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Review
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Culture

The apple of Martin Heidegger’s eye

Martin Heidegger died in 1976, the same year that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak formed the Apple Computer Company. One of these men had an idea and the other built it.

Martin Heidegger saw technology as a thing with the potential to fully optionalise the essence of our being, while also understanding it might also bring about nothingness, despair through alienation. Most people will have an opinion as to which of these points we have already arrived at – even though we are clearly nowhere near finished with advancing technology. But whether you think technology is a tool with which we create or if you think we are slaves to it, technology clearly has the potential for both things. Heidegger did a lot of thinking and writing on this potential. Unfortunately, Heidegger is no longer with us and so we don’t have access to his thoughts on where we’re currently at – although apparently we are planning to invent whole brain emulation for the future, so asking Heidegger might one day be possible. Dare I say, should we ever succeed in such an endeavour, the product will surely be released on the market for the everyman by that global giant we call Apple.

When Steve Jobs died there was a lot of conversation about the legacy he left behind and whether or not, it was, for all its capitalist exploitation, something to be celebrated and revered. (See Benjamin Laird’s CEOs, authors and white-collar work for more.) I’d like to suggest something between revering and roasting. Steve Jobs is not a man I knew personally and so the casting of aspersions over his character – even after watching Ashton Kutcher do his best to recreate a fictionalised version of the man in the recently released middle-of-the-road drama Jobs – is not something with which I wish to engage. I do, however, want to engage with thinking about his advancement of philosophical thought on technology and how that has now developed to a point where both optionalisation and nothingness reign (optionalisation can be understood here as a kind of ubiquitous computing, and nothingness as a kind of alienation that leads to despair).

If there is anything to be garnered from the bland dramatised biography that is Jobs, it is that Steve Jobs was not a designer, or an engineer, or even an especially good entrepreneur in the early days of his career. Rather, he was an exceptional motivational speaker and thinker. The only real talent the film credits him with is being the only person in any room who could comprehend the potential of technology. In the film, Jobs describes what technology can be as ‘a natural extension of the individual’. He talks about how the world consists of things made by humans who weren’t smarter than him or, for that matter, anyone else with an idea. So, if one wanted, one could literally change the world.

It’s not so much optionalisation, as it is the idea of optionalisation that Jobs should be recognised for.

Jobs passes on the possibility for optionalisation to his employees (with some financial and structural issues along the way), and what ultimately emerges is both the optionalisation he had hoped for but also the nothingness that Heidegger feared.

As for providing us with a tool that can be used as an extension of ourselves, many Apple products can be given as examples: we can make music, film and other kinds of art with our iPhones, for a start. On the flipside, if we look at Stephen Wright’s article, Saint Steve Jobs, then we need to acknowledge that our iPhones – and our art – are bloodstained. In terms of a human/technology trajectory, the nothingness is the result of the worst kind of irony: the worker is exploited until he/she is replaced by technology; later, the worker is (re)employed, and exploited in the very process of continuing to create such technology. It’s not a chicken-egg situation, but our relationship with technological evolution is now cyclical.

For all of his pseudo-philosophising, what Steve Jobs created in the technological extension of himself is a double-edged sword of freedom and oppression. Returning to Heidegger, the dichotomous reality isn’t so unfamiliar. Martin Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party until the end of the war and his philosophical career was bolstered by the regime. There are of course arguments posed both in persecution and in defence of his personal sympathies. Neither of these so-called ‘great’ men killed anyone with their own two hands (at least, not that we know of) and yet their remarkable philosophies come steeped in blood. So how do we reconcile our own responses to their achievements for and failures against humanity? Is not the search for understanding of, mastery over, and engagements with technology supposedly the quest to better serve our understanding of, mastery over and engagements with our own Being? Surely that’s a noble quest. Yet if it brings nothingness with it, certainly we must stop and rethink.

Our thinkers are both now dead and the idea that is their legacy is our opportunity and our burden: it is both the apple and the poison.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at tarajudah.com and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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Comments

  1. My understanding is that Heidegger couches his (somewhat moralising) distaste for technology in relation to the “enframing” of being in the world by it.

    The abstractions that tools permit in terms of our interaction with our world allow the world to be treated metaphysically, as a rationalised (and therefore, in Heidegger’s philosophy, reduced by its projection to a fixed phenomenon) and stockpiled utility. Vorhandenheit.

    The smartphone is an exemplar of this effect, not because its traits as we experience them differ qualitatively from other tools in executing the effect just described, but because they make it, like a hammer, from another separate view a suitable tool for building a metaphysics of tools.

    The traits which fit it – and computing and communications technology in general – for this somewhat fallacious metaphysical exaltation include its ubiquity, its ease of use, its status as a “language machine”, its recent appearance on the horizon, its modulation of space and time in its action of the world as it brings subjects together, and its information design.

    The last means that the workings of the services a smartphone presents to us remain hidden from view, just as the conditions of Foxconn employees are hidden from us at the moment we purchase it.

    Services such as TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk epitomise the “holonic” character of information on our current network and its latent moral implications – but I question whether we should therefore attribute moral qualities to the technology itself. A holonic, decoupled system design where the individual components are fungible expresses of capitalism, and is not intrinsic to technology. Information dependency is a form of power – cf Daisey’s Foxconn story re-coupling the smartphone’s means of production to the otherwise opaque device itself.

    The vocabulary of biological sciences – “emergence”, “evolution” and related terms – are used to naturalise the harmful incentives in our society. Perhaps the idea that certain tools are a “natural extension of the individual” is similarly pernicious. Yes, a smartphone extends the self in some sense – but there are many such extensions, each of which will support different flows of information, different structures. In fact, all tools extend the self, which is Heidegger’s greatest philosophical breakthrough – according to some recent interpretations (Harman), he has much less of value to say about specific types of tools.

    It could be argued that Jobs’ greatest achievement wasn’t creating tools that extend the self, it was naturalising the specific tools he created, and making his company an eidolon of technological perfection which, through its perceived prosthesis of our whole society, we advertise even as we critique.

    “Dare I say, should we ever succeed in such an endeavour, the product will surely be released on the market for the everyman by that global giant we call Apple.”

    • Sorry, there are one or two editing errors in the above: “capitalism”, not “of capitalism”, “action on the world”, not “action of the world”. Nice post, by the way.

  2. Hi Tom,
    I think you’re right about advertising as we critique, the branding is always part of the conversation even if it isn’t the topic somehow, and I especially agree with you in regard to the workings of the services remaining hidden from view – I have to say that Jobs (the film) only furthers this ‘hidden from view’ notion/agenda (depending on how you feel about its motivations). Appreciate your thoughtful comments.
    Cheers,
    Tara

  3. Apple as a global giant? So avaricious and cannibalistic is the movement of capital through its gigantic market forces that Apple will more than likely be swallowed up and spat out again as another brand, just like Nokia. And wasn’t the idea of technology as an extension of human organs as much McCluhan as Heidegger?

  4. Hi Dennis,

    I’m afraid I haven’t read McCluhan so I can’t comment in any depth on his body of work. I suppose too that in time we will see which corporations remain influential and powerful in the global marketplace.

    Cheers,
    Tara

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