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intimacy & the question concerning digital technology

Martin Heidegger’s 1954 piece, The Question Concerning Technology transformed the way I look at technology (it’s really dense, and the translation is heavy-handed). I read it in 1995, a decade before I got implicated in the web, and 40 years after it was published. When I first started writing on the web in 2004, I had a draft post, consisting of one sentence, called “The Question Concerning Digital Technology,” which was to be an attempt at an update of the Heidegger piece for a networked world. That draft has long since disappeared, but I’ve been thinking about it again of late.

A rough summary of Heidegger’s argument is:

  • the purpose of technology is to order nature for human use
  • humans are part of nature
  • in ordering nature through technology, humans become part of that which is ordered
  • in becoming part of the ordered universe, humans lose humanity
  • this is a bad thing
  • we might be able to save ourselves, by appealing to the greek root techne, which means, in part: “art”

It’s a compelling description of technology in general, and the web in particular: that the prime driving force is ordering “nature” (in a broad sense), with the result being, more or less, efficiency. If you look at what we’ve all been doing over the last few years on the web, much of the most exciting things had to do with ordering – specifically information, for more efficient access:

  • google as a high-level orderer of information on the web
  • RSS as an orderer of information sources I want to stay aware of
  • as an orderer of information I want to keep track of & share with others
  • flickr as an orderer of photos
  • wikipedia as an orderer of encyclopaedic information

The list can go on and on, and of course “technology” does many different things, beyond “just” ordering, but in general the force propelling technology often seems to be mastery of the world around us for our use, one way or another. Which, as Heidegger points out, has worrisome implications for all of us.

I’ve always come at technology from something like this angle: I’m not particularly interested in technology per se, I am interested in the ways we might use it to make our lives richer and more meaningful. And in general, I think that creating things is the activity that gives humans the greatest sense of meaning and richness in their lives. Certainly that’s the case for me, and from my beginnings on the web, it was the confluence of free software (that is, the building and dissemination of free tools), collaboration, and unlimited distribution that excited me. “Everyone” could create things now, and share those things with the world. The projects I am most proud of (LibriVox, Atwater Digital Literacy) are platforms for people to create things that, I hope, bring richness into their own lives. I’ve always considered LibriVox as most important for what it does for our volunteers: it gives them a way to deepen their connection to a text they love, to read it and record it, and give it away; to make connections with literature that they might not have made otherwise. That we’re also making a free library of audio literature for the world is in some ways a fringe benefit. [Interestingly, and as a side note, coding itself is, to coders, a deeply creative and satisfying enterprise].

Of late, I’ve been feeling cold about the web. So much of what is going on is the ordering of nature, which, if you believe Heidegger, is the inevitable drive of technology. And “dangerous” for our humanity. I know many people involved in working on tranches of this ordering, and I have a few projects along this line as well (datalibre, earideas, collectik). Just off the top of my head: Evan’s Wikitravel tries to better order travel info; Vinismo order’s wine information; Dopplr tries to better manage your travel, and intersections with others who are moving around too; pal mat is working on google maps, ordering geography; the praized guys are building a better system to organize places and preferences. More will come. All of it is “good,” in the sense that it makes it easier to do the things we want to do, but I often hear Heidegger’s warning echoing through my mind: in ordering nature, we are becoming that which is ordered, and so we risk losing our humanity.

Here are some of the things that are coming, I think, from the inevitable drive of technology to order nature, and our human desire to have efficient sorting systems:

  • We’ll continue to cataloging everything (from books to people to places) online, and find better ways to sort all that information, using objective authority (eg authoritative incoming links, aka google juice), personal network authority (links/preferences from your chosen network) as relevance indicators.
  • We will map this network on the web, and increasingly apply it to physical space (starting with google maps, and becoming more customized and personalized)
  • Mobile technology will mean both that our access to cataloged information becomes ubiquitous, and our efforts to catalog things will be unconstrained
  • RFID, or something like it, will mean that this sorting of physical objects will move from its current general state (eg. tracking & finding something like “any copy of a certain book”), to specific (eg. tracking & finding something like “a particular copy of a certain book”), and will touch people too
  • We’ll get all the media we want, when we want it
  • We’ll get most of the data we want, when we want it
  • Our mobile devices will increasingly interact with our physical surroundings (point at an object, get info on it; buy it; sell it), and will become our bank, and keys, our thermostat, and more, as well as everything else it already is (telephone, email, library, map etc).
  • All data on the web will become structured, and mostly available
  • More data sets (eg government-owned) will arrive on the web, and more people will participate in using that data to understand the world, and make decisions, to order nature
  • Data about people will become structured, and mostly available [For a well-networked human in my circle, this has already happened: I can track their interests, on a daily basis (, google reader shared items, digg etc.), their movements (dopplr), their public thoughts (blogs, twitter), books they like (librarything, gutenberg bookshelf), things they buy, etc etc.]

