Embed from Getty Images


This semester I am teaching a new module called Biosocieties: Technologies, Health and Bodies which asks students to consider how we live with technologies and how they impact on our perceptions and experiences of our health and bodies. I will write a series of blog posts alongside this module which will engage with some of the ideas and issues addressed in the module. In this first post I will simply try to lay out the broad framework we will draw on for analysing technologies. In subsequent posts I will focus on more specific topics such as psychiatry and neuroscience, genetics, work technologies and digital health as well as theoretical approaches such as Actor-Network Theory.


While we might often think about technologies as pieces of machinery with cogs and wheels, circuit boards, buttons or screens our analysis will not be restricted to these things. Instead, we take an approach which understands technologies to be systems which enable certain things to happen (and perhaps restrict others from happening). We might see technologies as extensions of human action which allow us to do things which otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do. Or we might see technologies as things which mediate humans; between humans and animals or nature between humans and other technologies or other configurations (not necessarily involving humans).


Embed from Getty Images

The approach we take, and that echoed by many of the scholars we will encounter, is influenced by the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger who investigated what technologies mean in his essay ‘The Question concerning Technology’ in which he proclaimed that “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological” (Heidegger, 1977: 4).

For Heidegger, the commonplace way in which we understand technology today is really only one aspect of technology which he refers to as the “instrumental and anthropological definition of technology”, that is, it is a “man-made means to an end established by man” (Heidegger, 1977: 5). It is an anthropological understanding of technology because it is entirely concerned with human-made things and the intentions of humans and it is instrumental because it is concerned with the intentions of people using the technology and a means-ends approach to getting things done.

Heidegger suggests that this instrumental understanding of technology is only one way of understanding it. However, the fundamental aspect of technology (which he has discovered) is that it is a way of “revealing” or “bringing-forth”. By this he means the way in which something comes into being. So this could be turning some raw materials (such as stone) into a new form (a statue) or it might be a flower blooming.

Rather than a particular configuration of machinery technology is a “realm of truth”. The word “technology” comes from the Greek word Technikon which belongs to the stem word techne which refers to craft activities but also artistic activities. More significantly techne is also connected to the word episteme which refers to “knowing” or understanding and is a root of the word “epistemology”.

Heidegger thinks there is something distinctive about modern technology. In its very essence it is the same as older forms of technology as it is a “revealing” but what is new is that it does this in a “challenging” or antagonistic manner. Modern technology extracts from nature to store its energy. Older forms of technology generate energy through an engagement from nature but do not take it away.

For instance, a windmill uses the wind to generate energy but the wind remains the wind. Coal mining enables the production of energy but removes the coal from the ground and it is gone forever and is transformed. The windmill can generate energy but the wind can also function as it did previously. When coal is extracted from the land it is “revealed” as a coalfield. This is a “challenging-forth” rather than a “bringing-forth”.

Modern technology, for Heidegger, then, is instrumentalist and “reveals” nature (or people) as a resource or “standing reserve”. He suggests in the pre-modern world there was not a distinction between a technological orientation and an artistic one but now the two have been separated.

We can have an poetic engagement with the world, to consider things for their aesthetic properties and their intrinsic qualities. A painting of a forest “brings forth” the forest in a particular way and reveals aspects of it but does not reduce the forest. Cutting down all of the trees and burning them also “brings forth” the forest but leaves only destruction behind. Perhaps technology should think aesthetically as well as instrumentally?


Embed from Getty Images

The second approach to technologies we will draw on is one developed by Michel Foucault. Although Foucault conducted historical, political and theoretical analyses of several specific topics (including penology, sexuality, medicine and “madness”) he characterised his approach to all of these as being concerned with analysing “technologies of the self”. This involved investigating the “practices” involved in analysing our selves and our desires. He wanted to know “How had the subject been compelled to decipher himself in regard to what was forbidden?” (Foucault, 1988: 17)

In this sense he has similar concerns to Heidegger but applies Heidegger’s analysis of the natural world to “the self”. Here technologies are understood as ways of engaging with ourselves in order to “reveal” the truth of who we are. For instance, Foucault was interested in the Catholic confessional which he considered to be a technology for identifying the reasons for peoples’ sins. It is also a practical means of encouraging people to feel guilty for their actions and to identify themselves as responsible for their sins. His focus then is on “the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves” (Foucault, 1988: 17-18).

Foucault considered the particular sciences which tried to make sense of our psychology, health or criminality to be “truth games” related to techniques which reveal their truths. He identified 4 types of technologies involved in this process:

(1) technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform, or manipulate things;

(2) technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols, or signification;

(3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject;

(4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and ways of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.

(Foucault, 1988: 18).

Technologies as we can see from this discussion of the work of Heidegger and Foucault are not simply machinery but are ways of making something happen and of understanding and interpreting things in a particular way. So, we can see technologies are ways of knowing (what we sometimes call “epistemologies”) and practices.

In the next post I will discuss an approach to understanding our relationship with technologies (and other things) which has been (partly) influenced by both Heidegger and Foucault called Actor-Network-Theory.

Foucault, M. (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock Publications.

Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Garland.