Mark Blitz's article Understanding Heidegger on Technology (The New Atlantis, 2014) describes Heidegger's distinction between modern and traditional technology in the following way:
Everything encountered technologically is exploited for some technical use. It is important to note, as suggested earlier, that when Heidegger speaks of technology’s essence in terms of challenging or positionality, he speaks of modern technology, and excludes traditional arts and tools that we might in some sense consider technological. For instance, the people who cross the Rhine by walking over a simple bridge might also seem to be using the bridge to challenge the river, making it a piece in an endless chain of use. But Heidegger argues that the bridge in fact allows the river to be itself, to stand within its own flow and form. By contrast, a hydroelectric plant and its dams and structures transform the river into just one more element in an energy-producing sequence. Similarly, the traditional activities of peasants do not “challenge the farmland.” Rather, they protect the crops, leaving them “to the discretion of the growing forces,” whereas “agriculture is now a mechanized food industry.”
Modern machines are therefore not merely more developed, or self-propelled, versions of old tools such as water or spinning wheels. Technology’s essence “has already from the outset abolished all those places where the spinning wheel and water mill previously stood.”
I find Heidegger's argument here rather poor and underdeveloped. The distinction can be understood in at least two ways:
- Modern technology is different from traditional tools because our modern attitude towards the world is instrumental, i.e. the difference is our perspective. With a different philosophical attitude - one where nature and people are not mere "raw materials for technical operations" - the same modern technology could be afforded the same status as the traditional one.
- Modern technology is in itself different from traditional tools, perhaps because a modern instrumental attitude is needed to develop it in the first place. Perhaps there is even an aesthetic component involved: consider the perceived difference between a medieval stone bridge and a modern industrial metal-and-concrete bridge. It could be hypothesized that Heidegger would describe the latter as so foreign that it can only be experienced instrumentally, i.e. technologically.
Does Heidegger mean any of those two things (or both)? Does he ever develop his distinction more thoroughly than summarized above?