Heidegger in Silicon Valley: technology and the hacker way

Racing-with-machines‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech investor Marc Andreessen claimed in 2011, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of creative destruction. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Reconfiguring the relationships between goods, consumers, and service-providers, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains, and estate agents.

Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for instance (recipient of $112 million in funding from Andreessen-Horowitz in 2011). Andreessen claims:

Airbnb  makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.

An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just as a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, creating a functional machine, social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee.

This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.

There are good reasons to feel excited about this new generation of startups. They create new efficiencies, for a start. They enable individuals in need of services to find people ready to provide them. They activate a community’s latent resources – spare rooms, unused cars, gear tucked away in tool sheds – creating new markets for renting and sharing, and new lines of income for micro-entrepreneurs. Sure, they are disrupting the status quo – but so what? Given the state of the world, our societies could do with a little disruption. The companies that own the social operating systems are valued in millions and billions, and who’s to argue with that? Those of them who have figured out how to monetise their communities are highly profitable engines of economic growth.

But we must also take a critical view. The new social operating systems are demolishing established industries, and destroying jobs and lives in the process. While they create new jobs, these are not the same jobs in the same industries. Blue collar bodies litter the scenes of these acts of creative destruction. Taking a broader view on the implications of these developments, we might ask whether young tech wizards are really the best people to be redesigning social systems. We are rapidly moving into a world that is thoroughly configured by software design. We have never experienced such a world before. We have no idea what kinds of problems these new designs will create. Will social reputation systems serve as a reliable subtitute for the consumer protections offered under law in existing service-based industries? The answer is unclear. The same goes for worker protections. The sharing economy offers real opportunities for cash-strapped micro-entrepreneurs. But this economy is built on precarious labor. Micro-entrepreneurs lack health care, workplace insurance, and superannuation. We need only look back to the 19th century to see the conditions that prevail when a workforce operates without a social safety net.

Diving deeper, there are some important philosophical questions that are being ignored in the startup bonanza. The basic ethical question of whether society wants to be disrupted, for a start. Startup entrepreneurs treat societies and economies as raw material to be hacked. Did we citizens ask to be hacked? The answer, quite simply, is no. What right, then, does a tech startup have to ‘rearrange the bits’ of social reality, regardless of the human costs of the activity? Capitalism has always been a force of creative destruction, it is true. But the new generation of social operating systems take disruption down to street level, where it directly impacts the lives of ordinary people, as opposed to corporations. From an ethical point of view, this is a highly questionable activity. Yet the ethical question is rarely, if ever, addressed in the business press. Only outsiders, such as tech critic Evgeny Morozov, seem to be sensitive to these issues. From a west coast perspective, the tone of Morozov’s critical missives smacks of the bitter impotence of an east coast intellectual railing against the fact that the world has changed. In reality, it reflects an ethical sensibility that is notably absent from the dominant discourse. We should clone Morozov many times over.

Diving deeper still, we run up against the ontology of Silicon Valley, its underlying theory of reality. This ontology can be summed-up in the phrase: ‘Hack everything!’. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, champion of the hacker way, hackers see the world as an imperfect prototype. Zuckerberg claims: ‘Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo’. On the face of it, the hacker way is appealing. Who doesn’t want to play around with creative alternatives and explore the possibility of making things better? The hacker way makes perfect sense when applied to machine parts, circuit boards, and code. Applied to social reality, however, it has alarming ontological implications. Treating reality as raw material to be hacked changes the way that we think of it. Reality shows up as a neutral field of resources that can be moved about, uncoupled, recoupled, tinkered with, and exploited. It’s as if the world were just an n-dimensional field of object-resources. Nothing has inherent value. Everything is manipulable.

Is this a healthy way of looking at the world? We could have a long discussion about this. Is it a responsible point of view for digital architects setting out to revision the structure of society? My guess is that most people would answer no. Yet this is the ontology of some of the most successful new companies in Silicon Valley. It is the unquestioned background for entrepreneurs and investors at the forefront of the social startup boom.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) would not have been surprised by this state of affairs. Heidegger died as the internet was being built. But his critique of technology, developed through the the 1940s and 50s, anticipates the internet and casts social operating systems in a critical light. From Heidegger’s perspective, the hacker way, applied to social reality, reflects an alienated view of the world. Heidegger calls it: ‘technological enframing’. From the standpoint of technological enframing, reality appears as a field of abstract resources amenable to manipulation. If software is eating the world, it is because the world has been enframed in a technological light, reimagined as a set of valves, wires, and diodes to be hacked.

