2. To what extent are theories of technology having their roots in Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology (e.g., Heidegger, Ihde) adequate to account for networks? If they are not adequate in some manner, where do they fall short? Using examples from the list of readings, outline a Heideggerian approach to networks, if that is possible, and/or using other writers from the list critique/amend Heidegger’s approach.





Latour, Bogost, Harman




my example

What is technology?

Feenberg, Foucault, Hayles, Heidegger, Ihde

What is phenomenology?

Heidegger, Ihde, Iser

What is hermeneutics?

Heidegger, Ihde, Iser

What is hermeneutic phenomenology?

What are technology networks?

Castells, Foucault, Hayles, Landow, Latour, Spinuzzi, Sterne

Is there an adequate Heideggerian approach to networks?

Bogost, Feenberg, Haraway, Harmann, Hayles (Simondon), Ihde, Kittler, Latour, Mitcham, Thomson, Ulmer

Groundwork for moving from Heideggerian philosophy of technology towards humanities plus technology stance.

(np) The Question Concerning Technology” by Martin Heidegger has been used as the starting point for many theories of technology, which bear family resemblances to what may be called hermeneutic phenomenology. According to Donald Ihde, a representative of this group, “Heidegger argued that our primary relations to a world or experienced environment were not first conceptual, but praxical, bodily relations which are exemplified in ordinary activity” (39-40). From practical, bodily relations Heidegger foregrounds the invisibility of technology and its systemic rootedness in culture, attempting to reconnect to ancient Greek experiences of techne as handicraft art emerging from the same natural, physical foundation as poetry, poiesis, a 'bringing forth' rather than ready-at-hand manufactured objects. Early in the essay he articulates the approach: “if we inquire, step by step, into what technology, represented as means, actually is, then we shall arrive at revealing. The possibility of all productive manufacturing lies in revealing” (12). Language is an essential phenomenological component; Heideggerian hermeneutics includes word studies, tracing through meanings of current terms to their supposed origins in ancient thought. Ihde defends Heidegger's approach as an essential component of hermeneutics, with the important qualification that “resuscitating the past for the purpose of self-understanding requires a methodologically organized approach, because otherwise individual arbitrariness would prevail” (37-38). This threat of arbitrariness is redoubled in our contemporary understanding of technology—defined by Harvey Brooks and Daniel Bell in Manuel Castells' The Rise of the Network Society as “the use of scientific knowledge to specify ways of doing things in a reproducible manner” (28)—that accounts for networks, complex assemblages of interrelated devices, themselves made up of likewise interrelated subcomponents, enmeshed in complex feedback loops, spliced together via protocols, whose inauguration and continuing operation relies on specially trained actors. Indeed, Castells argues that “the current process of technological transformation expands exponentially because of its ability to create an interface between technological fields through common digital language in which information is generated, stored, retrieved, processed, and transmitted” (29). His example of Cisco's reflexive use of its own computer networking technologies demonstrates how “the network enterprise makes material the culture of the informational, global economy: it transforms signals into commodities by processing technology” (188). Can we still make use of the Heideggerian approach when, according to Castells, “the information technology paradigm does not evolve toward its closure as a system, but toward its openness as a multi-edged network” (75)?

