Never-Ending Story

The timeless fear — manifest in modern-day technophobia — of watching kids go where adults can’t follow

A technophobe, I know nothing of the rabbit holes my 13-year-old son disappears down when he is engrossed in any one of his devices. His phone, his iPad, his computer. My ignorance, however, does not stop me from reaffirming, for me, the superiority of the tactile. I read, I tell myself, I read books. And I am in control of where I go when I am reading a book.

I believe, without question, in the superiority of my tactile objects over his virtual world. Of course, I enjoy no such superiority. My son’s devices have a haptic feedback built into them. When he puts his finger on the screen, he stimulates his sense of touch and motion. My son can, as it were, “feel” his way to modes of being from which I am entirely shut out. From which I have shut myself out. He may be learning about how to be in the world in ways I cannot comprehend. At that same moment of his haptic engagement, I experience myself as being excluded from his “non-tactile” universe. “Tactility” may very well be in the eye of the beholder.

The technophobe knows, in advance of himself, that he is a creature of technology

My son’s world, which is also the world of the students whom I teach, is a virtual one. I ask him, and them, if they aren’t afraid of where this world might lead them. Into dark, potentially dangerous places. Into unpleasant encounters neither I, nor they, can control. Places I can’t access. One portal opens into another. Who knows where it will all end? Of course, that’s the point, isn’t it? There is no end to it. 

My son, along with my students, have no trepidation about how it is they experience these multiple worlds. They do more than simply enjoy their forays; they seem to thrive there. After all, many of them appear to have taken up extended residencies in the multi-verses of their own making. And, what is more, my son and my students have forged connections, intimate, sustaining ones, between the haptic screed and the physical classroom. Out of what I consider to be two distinct environs, they have made a multi-layered, vertiginously connected world. The screen and the classroom traverse, cross-cut, each other; one traffics in, informs, shapes, distends, challenges, the other. They not only support and potentially reinforce each other; each also threatens the other. Could this also mean that they might cancel each other out? 

And therein may lie the truth of the technophobe’s fear — and a reason the technophobe may at times even, as though outside of history, let slip or proclaim themselves a “luddite.” But the economic Luddite waged literal war on technology. The 19th-century textile workers, who composed a secret society, responded to the Industrial Revolution’s machines by smashing them so as to protect their domestic-based industry from the predations of industrialized capital. The new technology made the individual worker subject to industrial time and laws of mass production rather than a self-determined clock and an individual production rate.

The current-day technoskeptic, on the other hand, has a very different fear. Or, a different set of fears. As parents, they may fear themselves superannuated by the new technologies. What self-respecting pre-teen needs advice from a parent when YouTube already functions as a mentoring service? An adolescent can take or leave whatever advice a particular TikToker is dishing out about sex, dating or how to “unfriend” an annoying peer without having to explicitly reject or implicitly follow that advice. Take the advice, if you want, ignore the imprecations if you so choose, or simply switch to a different TikTok video, no questions asked. Anachronistically phrased, surf the web until you find the answer you like. If parents fear superannuation, just imagine the teacher’s terror: The economic and cultural irrelevancy to which they appear doomed. A fear intensified and magnified many times over during the pandemic when Zoom became the primary mode of instruction. Every blank space where a student’s face was supposed to be must surely have instilled all teachers with dread? We saw the future without us, clearly written in those absent faces. Those screen absences foretold our fate. 

The technophobe, protesting for all the world against technology, is intent on securing the domain of thinking and keeping it safe from technological contamination. But the technophobe knows, in advance of himself, that he is a creature of technology.  

Was Hei§t Denken? (What is Called Thinking?) is my favorite book because no other thinker thinks about thinking as determinedly as Martin Heidegger. My son teases me about this, as well as my overall engagement with Heidegger, whom he calls the “guy with the funny mustache.” “Dad, all you want to think about is thinking.” This is not a compliment.

I especially love teaching the book to entering freshmen in the Fall semester. Excited by all the new intellectual prospects college life seems to offer, not yet fully adjusted to this brave new world they’ve just entered, and by no means close to being jaded by college life, the students, sometimes despite themselves, seem to thrill to the question that Heidegger is posing: What does it mean to think? What is it we understand ourselves to be doing when we say we are thinking? 