Technological enframing is more than just a way of thinking about the world. It is a way of revealing ‘Being’, or reality. Heidegger’s major insight, introduced in Being and Time (1927), is that human beings are ‘world disclosing’ entities. We disclose the world in different ways depending on how we engage with people and things. When we ‘let beings be’, taking a hands-off approach to dealing with people and things, respecting their right to exist independantly of our concepts and concerns, reality appears as realm of infinite depth and mystery. But when we come at things with the demand that they meet our needs and fit with our concepts and systems, the world shows up differently. Reality appears as the mirror of our own activity, full of more or less useful stuff at our disposal.

This is technological enframing. Heidegger looks back to antiquity to understand how technological enframing came to dominate in modern societies. In ancient times, Heidegger maintains, human beings had a different way of dealing with things. They let beings be. Artisans and craftspeople stood back to let being reveal itself before representing it in art. Farmers learned to work with the climate and seasons; craftspeople with the grain of wood and stone; hunters with the migratory flows of beasts, birds, and fish. This receptive attitude toward nature continues today in indigenous societies. Yet, it seems quaint and outmoded in the industrious world of technology. In the European world, Heidegger argues, the shift came with the rise of science and machine technology. Scientific conceptual frameworks enabled men to categorise the world, while machine technology gave them the tools they needed to dominate it. Thus commenced the wholesale enframing of nature, which continues to this day. Instead of standing back and accommodating ourselves to reality, we ‘set upon’ and ‘challenge’ the world to reveal its hidden wealth. In a disclosive rejoinder, nature becomes resource. Heidegger writes: ‘The earth now reveals itself as a coal-mining district, the soil a mineral deposit. … Air is set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy…’ Everything becomes an opportunity for objectification and exploitation.

Heidegger was wrong about many things. His conservative politics (Heidegger was a committed member of the Nazi Party between 1933 and 1934) have led many to assume that his philosophy is not worth reading. Yet, in this one respect, Heidegger is undoubtedly correct. Technological enframing is a definitive feature of modern life. We adopt this point of view (or something like it) in our daily practical activities. Planning involves enframing. Project management involves enframing. We enframe the world by sidelining any serious reflection on the things that we are dealing with, conceiving them as mere resources or capacity that we can apply in a systematic way. In our defence, we might argue that this is a pragmatic way to live. If I’m building a house, I don’t need to meditate on the ‘being’ of things; I need to know what tools I need to build the house, what materials I need to purchase; what cash flow I can tap into to fund the build, and what legal codes I’m required to observe. Tools and materials, money and practical knowledge: these are the kinds of resources that we need to get things done. The rest is for philosophers. We simply can’t walk around ‘letting beings be’ and hope to keep up with the demands of practical life.

It is true that sometimes we need to enframe the world to get things done. It doesn’t follow, however, that Heidegger’s critique is mistaken, and it certainly doesn’t follow that we should ignore the warning that it presents. The fact that technological enframing is an important feature of contemporary life supports Heidegger’s argument, instead of standing against it. It indicates that we need to be mindful of the way that we engage with the world, assuming that we want to avoid treating people, living beings, and other natural phenomena as mere resources. This is precisely what Heidegger finds objectionable about enframing: it diminishes the ontological standing of things. Consider the example of a river. The river may have run its course for ten thousand years. It may have spawned a trillion fish and nurtured a billion ecosystems. But the moment that humanity builds a hydro-electric dam on the river to convert its energy into electrical power, technology takes ontological precedence. The river becomes a supplier to the grid, a source of electricity production. The people who live on the river may disagree, but chances are they are on the outside of technological society. For governing technocrats, the river is a resource. It is something that functions within a technological system created by humankind.

This is the fate of everything in a technological age. Nature, the world, and everything in it becomes a function of technology. It is understood in terms of a technological system created by humanity, not as an autonomous power independant of human existence.

Let’s bring this back to the critical perspective we were developing on the ethics and ontology of Silicon Valley startups. How does Heidegger’s critique of enframing apply?

