Scholars continue to ask the on-going question ‘how can we relate ourselves to technology in a way that not only resists its devastation, but also gives it a positive role in our lives’ (Dreyfus & Spinosa, 1997, p. 159)?
Captured in the Book of Genesis is the story of the tree of knowledge (Etz haDaat tov V'ra) located in the garden of Eden. The tree contained the knowledge that separated Man from God. Adam ate the forbidden fruit on Eve’s insistence which led to their banishment and forced them to survive ‘by the sweat of [their] brow’ (Genesis 3:19-24), thus marking the beginning of human interdependency on technology. Again historically, in ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus (“Forethought”), known for his intelligence, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, for which he was eternally punished.
Philosophers and scientists have wrestled with the ongoing dilemma of the place and price of knowledge and technology for the last 2,500 years, beginning with Plato’s articulation of metaphysics (Heidegger, 1993). Since ancient times, scholars have viewed the techne (i.e. technical knowledge) as a “process of reflection” that could transform the world. However, even then, they recognised that the maladaption of techne, in effect technological modelling, will eventually leave humans unable to think outside of its narrow confines (Heidegger, 1993, p. 218). This realisation led Rousseau (2003, p. 48) to famously conclude that ‘man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains’.
Heidegger (1993) also argued that the essence of an object is more than just its visible qualities for it includes both the seen and the unseen. In this sense, technology has unconcealed (aletheia) and hidden or concealed (lethe) characteristics. The visible aspect is the benefit of technology for mankind, that of making life richer, easier and available for all. However, “ubiquitous computing” has made the techne more invisible, amorphous and embedded (Weiser, 1993). It has become even more opaque with the advent of radio-frequency-identification (RFID) and nano-technology.
Although modern technology has not yet achieved optimal invisibility, it is on its way to doing so ‘away from attention on the machine and back on the person and his or her life in the world of work, play and home’ (Weiser, 1993, p. 3). The concealment of the human essence consideration through the enframing aura of technology has two related and unprecedented consequences: 1) the minimisation of the uniquely human capacity to ask critical questions and 2), the dulling of the human sense to the point of being unable to recognise or critique this enframing process.
The notion of invisibility is a powerful consideration as the ‘most profound technologies are those that disappear’ (Weiser, 1991, p. 96). The manner of invisibility operates on two levels. The first is the level of concealment where many of the workings of ubiquitous ICT (i.e., Wifi and radio frequency) are hidden from view.
The second and more subtle level is the level of familiarity. We have become so familiar with certain technologies that they have become a part of everyday life. They are no longer a focus of conscious attention. They ‘weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it’ (Weiser, 1991, p. 96). In fact, ICT transcends from being a mere “human assistant” (Tesler, 1991) to an “intimate” gadget (Kay, 1991). The mobile phone is such an example. Everyday intimacy renders it a constituent part of the human body, ultimately morphing into a ‘‘human bar code’’. Understandably, scholars are raising concerns about the possible implanting of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in people for the purpose of tracking and monitoring individual citizens (Kanellos, 2005).