Social media has fundamentally reshaped our society. Yet, critiques regarding the intersection of technology and social media have become so ubiquitous that it’s natural for us to neglect them. To become numb to these critiques, however, is equally dangerous.
It is our reliance on technology to appear in the world that’s troubling. We are living through our phones rather than living in the present. Our desire to document our lives ultimately prevents us from living our lives. And worst of all, the more reliant we become on technology the less we question it. We forsake our privacy, recast our identity, slip into consumerism, and become unequivocally dependent upon technology.
As technology becomes more integrated into our everyday lives, we must be mindful about how we interact with it — namely, the code of ethics that should guide our interactions. But before we can act normatively, we must first turn to ontology. We must ask ourselves: what is the essence of technology?
This question was made famous by the philosopher Martin Heidegger in his piece The Question Concerning Technology. In this work, Heidegger takes on the philosophical project of searching for the essence of technology and thus the condition of Being-in-the-world. Seeing things as they are, letting things appear as they are, is the condition of revealing Truth. But Heidegger adds another concept, the primordial phenomenon of Truth, which means that we can only understand our authentic Being through the disclosing of the world. Our ‘Being-in-the-world’ is the recognition that our existential identity is melded to the world.
“We are questioning concerning technology in order to bring to light our relationship to its essence.”Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, pp. 23
Heidegger addresses the two fundamental ways we understand technology: 1.) as a means to an end, and 2.) as a human activity. Heidegger argues that this is correct; however, these broad understandings do not encapsulate the essence of technology. Essence is what something is, its universal quality. Without delving into too much metaphysics, what something is and what something does is not necessarily the same. Different technologies do different things, but the essence of technology is universal. Technology isn’t just a means to an end, nor a mere activity. It transmutes the way we see the world, and consequently, our relationship to it. Technology is also no neutral entity. Its tasks mirror our human values. How we use it says something about us. Just as nuclear weapons reflect the violence of humanity, technology speaks to human nature.
The discovery of essence is significant because knowing what something is determines the way we use it and the way we should use it. Heidegger says that the essence of technology is enframing. Enframing, as Heidegger puts it, “is the gathering together that belongs to that setting-upon which sets upon man and puts him in position to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.” 2 To offer a gentle rephrasing of Heidegger, enframing gathers the things of the world together, orienting us, so we come to understand that which has been revealed to us by way of ordering. In short, technology positions us to witness things as they reveal themselves in an ordered way, so we can understand them as resources for later use.
Moreover, the term ‘setting-upon,’ coming from the word Stellen, translates to presenting; the presence that brings about unconcealment. The world is a place of hidden treasures awaiting for us to disclose them, to take them out of their concealment. The concept of enframing originates from the idea that humans aim to pull precise scientific knowledge from the world. Thus, it’s helpful to think of enframing as what Heidegger calls a challenging claim, one that calls us to assemble the pieces of the world around us. It is in the nature of Dasein, the subject of Being, to discover in order to affirm its own existence.
The relationship between humanity and the world brings about enframing. And through enframing, the concept of ‘standing-reserve’ arises. ‘Standing-reserve’ is another Heideggerian term, one that is associated with instrumentality. Society seeks to order the world, placing objects in the realm of ‘standing-reserve,’ setting it aside as a resource awaiting its use. We assemble and organize things, but if reckless, we can get so caught up in ordering the world that we run the risk of treating things as a mere means to an end. Hence, enframing is not necessarily bad; it’s just a potential danger. It becomes dangerous once we take on an instrumental mindset and destroy the world in the process. The environment is a clear victim of instrumentality, as we suck up natural resources and disregard the damage done in the process.
“Enframing, as a challenging-forth into ordering, send into a way of revealing…All revealing comes out of the open, goes into the open, and brings into the open.”Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, pp. 24-25
Revealing is the way something comes into Being. The way that a thing unfolds itself at its own time and place. The Heideggerian concept of revealing is powerful. Heidegger says that technology is a mode of revealing: “Technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where alētheia, truth, happens.” 4 Thus, technology reveals the Truth of the world, and revealing is something that gives or shows itself.
But not all technology is the same; hence not all revealing is the same. Modern technology isn’t the same as older technology. Phones are no longer simply outlets for communication, they carry the tools necessary to manipulate our Being. Phones convolute concealment. When we snap a photo we take it and alter its content, we convert the subject to the point of objectification. We treat ourselves as objects when we edit photos to gain artificial praise. When a new technology emerges, we are met with a new set of challenges, and a reevaluation of our ethics will need to be drawn. Technological development, moving from the old house phone to mobile phones, and now to smartphones, all-cause varying challenges.