First of all, Heidegger’s critique casts the ‘hack everything’ attitude in an unflattering light. Instead of being a simple, pragmatic way of looking at the world, the hacker way can be seen as an ontologically-transformative attitude that enframes reality as field of manipulable resource. This attitude is unproblematic when applied to inanimate objects. It is highly problematic, however, when it is applied to the social and economic structures of human life. Human life is not hardware. Social and economic systems are not strings of code. To treat society in this way reflects an impoverished point of view, symptomatic of an alienated experience of the world. It diminishes human life. It may be where the money is, but it is no way to build a better world.

This leads us to a second insight, which will be even more troubling for progressive startup entrepreneurs. The discourse of the ‘sharing economy’ puts a feel-good spin on technological disruption. By emphasizing the aspect of sharing goods and resources, we are able to portray social operating systems as the cutting edge of the ‘new’ economy, where people come first and social benefit is paramount. There clearly is a great deal that is new about social operating systems and the companies that design them. If Heidegger is right, however, there is also a deep line of continuity that links them to the ‘old’ economy that they are trying to replace. Proponents of the hacker way claim that they are trying to make the world a better place. Yet, in seeking to hack the fabric of society, they contribute to the grey malaise that industrial capitalism forced on the world, treating human beings as things to be manipulated and exploited for profit.

The new startups may not lop the tops off mountains and strip mine their resources. But they perpetuate the callous disregard of industrial capitalism just the same. This conclusion will jar with the self-assessment of tech progressives, many of whom are genuinely concerned to make a positive difference in the world. We must note that it only applies to a subset of tech entrepreneurs – those who treat social reality as raw material to be hacked. It is possible to design social operating systems that are based in a more respectful and circumspect outlook on the world. We need to take a human-centred approach to software design that puts real people first.

If you want to positively rewire the social and economic fabric, take a deep dive into the world and engage its complexity. Go into local communities and ‘let being be’. Find out what makes local economies tick. Identify their pain points and design social solutions for them.

Immerse yourself in the reality of life. Don’t forget that you are designing for human beings.

Comments

  1. Terrific post – I think there is a key phrase in there at the end – “insofar as the [new Silicon Valley starts-ups pursue profits while externalising social costs” – how much is that particular facet related – or not – to technological enframing? I don’t know the answer, but your post will stimulate me to think about it. Meanwhile, it also made me keen to do a shout-out to those designing social operating systems from a very different perspective – see http://www.enspiral.com and http://stirtoaction.com/open-co-ops-inspiration-legal-structures-and-tools/ for some inspiring examples. Would you see these ways forward as “human-centred”, “respectful and circumspect”? Thanks again for a great post.

    • Bronwen, so glad you liked the post! It was your excellent article on Crowdfunding and Ownership in the Sharing Economy that inspired me to write it. Now I think of it, I should have included your Illich quote about ‘recovering our lost ear’ for community in the final paragraph. This is precisely the point I wanted to make.

      Regarding the externalisation of costs: yes, I think this is related to enframing, in an indirect way. Enframing conditions agents’ outlooks such that it becomes easy to ignore the human costs of disruption. The world is like Legoland, and Lego people feel no pain. When a digital innovation destroys their home and livelihood, they only need to attach themselves to something new.

      Enspiral and Stir to Action are great examples of human-centricity. I was aware of the former but not the latter. Thanks for sharing the links!

  2. Thanks for a thorough analysis of what proves to be a scary reality – we are used to being manipulated by ‘corporations’ and governments for traditional economic and political purposes but if what you suggest is true the ‘enemy’ is no longer above or outside us but beside and inside us -hard to see them coming when they look and act just like us.

  3. Excellent piece Tim gives us all food for thought. You hear all too often marketeers who are just keen to maximise SEO rankings and the such like missing the point of the new environment in which we find ourselves. A mirror is being held up to our selves asking us to awaken to our existential being. This will take a long time to feed through society until such times as folk understand what it means to “write oneself into existence” on their twitter/FB/blogs.

    Your piece is also valuable input to a critique of Jeremy Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost Society.

    • Thanks for the comments, Tim. ‘Writing oneself into existence’ – a perennial philosophical pursuit! It’s certainly something I related to myself.

      I have yet to read Rivkin’s book – it’s high on the list. I must say I’ve been impressed by the interviews etc I’ve read in the press. I’m a fan of Rivkin’s idea of the ‘energy internet’, meaning self-generated renewable energy shared and sold with communities. Generally, I’m a fan of peer to peer solutions – it’s just the callous, laissez faire, way in which many of them are introduced that I object to.

