Covid and the Cult of Technology: Revisiting Heidegger and McLuhan after 2020

Our new rulers are motivated by something altogether different – a desire to subvert and weaken nature itself, and thus create a technocratic elite.

In the first edition of this series examining the philosophical underpinnings of the Covid Event, I described Nietzsche’s prescience in identifying in his time an emergent modern psychology. This psychology could be entitled the psychology of ‘the last man’. In our day, it has been embraced as a comforting but insidious protective blanket which smothers us all in sickly warmth.

Without this desire to be one with the herd, this desire for bland safety, for a planetary mask, ‘2020’ would not have been possible. But the psychological conditions which were necessary for the events of 2020, also required something else – the cult of technology…

Lockdowns happened because they could happen 

Would schools and businesses have ever closed were it not for the decision-makers knowing full well that their own working lives could carry on unimpeded?

Without the digital magic of ‘quantitative easing’ and helicopter money, would the idea of shutting down large swathes of the economy have even been entertained?

Vaccine passports on mobile apps using QR codes happened because they could happen. 

The government and media complex had the technology, and the collaborative partnership was already in place owing to surveillance methods developed during the ‘War on Terror’.

The mRNA injections themselves were rolled out because the technology was at hand, not because they were deemed effective. No successful trial has ever been carried out of the gene therapy.

And the very essence of the event relied upon the technology of mass testing, the daily case and death counts beamed out on 24/7 media channels, alongside the viral images of hospital wards in Italy and Wuhan.

Masks themselves, along with the brief but deadly ventilator obsession, represented for many the quaint ideal that ‘citizens’ and ‘workers’ could also participate – by analogy – in the same great technological project to eradicate the virus, not using binary codes but pieces of old cloth and 20th century style mechanical tech. We are all in this – the great technocratic project – together. And together, something had to be done. Anything. The precautionary principle was to be unleashed like never before.

All of this emerged from the hubris and narcissism of bureaucrats, philanthropists, and journalists, a hubris itself soaked in the progressive notions that ‘science’ and ‘technology’ could solve intractable human inefficiencies. 

Life, for decades, has seemingly been one TED talk away from achieving a final great leap of rational progress, of cleanliness. If only the right people could get a firm grip on the right machinery…

The ‘organic necessity’ of science

J. Robert Oppenheimer gave a speech to his fellow scientists at Los Alamos after the atomic bombs went off in Japan, in which he surmised what their motivations had truly been in ushering in our nuclear age:

But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.

(Who is this ‘mankind’ he spoke of, by the way?)

The Covid Event, in the world backstage of elections and normal life, a world dominated by managers, consultants, and pseudo-philanthropists, had become an organic necessity by the end of 2019.

First and foremost, the US had threatened to leave permanently the ‘climate change’ consensus. The great project to liberate the masses by means of enlightened managerial rule, untainted by any ideological concern other than the ‘common sense’ of liberal science, was in peril, and from a myriad of sources over and above the ‘America First’ movement animated by Donald Trump. History was stubbornly refusing to endThe ancient Dionysian impulses of passion and identity, contra the Apollonian principles of progress and order, were still refusing to die in our western world of unlimited progress and rationality.

And thus solutions went looking for a problem.

This phenomenon of being guided by ‘solutions’ at hand, of being guided by a moral conviction that science is the work of turning over to ‘mankind’ the ‘greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and value’, is something quantitatively different from the old desires for fame and greatness.

Ancient aristocrats had as their motivation towards power a confidence in their own natural excellence. ‘Rule of the excellent’ is what aristocracy means. The old elites appealed to standards found within and set by nature – for good or ill. (A standard of nature aptly named the Tao by CS Lewis.)

Our new rulers are motivated by something altogether different – a desire to subvert and weaken nature itself, and thus create a technocratic elite.

Even our modern naturalists do not make many appeals to natural beauty. Certainly not when they are contemplating dimming the sun with dust, or authorizing insects to be served up in daily meals surreptitiously.

