This week marks the end of our philosophical studies for Automatic Everything, a design studio exploring alternative mythologies and stories for Artificial Intelligence.
To finish our journey, we were asked to read a chapter in Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, and Thought called “The Thing” which explores the concept of things, objects, and true nearness as a reflection on how early 20th century technology was disrupting the way people understood reality and the world around them.
Below I have summed up my interpretation of the reading as it relates to the following prompt from our instructor and towards the end I seek to reflect on how his philosophy could relate to our relationship to information, things, and technology today.
It seems evident what “things” are given that they are all around us.
Why, then, does Heidegger ask about what things are? Why is this a question for him in the first place?
Heidegger lived during a time of tremendous technological change. Throughout the beginning of the 20th century, he witnessed the start of the industrial and media revolution that would come to define the century. Science and technology rapidly improved and widely-held beliefs about the nature of ‘reality’, and ‘experience’ were continually disrupted by new discoveries and ways of acting and being. In his chapter “The Thing”, part of a lecture called Poetry, Language, and Thought Heidegger is responding to these changes, perhaps criticising them in some fashion, but more reflecting on what their emergence has obscured.
He begins his discussion with an observation that technology is redefining the idea of nearness, ‘All distances in time and space are shrinking”, and blames this collapse on the instantaneity of technological communication, whether print, voice, or image and sound. While one could say these advances “make the far near”, insofar as they make different, previously unobservable, scales of time and distance possible – seeing an unseen place across the world, watching the slow-motion growth of a flower. Heidegger instead argues that this isn’t the truth of ‘nearness’, this collapsing of distance across time, rather that the ‘uniform distanceless’ this creates is fundamentally unearthly, unworldly, unreal, and in this sense unsettling (placing everything outside of its own nature) and terrifying. In his quest to describe the truth of nearness, Heidegger employs the (somewhat long-winded and poetic) strategy of first defining what a thing is, especially as it relates to what an object is, positing that in the modern world most things have lost their thingness and are now only objects. He does this in an attempt to get us to move beyond our current context in time and space, the way we perceive things and experiences. By going on both a philosophical and historical/etymological journey of what makes things things as we understand them today, Heidegger is trying to reopen decisions we have made about the nature of things, he is trying to get us to ‘reframe’ them according to a rigorous exploration of their true definition – as technology has equally reframed them in modernity.
While it might seem evident to us today that things are things, they are only things so far as we frame them with our language, history and hence understanding. Heidegger instead wants us to unpack what that framing is really made up of and how the pieces that construct it have come to colour our definition of things, of reality, of experience. He especially critiques the role of science in this framing, the goal of controlling reality through the physical observation of things as merely objects and asserts that “…science represents something real, by which it is objectively controlled. But—is this reality the jug? No. Science always encounters only what it’s kind of representation has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science.” By this he means that science’s contribution of a knowledge of physics, the principles that make the world tick, the observable reality, has actually caused us to take the definition of a thing only as a nonentity, as a series of physical building blocks and relationships that have come to constitute the standard for how it really is.
He says we instead have to question the framing, the etymology of the thing, across languages and seek a common truth across all of them. He also puts forth his own definition of a thing through his metaphor of a jug, asserting that what makes a jug a jug is understanding what it gives us, a poured gift. He uses this metaphor to look at our experience of a jug as a thing which gives us a poured gift either to quench our own thirst or as a libation to deities. In this experience of what the jug gives us lies it’s truth, the intertwined connotations of what is in the jug and what makes what is in it what it is. Water or wine, the gift of said jug is our experience of that element as it pertains to the world at large, the earth and sky that made its gift possible, the purpose of water/wine as a gift to either mortals (refreshment) or immortals (libation). This gathering of this fourfold relationship, the understanding of the jug by the gift it gives us is its thingness, its grounding in this specific world and nature that has made the element in the jug possible, thereby making the jug possible and necessary. This manifestation is his essential definition of the thing as it ought to be as a thing, rather than just an object without its associated groundings in time, space, and understanding.
He finally gets back to the nearness at question after these distinctions and says that nearness is an understanding of this four-fold relationship and a gathering of them together into one thing versus understanding them only separately and remotely. The bringing near of the otherwise remote earth, sky, mortal, immortal is the definition of nearness, regardless of observable proximity. By defining nearness, Heidegger seeks to confront experience versus objective reality, going on to say that “This appropriating mirror-play of the simple onefold of earth and sky, divinities and mortals, we call the world.” For him we must question both what nearness and things are in a world that very much prizes observable reality over experienced reality, the objecting of the object versus the thinging of the thing.
Reflection on Today & Technology
Given Heidegger’s history with technology, it is no wonder that he seeks to delve into the truth of what makes experience experience, of what makes things things. He believed that technology seeks to enframe the world as a standard reserve of energy and resources that can be used however humans want – famously likening industrial farming to gas-chambers given their relationship to mass-production techniques – leading to a biased experience of the real connections between things and the world that birthed them. When watching the horror of a thing experienced through a space-time collapsing assortment of screens and displays, is the true experience of that thing naturally diluted? Do we lose our human experience and connection to the world by objectifying the things within it? Certainly Heidegger watched this happen daily as mechanization, mass-production, and computation became the gods of his age, slavishly worshiped before and above the connection to earth, sky, mortal, and immortal that he felt previous generations must have benefited from, whether or not they knew it or could articulate it.
Regardless, in the context of modern technology, I believe that Heidegger makes a good point. Given the complexity of modern society, the daily collapses of time and place and scale that occur when we pull our phone out of our pockets and plug into a global cloud of disembodied, displaced, and “dis-timed” information, do we truly consider the nature of things and their relationship with the complex, terrifying, but beautiful nature of the world as it is? Do we remember that even an iPhone is a thing insofar as it is made of earth metals, plastics from carbon that was once animals and plants watered by the sky? Do we consider its nature by the gifts it gives us, namely knowledge and communication, either as a way to refresh our own spirits or to perhaps somehow pay homage to a higher spirit or being? Are we disconnected from the reality of the here and now as it is defined by the intrinsic connection to the everywhere and always?
While these are questions I can’t answer, I think they are a great place for a beginning. Perhaps only by taking the radical and challenging step back that Heidegger proposes is necessary to rething things will we be able to realize a more empathetic and universal understanding of each other and our world. Maybe by framing the wicked challenges technology has already wrought and boundless opportunities it still presents, not by our current cost/benefit, credit/debit, input/ouput perception of world as object, as resource, but by a more holistic understanding of world as thing, as world, can we truly begin to make progress.