Lots of money will be made (if all goes well, some of it by friends of mine) finding new and different ways to do all this, and more and more. In essence, we’ll continue to use the web (and increasingly, mobile devices) to better order nature. And we’ll become better ordered at the same time.

Looking at this very brief list of what’s going to happen, I can’t help but think: “so what?” Is any of this going to make people’s lives richer or more meaningful?

My suspicion is “no.” I say this as a digital native, if a relatively recent, adoptive native (starting in 2004). For myself, I have found that the price of the benefits of the web has been heavy: while the web has allowed me to do all sorts of things, to build things and relationships, and projects, I find the quality of my time on the web so often unsatisfying. In a comparison of value to me between a random “leisure” hour on the web and a random hour doing something else in the real world, the real world trumps the web almost every time. Yet the web still usually wins the battle for my time (this says as much about me as it does about the web, of course).

I had a dinner a while back with Mike Lenczner, of Ile Sans Fil, and Jon Udell and some others, and this was the question MIke was asking, more or less: “so what?” Is free wifi access for all really such a great thing for people? Free encyclopedia? Free audio books? That’s not to say there is no value in those things, but we in the tech world imbue this stuff with a magical capacity to improve people’s lives, and I don’t think it’s clear that it has. Much less RSS feeds and online bookmarking. Free Software we see as a moral victory; OLPC as a revolutionary project that will save Africa; global voices online, as a dialogue builder that will transform our understanding of each other. All these things are good, great even, and there are countless other examples of wonderful online projects. But part of me agrees with Michael: it’s not clear that on balance they are truly improving people’s lives in any real sense.

But the point of all this is not really to criticize the web, nor to gnash teeth about the things people, including me, are building with it. Rather it’s a call to look at technology from a different angle, a call to designers and technologists and webbies and to consider a different approach, inspired by Heidegger’s solution of technology as art.

The web provides us enormous and efficient access, but a problem seems to me that it strips away the intimacy of our connection. Consider reading a book, versus reading on line; conversing in IM versus having a coffee; viewing a photo versus touching an object. This is not to criticize any of these experiences, or to say we are stuck with the modes and interfaces and tools we have now. I’m not saying that the web means less intimacy, exactly.

But what if we, those of us trying to make the world better with what we do on the web, rethink our projects in these terms. Leave the ordering for a moment, and consider intimacy instead.

What can we, as a community interested in making lives richer and more meaningful, do with technology to help humans experience more intimacy with the things that are important to them?

I don’t really have any answers, but it seems to me that it’s a challenge worth considering.

The web, and technology, will continue to order the world, there is no doubt about that. Your participation in this process is fine – and probably lucrative. But there is more, and more exciting things to think about.

A truly radical and creative use of technology, will find ways to help humans become more intimate with the things that matter to them. Those things might be art, books or songs; and people; probably food, and family. I don’t really know what else, and I don’t really know what I expect this to mean, but I think it’s worth thinking about.


  1. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2008-05-10

    A few thoughts:

    Heidegger’s scheme only makes sense if we consider humanity to be OUTSIDE of nature. I don’t consider humans to be anything other than biologically successful animals. Thus our ordering of information is as natural a thing to humans as building a nest is for birds. Ordering information does not de-humanise us: the opposite, it is as human as breathing, eating, and talking.

    The ordering schemes you list are ordering what? The creative output of millions of people. Yes, google gets all the attention, but is has to have our creative output – ‘content’ – to present as search results.

    How can I help to make somebody else’s life more meaningful? I have no idea. Indeed, I have no idea how to make my OWN life more meaningful. But things have unintended consequences. Like LV – it has enriched my life, and in many more ways than just listening to audiobooks.