Technology reveals the Truth of the world. And modern technology is revealing that we aren’t living in our world. We are living in a digitally constructed dystopia, our existence only present through social media. Social media is more than a bad habit we need to break; it is a world we need to break away from.
“Enframing does not simply endanger man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is…They no longer even let their own fundamental characteristic appear, namely, this revealing as such.”Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, pp. 27
Of the U.S. adults that use Facebook, 70% of them say they use it daily. And of adults that use Instagram, 59% report using the platform daily. Considering that 72% of the public uses some type of social media, our society is living in a digital reality. 5 More concerning is that social media users start at a young age. A survey found that of teens 13-17 years old, 72% use Instagram and 51% use Facebook. 6 We are stuck in an artificial social world where the seed of the next generation is planted and saturated. Sadly, their roots are sunken in soil like the bones of deceased livestock.
The desire for popularity has exposed our obsession with attention. The emphasis placed on gaining likes and followers proves that popularity is the currency of the digital world. Social media has been said to impact our mental health negatively, yet we continue to use it. Photos and videos are altered and edited to reflect society’s idea of perfection. In 2018, Facetune “had been downloaded more than 20 million times and had nearly half a million subscribers paying an average of $40 a year. In 2017, Facetune was Apple’s most popular paid app.” 7 The image we create is artificiality with a purpose, and that purpose is not to tend to our authentic Being. In this way, modern technology like phones and social media promote the distortion of reality, of Truth. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook encourage us to alter our physical appearance. We sell ourselves and become standing-reserve.
During the pandemic, Zoom was used in place of our typical social interactions. Yet, even on Zoom, there are modifications that you can make to yourself, such as touching up your appearance. Have we truly met if I have never seen the unaltered version of you? On dating apps, we stoop to artificial levels of aesthetic critique that take place in a matter of milliseconds. Each swipe left or right is an act of objectification against the heart of Being. Our judgment indicates we see others as a resource to be used. We treat each other as a means to an end, a bank of standing-reserve.
Additionally, social media is fuel to the fire of consumer society. Consumerism has conquered what were intended to be social and leisure channels. Instagram “models” and “influencers” are tools for corporate profit as they sell their useless products and airbrushed aesthetics. If we want social capital, we are told to transform ourselves into an ‘insta-look-alike.’ Brands sell a false message of uniqueness through social media, as they advertise individuality but solely sell conformity. Social media creates replications of substanceless Beings. Our activity is a cycle of endless and mindless scrolling, leaving no space for the contemplation of our essence. Rather than communicate, we are shopping for things that we think will make us prettier and therefore happier. Capitalism sends a clear message: consume. Through capitalism, we become standing-reserve.
When we live under the cover of filtered images, we distort our true aesthetic. How can we be ourselves when we are trying to look like the edited version of someone else? What ought to be realized is these freckles of imperfections are the marker of authentic existence. And as Heidegger would likely agree, we are destroying the fabric of our Being-in-the-world. We are treating ourselves and others as ‘standing-reserve.’
“Technology is a way of revealing. If we give heed to this, then another whole realm for the essence of technology will open itself up to us. It is the realm of revealing, i.e., of truth.”Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, pp. 21
We live in a society that obviates the illumination of Truth. In excess, the distortions of social media wage an assault on our Being. Social media, as well as other communicative technologies, avert our ability to appear in the world. On social media, we become what we are not, and Truth fails to prevail because we have forestalled our engagement with the world and with each other. Being demands an authentic existence, one that actively discloses that which is concealed. This is what defines the existence of Dasein. The destruction of the sense of self entails the absence of Being. And in the absence of Being our existence fades into extinction.
But despite what has been said about social media, Heidegger’s view holds that technology isn’t inherently bad. By questioning the essence of technology, we set a way of thinking and build a free relationship. In questioning essence, we prepare ourselves to ponder ethics. Our relationship with all communicative technology reveals our distortive culture. It’s not just social media, it’s other telecommunication like television, radio, and the internet. These types of technology need to spark questions of ethics. What we consume influences our behavior and actuates our ideology. We must use technology to communicate our true selves, not a technologically manipulated one. While social media and other technologies can augment our life, they shouldn’t become our fundamental way of Being-in-the-world. We should use it, not let it use us.