Technology is always a way of instrumentalizing matter to meet some human, conscious end. The question always, I think, is whose end?
Martin Heidegger’s concept of technology is a challenge to yours. (“The Question Concerning Technology.”) For Heidegger, the “essence” (i.e. the meaning) of technology is not technological: it’s a “mode of being,” i.e. a way in which beings show up to those who are concerned with them, in this case as flexible resources to be ordered, re-ordered, enhanced, and optimized.
More to the point, technology (i.e. the technological way of being) isn’t devoted to meeting human, conscious ends, except superficially. On the contrary, it entails a dramatic change in our understanding of what it means to be human, or to put it more accurately, the abandonment of the understanding of what it means to be human that’s prevailed since the early modern age.
The latter, according to Heidegger, understood human beings as subjects who related to objects. Subjects do have needs, and they use objects (some kinds of objects anyway) as instruments to meet these needs. As agents, they can deliberate over which needs are most important and they strive to fabricate instruments that are as enduring as possible.
In the technological way of being, there are neither subjects nor objects. Everything shows up as flexible resources to be enhanced and optimized. Everything we encounter, therefore, is merely the currently most-optimized version of something that will soon be rendered obsolete and replaced by a more-optimized version. These aren’t objects in the classical sense of the term; they’re momentary configurations of what we might think of as the “network” (Heidegger called it “Gestell”). Moreover, human beings are understood the same way: we are continually enhancing and optimizing ourselves along with our devices.
Actually you don’t need Heidegger to envision this aspect of modern technology. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it during his visit to America in 1831. Democracies, he says, love the idea of progress, but because of their egalitarian ideology they form a paradoxical understanding of it. As believers in progress, democratic citizens hold that things can be perfected. But as egalitarians, they deny the existence of objective standards of superiority (anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s), so perfection can never be unambiguously achieved or even understood.
Because everything is always being improved, nothing is ever as good as it could be. Tocqueville: “I meet a sailor and ask him why his country’s vessels are constructed to last so short a time; he answers with no hesitation that the art of navigation is making such rapid progress that the finest ship would soon outlive its usefulness if it extended its life for more than a few years.” (Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Part 1, Chapter 7.) Rejecting on egalitarian grounds the idea that we can know what is absolutely good, citizens of democracies know only that the new is better – vaguely.
So in Jacksonian America, ships were already becoming something other than objects in the classical sense. Our digital devices are of course perfect illustrations of Heidegger’s idea of technology as the transformation of everything into a process of enhancement and optimization. The point so far as human needs and instruments go is that the question of what these devices should be used to accomplish doesn’t arise – it’s merely a matter of making them faster, more reliable, etc.
At least that’s Heidegger’s vision. Or rather, that’s half of it, because his view of technology isn’t really as gloomy as my account makes it sound. There’s also, he thinks, a “saving power” (a phrase he finds in Hölderlin) lurking in the way of being we call technology.
Personally I think Heidegger’s account is an exaggeration. There are plenty of people who see themselves as subjects or agents and who deliberate over the meaning of technology. But it also, I’m convinced, contains an element of truth.