    All the internet really is, is a way to communicate with each other. And the more people who are talking, the better the chance that we will enrich each others lives in ways we cannot predict or plan.

  2. Hugh Hugh 2008-05-10

    Heidegger’s argument is much more complex than what I have outlined. See here for wikipedia’s pretty good bash at explaining the paper (good luck):

    He’s not separating humans from nature, but rather exploring how our use of (modern) technology changes our relationship to nature, and our relationship to ourselves. And I don’t think he says “de-humanizing” – that’s my poorly-chosen short-hand. And of course he harks back to the golden years of the mythical Greeks, though whatever the reference, the point is: fully embracing technology without thinking about the metaphysical implications, is dangerous. He says:

    As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but does so, rather, exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectlessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve. Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth. In this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct.

    “Standing-reserve” is the modern human view of the universe, through technology, ie. that which is to be mastered for our own use. Indeed this is the “natural” work of humans (it seems), but that doesn’t mean it has no implications, for instance, on our happiness.

    As for “making other’s lives more meaningful,” and “making my own life more meaningful,” I am just suggesting that I would like these to be prime motivators for my efforts, rather than the same-old ordering of standing-reserve.

    Finally, you are more positive in your interpretation of the web than I am. That’s my point I guess: it’s “self-evident” to those of us in the web/collaboration etc world that the web has resulted in enriched lives, and onwards and upwards. I think some of it has certainly enriched some lives. But much of it has not. All those RSS feeds, I’ve discovered, don’t enrich my life. With Twitter I am sitting on the fence, I enjoy it, but I am not sure it’s enriching. Blogging was enriching in many ways, but there might be other things that would be more enriching.

    And so I’m just throwing a challenge to myself (and my friends) to think about enriching people’s lives as a driving force behind what I am doing on the web.

  3. Hugh Hugh 2008-05-11

    Here is an example of a direction of the web that makes me cold:

    You’ve decided to go see a movie and grab a bite to eat afterward. You’re in the mood for a comedy and some incredibly spicy Mexican food. Booting up your PC, you open a Web browser and head to Google to search for theater, movie and restaurant information. You need to know which movies are playing in the theaters near you, so you spend some time reading short descriptions of each film before making your choice. Also, you want to see which Mexican restaurants are close to each of these theaters. And, you may want to check for customer reviews for the restaurants. In total, you visit half a dozen Web sites before you’re ready to head out the door.

    Some Internet experts believe the next generation of the Web — Web 3.0 — will make tasks like your search for movies and food faster and easier. Instead of multiple searches, you might type a complex sentence or two in your Web 3.0 browser, and the Web will do the rest. In our example, you could type “I want to see a funny movie and then eat at a good Mexican restaurant. What are my options?” The Web 3.0 browser will analyze your response, search the Internet for all possible answers, and then organize the results for you.

    That’s not all. Many of these experts believe that the Web 3.0 browser will act like a personal assistant. As you search the Web, the browser learns what you are interested in. The more you use the Web, the more your browser learns about you and the less specific you’ll need to be with your questions. Eventually you might be able to ask your browser open questions like “where should I go for lunch?” Your browser would consult its records of what you like and dislike, take into account your current location and then suggest a list of restaurants….

    We can do better than that.

  4. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2008-05-11

    Sure. It makes me laugh – people have been predicting that computers will be able to do this ‘real soon now’ since about 1961. An it focusses so much on what people already do really really well, and what computers do really really badly.

    Still, that’s not what you find crappy about it, and I agree.

    How about ?

  5. Christopher Hughes Christopher Hughes 2008-05-11

    The problem I keep coming back to – forgive my stupidity – is what does it mean to enrich someone’s life? Can you enrich it? Or can you just help people use the tools to enrich their own lives?

    (As for happiness, I have problems with that. I see no reason why we should ever expect to be happy, except for short periods. Usually we only realise how happy we should have been when a bad thing happens, and we wish we could back to our previous state, which we now realise was happy. We seem to have a monkey at the controls of our internal happy-dispenser, who only allows us brief periods of happiness when we do what it wants us to do (eat a lot of food, have sex, beat a rival, win a battle, etc etc) and then the new reality becomes the baseline, and we are quickly dissatisfied again. We find ourselves moaning about the time it takes to load the dishwasher, forgetting how long it used to take to wash up.)