  4. I have to register a bit of protest at Martin Heidegger being described as a “diligent member of the Nazi Party.” He was far more than a diligent member. As the rector at Freiburg University he worked to have all Jewish faculty members and students removed from the school. Although he resigned this position in 1934, he remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. In addition, Heidegger never publicly apologized for his actions, which, among other things, included publicly praising Hitler during his inaugural address as rector. I’m not a Heidegger hater. I read him extensively while in college and after that time. Since the full extent of his association with the Nazis was revealed I have not been able to touch his books.

    • Fair call, Darryl. I’ve changed ‘diligent’ to ‘committed’ – more accurate.

      Heidegger’s politics is a constant thorn in the side of his philosophical followers. There’s no explaining it away – the man endorsed the great moral monster of the 20th century, along with his hateful ideology (Heidegger claims he never read Mein Kamph, but this is hard to believe). Yet Heidegger is also acknowledged as one of the great philosophical innovators of the century. How do we navigate this issue? The debate continues and probably always will.

      For those who’d like to know more about the issue, I recommend this article: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/heideggers-tragedy

  5. ‘Creative destruction’ is quite an phenomenon. It’s a contradiction in terms. But it does reflect the contradictory nature of the world. Human behaviour has always been about two basic instincts, to create and/or destroy.

    But why does it exist? I think this aspect of existence is the least studied by philosophy. Mainly it occurs to keep humanity alive and awake, from atrophying.

  6. Two major questions I have about this article.
    1. If enframing offers a competitive advantage to societies, does that competitive advantage not mean more to the society’s survival than avoiding gray malaise?
    2. What is a river to a bacterium if not a resource?

    It seems to me there is no reason a single person cannot see a thing both as an entity in its own right and a resource. I don’t think Heidegger really needs to create this dichotomy.

    Side note, Heidegger’s politics are no reason to disregard his thoughts. Figuring out why smart people supported the Nazis, rather than copping out and saying “they were evil,” is one of the most important things we can learn about ourselves. I’m much more fascinated with why he became a Nazi, what moral good he saw in it, why he thought it useful, than I am with his ideas on ontology.

    • Good questions! Thanks.

      1. There are many ways of pursuing competitive advantage. If we can pursue our advantage without compromising the integrity of human beings, it’s better, don’t you think? Also, not all ways of pursuing competitive advantage contribute to our survival. Technological enframing has us on a path to ecological catastrophe. So that’s another reason to be wary of it. Heidegger believed that there is a better way to organise human life than to reduce people to resource. Intriguingly, he suggested that the way forward lies through technological enframing, as if the enframing impulse held within it the seeds of its overcoming…

      Wish I could expand on this but Heidegger didn’t say much. Hoping to explore it in another post.

      2. To the bacterium, the river is ‘being’. Just as reality ‘is’ for us prior to us defining and describing it in any way (as energy, matter, or resource), living creatures have a pre-ontological understanding of being, an immanent experience of being in the world. This is Heidegger’s position from Being and Time onwards.

      You are right that a person can see a thing as a resource and as a thing in its own right. Enframing is not mind control – it is a freely chosen and adopted way of dealing with things. Why do we choose to adopt the viewpoint of enframing? Because we believe it offers us competitive advantage, which, to a certain extent, it does.

      I agree that Heidegger’s personal political decisions aren’t a good reason to disregard his philosophy. According to Heidegger’s biographer Hugo Ott, Heidegger’s Nazism was tied up with his environmentalism (apparently Hitler youth had a green arm – don’t tell the GOP!), his political naivety, and his inflated sense of self-importance. I think he really believed they his philosophy would change the world.

  7. Three comments:
    A. “Startup entrepreneurs treat societies and economies as raw material to be hacked.”
    Or, put another way, they engage in consensual trading arrangements worth individuals, offering a service in exchange for money, or attention. Yes, the aggregate effect of these arrangements around technology can be problematic, even more than it always has been, but I don’t follow how this framing of the issue sheds light on it.

    B. “I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
    1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
    2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
    3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
    Douglas Adams
    IIUC, Socrates thought that writing ideas down was a terrible idea.
    Related to this: http://youarenotsosmart.com/2013/12/04/yanss-podcast-013-clive-thompson-and-how-technology-affects-our-minds/ – highly recommended.

