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Modern Technology: The World as Standing Reserve


St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the speculative and practical intellects are not two, but one power, and that the speculative becomes practical by extension. This simple teaching is particularly enlightening for any reflection concerning technology. It implies that all human acting and making is necessarily revelatory; it is necessarily a statement concerning what is thought to be true. In the words of Aquinas: “For the practical intellect knows truth, just as the speculative, but it directs the known truth to operation.”1 D.C. Schindler explains this teaching beautifully: “Man is by nature a truthing animal, who discloses the meaning of things in every single thing that he does, and most fundamentally desires this meaning in his action.”2 This revelation occurs even when one is not conscious of what is being revealed. The central point of Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology”3 is that unless we come to realize that technology is most fundamentally a type of revelation, we will either remain impotent before it or will blindly submit to it.

Heidegger states that modern technology is a mode of revelation, just like ancient technology or techne. What differentiates both is what they reveal, what they believe is true about the world. Ancient techne is revealed in a mode called poiesis, a “bringing forth.” Heidegger tells us that the paradigm of poiesis is nature (physis in Greek) because nature brings forth, of its own power, the fulfillment of what is already there: like the blossom bursting into bloom. Human making, similarly, brings out from the things it works upon what they cannot always of themselves bring forth: a carpenter brings out a table from the wood. Techne finds its exemplar in physis, or, as Aristotle put it: art imitates nature. This implies that techne reveals that which is veiled in things, their logos. Heidegger suggests that the man operating in the mode of poiesis gathers together that which something is for, that which a thing is, and the materials out of which a thing is made (three of the four Aristotelian causes), and through a careful consideration, brings about the making of the thing. Heidegger points out that “to consider carefully” is, in Greek, legein, logos. Making as poiesis is an encounter between the intelligibility of Creation and the intelligence of man, which means that it is primarily contemplative. It reveals things not only as intelligible, but also as given, as possessing goodness in themselves beyond their utility and thus sets limits on how they should be manipulated. Poiesis possesses an inherently ethical dimension.

Humanity’s task is to bring out what is best in things, to bring them to fulfillment, to help them transcend themselves, but it can only do so by knowing what they are in truth. Modern technology, in contrast, reveals things as what Heidegger calls “standing reserve,” a “supply of energy that can be extracted and stored” and can then be transformed, transported, and ordered towards some other activity. Nature exists, in this view, for the sole purpose of being there for whenever we need it. Heidegger adds, “Whatever stands by in the sense of standing reserve no longer stands over against us as object.” It no longer has a dignity and a worth of its own. It is “good” only insofar as it is useful, and there are no other objective ethical criteria. And if it exists solely to satisfy our appetites, when it no longer does, we can discard it without a second thought. Here, the practical takes precedence over the contemplative, the practical reason becomes the whole of reason, and even the practical reason has been further reduced to merely making.

Since technology is a totalizing paradigm, we become incapable of seeing beyond it to address the problems it itself has caused.

If modern technology reveals things as standing-reserve, information technology—of which artificial intelligence is a type—does so in its own unique way. The standing reserve in information technology takes the form of data. Massive amounts of data can be stored, manipulated at will, transformed, and transferred almost instantaneously. Data can be summoned at the speed of light. It is the standing reserve par excellence. When things are present before us as data, they no longer stand in our presence as objects, as things existing in the world, but as sequences of bits. They are brought before our senses not in their reality but through a screen, they appear before us in virtuality.

What happens when we begin to see all of reality as virtual? What kind of life does this lead to? These are ultimately the type of questions we should be asking when we ask about the ethics of technology. Does it help us live a flourishing, fulfilling human life or not? Many are fearful of the many disruptions that AI can bring to the economy and the job market. There are concerns about its use for the spreading of disinformation and lies, as well as the possibility of it being used to violate our privacy through surveillance. Many have an apocalyptic fear of an AI dystopia where it takes over human affairs, governs us, and might even destroy us. 

