Steve Jobs, Martin Heidegger, Apple and the new culture of technology

English: Apple's absolute first logo, pre 1976...

English: Apple’s absolute first logo, pre 1976. Drawn by then co-founder Ronald Wayne. The logo features Sir Isaac Newton sitting under the apple tree where he supposedly discovered gravity, by an apple falling on his head. See http://www.macmothership.com/gallery/gallery1.html for the 1976 Apple 1 manual and advertisements where this logo was used. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As human beings, we seek a personal relationship in all that we do. [1]We want to see others and we want others to see us. When we meet and talk to each on a personal and physical level, we affirm and reaffirm our humanity.  Our human, physical, interactions are the building blocks of friendship.[2] As human beings, we are constantly “on” or in “receiving mode” in our search, either explicit or implicit, for reciprocated human contact and friendship.  We prefer the few moments of banter at the supermarket check-out to the efficient, but ultimately lifeless (and meaningless) automated self-service system either in-store or online.  By interacting with another person, rather than a machine, we display that which makes us human. The essence of man, as a rational animal, is as a related being. Man is not simply a man.  We are born into a web of relationships.  The web of relationships defines us.  At an early stage, we know who we are by who are not. For example, we cannot be our own father or mother.  However, as modern technology reduces the need to interact with others, especially physically, and limits or replaces the opportunity to interact with others physically, we glimpse the potential that man can be shorn of his relatedness.  What this means is that modern technology removes the need for relatedness, for friendship properly understood, as it provides virtual replacements. By that, I do not mean virtual friends, but rather it appears that modern technology reduces our physical contact, which is needed to create friendship. Our friendships are now mediated by technology. Man is being denied, or he may be encouraged to prefer to avoid, access to a humanising activity. The essence of man is under threat because modern technology reveals the tension between how we relate to it and with each other. The tension emerges from what Heidegger called the essence of technology as it has the potential to save as well as destroy man.[3]Modern technology reveals something about the essence of man, which raises questions about whether man can live with it without succumbing to what its potential reveals about the essence of man.  Two men, who dealt with this question, albeit in different ways, were the philosopher Martin Heidegger and Apple Corporation’s founder Steve Jobs.

What is the essence of technology?

 

Steve Jobs understood the power of technology and the essence of technology, in its ability to remind us of our humanity.  He did not believe he was selling another product. He wanted to create a product that would change a person’s life and change the world. To an extent, he succeeded as we can see from the ubiquity of his products as well as by what we expect from such products. His work can be understood as a response to (if he was not informed by) the question Heidegger posed in a Question Concerning Technology “What is the essence of technology?”[4]  Jobs was trying to reshape our relationship with technology so that how we interacted with it would no longer reveal the tension between culture and technology.[5]  Jobs, to paraphrase Heidegger, was creating a “technological clearing”[6] through Apple’s products. He understood that Apple’s products offered an opportunity to regain the space for meditative thinking that Heidegger feared could (would) be (is being) lost to the totalizing influence of modern technology.  He saw a role in customers’ lives through Apple’s products. For Jobs, the customer was more than a sale; he wanted to engage the customer as a singular individual. In this, he was expressing the way that Apple’s technology could change, and is changing, people’s lives by changing the way they relate to technology.  Apple’s products (current and future) allow its users to connect to what it means to be human by helping us to interact with each other and with nature, without appearing to succumb to modern technology.  The way that Apple’s products make it easier to live by helping us to connect to each other and to our online existence. We have more time and space for other activities. In that sense, Apple’s technological vision allows us to use technology to explore the essence of man.

 

We have to avoid the temptation to reduce Heidegger to be an opponent of technology[7] and laud Jobs for developing technology that help us to control nature or solve the problem of technology.  Such a choice would be a simplistic understanding of both men. Instead, we have to understand that we are at a turning point in our relationship with modern technology in which Jobs’ technological products appear to complement Heidegger’s approach to the essence of technology. We are at the cusp of a new culture of technology in which ubiquitous computing and our constant connectivity force us to reconsider what it means to be human, what I mean to be a rational animal in a technological world.  Apple’s products (and those of similar technological corporations) allow man to live with modern technology with the potential to avoid succumbing to it.[8] However, even as Apple products are succeeding and other technology are changing the way we live, we cannot take this as proof that the Question of Technology has been answered within our time. Nor can we say that Jobs was following Heidegger’s path. Instead, we have to understand that Jobs and Heidegger were confronting the same problems in their own complementary ways. What is in question is whether building blocks for a new culture in which man can live with, and within, modern technology and therein technology, as envisioned by Heidegger, can be developed through Apple’s products.[9]  Heidegger is not the only thinker on this topic. We consider him because presents an important, if at times flawed, understanding of the path to be pursued. Two issues need to be considered before we can begin to follow the paths set out by Heidegger and Jobs.

