In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger shows that we fail in thinking of technology because we think of technology as an instrument (means) for our use. In order not merely to think of what technology does, but its essence (roughly speaking, what brings it to be what it is), Heidegger determines that we have to think about and question what is really meant by the word “cause” and the causal interpretation of occurrences under which we hastily try to view technology. Technology, then, precisely in its being adequately viewed, requires that “cause” be interpreted differently as something beyond causality in the common sense, as something more “originary” (ursprünglich). The result of this view will be a thinking of technology that considers it as being an instrument only in its derivativeness or deficiency.
Heidegger begins by asking what is common to the various ways causality can be understood, and determines that in each case something is responsible for something. This responsibility (Verschuldung) of something is misunderstood, according to Heidegger, either “moralistically as a lapse,” or through construing it “in terms of effecting” (9). Using his example of a silver chalice being caused by a silversmith, he determines that the sense in which causality is most causal lies not in the silversmith’s producing it, but in the more basic phenomenon of the silversmith’s being responsible for the appearance of the chalice there before us lying readily available (Bereitliegen) for our involvement with it. Causality understood as production or effectuation just makes something issue forth from something else, while in the more basic phenomenon of responsibility the accent is shifted onto how something is brought before us in its availability. Causation, then, really exists beyond commonly understood causality as a way (namely, a way of being responsible) that something can be brought into presence there before us. It is only in this way, as a “revealing” (Entbergung) or unconcealing of something such that its presence is brought forth, that technology can be understood (derivatively) as “an occasioning or an inducing to go forward”—i.e. as an instrument or means to an end that produces changes (9).
What all this means then is that “the possibility of all productive manufacturing”—if we understand this as a blanket-term for technology and for technological causation as responsibility—“lies in revealing” (12): that the essence of any thing that is deemed to be technology or technological (a coal mine, for example), does not lie in its production or effectuation of technologically manufactured material as such (processed coal), but in the way that anything it produces or effects possesses the possibility of revealing due to the technological process that it went through (the way the coal is processed rock able to be used as fuel). But of course if this definition of production as revealing characterizes technology, it would also characterize anything that is brought before us in its presence. This is why Heidegger does not specify the essence of technology specifically as revealing itself. Technology (techne) is a specific type of revealing, while revealing by itself is what Heidegger says is poiesis that is most proper to art. This is a letting into presence that lets something fully come into presence as itself.
If the essence of technology is a more specific type of revealing than poiesis, then, we can specify it as self-concealing or withdrawing in a particular way. For if poiesis is a revealing of something in its presence as itself, any other mode of revealing must somehow deflect or hinder the process of something’s coming into presence as itself. The material of technology must come to presence as other than itself, or, as Heidegger puts it, must be “set back” in its its being brought to presence of itself “with forgottenness” (“Die Kehre,” 68, my translation: “…mit der Vergessenheit nachstellt”). This process of self-concealing in presencing that will characterize technology specifically exists in how technology always brings something to presence (to its lying there ready before us) only as itself in its being regulated or ordered. Put differently, this means that what is revealed by technology cannot be brought forth as itself because its essence is seen to be in its readiness rather than in its being in presence in its lying before us. The technological is lying ready there before us as opposed to its lying ready there before us: the emphasis is placed on readiness, on its standing-ready, on its being a reserve, rather than on how it exists there. Indeed, the technological is so ready that this readiness is calculable and distributable—it is not just present somewhere or other, indeterminately. What is crucial to the essence of technology, however, is that this calculable readiness is all that the object is seen to be in its presence: as Heidegger puts it with the example of coal technologically extracted, “the coal that has been hauled out in some mining district has not been supplied in order that it may simply be present somewhere or other. It is stockpiled, that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it” (15). In short, the coal is in its presence has its poeitic possibilities of revealing itself as belonging to a process foreclosed: it is never able even to seen as processed rock (as belonging to the process of its technological extraction from the mine) but always appears already as just a certain amount of fuel, as a reserve of energy. Similarly, The Rhine, as Heidegger says, comes to presence with its essence concealed, not as a river but as a “water power supplier” (15).
To put it a different way—a way to which we will have to return—even if what is created through poiesis is not determined as something that poesis effects (i.e. if it is not determined as issuing from causal instrumentality), it still “ends up” as something revealed. With technology, what gets revealed is, in a sense, the impossibility of ever fully revealing something—not because there will always be more to reveal about what gets revealed (here, coal as fuel), or that revealing always misses its proper end in the sense of purpose (Zweck), but because what is revealed by technology is always meant to be ready for further revealing or being brought into presence (mountain as fuel, fuel as energy, energy as light, etc.). This is what Heidegger means when he says that with revealing of technology, “revealing never simply comes to an end,” never expires, never runs off or peters out (16, “Dieses [entbergung] läuft jedoch nicht einfach ab”). What is revealed always lies there before us, not as something that has been revealed, but as what always has the possibility to further reveal how it can be newly unlocked, transformed, stored, distributed, or switched about—in short how many ways it can be brought again into presence (15). The interminable transformability characteristic of what technology reveals is like a stock of something always ready to be distributed somewhere. Heidegger accordingly calls what submits itself to technology and technological revealing “der Bestand,” the German word for a stock.
However, what is technological is not a stock in the sense that it is a stock of objects (Gegen-stände)—and it is here, by returning to objects, that we can see why Heidegger needed to go beyond causality as traditionally understood in order to define the essence of technology in terms of what it works on. A stock of objects is revealed not in its readiness at all, but precisely in how they conform to purposes or generate effects. If one looks at the technological as a set of objects, one does not look at it as a reserve for revealing, for further transformation and further presencing, but rather at its potential for further use for purposes. We may look at an airplane and see that it is a series of objects that cause the transportation of individuals, but does this really characterize the plane? Heidegger thinks these objects as objects do not reveal themselves as that transportation itself in its potentiality. The airplane, yes, is a series of pieces of metal. But these pieces of metal are not “used” for transportation, Heidegger thinks. The plane is more originally than any set of objects a people carrier, what just is there, on the runway, “ready for takeoff,” for bringing itself again into presence as a transporting (17). The “stock,” then, must be understood as something more like a resource, when we talk of coal or water or air as a “natural resource:” it is a reserve not of things but of a potential for converting itself into further presencing of itself, into fuel or energy. Put differently, for Heidegger what gets worked upon by technology cannot be looked at causally in the common understanding because we are dealing with a stock of stuff that is so destined for its particular effect that it cannot be said to be caused when it brings itself forth. What we are dealing with is a stock of objects that are always already their effect: to say that they are objects, then, or that something causes something to be brought about by means of them at bottom distorts the essence of this stock. We must give them a different type of being altogether: that which we designate by “resource.”