In this post, I explore two competing philosophical viewpoints on technology from Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Fuller and Heidegger assess technology in its most general sense—asking questions about why we make, and to what purpose. I believe that a brief survey of the philosophy of technology aid reflection upon how our work relates to the whole. By zooming out from our day-to-day, we can more clearly see the purpose behind our actions. Fuller and Heidegger talk about technology at the cosmic scale, so buckle up.
Adding Order to the Universe
Fuller views technology as a tool for adding order to the universe. Humanity (and nature) is in constant struggle to counterbalance the entropic forces (growing disorder) of a rapidly expanding universe. To Fuller, engineering and design are fundamentally an “anti-entropic” process. They order scattered atomic units into more meaningful patterns. For instance, the computer you’re reading this on underwent a process that turned unrefined, disorganized matter into a cogent object.
Fuller believes that humans are destined to add complexity to the universe using our unique faculty of reason. On a cosmic timescale, humanity are behooved to not miss our narrow window of opportunity to advance science and technology through a disciplined, democratic process. Fuller believes we must foster not just theorists, but engineers to embed intelligence in the universe. If we should fail, the cosmic process may go on without us.
Depleting Earth’s Standing Reserves
Heidegger had a more pessimistic view of technology. While he shared Fuller’s view that technology provides a means to achieving some ends of human activity, he lamented how the “anti-entropic ordering function” is depleting what we have. The resources we transform are not merely unordered matter, but planetary resources supporting the ecology in which all life on earth depends.
The taking of resources—whether from the past solar energy accumulated in coal, or the mining of heavy, exotic materials like uranium—is a depletion of what Heidegger calls “standing reserve” of the planet. To Heidegger, we have problematically approached technology within an unbounded inclination to manipulate and control nature. On a deeper level, he worries that treating everything as standing reserve to be exploited extends to people. When we view people’s behaviour as something to be designed, it reduces them to “human resources.” Heidegger finds his optimism in the faith that because people are the ones “ordering” technology, we have the capacity to respond with clarity to the dangers of technology.
It should be noted that Fuller was highly conscious of the environment. His life was spent designing, engineering, and writing about ways of doing more with less. Fuller went as far as citing Chardenèdes’s estimation that one gallon of fuel costs nature over $1 million to produce (over $2.6 million in 2020 dollars), writing:
“We find all the no-life-support-wealth-producing people going to their 1980 jobs in their cars or buses, spending trillions of dollars’ worth of petroleum daily to get to their no-wealth-producing jobs. It doesn’t take a computer to tell you that it will save both Universe and humanity trillions of dollars a day to pay them handsomely to stay at home.”
Where Fuller differed from Heidegger was his conviction that human ingenuity can be harnessed to live well-within planetary means.
The Montreal Biosphere created by Buckminster Fuller for Expo 67. The structure is an embodiment of Fuller’s mantra of doing more with less. Today, it houses a museum to raise citizen awareness, action, and engagement on significant environmental issues.
A host of questions arise from considering the views of Fuller and Heidegger: To what purpose are we ordering the world? Do extractive activities today constrain or enhance the choices of tomorrow? Should we treat the earth as standing reserve?
By asking similar questions, you can explore how your own work with technology fits within broader narratives.
One of the areas Fuller and Heidegger made me reflect was asking whether one of the predominant emphases driving the tech developing—finding new ways to add convenience and comfort to people’s lives—is actually worth it. As I write this from a suburb, I am surrounded by 4,000 lbs automobiles parked in driveways, air conditioners running in mostly-empty homes, triple-plastic-wrapped snacks in large fridges, and a panoply of things available for delivery at a push of a button.
People find value in such technologies, but at what cost? Looking at CO2 emissions alone, each US and Canadian citizen emits about 16 tons per year—compared to a global average of 5 tons per year. The comfort of North American ways of living that we continue to design for—and market to other parts of the world—drastically exceeds what the earth is able to support.
Such technologies are adding to our collective future by enabling further technological development and more choice. But they are also narrowing our collective futures by depleting earth’s standing reserve. Weighing each technology according to how it futures and defutures makes it clear that many existing produces have net-negative effects. In order to course-correct—from a planetary point of view—we face the technological and social challenges of doing more with less, or doing less with less.
Innovation requires displacement. The recasting of standing reserve into something new necessitates a transformation of matter and energy. Purposeful innovation requires being mindful of what-is-gained and what-is-lost in this transformation.