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Tractors, Trolls and What a 1950's Philosopher Says About Twitter

24/01/2014 14:30 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 09:59 GMT

There is rarely anything new under the sun. It's useful to remember this when there is great furore over new technologies and the effects they are having on us and the world we live in - especially when the stories are as serious as a teenager taking her life because of the 'toxic digital world' she had become so enmeshed in.

I have been researching a book on social media and, in addition to the very new work being written, have been delving back all the way in the darkness of the 1950's to see what thinkers were saying then about technology.

One who has struck me in particular is Martin Heidegger. You have full permission to stop reading at this point: Heidegger was a pretty difficult sort of bloke - a member of the Nazi party etc. - and with his neologisms his work is often fiendishly tricky to understand. But bear with me, because, despite his political failings, there are two gems in one of his essays that I think are worth reflecting on.

In a 1950 essay on 'The Problem Concerning Technology' Heidegger set out his stall on what the essence of technology is. This is in a pre-digital world, but his thoughts are prescient.

Firstly, he explains that technology always does a work of revelation. This seems an odd idea at first, but is quite true. In classic tool-use terms, a hammer 'reaches back' into our hand and reveals something of our inner desires. We use the hammer to smash windows or create woodwork - but in its use we have done a work of inner revelation.

In more up to date terms, this is what we now see clearly in Twitter. This is a tool that also 'reaches back' into our selves and reveals something of depth in us - but also something about how we view those around us. The troll who writes abusive tweets to Stan Collymore is doing a work of revelation. The difference is of course that this revelation is now amplified to a potentially global audience.

Social media is still, in evolutionary terms, a very new technology. Communication is not of course, but the element that is new, the element that we are still naive about, is the high amplification given to the revelation. The letter never reached quite so far for so many.

This leads us on to Heidegger's second insight: that technology always does a work of 'enframing.' What he means by this is that any technology changes the way that we frame the world. Technology is thus never neutral - it always moves us in some way and adjusts our vision.

Perhaps the neatest way this has been put is in Maslow's maxim 'to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.' The fact that we have a hammer fundamentally changes how we view what is around us. Again, we see this quite clearly with social media: to the person with a smartphone, everything looks like an Instagram. Those filters have actually 'enframed' our world.

Why does this matter? Heidegger wrote in his essay:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

Technology companies and social media cheerleaders tell us that their products and services are liberating us. The Arab Spring, Twitter democracy, 24/7 connectivity. What Heidegger offers is a sensible corrective: this liberation is false. Technologies have always enframed us, and these new shiny digital ones will do so too - if perhaps in different and new ways.

Our task is to be conscious of what our new fetters look like, and resist and cast them off when they dehumanise us. Does being in touch via email and Facebook 24/7 really feel like freedom? And who to? It doesn't to my children, that's for sure.

But, most urgently, we need quickly to appreciate Heidegger's idea that technology works an act of revelation. Have a think: what is technology revealing about your drives and desires? About the worth you put on other people? Steve Jobs was very big on 'living your dream' - but workers at FoxConn, with suicide nets surrounding their factories, would laugh blackly at this. Our constant-upgrade iPhone dream perhaps reveals something about how much we value the rare-earth metals that are running out, or the lowly-paid workers we require in order to have them - all of that before the social media apps we use reveal something of our feelings towards those we work among, or women or ethnic minorities who dare poke their head above the parapet.

The promise of technology is liberation. And yes, the leaps ahead that have been made are incredible and have huge potential for good. But, in shaking off the old analogue world, it is time to realise the new chains we have accepted - in milled alloy cases yes, but no less binding for that.