidegger, the chosen act of an individual; it is the fate of our time, the result of enormously complex intellectual, spiritual, and political forces, forces that would remain in play if every I-Pad and every laptop disappeared tomorrow. In the same way, avoiding the power of En-Framing and ceasing to see the world in terms of Bestand is not a choice that you or I could instantly make, once and for all. Patiently deconstructing the world we have inherited (and, sadly, continue to build) is the task of decades, if not centuries, and we lack many of the insights we, or our heirs, will need in order to do it.

But I cannot stop without at least mentioning Heidegger’s own suggestion of what we might do in the meantime. He said that we should “foster the saving power…of the little things.” What he seems to have had in mind is this: in spite of the worldwide dominance of En-Framing, its conquest is not yet complete. There still remain to us practices, or remnants of practices, that do not En-Frame, that do not treat whatever is as Bestand. Those practices are what he called “the little things,” and he had in mind simple, humble, almost-invisible ways of acting, things like reading to children, or teaching them to recognize the song of a Carolina Wren, or planting a dogwood tree, not in order to increase the value of one’s home but just because it’s beautiful when it blossoms, or reaching out quietly to stroke a lover’s hand, or writing to a friend just because one wants to. Those “little things” exist outside our rage for ordering reality, outside our ordinary impulse to En-Frame. And they alter everything inside them. We don’t pick up and hold a baby the way we pick up and hold a sack of groceries; everything about the touch and the cradling is different. Nor do we take a lover’s hand the way we carelessly grab a Styrofoam cup. That little difference when skin touches skin, a difference almost imperceptible, may be, according to Heidegger, what saves us. “Foster the saving power…of the little things.”

Here we should begin think about how we educate our children, which is one of the things that Capita is officially interested in. It’s so easy to think that real reform is big reform, that one can only save the kind of education one values by large changes in the educational institutions themselves, something like banning the I-Pads from schools or reducing class size. Now, please hear me. I do not say that big things cannot be good things: perhaps the I-Pads ought to be banned, and surely most classes are too large. But perhaps Heidegger is right, at least partially and for a start. Perhaps he was correct — he had learned this the hard way, by seeing his projected paradise collapse in fire and in death — to distrust our utopian and large-scale dreams. Perhaps this is a time when the best we can do is to “foster the saving power…of the little things.” I certainly don’t know fully what that might mean in a school or even in a college. But I think it might be worth trying to find out, and I think a group like Capita might be able to provide essential help in that endeavor.

[1]The essays can be found in Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977). ‘Technology’ is now the standard English translation of Heidegger’s German term ‘die Technik’, which is probably (except for the fact that the English word is so ugly) in this context better translated by ‘technicity’. Why? Because, as Heidegger is at pains to point out, most of us hear ‘technology’ as referring to certain machines and procedures, and that is not the primary focus of his attention.

[2]In ordinary, non-Heideggerian German, ‘die Gestell’ means frame or stand; it’s the word used, ordinarily in the plural, to refer to eyeglass frames. This is typical for Heidegger: to take an ordinary word and use it in an extraordinary way.

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Hilary Rikardfutures