Fall semester of the freshman year is the ideal time to teach Was Hei§t Denken? because in the Spring semester, at the institution where I teach, students are not yet preoccupied with “rushing;” that is, trying to secure a place in campus Greek life, joining this fraternity or that sorority. An exercise in ritual humiliation is how “rushing” strikes me on occasion. In the Fall students are more open than they’re ever going to be to thinking about thinking. By their second semester, the window for teaching thinking already seems to be closing. Rapidly. Certification is about to triumph over education. Certification is proof that the student has met the minimum standards for securing a diploma. Ivy League degree in hand, for the student that diploma is taken as a passport to a future of, it is hoped, gainful employment. There is no metric for determining whether or not the recent graduate has been taught to think. And for this immeasurability I remain grateful because, as Heidegger says, “We do not know what thinking is, but we do know when we are not thinking.” It might only be possible to teach thinking through negation. That is, to teach the student to always think about thinking. Such an impossible task, but what a glorious impossibility, Heidegger presents to us. After all, if we do not think, surely then we cannot know how to be in the world? Or, how to be online? What is the haptic moment without thinking? 

My world is more like my son’s than I want it to be

I’ve taught Was Hei§t Denken? maybe four or five times in the last 10 years. Each time, as it should be, new possibilities present themselves for thinking. It helps, of course, that every time I teach the course I am learning to think again, as if for the very first time. Every encounter with Was Hei§t Denken? is experienced as a first invitation: learn to think, one more time. The teacher, Heidegger insists, must be more teachable than the students. I must learn to think so that I am able to, not so much teach my students how to think, but set them on the path to thinking. What a responsibility. How singular a privilege.

Here, however, is the thing about teaching Was Hei§t Denken?: It’s the book where I get hoisted by my own anti-technology petard. After all, in philosophy the Greek term “techne” (τέχνη) means the “making of a world.” Techne, philosophically conceived, has much in common with technology, rather than being opposed, as one might expect. “Technology” is vested in the practical, in the work of putting scientific knowledge to practical use. Techne is the art of making things philosophically. Teaching Martin Heidegger turns the instructor into the chief architect of a philosophical world. Thinking is, following Heidegger, the first technological instrument. It is the technological instrument that is closest to hand and yet one we are least equipped to use. Thinking is our first encounter with technology. It is also an encounter with a technology far more sophisticated and impossible to command than any other that we will encounter in our lives. And yet every encounter bears testament to the creative power of thinking. 

This is an onerous position for the teacher. To teach is to build a world through felicitous but imperfect instruction. Or, perhaps less imperfect than unpredictable and multi-dimensional. As much as the instructor seeks to stick to the “plan,” the book always contains within it the element of surprise. Was Hei§t Denken? presents the teacher with at least as many unexpected possibilities as difficulties, as many straightforward plans for construction as there are junctures where the teacher finds himself veering off into the unknown. Propelled by a force that is at once singular and in struggle with itself, the thinker extends in the direction of other thinkers: the thinking begins from the thinker declaring himself “ignorant” — he does not know what thinking is but he insists that we learn to think — and turning, ever so often, to others who too are engaged in the work of learning how to think. In this process, the teacher finds himself made into a thinking subject, if all goes well, by the material. Surprised, sometimes even shocked, by where thinking has led him. The teacher as not master of the material but as the subject being molded by the material: Part architect, part subject.
The remarkable thing for me about teaching
Was Hei§t Denken? is that every time I teach this work of Heidegger’s I find myself not only “making” a new world out of it, a world constructed out of Heidegger’s reflections — out of Heidegger’s turn to, say, the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, or Friedrich Nietzche’s Zarathustra — but that I am in fact functioning in several worlds at once.