We have a new kind of overlord. This overlord appeals not to excellence. Rather his fitness to rule purportedly derives from his ability to render the entire planet as ‘standing-reserve’ for a universal project that, like Babel, would remove the heavens and perhaps even death, in so doing erasing national sovereignty and all difference. 

Suffice to say, this would be the ultimate boon for Nietzsche’s last men, who crave sameness and a risk-free world dominated by HR and health and safety.

Heidegger and ‘the highest danger’ of planetary technics 

The term ‘standing-reserve’ is a term coined by philosopher Martin Heidegger in his lecture and essay, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’. 

For Heidegger, ‘standing-reserve’ derives from the modern sense that today ‘[everywhere] everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing-reserve.’

It is quickly evident how the term can be applied on a cursory level to the events of 2020. Masks, tests, people, arms, needles, hospital beds, lives and deaths themselves – everything was suddenly in reserve, suddenly merely waiting to be quantified in the grand new story we were all being told and telling ourselves. Health came to mean supply. In a place like Britain, the public worship of the ‘National Health Service’ almost usurped the concept of health itself entirely.

To understand what Heidegger meant by this term ‘standing-reserve’, and to reckon with its implications, will take us further along the way in understanding the past, present, and future of the technological mindset which gave us lockdowns and mandates, hitherto unimaginable in scope…

Heidegger believed we were on a kind of doomed path in modernity unless we came to terms with what he called the ‘essence of technology’:

“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.”

A category change had been experienced in our times. For the Greeks, techne had been the ‘bringing forth’ of a craftsman or the ‘bursting open’ of nature. This techne had also been the ‘knowing’ required for poiesis, the works of craft which crucially also included the arts and the mind.

For Heidegger, the essence of our technology is not simply a more advanced instrumentality owing to modern science. For even modern science springs up itself from the same essence, which is experimental and dependent upon technical apparatus: “The decisive question still remains: Of what essence is modern technology that it happens to think of putting exact science to use?”

His elusive and tentative response to the question is that our technology is no longer a ‘bringing forth’ that is akin to art as demonstrated in the Greek etymology of words such as poetry and technology, but rather our technology is a great ‘challenging’ of nature.

“The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such.” 

Coal is stockpiled to place the energy of the sun on call for factories. The Rhine in Germany has become something different now that it is dammed up to supply the hydraulic pressure necessary to turn turbines for long-distance power stations. The Rhine is now under command. It is ‘standing-reserve’.

His contrast of this plant with an old bridge is memorable:

“The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station… But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.” 

In an existential sense, the old river is gone. And with it, nature itself. Even when we believe not to be challenging nature for our use, we are still inspecting it by means of some kind of labour we now exert whilst on ‘vacation’.

Thus technology in the modern sense is not neutral at all. It changes our human sense of being in the world entirely.

This process, Heidegger points out, has equally happened to ‘Man’, just as much as it has happened to Nature.

“Only to the extent that man for his part is already challenged to exploit the energies of nature can this ordering revealing happen. If man is challenged, ordered, to do this, then does not man himself belong even more originally than nature within the standing-reserve? The current talk about human resources, about the supply of patients for a clinic, gives evidence of this.”

(Note the prediction regarding human resources and citizens being re-cast as a ‘supply’ of patients in the modern state.)

Heidegger also presciently envisioned how this challenging of the world would serve the ends of mass media:

“The forester who, in the wood, measures the felled timber and to all appearances walks the same forest path in the same way as did his grandfather is today commanded by profit-making in the lumber industry, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a set configuration of opinion becomes available on demand.” 

Thus man is the ultimate ‘standing-reserve’ in the battle of ideology. Nature is a mere staging ground for informational technology which is the end-point of this great challenging of all being. We are all ‘enframed’ within this new unfolding of history. It is this that needs to be questioned before we can tackle technology itself. Freedom lies along the path of being open to this revealing, to this truth our place in this new epoch.

