How technology influences the way we view man, nature, society as standing reserve

What is the relationship that man enacts on the world through means of technology? How does the essence of technology influence the way we experience the world? These are questions that Heidegger invites us to ponder.

A key tenet of Heidegger’s writing is this notion that the essence of technology is a mode of revealing that causes us to experience the world as standing-reserve. His choice of word — “standing” — gives us a clue on what he means. When we stand, we stand on things. Imbedded in this verb is a directional order where man, the subject, is on top; the ground, the object, is below. Heidegger is drawing to attention how technology forces us to see the world through the lens of an active subject, standing over the world, standing on top, standing in primacy over nature. He writes, “only to the extent that man for his part is already challenged to exploit the energies of nature can this revealing that orders happen” (Heidegger 1953, pg310). Writing during the era of rapid industrialization and modernization, Heidegger bore witness to how technology changes our relationship with the world from one of contemplation, of being within/ being still, to one of commanding, of exploitation.

Is this mode of being necessarily bad? One might view this human agency as a compelling expression of our humanity. Since the dawn of man, we humans have as a species explored our creative and constructive potential in enacting and changing our environment to cultivate the land, build human settlement, grow community. This essence of technology of wanting to order and change the world is arguably a fundamental expression of what it means to be human.

However, Heidegger warns of the danger if we take this unbridled energy to the extreme. “When destining reigns in the mode of enframing, it is the supreme danger… man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself and postures as lord of the earth” (Heidegger 1953, pg313). There is a fine line that we have crossed — from experiencing the world through the lens of cultivation and reverence, over into that of exploitation and dominion. Heidegger worries that this way of being in the world compels us to not only see the world as resource for production and profiteering, but also changes the way we see and value ourselves in relation to another. We now have words in our vocabulary — human resource, human capital — that reflects this dehumanizing way of viewing man. We have, as Heidegger writes, ‘come to the point where [man] will have to be taken as standing-reserve” (Heidegger 1953, pg313).

Recent technological breakthroughs continue to reflect Heidegger in action. I explore two such instances — first, when man is used as standing reserve, and second, when nature is used as standing reserve.

The field of genetic engineering is a clear case in point where man is used as standing reserve. Shelia Jasanoff, in her chapter “Tinkering with Humans” in her book “The Ethics of Invention” (2016), explored how manipulation in human biology opens up a host of new questions for politics, ethics, law and society to wrestle with. Advances in bio-science and genetic editing technology (CRIPSR) present opportunities us to modify and enhance human embryos and gives us the potential to create designer babies. When we have the ability to alter our own building blocks of life, our body is taken as standing-reserve — human existence is no longer seen as sacred. Jasanoff writes, “widening uses of technology … change the users’ sense of their own identity and potential as they come to understand what they can do, and even who they are, in novel and unpredictable ways.” (Jasanoff 2016, pg144)

Likewise, on a macro scale, climate change is a consequence of man viewing nature as “standing-reserve”. Coeckelbergh notes the following about the Anthropocene — “we are living in a new geological epoch due to the transformative and perhaps irreversible influence of human behavior on the earth” (Coeckelbergh 2020, p192). While geo-engineering may present a possible way out to mitigate increases in global temperature, it also reflects man’s hubris and ambition to tinker with nature. This way of being continues to accentuate man’s primacy to dominate and manipulate nature in a way that disrupts harmony and connection with the environment.

What then are the implications for public policy? I find it interesting that policy makers hold an inherent disposition to view society as standing reserve. We use words like “policy instruments”, “tools”, “frameworks”, “social engineering” in policy discourse. The rise of technocrats and the popularity of digital technologies for government services (digital identity, digital currency, public health surveillance technologies) further reflects this trend of wanting to order society rightly as deemed by the state. Just as reflections on Heidegger offers us a timely contemplate on how to rethink the way we relate to nature and to each other, it is also important for us to rethink how we want to be served by public institutions in a way that reflects our humanity and dignity. Holding space for public conversations and communal reflection is a starting point as we think about how we can shape our institutions, laws, governance in collaboration with using new technologies and tools in service for all of us.

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Dora Heng

Recovering economist passionate about global development and being human in an age of technological disruption