(np) Ian Bogost claims “Heidegger's essay on technology is structured as a haptic analysis, akin to a walk in the woods, by which the stroller happens upon matters of interest” (Unit Operations 7). Let me give an example. A silver chalice, for instance, becomes a focal point, as does a network enabled camera phone. One on such a stroll is unlikely to directly encounter pervasive network phenomena, for instance the TCP/IP version 4 streams radiating within protocols defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers for a particular region of the 2.4 GHz electromagnetic spectrum, noticing only the sound of the simulated shutter click and the bright flash of light from the cell phone camera while taking a picture of the chalice to post on Facebook: “at church.” What do hermeneutic phenomenologists find here? Langdon Winner, according to Ihde, discovers gestalts, worlds and ways of life that technology creates. Like the account of the Lapps culture and its relationship to caribou being radically altered by the introduction of snowmobiles, social and environmental relationships may be reshaped by the network. “It is the growth and interconnection of particularly the latter sort of technologies [nuclear power], with the inclination of the operators working these technologies toward often undemocratic patterns of action, which worries Winner and stimulates the questions of limits for high technology” (104). While imposing limits on network technologies like cell phones and digital photography seems hopeless—ask any school teacher—or may seem innocuous, another representative of the hermeneutic phenomenologists identified by Ihde, Albert Borgmann, may discern instead the possible differentiation between a device paradigm and focal thing. As a focal thing, the silver chalice is situated within the context of religion, perhaps, and foregrounds the participatory culture surrounding it, the history of devotional practicer, and so on. On the other hand, the camera phone and TCP/IP network represent mere devices, which like frozen food and canned music exacerbate the optimistic promises of late capitalistic liberal democracy by locking people into the role of passive consumers of an unanalyzed technobureaucratic monoculture. Ihde's own take on hermeneutic phenomenology, which he dubs lifeworld technologies, does arrive at an awareness of culturally embedded ensembles, including networks, due to its sensitivity to instrumentation. “Human-technology relations, patterned after a phenomenological analysis of human intentionality, purport to show what is invariable in the ways humans experience their technologies. For example, embodiment relations are uses of technologies which enhance (and non-neutrally transform) our perceptual-bodily experience of an environment or world” (111). To finally enter the network, we must join another aspect of lifeworld technologies, which Ihde calls hermeneutic relations, that foreground the interpretive operation of instruments: “the object is still being referred to, but is now translated into a dial reading which indicates some more abstract (and thus more reduced) aspect of the object, such as weight or heat” (112). Ihde is explicit in acknowledging “Human-technology relations—such as those which implicate our bodily-perceptual activities—are structurally crosscultural. . . . But at the same time, technologies in the ensemble are also culturally embedded(113). Now the scaling factor of magnification or reduction, the translation factor of network protocols, and the culturally embedded contingencies of these adaptations, are joined in the phenomenological analysis, and we are able to appreciate the gains and losses to our lifeworld resulting from these relations. His takeaway from this perspective is that the totalization dreaded by Heidegger as the teleological outcome of enframing is presumptive, but not necessary, as our awareness of non-Western cultures and how they contextually embed technologies reveals. The emerging ethical imperative, rather than Heidegger's retreat to the rustic woods of pretechnological nostalgia, or Borgmann's to focal things (home cooked meals, the hearth, running), is adopting what Ihde calls plurivision, “which is symbolized by a kind of insect-like, compound vision. . . . the summary metaphor for postmodernity and what it may, but not necessarily can, imply is a culinary one. Today's cosmopolitan world is a culinary eclectic” (114-114).

(np) Ihde's modification of Heidegger's mode of questioning technology seems adequate for theorizing networks via hermeneutic phenomenology, at least on the first pass. Using plurivision that is tuned to the embodiment and hermeneutic relations of our culturally embedded instrumentation technologies, we can, for instance, survey the scene of chalice, cell phone, and 2.4 GHz IEEE 802.11 encapsulated TCP/IP image of the chalice signaling we are in church, and get closer to our technological makers. A review of Andrew Feenberg's criticisms of Heidegger in Questioning Technology demonstrates that Ihde has made the needed adjustments. First, that in Heidegger's eyes “modern technology is no merely contingent historical phenomenon but a stage in the history of being. Perhaps because of this ontologizing approach, Heidegger allows no room for a different technological future” (16). Ihde foregrounds the cultural embeddedness of technologies, and hints along with other theorists that apparently overdetermining technological trajectories may be due to the influence of dominant capitalist institutions, to which Feenberg agrees: “Contrary to Heideggerian substantivism, there is nothing unprecedented about our technology. .. It is the exorbitant role of these features that is new, and this does have unprecedented consequences” (223). Feenberg also finds “Heidegger's argument is developed at such a high level of abstraction he literally cannot discriminate between electricity and atom bombs, agricultural techniques and the Holocaust” (187). This criticism is also developed by Herman Rapaport in his contribution to Levin's Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision. Levin explains in his introduction that Rapaport's context is Derrida's Cinders, musing on the human remains found in Nazi cremetoria. Ihde's sensitivity to the social and cultural milieux in which technologies operate, reinforced by plurivision, again counters the indiscriminate “evidence of a monstrous 'truth of being' which Heidegger did not see. . . the 'indifference' of an openness which allows for the possibility that the lighting of being may be turned into the fires of hell, the monstrous evil of the Holocaust” (16).