Being thus aware of our immersion into mere ‘standing-reserve’, we can then resist two dangerous paths:

First, “a stultified compulsion to push on blindly with technology,” and second, “what comes to the same thing, to rebel helplessly against it and curse it as the work of the devil.”

Both options would render a false assumption of human power which would mean that “man everywhere and always encounters only himself.” There is no unveiling to be done, no participation of poeiesis within the higher ordering of unveiling which is phusis, or nature.

Heidegger concludes the essay very poignantly:

“The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought.”

The danger escalated in the Covid Event, but as a result, so has ‘the piety of thought’. As our global regime finds itself screeching such obvious lies, a saving power may emerge from new elites who reject the enframing, and who turn instead towards care and thoughtfulness with regard to their own societies and in doing so, restore a sense of ‘home’, contra the global mass, contra the building of Babel. A story of the particular, and not ‘planetary technics’, can then be allowed to unfold in societies and peoples emerging from the great tower’s shadow.

The Anti-Christ in the machine

Of course it is not possible to think of technological determinism and the transcendence thereof without also (at least briefly) referring to that other great thinker of digital and mechanical revolution, the Canadian theorist, Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan is remembered only superficially, as the mind behind the memorable, but seldom interrogated, phrases: ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’.

The global village retains some kind of positive connotations of planetary harmony as distances in language and communication collapse as the result of new connective technologies. Certainly McLuhan expressed this optimism at the beginning of his academic career. He went so far as to believe technology would become a pathway for the Holy Spirit, allowing for some grand new communion of peoples in the mystical Body of Christ, facilitated by electricity.

Later, however, he would identify this ‘body’ instead with the Anti-Christ, describing Satan as a very great electrical engineer. For if the medium is truly the message, if the means of technology is precisely what programs us, then great danger awaits. The printed word had disenchanted the world to a great extent, but the oncoming digital world was producing a kind of mania, what McLuhan termed an ‘all-at-onceness.’ This new sphere of instant communication held the peril of the old ‘tribal drums’, a mass democratic domination by means of primal codes, promulgated by the immediacy of electricity.

And thus our new electric universe would create a new electric human being at the mercy of the whole web. In 1974, McLuhan would publish his work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he wrote:

“Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must serve his electronic technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs. But there is this difference that previous technologies were partial and fragmentary, and the electric is total and inclusive.”

McLuhan converges on the same thing Heidegger saw emerging: an emergent humanity made inhuman by the cult of technology. Both of them saw this emergence taking place within a kind of mass culture, where everything is ‘enframed’, where everything happens all at once, and in which new, tribal patterns of power come to dominate us in a kind of totalitarian democracy. Technology, as we see today, does not take us to the future any more. We revert to an ancient immaturity.

Neither McLuhan nor Heidegger are remembered for their contributions to religious thought. Yet it is intriguing both foresaw a solution to this great danger as being neither technological nor philosophical, but rather spiritual. 

McLuhan believed we must gain some kind of spiritual stewardship over these new forms of life, whilst retaining the idea that a demonic presence was inevitable in the electric universe. 

Heidegger believed the final work of philosophy was merely to provide a clearing in which ‘a god’ could appear to us to save us from the dark modern fate of ‘planetary technics’, of being uprooted as human beings dwelling on earth in any meaningful sense.

In short, in our continued crisis of global governance, in which the cult of technology threatens to demand of us all the treasures of human life as votive sacrifices for an illusionary comfort and safety, these two thinkers remind us that we cannot merely outthink our way out of this predicament, nor is political force sufficient for such a task, as necessary as both are.

Instead, as an even older thinker puts it, “…we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”


Chris Waldburger is a South African writer, teacher, student of literature and philosophy. He can be followed on his Substack.

Publisher’s note: The opinions and findings expressed in articles, reports and interviews on this website are not necessarily the opinions of PANDA, its directors or associates.

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