Heidegger’s project: returning us to the clearing

 

The first issue is, quite simply, is whether Heidegger’s own project was sufficient to bring us to the source of the question of technology. A complete answer to that question is beyond the scope of this blog, so a sketch will have to do.  One could argue that he only brought us to the clearing. Perhaps this is sufficient but one wonders if we need more than to have the problem restated.[10]  He brought us to the problem and any success he had was through his ability to encourage us to take the journey with him. Heidegger, however, had no answer to what was to be done because he could only return us to the origins of the question of technology.  If the path is taken in that light, we still need to explore and develop a world in which Being is properly understood. Such a project would need us to reconsider the history of political philosophy, how are we to live, as informed by starting from Heidegger’s clearing at the source of the essence of technology.[11]  We could say that Heidegger spent so much time getting to the clearing, that he had no time to reconstruct a new path to the future.  At a deeper level, Heidegger’s project may be flawed because its success, aside from its philosophical challenge, lacks the necessary ingredients to deliver more than has been achieved.  As such, the question is whether the history of philosophy, and in particular political philosophy, can be reimagined for a different path or if that reimagining simply begs the question of path dependency.  In other words, following Heidegger will we only retrace our steps along a different path to arrive at the same present?  What we would have is the eternal return of the same but technologically enhanced.  If we are back to the same questions, the Greeks and Socrates explored: What is man; how is he to live? What is the good? Can we answer these differently in a technological age where technology now mediates our relationships, our relatedness? We have to leave these questions about the history of political philosophy and the history of Being to consider the future Jobs was trying to create based on the possibility of a technological clearing.

Jobs and the future of technology

 

The second issue to consider is whether Jobs was able to give us a way to live with modern technology. Despite the promise of the latest social media technological innovations, the question of technology remains.  The question of technology remains because the essence of modern technology still dominates our understanding of the essence of technology. In this Heidegger may not have succeeded because we have not returned to *the* clearing only to a clearing in which the essence of modern technology rather than the essence of technology determines our lives. The essence of modern technology is based on an ordering of nature (and therein human nature) which threatens the essence of man.[12] Apple’s products and Jobs’ approach to creating those products continue to change the way that we understand ourselves through technology and through nature.  His products have created the possibilities of an alternative culture. By that, I mean more than emotive advertisements or well designed products. I mean by the way the products were seen fitting into our lives and our “lifestyles” in a seamless fashion. Just as Google’s goggles look to change our way of interacting with technology by making it appear seamless -literally at the blink of an eye. Will that, though, help us to better understand ourselves or will it further isolate us from ourselves because we can avoid asking or answering such questions?  One way we can see Jobs’ vision of technology and culture is to look at how he sought to remake the organisation.  He sought to embed the creative or productive process within Apple’s structure.  In a sense, technology presents us with an answer. We have those who want us to have better living through technology, in which technology will answer all of man’s problems (questions) without explaining what is better or why it is better except that it is a technologically enhanced future.  Although Jobs may not have been one to embrace the notion of a technological singularity, we consider that he was seeking his “next big thing” as his attempt to reinvent the organisation. The Apple Corporation with the Apple campus, Infinity Loop, is structured to reinforce and sustain Apple’s creative process. The issue we consider here is beyond being a social entrepreneur, it is (literally) about continuing the changed (changing) relationship we have with modern technology in the belief we can return to a full (er) understanding of what it means to be human.[13]

 

Heisenberg has with complete correctness pointed out that the real must present itself to contemporary man in this way. “Das Naturbild,” pp. 60 ff. In truth, however, precisely nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence. (emphasis in the original.)

 

Yet, despite Jobs’ (and others’) success we remain confronted with a troubling question. Can technology better help us to understand what it means to be human or does our increased use of modern technology and its increased presence in our lives simply erode the space within which we can be human?

When technology is total, where will we find the public space?