Where weaknesses in the hermeneutic phenomenological approach begin to show up, however, is with its handling of objects—or, rather, its dismissal of keen study of objects in the return to putatively human, top level concerns. Despite the probity of his analysis of instrumentation, Ihde remains centered in the context of human intentionality and phenomenal experience, in a sense linking this discussion to other studies of subjectivity. As evidence, consider the final chapter of Philosophy of Technology, in which he ranks “various larger problems to suggest directions of the future of philosophy of technology” (119). The top issues he lists are the environment, pluriculture, wars, wealth, all very abstract, human concerns that have traditionally occupied contemporary philosophy. Yet at the same time, he argues that “the place and position for genuinely helping change is at a much more basic level—it is at the level of development itself, particularly of technological development. Here few philosophers dare to tread,” and “in a contemporary technoscience environment, one important future direction for philosophy of technology ought to be aimed at the research and development level and not only at the already developed and status quo level” (140-141). The problem, however, is bridging the gap between the already developed status quo level revealed by hermeneutic phenomenology, to the research and development level where real technological change of the sort Feenberg imagines can be philosophically motivated. This is precisely the domain addressed by what I call post-postmodern, and to which I seek to direct my efforts in the specialization of software studies and critical code studies. Two key post-postmodern theorists for meeting this challenge are N. Katherine Hayles and Ian Bogost.

(np) From her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman onward, Hayles has always maintained that human beings and technological systems are dynamically and recursively intertwined. She clearly explains how this comingling of social and technical codes has resulted in computational models of cognition, and evolutionary models of computation. Moreover, her take on technological development and human sciences rejects reductive, deterministic approaches in favor of deeply nuanced, historically contingent accounts in which what later appear as major tenets our world view were highly contested compromises, her example being the Macy Conferences on cybernetics. Her key concern, which for Ihde is the environment, is the contest for what it means to be posthuman: “Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the antihuman and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves” (How We Became Posthuman 291). So far these positions align neatly with the dynamics of Ihde's philosophy of technology as I have presented it. It is on the fourth component of the posthuman position, which “configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines” (3), and if this means the same thing, networks, however, that hermeneutic phenomenology stumbles. I equate her recommendation to engaging with technological objects at the research and development level with the openness to radical transformation of posthuman cyborgs. Her 2008 book Electronic Literature is a survey of this configuration exercise as it is expressed and enacted in new media. New ways of 'reading' that leverage network technologies, that are “kinesthetic, haptic, and proprioceptively vivid” experiences (13), the formation of different kinds of “code work” hybrid languages (21), and the enfolding of computation into contemporary literature propose “the human and the digital computer as partners in a dynamic heterarchy bound together by intermediating dynamics” (47). She uses the evolutionary term synaptogenesis to explain how our involvement with technologies can change how our brains work within individual lifetimes, and not just over longer periods; “what begins as ontogenetic adaptation through learning feeds back into selective pressures to affect physical biology” (115). A philosophy of technology like Heidegger's that tries to recover from ancient Greek experience what is going on with networked media systems wholly misses out on their synaptogenetic possibilities. Yet even one that does account for the gains and losses afforded by instrumentation is limited in its predictive capacity, particularly with respect to what Hayles calls the technological nonconscious. “I argue that while the technological nonconscious has been a factor in constituting humans for millennia, the new cognitive capabilities and agencies of intelligent machines give it greater impact and intensity than ever before” (135). This theme is taken up in her recently published book, How We Think. Technogenesis is the new theory of evolution, and it happens in shorter cycles then ever before. Hayles argues that “grasping the complex ways in which the time scales of human cognition interact with those of intelligent machines requires a theoretical framework in which objects are seen not as static entities that, once created, remain the same throughout time but rather are understood as constantly changing assemblages in which inequalities and inefficiencies in their operations drive them toward breakdown, disruption, innovation, and change” (How We Think 13). Her reading of Gilbert Simondon's theory of technical objects, differentiated between elements (she uses his example of a stone ax head), individuals (the compound tool constituted by the elements), and ensembles (the network of related individuals and processes employed in its production), with concretization as the motive force of change, accommodates a network perspective in which technological change occurs within the shifting horizon of the network, which Latour calls “folding of time.” “In this way, the future is already preadopted in the present (future roads in present cars), while the present carries along with it the marks of the past, for example in the metal ax head that carries in its edge the imprint of the technical ensemble that tempered it (in older eras, this would include a blacksmith, forge, hammer, anvil, bucket of water, etc.)” (89).