    C. Re designing for human beings, I recommend the writings of Victor Papanek, who has inspired many a design student.

    • Not sure this framing reflects the point I’m trying to make, Chris. I’m not concerned that entrepreneurs enter into consensual trading relationships. What bothers me is the way that some tech entrepreneurs (particularly in the sharing economy space) understand their modus operandi, namely, to disrupt sectors and industries with social operating systems.

      I’m not opposed to Silicon Valley, tech entrepreneurialism, or the sharing economy. On the contrary, I’m interested in defining the attitude, outlook, and ethics of a genuinely progressive tech entepreneurialism. This post is my way of rounding on this topic.

      You know, I hadn’t articulated these points clearly to myself until reflecting on your comments. Thanks Chris!

  8. herunveiling says:

    Go me screaming HALLELUJAH also most forgot I wasn’t in church…. 🙊 There is a progressive quality about evil. It begins in the simplest way: with a desire. It begins with a wish to have, to hold, to possess something. And then to use that something to achieve purposes of our own.

    Delicious writing! Really glad you gleaned the good in Heidegger…though maybe good may not be the word I ought to use. May the prophetic in Heidegger.

    • Gee, thank you, that’s incredibly kind. 🙂

      I think you may be right about the progressive quality of evil. I’d never thought about enframing in this way. But it seems right. I sense you may be picking up on something latent in Heidegger’s thinking, a religious aspect that I may not have properly thought through. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. And thanks again for the spirited comments!

      • herunveiling says:

        Too many typos in my comment…sorry! I guess my fingers weren’t moving fast enough in my excitement!

  9. I’m not as educated as many of you are, but wisdom rules me at my age. I look at the ‘hacking’ environment from both sides and for equal reason. The natural laws of science equate as long as both sides of the premise articulate themselves.

    I understand, fully, how we can batter ourselves out of the social system, but that can only occur if we fail to accept our responsibility to create our own fail safe. It is not the ignorant, nor uneducated that I fear, nor the educated and the go-getter. For both sides are sufferable should they decline to accept their responsibility to all of mankind.

    Our global society demands that we stop thinking west coast versus east coast. That we respond to the rational idea that it takes each and every individual to place their mark upon the table. There should be no separation, but a cohesiveness between ideologies. If we are to make the revolution of technology as the era of transition to greater good we must incorporate and assist both sides. Simply because one holds greater financial viability does not excuse nor right it as Lord of Governance. Humanity still exists and to define it solely thru the spectrum of hack and hijack is misleading.

    Look at our public education system, the decline of values within it. Does that come solely by way of the misfortune of lack of public funding, or the expectation of those who feel there is no way out of the malaise? Hack the enterprise of educating and you will turn this world toward standards that have been missing for far too long. Utilize angel investments to create other enterprises such as food networks and social education distribution centers. Don’t write off the new day because of the beleaguered and the skeptic. Never before has there been a greater need to step beyond ourselves and look at our options, rather than sitting back and forfeiting our tomorrow by those hell bent on creating their own virulent utopia. We all know that premise is false to begin with and that it takes people from all walks of life to generate the true success of application(s). Too many have become deluded by their own power and presence, but not the overwhelming majority.

    Right now this world may appear to be unraveling to some, to others it is at the beginning of something so fundamental that we are unsure of how to approach it. There is no wrong way to attack a challenge, unless of course we simply stand still.

    Thanks for the opportunity to read your article and the opinions brought forth.

  10. Superb.! Thanks for sharing. Excellent work, very informative.

  11. Good words!

  12. Hello from Spain.
    I think this article of yours is a really good one, but too mild into making things clear. It is not time for social, economical or philosophical analysis. Unfortunately, things are too hot currently. So to chill out a bit, I highly recommend you all to read my posts under the tag GLOBAL ISSUES, and open your eyes and minds widely whilst reading.
    http://learnwareenglish.wordpress.com/

    Best regards, wonderful post.

  13. This is so inspiring thank you

  14. Hello Tim,

    I came across this article that uses my illustration of Heidegger above, and I’m excited that you’ve taken an interest in my work. I realize that with the internet people think everything is just free to use without payment or permission, however I work very hard at what I do, and it’s not just a labor of love—it’s my career. You need to ask permission to use my work. I do appreciate the link, but proper credit is necessary as well.
    It would be the same as if I took all your writing above and put it on my site to add context and interest to my artwork and didn’t notify you. Again, I’m happy that you like my work enough to share it with others, and I’m sure that there were no nefarious intentions on your part and this is only a misunderstanding.