 

When technology erodes our private space we also need to consider how the public space, in which man can be fulfilled and find friendship, has disappeared in direct proportion to the pervasiveness of technology and the State’s use of technology.[14]  Lawrence Lessig has explored in his article Architecture of Privacy how privacy has been changed by the expanded capacity to monitor and search our lives. Technology in the hands of the modern state shrinks the public space because it reflects an idea of the essence of modern technology, which is based on a view of human nature as property, or a possession.  Man understands himself as an object because the state sees him as an object and it habituates him to think of himself as an object. In this regard, the public space has declined because its area is encroached by modern technology. What emerges is that the rationality that perceives man as an object, whose nature is no different from any other part of nature, that is to be classified and contained so that it can be used, now appears not as a strange but as an honoured guest in our lives.  Where the public space may have existed for us in the past and the promise of cyberspace was an unlimited public space, we see an uncertain future because technology’s presence and the way that our current culture embraces technology as fulfilling man as man and undermines the public space.[15]

 

Can we remain human despite the advance of modern technology?

Jobs and other technological innovators face an enduring problem that may be insurmountable because of their success.  The greater their technological success in making technology seamless with our lives, the less space we have to be human.[16] More worryingly though is that success of the essence of technology means that we are being removed from technology and nature. By that, I mean more than Jobs’ plug and play products.  What I mean is that despite our increased technological sophistication and the sophistication of our technology, we understand it and nature less and less. We only know that it works not how or why it works.  We only understand it by how we use it rather than understanding its nature or more deeply as to what it intends or means for us beyond our immediate use. To put it crudely, how many people understand how a telephone works or how augmented reality programmes works?  Look at how few people know how or why surface tension works. We live in a world we do not understand. The future of knowledge races away from us at every stage.  However, this does not mean, simplistically, that we know more and more about less and less.  Instead, it is that we do not understand why or what it means for how we live.  Yes, we teach science in school and we can learn about the latest technological products, but one wonders if this will go the way of the teaching how to repair automobile engines. Today’s engines are manufactured by machine, by autonomous technology.  At the same time, we know little of nature because we no longer live with it and through it in the way that we would have if we worked the land.  How many people can name the species of birds they see each day, or the way the food they eat is grown, or how to plant a garden?[17]  We live between technology and nature, which are like two paths disappearing away from us to the horizon.  They are not incompatible. Indeed, they are linked in man and it is their separation that creates the tension for the essence of man.  Today 50% of the world lives in urban areas with the amount expected to grow to 80% by 2050.  Few people farm or work the land.  More may understand how technology works, because they work with it daily, but few understand how technology is working upon us every day. Our relationship with a city or an urban space is almost determined by technology. To live in a city is to be dependent upon a technological infrastructure for that existence.  To put it differently, but directly, we cannot grow crops in a city centre. In the same way, how the lights work determines much of the way we live.  The issue is not so much that this is “good” or “bad” and all technology should be resisted, but rather understanding how we are shaped by and challenged by technology without even knowing it.

Finding a technological clearing for man to understand the essence of man

 

The possibility of a technological clearing does exist where man can reconsider his relationship to technology.  What we see is that man may not be at the centre of the technological clearing so much as in an unknown land where he understands neither nature nor technology, nor himself. As a result, we face the challenge that man has greater power to shape nature, including human nature, without knowing why or to what end.

 

Jobs was trying to create technology that would allow man to interact with nature technologically without having to understand the technology. Jobs’ revolution was trying to create technological products so well designed and linked to the person’s lifestyle that they could become a “natural” person again. When we can experience or enjoy nature, we can also enjoy and experience each other.  We can begin to experience friendship, with the space that may be created by such a technological clearing. By being able to live with technology, though, will we be able to live with each other? Here we begin to see the problem of nature and technology because nature must also include human nature.

Where will nature go when technology is everywhere?

 

If modern technology leads us to engage with nature and interrogate nature in ways that give us pathway to understanding it, will that allow us to understand human nature as well?  For example, if a person can point their smartphone at a bird to get information about it, then they begin on the path to knowledge about the bird and they can make judgements about the bird and what it means for them. They begin to grasp the nature of a bird, albeit one mediated by technology. They have the potential to develop an understanding of the bird that would come from living with it and studying it. The question that remains is whether that information creates knowledge or whether it only enhances the illusion that one understands the nature of the bird that is on display. In other words, do we know the bird’s nature or are we just better informed about it? The surface understanding of technologically accessible nature leads us to a deeper problem in that if technology allows us to “understand” birds, is something similar possible with man and human nature? In that regard, modern technology’s totalitarizing essence may reassert itself so the man, like nature, becomes an object that can be “understood” *only* through technology.  Despite Jobs and Heidegger, our quest for technology, our attempt to improve our human condition, to pursue the good, has lead us to embrace modern technology which may make our situation worse. By relying on the essence of modern technology to understand the world, we reinforce the gap between each other and our own natures because of the way our understanding is shaped by technology.