(np) Another set of theorists to whom Hayles' work indirectly appeals—Bruno Latour and Ian Bogost—make objects their focus, suggesting object-oriented ontologies as counters to biochauvanistic prejudices that are implicit in hermeneutic phenomenology. As Latour puts it, “there is no greater intellectual crime than to address with the equipment of an older period the challenges of the present one” (“Why Has Critique Run Ouf of Steam?” 231). He sees in Heidegger's approach a lack of respect for everyday objects, including Simondon's technical individuals. Why not approach a can of Coke, or, in my example above, fake shutter sound, camera flash, and wireless network traffic, with the same reverence as the silver chalice? Heidegger's general approach may still have some philosophical use, if only the complexity of the example is adjusted. “Heidegger, when he takes the jug seriously, offers a powerful vocabulary to talk also about the object he despises so much. . . . But, as Ludwig Fleck remarked long ago, their objects are never complicated enough; more precisely, they are never simultaneously made through a complex history and new, real, and interesting participants in the universe. Philosophy never deals with the sort of beings we in science studies have dealt with” (234). Everyday objects are not appreciated for their historicity the way Heidegger’s jug is. Latour's science studies makes things Things again. Perhaps we can do it with technological objects as well, including software, protocols, programming languages, electronic devices, circuits, and computing machinery. Ian Bogost has done just that with his platform studies paradigm, which examines particular technical individuals like the Atari VCS, their technical elements, such as its constitutive electronic components and integrated circuits, and the technical ensembles in which they arose and continue to operate. Latour and Bogost both refer to these things as quasi-objects, a term coined by Michel Serres that attempts to capture the imbrication of human intentionalities in their being, so they have similar significance to Heidegger's chalice. Acknowledging quasi-objects implies what Latour calls variable ontologies, “a gradient that registers variations in the stability of entities from event to essence. . . . We still need to be told whether what is at stake is the air pump as a seventeenth-century event or the air pump as a stabilized essence of the eighteenth century or the twentieth century. The degree of stabilization – the latitude – is as important as the position on the line that runs form the natural to the social – the longitude” (We Have Never Been Modern 85). At the extreme other end of this continuum, if Heidegger's “Question Concerning Technology” is situated at the human end, is Ian Bogost's 2012 book Alien Phenomenology, which tries mightily to resist the anthropocentrism of traditional phenomenology to ponder “what it's like to be a thing” via OOO—object-oriented ontology—a destination that machine cognition may reach, and humans can at best metaphorically intuit through encounters with things: “The act of wonder invites a detachment from ordinary logics, of which human logics are but one example. This is a necessary act in the method of alien phenomenology. . . . Yet wonder has been all but eviscerated in modern thought, left behind as a naïve delusion” (Alien Phenomenology 124).