    Back to enriching: what is it to be enriched? I can think of things that do enrich my life (books, music etc), really good quality stuff that makes the world seem a different place. So why is it such a chore for me to actually read a good book sometimes? Why would I often rather play Wii Tennis? (And I think I read more that most people I know) If this is the case, what gives me the right to think that I can help anyone enrich their lives? I surround myself with enriching things, and end up making mud pies (metaphorically speaking – but literally too sometimes.)

    I would worry that the desire to enrich others – in the way that I understand enrichment – might have roots in some belief that I have anything to offer in that way. That it would make me a hypocrite.

    But I do speak from genuine ignorance – I would love to find out I was wrong.

  6. Hugh Hugh 2008-05-12

    I don’t know the answer to that, though I have an intuition that it has something to do with creating things. But again, my plea is not that people do anything in particular, but that they consider “enriching lives” as the driving motivation (as opposed, for instance, to making the world more efficient).

    Indeed, it seems to me that the easier things are, the less satisfying they become. I too wonder about my declining books to cat-video ratio, and I attribute much of that ratio to the technologies in my life (aka the web) that seem to be filling much of my time with unsatisfying things.

    Long ago I decided never to play video games, and never to have cable television, for the same reason in both cases, if I have em I watch em, and don’t do the things that, in my experience, enrich my life.

    Now that the web has come around, I have my own private cable tv station, with unlimited supply of stuff, and that’s not a good thing, for many reasons.

  7. Chris Hughes Chris Hughes 2008-05-13

    OK – given that the web is in its infancy, some thoughts on intimacy on the web:
    (I don’t use facebook, myspace etc. Not sure why – perhaps if I knew people who did, I would)

    I met some nice people through Librivox. I don’t know that many people who share many of my interests, so that was good, but more important than that was that LibriVox allowed me to lurk silently and see how people were interacting before I interacted myself. Because I was not physically there I did not feel like I had any obligation to contribute. And all the conversations I was listening to (so to speak) were public, so I was not eavesdropping. So, forum-style socialising has some advantages over ‘real’ socialising, especially for people who find socialising difficult, whether for geographical or other reasons.

    Also – when I did get into the conversation, I already knew some people, and knew the type of style of post that would be likely to cause least offense, etc. Oh, and time differences were not important any more.

    So, when I use twitter, I am following the posts of people who I already ‘know’ through other means. And the thing I really like about twitter is not that people necessarily say anything amazing, but that they are *there*. It makes me feel part of a group of friends. I might see that someone has posted, and find myself thinking: ‘Still awake! They’re up late tonight’. Now, thats a pretty intimate thing to know about someone that you have never physically met.

    Most of what we say to each other is nonsense. (recent theories about the evolution of language tie it to the rise of gossip!) That doesn’t make it worthless – if you sit down to breakfast with your family, you might not say a single thing that anyone remembers once five minutes has passed. I have a very close bond to my son, aged five, who will have no memory of any of the vast majority of our interactions, but that does not make them worthless. In fact, intimacy in a relationship might be a function of the amount of forgettable nonsense we are prepared to say, and prepared to listen to, only for it all to blow away like chaff.

    So – not sure where any of this going. Except I think that the web can deliver real intimacy. A few months ago when I was having a very stressful night I ended up having a twitter-chat with Dan at 4am which meant a hell of a lot. Neither of us said anything very memorable. But it was enriching.

  8. Ian Rae Ian Rae 2008-05-19

    Awesome post Hugh great food for thought. For some reason it jogged my memories from reading Lessig’s “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.”

    How the web is designed (application function and web design) guides us through the web in the way functional architecture or city planning might. Obviously art and aesthetics tend to be a big part of what is considered to be good architecture, or city planning for that matter, so I think that supports the argument that creative expression is an essential component of success. I would like to imagine that the really creative and superbly functional stuff does tend to rise to the top.

    In Lessig’s model Law, Norms, Market, Architecture all interact with and influence the evolution of society. The world of internet software is for better or worse wrapping us in a layer through which we interact with everything/everyone, and I like how one blogger diagrammed that distinction here:
    I haven’t thought sufficiently long on this but it seems to me the answer to your concern is that the technology enables the architecture, which is where our creativity and art, call it humanity, come into play. I’m sure we’ve barely seen the beginning of human expression via the web.

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