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Illustration: Jim Boraas


Matthew Jenkins: The Quest for Humane Technology
Illustration: Jim Boraas

 
 

The threat to man does not come … from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology. The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence. [It] threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him … to experience the call of a more primal truth.

– Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

I got my first degree in the humanities and my second one in video games, and then spent some time at a big company in the game industry. This makes me a bad guy in some people’s books – peddler of time-wasting trinkets and addictive lullabies – but looking back I figured that if William Blake had to go through six chambers of a printing house in hell to get his infernal method, then I got by pretty light with being there just long enough to get a couple of big console titles under my belt. After a brief recovery stint traveling and doing things that didn’t involve video games, I started up a company, the MWJ Technology Group: we provide technology strategy and build games for the not-for-profit and medical sectors.

When I was in school (the first time) I read an article called “The Question Concerning Technology” by Martin Heidegger. It’s a dense read, but a short one, and in it he addresses many of the concerns of his day. He wrote it in 1954, in a post-war Europe still coming to terms with the horrific possibilities of technology while experiencing its potential to enhance many areas of human life. He addresses specific technologies, such as the refining of uranium, hydroelectricity and flight. But mostly he addresses technology as a whole, the essence of technology, which he calls enframing. Enframing is basically what we do when we turn anything into a tool for our own use, which is what technology is, from the wheel to the airplane to the iPhone. This enframing can happen one of two ways.

The bad way is the way that we’re all familiar with. It’s the aspect of technology that gets blamed for everything, but mostly for doing the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do. Examples of this today would be communication technology like mobile phones that makes people more isolated than connected, information technology like the internet that dilutes knowledge rather than shares it, and entertainment technology like video games that are supposed to entertain but end up creating destructive addictions.

The good way is something I got to experience when I went to school (the second time), at the Masters of Digital Media in Vancouver, Canada. We were the guinea pigs, the inaugural class of a new hybrid degree that combines classroom teaching with industry projects. I participated in some awesome experiments, including the one that inspired me to start my company: we called it the World of Healthcraft.

We were asked to develop a course that somehow used games to teach a leadership framework that our client had developed for health-care workers. During the semester we were dedicated to the project. We took the first 15 levels of World of Warcraft and mapped them, quest by quest, to a leadership framework provided to us by our clients. We did the mapping in real-time, leading a small group of industry leaders through the beginning levels of the game, with questions and discussion periodically to explore themes of leadership and build a bridge to show how they applied outside the game – in this case, to health-care leadership. The final exam was their first group raid where they had to work together and complement one another’s skills in order to survive. They never made it to the final boss together, and the course never got into circulation. I have to admit that my favourite part was watching adults (real adults!) who had never played video games before go through the learning process and discover for themselves the hook – the secret sauce – that’s there once you get past the fact that you spend most of your time staring at the rear-end of a make-believe creature in a fantasy world.

The good way of enframing, according to Heidegger, is to use technology poetically. At his most poetic, he says that it is this use of technology that “lets man see and enter into the highest dignity of his essence.” Unfortunately, along the way to our highest dignity, we’re often hijacked by the way that technology enables us to get what we want, when we want. Taken this far, the whole world becomes stock, potential energy waiting to be exploited, a tool that’s waiting to be used. And the dark joke is that once you’ve gone this far, you’ve already become a tool yourself, enframed by a system you helped create.

Leaving the experiments of game grad school, I took my first shot at the industry: working in a production role on a great franchise with a big company. It was huge exposure to the business, science and art of making video games, and we churned out two sequels to rave reviews. Times got tough and the franchise wasn’t selling enough, despite our awesomeness. It had to be put down. We were given a choice to join a bigger franchise or find something else to do. It was summer. I decided I needed an extended vacation.

I spent a lot of time outside that summer. I went camping throughout the BC interior and remembered that nature is better than any video game – or a job, for that matter. I went to Israel on a whim and traveled back in time on the last train of the day to Jerusalem, watching the Jewish men in their kippahs stand and gather, as if on cue, swaying back and forth in the train compartment, intoning praises to their god in the last dying rays of a Middle Eastern sun. I slept on the roof of a hostel. I woke up to the muezzin’s call to prayer and the first rays of that same sun that made the Golden Mosque shine. I lost my iPhone. Away from the technology that had first become my passion and then my profession, I had time to ponder what exactly this highest dignity of our essence that Heidegger was talking about was. I’d been given a taste of the saving power of technology, the poetry of technology, or at least its potential. But on the other side, developing similar technology was quite different: the grind was brutal and the hours were long, and I came to wonder why I burnt myself out just to get people hooked on an experience I could only provide for so long, an experience with the primary aim of keeping people interested just long enough to buy the next one. There were numerous instances of enframing at work here: the developers seeing their customers as stock (i.e., future salary), the game studio seeing the developers as stock (i.e., future profits), and the shareholders seeing the game studio as stock (i.e., stocks).

All these levels of enframing are not bad, but they are dangerous. The danger is that every time we enframe something, we end up reducing it to mere stock for our own purposes and strangle the life inside. Heidegger warns that this is no less than the surrender of our free will as we become stock ourselves. But he goes on to point out that it is precisely in this danger that our “innermost indestructible” ability as humans reveals itself. This is our highest dignity, to stand as sentinels and “keep watch over the unconcealment” of the life that indwells quietly around us, which philosophers have called forms and ideas and poets have called the genius or inscape of a thing.

My own quest has led me to keep watch over the particular genius of a new form of technology: humane technology. It is still a germ of a thing, but it has surfaced in a few places online, and already a few principles have been outlined. Among them are that humane technology feels natural, empowers people, and improves the human condition. I would like to add to these that it is fun and interactive: already people are applying games to things like corporate training, marketing and education. I have chosen to apply this same thinking to the not-for-profit and medical sectors, by empowering volunteers and donors, and helping medical professionals share complex data in an easy and engaging way.

If Heidegger is right, the question concerning technology is not just important; it is the question we must ask and continue asking if we wish to realize our highest dignity as humans. Each person asks their own question, and their quest to answer it can have a huge impact on how we interact with the world. Steve Jobs was born a year after Heidegger first asked his question, and Jobs asked his fiercely. His particular genius is left behind in the legacy of Apple that will continue to shape how people interact for years to come. Similar quests led to Facebook, Google and Microsoft. The question only gains in insistence when it reaches to our level, the personal quest of the individual end user who strives to navigate the sprawling technologies of the information age and ask their own question amidst the noise. The primal truth is that underneath the chatter throbs the sacred life of things.

 

 
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