Sets the stage for consuming back thoughts long past in ways substantially different from memory as any human types.

(np) I am not ready to stake my scholarly career on a whole-hearted leap into this alien phenomenology, but I will go out on a limb and conclude with a somewhat ridiculous, Ulmerian positive response to the question of how to outline a Heideggerian approach to networks. It wonders at a particular network hybrid, namely the shutter sound+camera flash+TCP/IP stream sharing the field with Heidegger's chalice. First the fake shutter sound: while primarily an ethical mechanism built into the device to prevent unauthorized photography by announcing itself with a sound, the click itself constitutes what Hayles calls a skeumorph hearkening back to film photography, “a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time. . . . Skeuomorphs visibly testify to the social or psychological necessity for innovation to be tempered by replication” (How We Became Posthuman 17). For Heidegger skeumorphs maintain a connection to the embeddedness of the object within the culture, part of what makes it stand out as such. Next the flash: in traditional electronics, strobe lights and camera flashes are the textbook application of the thyristor, an electronic device like a transistor that, once triggered by a small current, can evoke the rapid bursting forth of a much larger current. The thyristor, too, is a skeumorph, in the sense that its name hearkens back to the thyrsus of Greek mythology, a staff carried by Dionysius and his followers, considered a fertility phallus, and resembling a penis. Moreover, it is from the thyristor that the light shines out to take the picture, to secure the image for dispatch to the alien phenomenologies of machine processing; as Heidegger puts it, “to ekphanestaton, that which shines forth most purely” (34). It is at this juncture that we should recall where this statement appears in our rereading of “The Question Concerning Technology,” for Heidegger is really talking about the poetical, and the thyristor represents its evil twin, a device manufactured for the sole purpose of maximizing the will to power. Yet the passage he quotes from Hölderlin is the famous claim that has a launched so many reinterpretations of Heidegger in the philosophy of technology: “But where the danger is, grows the saving power also.” Iain Thomson, in “Understanding Technology Ontotheologically, or: the Danger and the Promise of Heidegger, an American Perspective,” equates the greatest danger with what he calls “the problem of the happy enframer,” continuous improvement as a self-satisfying, totalizing philosophy epitomized in Heidegger's conception of America (152 endnote 13). The reinterpretations come as people try to articulate the saving power, something Heidegger himself never really succeeded in doing. Thomson suggests what is needed is a gestalt switch, akin to Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit figure: “the danger is the peak of historical nihilism, the very 'fulfillment' of Western metaphysics, yet, seeing the promise, the obverse of precisely the same phenomenon, constitutes the first step into what he calls 'the other beginning' of history” (161). From the darkness of Nietzschean nihilism comes the dawn, through flipping from the experience of being as nothing, to instead experience “the nothing as the way being shows itself to us(158). The virtual being of the digitized picture of the chalice flashing through the network as immaterial TCP/IP data is one such form of being-in-nothing. At the same time, it is open to inspection and study, and through the epistemological transparency granted by virtue of its constitution through open protocols, is, in fact, a phenomenon knowable in its simulacral essence.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology: or What It's Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations : an Approach to Videogame Criticism / Ian Bogost. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 2006. Print.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Print.

Feenberg, Andrew. Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodes in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Hayles, N Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.

Ihde, Don. Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Print.

Levin, David M. Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Print.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.

Latour, Bruno. "Why Has Critique Run Out Of Steam? From Matters Of Fact To Matters Of Concern." Critical Inquiry 2 (2004): 225. JSTOR Arts & Sciences III. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

Thomson, Iain. “Understanding Technology Ontotheologically, or: the Danger and the Promise of Heidegger, an American Perspective.” Olsen, Jan-Kyrre B, Evan Selinger, and Søren Riis. New Waves in Philosophy of Technology. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.