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.