What are the political consequences from modern technology’s ubiquity?

 

If technology is how we understand man’s function, man’s nature, we face the question of whether the limits of technology as expressed through our individualized engagement with technology define us as a person.  We may be created equal by nature or by nature’s God, where we share a web of relationships, yet how we fulfil that nature or live that life according to nature or nature’s God’s plan is now largely determined by technology. In doing so, are we removed from our nature and thus in danger of living a less than human existence because technology mediates our understanding of the essence of man?  In offering what appears to be a radically democratic future in which all men can pursue their own ends, where men can become the perfect singular individual, modern technology appears to offer an unlimited future.  Yet, that promise holds a greater peril because it raises the question about how we are to understand the essence of man by the way that projects or mediates our individual identity. When we are reduced to atomized individuals through our individual relationship with technology for example behavioural pricing and individualized products and settings, we start to lose our relatedness. Instead of sharing things in common, everything is individualized. We find it harder to know what we have in common because technology allows us to see ourselves as individuals. Despite that promise of individuality and customized preferences, our preferences, and how they are managed by technology, leave us vulnerable. To put the point bluntly, we become naked like Adam and Eve after eating of the tree of knowledge. Our internet searches tell others more about ourselves than a 15-minute meeting. At a more abstract level, beyond the concern for privacy or autonomy, we face a darker challenge.

Does technology limit our horizon more than it expands it?

 

If we do not pursue a higher goals with this technology, if it only allows us to live within our limited horizons, we return to the question of what is man to pursue, what is his function? What is the good he is to pursue? We return to the question of philosophy. Perhaps, though, philosophy remains impossible in the age of modern technology because it keeps man from asking any questions or investigating anything beyond the surface opinion because the constant connectivity of technology does not allow for the meditative space within which to think. If technology helps us only to understand or pursue only our lowest passions, rather than our potential as a rational animal, can we be said to be following or fulfilling man’s function. Moreover, if technology reveals the limits of rationality in some men does that mean that they are less of a man because they are unable to fulfil their function as a rational animal? If a man does not follow his function as man, it raises a political question outlined in Plato’s dialogue Hipparchus whether such a human being is a man.[18]  If technology creates our nature, do we become less of man? The political consequences of such a view would be challenging in much the same way that Plato’s Meno suggested that men unable to pursue or learn about the good had flat or small souls.[19] How are we to live together? How can we maintain our web of relatedness based on what is common to us if technology individualizes us and reveals our relative nakedness? When faced with the essence of modern technology what is it that makes us equal as the basis for friendship, when technology, especially modern technology, reveals our inequality, our difference?

 

Modern technology challenges us to express what it means to be human, yet, what is it about man that contains worth in the face of the totalitarizing modern technological urge to treat us an object?  We speak of rights, of natural rights, as a basis for our equality but the source of these rights, even nature, becomes problematic under the pressure of modern technology.  We are forced to live according to the reasoning behind the essence of technology without even understanding what it is except through its consequences. The more we embrace that technology and follow it wherever it leads us, means that we move further away from the essence of man.  If we cannot turn back from that path, to understand what our function, to pursue the essence of man then modern technology, far from allowing us to understand what it means to be human only allows us to explore what is less than human.  Unless we can recapture what it means to have friendship, what it means to live within a community rather than live as an atomized individual only alive through an online reality, and unable to find what is highest in us, we face a difficult future.  The choice is not simply to avoid technology, and the political choices that entails, rather it is to reawaken our ability to order our lives and understand ourselves.

Can philosophy return to us in a technological age?

