Technology according to Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger

As technological advances today seems to go forward in quantum leaps, the issue of technology and its relation to humanity is increasingly becoming more relevant. Tons of information can now be compressed into a small microchip albums of music can now be accessed with the mere thumb, people in every corner of the world are now connected through the internet. Yet, amidst all these technological wonders, the essence of technology still remains elusive for many of us.

In this paper, I will tackle the two definitions of technology put forth by Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger, its essence, role in the society and its relation to humanity and Being. Moreover, a compare and contrast of the two philosophies will also be given, and how these two perceptions of technology can contribute to a better understanding of this widely-used but frequently misunderstood term.

Karl Marx, technology a deeply economic view
Karl Marx and technological determinism have long been connected with one another. However, Marx is still more widely known as a proponent of economic determinism. Nonetheless, Marxs role in the economic discussion of technology and its effect on the society is still relevant until today

Karl Marx gave a rather simple definition of technology on his Capital
Like any other increase in the productiveness of labor, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and by shortening the portion of the working day, in which the laborer works for himself, to lengthen the other portions that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus value (Marx 1906, p.38).

Of course, it is rather far-fetched to claim that Karl Max limited his definition of technology to machinery, as there are other types of machines that are not directly related to labor. However, it is important to point out that Marx wanted to situate how technology affects humans in general (Marx 1906).

More than one may of course notice Marxs fundamentally economic perception of technology.  Although he does not directly say that technology is a means to make exploitation easier and more profitable, we can say that for Marx, technology has a very important role in production and it is geared towards the development of the capitalist (Marx, 1906).

Technology, for Marx, is a capitalist tool to enhance profit. Moreover, because the worker class is the one who must use the technological machinery, the worker is then in an outward relation with the machinehe uses it to maximize production. However, because the wage is only limited and is not directly related to the production of the worker, the rate of exploitation reaches new heights. The worker is thus alienated by the machine, as it does not contribute to the augmentation of his understanding of the world or himself (Wendling 2009, p.104).

At this point, it might appear that Marx has a rather narrow perception of technology, as he does not address the role of technology in the creation of an individual and technologys role in making life easier, at least in the bourgeois sense. However, this narrowness is essentially the core of Marxs idea, because technology for Marx is a product of the economic context. The economy of an epoch is the chief determinant of that epochs face (the idea of the economic base and the superstructure), and because technology is just a product, it is thus geared towards the economic development of the ruling class (Marx 1906, p.245-251). Henceforth, it is not a concept intended for the development of humanity or the betterment of human living but primarily for the augmentation of profit. The development and betterment are only side effects which may or may not be relevant to the system.

Martin Heidegger Technology and mans search for truth
Heidegger has been known for his works on the elucidation and elaboration of the term being, a term long been conceptualized by ancient philosophers like Parmenides. In his work The Question Concerning Technology, he tackled technology as a concept, with references to how this concept can give us a picture of being.

First, he gave a proposition that everything has an essencea term that of course requires further elaboration. Essence, according to him, is that which precedes all the earliest (Heidegger 1977, p.327). Hence, it is something that transcends human existence and experience. Further, the essence of things, including technology, is beyond human perception. It is hence concealed to humanity and it requires a certain amount of action in order to grasp the essence of something.

He claimed that this action is what he called as revealingrevealing, in the sense that one must put the essence of something out of concealment, through a painstaking effort to think though still more primally what was primally thought. The Greek word for revealing is alethia, while Romans translate this as veritas, what we know today as truth. Hence, the quest for the essence of something is the quest for Truth, the Platonic ideal that transcends the forms as we know them. (We will then see Heideggers direct connection to Platos concept of the world of forms (Macomber 1967, p.153).
In this light, we can conclude that Heidegger believes in the necessity of humanity to find the Truth. This process of searching is the process to achieve a greater understanding of the world or what some may call as wisdom)

We will now slide into Heideggers conceptualization of technology and its essence. He claimed that technology also has an essence, and this essence is also beyond human perception. The search for the essence of technology is what he called the Gestalt or enframing, in which it is the human action to challenge the actual forms (nature, perceptual experience, etc) and to reveal the essence that lies concealed, to reveal the truth. Hence, technology is the human activity to challenge nature and all the apparent forms to reveal the truth (Heidegger 1977).