The reality of a technological dystopia is far more banal than that. We are already experiencing the effects of viewing the world as standing reserve. What characterizes the standing reserve, especially when understood as data, is its immediacy, that it is there when we want it and how we want it. And because we see the world in this way, we begin to organize our societies, economies, and lives around this. We build our world in this image. Pope Francis has called this a “technocratic paradigm” because it is a totalizing, comprehensive worldview.4 It is not limited to our making and using gadgets but takes over the whole of life. Think, for instance, of what has happened so that the process of buying can be boiled down to a click, so that we can expect things to appear on our doorstep as soon as possible. To provide for that, we have built factories and distribution centers, data centers and transatlantic supply chains; we have planes, trucks, and trailers circulating continuously to fill warehouses that are running non-stop; we make deliveries from dawn to sunset, and we even deny workers their Sabbath rest. We have caused major disruptions in nature, in human society, in individual human lives for the sake of this immediacy. All the chaos these disruptions entail could possibly be justified if immediacy was a good and not just a convenience—if it made us good and not just rich. Since we never ask after goodness, we never pose the correct ethical questions. We will instead tend to reduce the ethical to a technical problem to be solved by further technological advances. Since technology is a totalizing paradigm, we become incapable of seeing beyond it to address the problems it itself has caused. 

The reason so many people are unsatisfied, despairing even, in this technological society, is because what it reveals the world to be is a lie.

There is another perhaps less evident effect. The immediacy of the standing reserve means that it requires no patience on our part, no effort, no sacrifice. However, human excellence and virtue demand patience and effort and sacrifice and time. Thinking and learning demand patience and effort and sacrifice and time. Love is, as St. Paul tells us, patient and sacrificial. A world conceived as standing reserve is one where all these become impossible because we are no longer willing to put up with what is needed to acquire them, even when these constitute some of the highest human goods. The Western world is wealthier than any other civilization in human history; the medical advances we enjoy today have freed us from many of the sufferings of our ancestors; automation has relieved us from many of the toils and burdens of our forefathers, and yet, signs of social malaise and unhappiness are all around us. What can explain such a paradox?

The fact that both practical and speculative reason are a single power not only implies that the practical reveals what we think about the world, but also that what we make and do can shape what we think about the world. Michael Hanby has made this point most poignantly with respect to reproductive technologies.5 New technologies make what was once unthinkable, thinkable. But just because something is thinkable, does not make it true. And just like a man can lie with his speech, he can lie with his actions, as St. John Paul II made so eloquently clear with his Theology of the Body6 (also referring to a reproductive technology). The reason so many people are unsatisfied, despairing even, in this technological society, is because what it reveals the world to be is a lie. Wikipedia and Google make us think we can acquire knowledge quickly and without toil, but that is not the case. ChatGPT makes us think we can write well without struggling to find the right words to express something, but that is not the case. Tinder makes us think we can find true love by swiping right, but that too is not the case. All this technology promises us an immediate gratification that is not possible nor desirable. And because we have been tricked into believing that reality is such that this is possible when it is not, we despair.

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Despair is not an option for the Christian. In his Letters from Lake Como, Romano Guardini paints a bleak picture of the technological society he saw forming in Italy in the early twentieth century. In the last letter, however, his tone changes completely. Instead of rejecting this age because of what he has seen, Guardini argues that we ought to say “Yes” to it, for it is the age God has placed us in, the age we are called to sanctify. His critique of technology concludes with him saying: “What we need is not less technology, but more. Or, more accurately, we need stronger, more considered, more human technology.” In other words, we need a redeemed technology, a Christian techne. Redemption is not the work of man alone, but of God with the cooperation of man, Guardini continues: “from my heart’s core I believe that God is at work. History is going forward in the depths, and we must be ready to play our part, trusting in what God is doing and in the forces that he has made to stir within us.” 

Modern technology will be redeemed through conversion. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for conversion is metanoia, which means literally “going beyond one’s own mind.” The redemption of technology requires us to move beyond our practical mind back to the contemplative, to restore the primacy of the speculative reason. The Christian can go further. He is to think no longer as men do, but as God does, to see as he sees: “Lord, that I may see!” (Mk. 10:51). By seeing creation as God sees it—He saw that it was very good (Gn. 1:31)—what we make will in fact reveal the truth about the world. We will no longer see creation as a standing reserve, fit only for consumption, use, and eventual disposal, but as the gift that it is—a gift that we are to bring to plenitude that it might be given back to the greater glory of God. 

1 Summa Theologiae, I, q. 79, a.11
2 D.C. Schindler, The Politics of the Real (Steubenville: New Polity Press, 2021), p. 217.
3 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidgger: Basic Writings. Edited by David Farell Krell. (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 287-317.
4 See Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Sì.
5 See Michael Hanby, “The Gospel of Creation and the Technocratic Paradigm: Reflections on a central teaching of Laudato Si’.” Communio 42 (Winter 2015): 724-747.
6 See John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them. A Theology of the Body. (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2006). For Saint John Paul II, to use contraception is to lie with the body, as it denies the truth of the sexual act.