The analogy I routinely invoke when teaching Was Hei§t Denken? is the Congo River of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — a novella about the horrors caused by the Belgian conquest of the Congo, which affected not only the colonized Congolese but the Belgian colonizers themselves, and the very fabric of European life in cities such as London and Brussels. The Congo River, I explain when I offer this analogy, is the main source of thinking, for Heidegger, and of Kurtz’s troubles, for Conrad. But, over the course of time, the Congo has acquired, against its wishes, a number of tributaries. Nietzsche, Hölderlin, Descartes are the names that Was Hei§t Denken? assigns those tributaries. It is the less trodden path, though, that Heidegger takes in order to supplement, strengthen or complicate his argument. A risky strategy, of course, because who knows what might be found in those secondary waters. Who knows what might happen if we succumb to it?

As we know, Conrad’s protagonist, Kurtz, constructed out of his defection from Western modernity a rather frightening psycho-structure. We remember that when Marlowe, a passenger on a “pleasure ship,” finds Kurtz, after navigating a tributary lined with human skulls  — having been charged with finding the defector, and rescuing him from himself or at least minimizing the damage Kurtz could do to the Company —  Kurtz whispers those famous four words to express his account of having “gone native.” “The horror! The horror!” These are his final words.

Such is the allure and the danger of the tributary, of straying from the beaten path, in choosing the unknown over the familiar.

However, as an instance of techne, and taking our cue from Heidegger, we come to know what it means to live in more than one world at the same time. We, or, rather, I, must know come to terms that ever since teaching Was Hei§t Denken? I have been living, operating pedagogically, in several worlds at once. Unknown to myself, or, at the very least, unknowledged by me, I have been trafficking in a multi-verse of my own making, and certainly for longer than I care to admit. In a flash of insight, the inscrutability of my own universe and its similarity with the multi-verses my son inhabits is revealed. The technological murkiness of his multi-verses and the insular nature of my own suddenly seem dissimilar only in their content but not in their essential nature.

Taking our cue from Heidegger, we come to know what it means to live in more than one world

I have found joy in taking the road less taken. I have been surprised by what it is I have found there. And, I have learned that the tributary — the world into which I have stumbled from the world I thought I was so carefully keeping under construction — is its own world. The stream of the text, or the scroll of the screen, are similarly generative, though they each may seem like mere “virtual”worlds to the outsider. 

And, of this I am even more sure. When I do return to the Congo, I find it a changed place. The river flows differently: New eddies. New currents. New dangers. Fresh prospects. I might like it more, this new-old river. Or, I might not. But because it is not the same, I can now no longer approach it as I was previously wont to do.

The tributary is fundamental to the work of thinking, before taking the off-ramp. Accept that your world will lead you to another. Know that you are always, already, on the cusp of entering a world you did not know existed but which you surely sensed was there.

My world is more like my son’s than I want it to be. My son’s expertise is different from mine. But, his world is no less meaningful to him than mine is to me. Not quite parallel worlds, but worlds that, in their basic motivation to build something, to understand how random openings, fissures, temptations, instincts, all present themselves, share more than the technophobe is willing to admit. There is horror and prospect in every act of making. Frankenstein and Kurtz are reminders of that prospect. But they are cautionary tales. Not to be dismissed, but not to be taken as the only possible outcome. Recall only what a totally dispirited Mary Magdalene encountered when she was wandering around a cemetery on a Sunday morning after her beloved teacher had been crucified. The gardener turned out not to be the gardener after all.

The self-proclaimed technophobe, like any self-respecting fundamentalist, makes a world in order to make the world in which he lives legible, explicable. Now, however, the technophobe finds himself not so much released into a new world but, rather, given an entirely new technical vocabulary with which to understand the worlds that he has long been involved in making. The technoskeptic is left to the thing he’s been doing without knowing — acknowledging? — that it’s what he’s been doing all along, in reading, in every act of instruction.

The technoskeptic now knows what he has been doing but, since confessions of technological dependence sit ill with him, he is an ungracious being. Hypocrisy, he insists, is its own virtue: To live in a broken bubble but refuse to acknowledge that yours is a world wonderfully rent.

Grant Farred is the author, most recently, of The Zelensky Method (Westphalia Press, 2022) and Only A Black Athlete Can Save Us Now (University of Minnesota Press, 2022). His other works include An Essay for Ezra: Racial Terror in America (University of Minnesota, 2021) and Martin Heidegger Saved My Life (University of Minnesota, 2015).