This definition, of course, comes rather antagonistic to our common definition today. Many people perceive technology as the human means to achieve a physical goal, and technology is in a constant progression of advance. This kind of definition, which at the outset appears rather commonsensical, implies two things (1) First, it tells us that technology is definitely a human activity humanity has an active role in it, making it existent. (2) It tells us that technology has a use, and this use is practical and utilitarian. Moreover, this use is not inward (or towards the actualization of the human being that used it) but, rather, outward (or towards an extrinsic goal that, whatever it may be). This scientific definition may appear to contrast with Heidegger (Heidegger 1977). However, in fact, it does not.

Heidegger tells us that technology is a means to find the veritas, to unfold the concealed essence of the world. Hence, it is also inward as technology may appear to be related to enhance humanitys understanding of the world. Nonetheless, technology is an act that progresses over time (in fact, it is fundamentally a developing act) and this progression is not only inward but also outwardoutward in the sense that it wishes to make a job easier, etc. Henceforth, Heideggers definition does not contrast the usual definition (which is a common objection of many of his critics) but rather gives it a humanist touch (Heidegger 1977).

Heidegger, supreme danger and saving power
Heidegger now gives the two sides of the coin which is technology. He claims that technology can be either a supreme danger or a saving power, two inevitable potentialities of technology that can be tread according to the discretion of humans.

Technology as a supreme danger lies upon the idea that technology is a claim, and hence technology must be heeded or believed (This idea tells us the active role of humanity to decide whether technology will be for him or against him). Not heading to this challenge (technology) will be denying the claimhenceforth, it is also denying the existence of a greater, unconcealed Truth and consequently accepting the perceived forms that technology and nature places at our front. In this light, technology is the one that determines our perception of the world and it is the one that controls us, rather the other way around. This way, technology will become humans supreme danger (Heidegger 1977).

This will appear more comprehensible with an example. One may remember The Cold War from 1950s to the 1990s in which nations like the USSR and the United States engaged in a silent war driven by paranoia. The nuclear crisis, in which countries are in a constant fear of the other countries possibly holding nuclear weapons, is a good example of humanity denying the challenge of technology to a greater understanding, becoming engaged to a perception and being imprisoned by it. In this example, humanity came to a literal point of supreme danger, with nations coming into a point where they will kill each other to annihilation just because of a lie or a bad assumption.

Technology as a saving power was already described in the latter parts as the realization of technologys goal to find the actual Truth. Once humans reach a point when technology had already assumed a form that humans themselves use (not the other way around), technology can be used to understand and control nature, for instance, and reveal the incomprehensive things that lie underneath them. Heidegger used the hydroelectric plant and the windmill as the actualization of technology as a tool by humans to have better control and understanding of the things around them. Hence, it saved humanity from the trap of lies that the natural and perceived world tells us as true and must be accepted. In this sense, technology can be a tool for saving power (Heidegger 1977).

Contrasting the two philosophies
Marx and Heideggers conception of technology may appear like parallel lines, but they tend to overlap in some points. For instance, Heideggers concept of supreme danger is rooted upon the idea that technology can be self-determining and destructive. This puts in Marxs idea of the alienation that a machine can induce to a worker, leaving the worker under the control of the machine. For Marx, technology can be detrimental to the development of an individual (the defacement of his own identity) ones the machine assumes control of the worker. For instance, he tells technology to put the middle class and the other classes into their places into the society.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society (Marx 1906).

Heidegger, on the other hand, addresses the other point that technology, although seemingly a potent determinant, can in fact be controlled by man in order to reveal the truth and achieve greater control of natural world (Heidegger 1977). Hence, he puts technology in a rather metaphysical view, in contrast to Marxs materialist view, and claims that man in fact has the ability to subvert the natural world and make technology his own, not an entity that is beyond him and has control over him (Marx 1906).

Conclusion the role of humanity in a high-tech world
The contrast between the two philosophers gives us a hint that technology is in fact a very volatile concept that cannot be polarized into a definition. Nonetheless, it tells us that technology is still a product of the human creativity and thus it must have control over it. Doing the other way around can mean the denial of human self-determination and may lead to the further obscurity of reality which permeates the society today. The media, the internet and other technological advance had already created a more blurred picture of society and even our identity and without us putting it back into their right places, it may eventually swallow us and we may end up being beaten by our own creations.


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