Big Data, the NSA, and Heidegger’s ‘Standing Reserve’

Big data is huge. In a matter of months the phrase has come from nowhere and is now a regular feature in newspapers, in adverts and on social media. The Guardian continue their campaign against the National Security Agency, which needs little introduction now; the NSA have long been collecting and storing data from hundreds of millions of phone calls, internet browsing history, emails and chat services.

There are various ways in which this cultural phenomenon could be approached. One could focus on the surveillance aspect and follow Foucault, looking at the effects of an apparently centralized surveillance system, as a previous EDA article has. To be truly Foucauldian here one would need to ask not just why we are storing Big Data, but why we so verbosely say, with so much passion and repetition (the Guardian included) that we store big data.

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But the focus here is something different, and it is hoped, something more particular to what is in play with the NSA and Big Data discussions in the media today. 

In his essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, as one of three or four important concepts developed there, Heidegger argues that technology turns the world around it into a ‘standing-reserve’. This concept holds the key to a particular function of Big Data. 

For Heidegger, technology transforms the ‘natural’ world into raw materials. The Rhine, once ‘a river in a landscape’ becomes ‘a water power supplier’ as soon as the hydroelectric plant is conceived of and built. What seems straightforward is a complex point; for Heidegger there is no room for nostalgia for the ‘natural’ past, which would be completely impossible, because his point is that once the river has become a potential power supply its very essence is changed, it now contains something to be harvested and yielded, as if it always-already contained that potentiality. One can never view the Rhine as they once did; its actual essence has been changed. And perhaps one can speculate about the effects of this; when we look at water and are captivated by what we see as its potential power (as explains garden water-features) perhaps our doing so is constructed by this potentiality which we think is natural but which has in fact been ordered into the water technonlogically.

Technology, for Heidegger, turns everything around it into this potentially useable raw material:       

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.

Everything is ordered (both put into order and commanded) to be a raw material stood in reserve for future use in technology’s development for the greater good.

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A huge part of this is man’s attempt to dominate over the world. As Heidegger says: ‘whatever stands by in the sense of standing-reserve no longer stands over against us as object’. Man makes himself feel at the centre,  as if the natural world appears only as potential for his use; technology makes man feel in control.

But as Heidegger knew, this is a trick, and in fact man too is technologized; subjected to technology.  With Big Data we see this become apparent; man has become the raw material; we are the data in standing-reserve, ordered to have use-value, to see ourselves as raw materials containing potentiality.  

But we also see something else: that we don’t know what this use-value is, what this big data is for, what this potentiality will be in the service of. We know it will be valuable, and we know it will be useful, but we don’t know for what use or to what ends it will be used; we blindly and furiously store, without a future for what is stored. And so we see quite clearly what Heidegger attempted to show in 1954 – with technology we irreversibly transform our way of seeing the world and ourselves, but we are not in control of this process, or where it will go.

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