 

We need to awaken our human nature as informed by an understanding of what is the good to pursue. We need a new culture for our technological age in which the essence of man can flourish. If we can understand the good that we pursue then we can harness modern technology to fulfil the essence of man.  We return, as we began, with the question of friendship and by extension what is the best way to live.  Until we understand that, modern technology remains a threat because it flows from a flawed understanding of the essence of man. If technology only serves man simply as he is rather than as he can be based upon his essence as a rational animal, a being with a soul, then we will have a limited horizon trapped within surface opinions set by modern technology’s reach. Yet, if it is to serve man as he can be, how do we avoid succumbing to the pressure from the inequality that follows treating everyone, everywhere, as an atomized individual as unrelated beings?  Can we find a way to reassert the essence of man without returning to the present because we cannot avoid the path dependency that brought us to this present?

 

Heidegger and Jobs have shown us the possibilities. Our challenge is to develop a new culture that can reassert what it means to be human. We need to look at what the essence of man is, so that we do not find ourselves living a less than human existence no matter how pleasant and entertaining it may be in the mistaken belief that we are human.

 

 

 

[1] A large part of this essay was completed while visiting Edinburgh University Library.  I want to thank them for allowing me to access the library during a recent visit.  In so many ways, a scholar is only as good as the library he can access.

[2] For the classic discussion of friendship, see Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics (Books ….)  For an interesting exploration of friendship including Aristotle’s see LS Pangle Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship.

Although this essay discusses friendship and its relationship to modern technology, it is not focused on the topic as set out in Daniel Akst’s Wilson Society essay America: Land of the Loners.  What we need today is a deeper analysis of technology’s, especially social media’s, influence on eros and friendship, which is beyond the scope of this essay.

[4] This is not to say that Jobs was a student of Heidegger or that he agreed with Heidegger on any issue.  Instead, it is to suggest that Jobs had an approach to technology that understood and answered the challenge posed by Heidegger.

[5] Jobs and Apples are used here in the own right and as exemplifying the recent technological changes in music (iPod), communications (iPhone) and computing (iPad) that have changed the world.

[6] For clarity, I need to state I do not mean a technological singularity. The work in this area already presupposes the end of nature and the end of man as man.  In that sense, the work in this area sees man as another object to be ordered and managed in accordance with the demands of the essence of modern technology. An extreme opponent of the work in this area would suggest that it was bordering on an inhuman view of the human as man is literally treated as standing reserve for the demands of technology.  However, my approach is focused on the questions that Heidegger raised and whether the alternatives regarding nature (and man) are viable.  To that end, I believe the question has NOT been answered.

[9] It is important to stress that Apple is used as an example, rather than the sole cause, of this technology and these changes.

[10] Consider the work of Hubert Dreyfus on Heidegger especially this essay comparing Heidegger and Foucault.

[12] The difference between the essence of modern technology and the essence of technology is explored in more detail in Heidegger’s Question of Technology. The two are related and it is important to understand the distinction, as explained by Heidegger, because it is that difference, which offers the possibility that man, can live with technology. The essence of technology allows for the potential for man to understand his essence without succumbing to becoming standing reserve as demanded by the essence of modern technology.  The challenge though is whether man can look past the essence of modern technology to the essence of technology and then better understand how to live with modern technology.

[13] To echo Heidegger’s reference to Heisenberg from his book The physicist’s conception of nature /Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans].ondon : Hutchinson, [c1958]

[14] See Dreyfus on Foucault and his view of power as expressing the ideas set out by Heidegger.  See also his essay Heidegger on the Connection between Nihilism, Art, Technology and

Politics.

[15] My comments on the public space are secondary to the main point of this essay. I hope to write on this in the future. For now, I would recommend that readers consider the work of Jurgen Habermas on the public sphere and then consider how it needs to be modified in respect to the way in which the essence of modern technology modifies that understanding

[16] I am not suggesting that we are on the brink or have the possibility of a Matrix like future.  We can consider ourselves to be in the metaphorical cave without resorting to technology. At the same time, I am not suggesting all is simulacrum so that we are just living in a waking dream as suggested by Rousseau in

[17] Yes, we can use technology to learn about these practices.  There must be an app for that topic.  We can just point our phone at the object to know about it. However, this only reiterates the problem I am trying to understand because we have to use technology that we do not understand to understand the technology or nature we do not understand.  We are removed from technology and nature by technology. In that we are part of nature, are we being removed from ourselves in such a world because we can only understand ourselves through technology?

[18] For more on this point see Allan Bloom’s interpretative essay in The Roots of Political Philosophy: ten forgotten Socratic Dialogues

[19] See Jacob Klein’s short essay on the Meno, On the Platonic Meno in Particular and Platonic Dialogues in General which is based on his commentary on the Meno.

 

 

 

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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