    Please contact me and let me know if you would like to continue using my illustration.

    Sincerely,
    Barry Bruner
    Illustration
    http://www.barrybruner.com

    • Hi Barry,

      I am remiss. As I recall, I found the illustration on a blog in some far-flung corner of the internet. It wasn’t credited and I suppose I didn’t try as hard as I might to track down the artist. I feel bad about this because I love your work – all the more so, now that I see it in the context of your oeuvre.

      I have added your name and a link to your site to the image. I hope this suffices. If it doesn’t, no problem: I will remove the image. Please let me know.

      My deepest apologies in any case.

      Tim

      • Hi again Barry,

        Sorry, I misread your message. The image to which you refer is the second image – the one of Heidegger, right? Apologies again. It is a great illustration. But I totally understand if you’re peeved at me just grabbing it offline without asking.

        Can we work something out? Under what conditions would you be happy with me continuing to use the image?

        Regards,
        Tim

  15. Thanks Tim,

    How much of this mentality is fuelled by capitalism though?

    It seems what essence of technology emerges depends on market forces. For example, Facebook did reveal a desire for greater social connection and produce a social network, but under capitalism is was likely to become predatory, with a focus on expansion and extraction, treating the world as something to be conquered, it’s users as resource to be exploited https://youtu.be/J5xzuy897-8

    Is technological enframing simply technology through the perspective of capitalism?

    • Good question Steve. Heidegger would agree that digital capitalism is the ultimate evolution of the enframing mindset. From the perspective of a VC like Marc Andreessen, human beings are availiable resource to be mobilized for profit. This is not a reflection on Marc Andreessen BTW (I have never met Marc, but I’m sure he’d take umbrage with the suggestion that he sees people as mere resources!); rather, it reflects the mindset that one is forced to adopt in order to see the commercial value of technological systems. We can’t understand the commercial value of Facebook, for instance, without thinking about human beings as eyeballs with a $ value for potential advertisers. While one doesn’t have to look at the world in this way, it make sense to do so given the way the capitalist world is set up (assuming one wants a part of it).

      Technological enframing arises from the real systems and practices that we’ve implemented to enable us to organise and control reality. To put this in the language of Being and Time, it has to do with the tool-structure of the work world; the way that our tools and technological systems frame the world for thought and perception.

      Technological enframing is not limited to capitalism. The enframing mindset shapes all modern political ‘isms’. We see it in the Nazi state (most evidently in the Holocaust) and the planned regimes of Soviet Russia as well as industrial and digital capitalism. This is what disturbs political progressives about Heidegger’s thesis (ok, the fact that he was a Nazi Party member during WWII is pretty disturbing too, but let’s leave this aside). We can’t escape the enframing mindset simply by changing our political and economic systems. Any system that sets out to organise the lives of the population facilitates the enframing mindset. That is the problem.

      So what is the solution? The first thing that we need to acknowledge is that it is a mistake to look for ‘a’ solution. This is the trap that digital technologists fall into time and time again: ‘Eureka! This algorithm will change the world!’ All that happens is that they enframe the world in a more efficient way. Should we side with the Unabomber, then, and renounce all technology – perhaps try to destroy the system? I think this strategy is counterproductive and futile. Destroying the current system would only create space for a new and uglier technological regime to rise from the ashes. ISIL are technologists too. They dream of the technological Caliphate.

      The only way forward is for us to take up a new relationship to technology. At the end of The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger likens this to ‘getting over grief’. Getting over grief doesn’t remove the source of our grief. The bad, ugly, painful thing remains a fact of the world. Yet, it doesn’t dominate our consciousness. We are free to look beyond it, to think and feel otherwise. We have the opportunity to engage with the problem without it overcoming us.

      What I understand Heidegger to mean is that we need to acknowledge technological enframing as a feature of the modern world while resisting this mindset as much as possible, so that it doesn’t determine our actions and decisions. By creating a space of freedom between our technological systems and our thinking, we are able to assume a critical perspective on technological systems, even while we use them. This enables us to develop and use these systems for the purposes of genuine human flourishing. I see people like Michel Bauwens, who explores how P2P technology can enable a more fluid and free society, as examplars of this alternative technological mindset.

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