Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt on Technology and Ultimate Values

In a 1979 collection of essays, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, edited by Melvyn Hill, I came across transcripts from a 1972 conference on Arendt’s work. I found the exchange below, between Arendt and the philosopher Hans Jonas, intriguing enough to type out here for your perusal, intriguing particularly in light of recent posts. I believe this, then, is the only place on the web that you’ll find this little clip, an exclusive brought to you by The Frailest Thing! I found the opening and closing statements by Jonas especially interesting.

Hans Jonas: That there is at the bottom of all our being and of our action the desire to share the world with other men is incontestable, but we want to share a certain world with certain men. And if it is the task of politics to make the world a fitting home for man, that raises the question: “What is a fitting home for man?”

It can only be decided if we form some idea of what man is or ought to be. And that again cannot be determined, except arbitrarily, if we cannot make appeal to some truth about man which can validate judgement of this kind, and the derivative judgment of political taste that crops up in the concrete situations–and especially if it is a question of deciding how the future world should look–which we have to do all the time dealing with technological enterprises that are having an impact on the total dispensation of things.

Now it is not the case that Kant simply made appeal to judgment. He also made appeal to the concept of the good. There is such an idea as the supreme good however we define it. And perhaps it escapes definition. It cannot be an entirely empty concept and it is related to our conception of what man is. In other words, that which has by unanimous consensus here been declared dead and done with–namely, metaphysics–has to be called in at some place to give us a final directive.

Our powers of decision reach far beyond the handling of immediate situations and of the short-term future. Our powers of doing or acting now extend over such matters as really involve a judgment or an insight into or a faith in–I leave that open–some ultimates. For in ordinary politics as it has been understood until the twentieth century we could do with penultimates. It is not true that the condition of the commonwealth had to be decided by the really ultimate values or standards. When it is a matter, as it is under the conditions of modern technology, that willy-nilly we are embarking on courses which affect the total condition of things on earth and the total future condition of man, then I don’t think we can simply wash our hands and say Western metaphysics has got us into an impasse and we declare it bankrupt and we appeal now to shareable judgments–where, for God’s sake, we do not mean by shared judgments shared with a majority or shared with any defined group. We can share judgments to our perdition with many but we must make an appeal beyond that sphere!

Arendt: I am afraid that I will have to answer. I am not going to go into the question of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Actually the question of the good doesn’t arise and the question of truth doesn’t arise. the whole book is actually concerned with the possible validity of these propositions.

Jonas: But it’s not political.

Arendt: No, but I said only of the validity: whether one can transfer it to the political sphere is also one of the very interesting, but at this moment side, issues. And this, of course, I have done, and I have done it by simply taking Kant’s late writing on politics. one of the main things here is a certain stand towards the French Revolution in Kant. But I am not going to go into that because it would lead us too far away from this question of ultimates.

Now if our future should depend on what you say now–namely that we will get an ultimate which from above will decide for us (and then the question is, of course, who is going to recognize this ultimate and which will be the rules for recognizing this ultimate–you have really an infinite regress here, but anyhow) i would be utterly pessimistic. If that is the case then we are lost. Because this actually demands that a new god will appear.

This word (God) was a Christian word in the Christian Middle Ages, and permitted very great skepticism, but one had it in the ultimate instance, because it was God. But because this [God] had disappeared Western humanity was back in the situation in which it had been before it was saved, or salvaged, or whatever, by the good news–since they didn’t believe in it any longer. That was the actual situation. And this situation sent them [i.e., the eighteenth century revolutionaries] back scrambling for antiquity. And not as in some cases because you are in love with Greek verse or Greek songs as may be the case in my case. But that was not their motivation.

That is, they were in all nakedness confronted with the fact that men exist in the plural. And no human being knows what is man in the singular. We know only “male and female created he them“–that is, from the beginning this plurality poses an enormous problem.

For instance, I am perfectly sure that this whole totalitarian catastrophe would not have happened if people still had believed in God, or in hell rather–that is, if there still were ultimates. There were no ultimates. And you know as well as I do that there were no ultimates which one could with validity appeal to. One couldn’t appeal to anybody.

And if you go through such a situation [as totalitarianism] the first thing you know is the following: you never know how somebody will act. You have the surprise of you life! This goes throughout all layers of society and it goes throughout various distinctions between men. And if you want to make a generalization then you could say that those who were still very firmly convinced of the so-called old values were the first to be ready to change their old values for a new set of values, provided they were given one. And I am afraid of this, because I think that the moment you give anybody a new set of values–or this famous “bannister” and a set of values, no matter. I do not believe that we can stabilize the situation in which we have been since the seventeenth century in any final way.

F.M. Barnard: Would you then agree with Voltaire? You raised this question of God and to some extent a metaphysic which one may question qua metaphysic but which one may regard as extremely useful socially.

Arendt: Entirely agree. We wouldn’t have to bother about this whole business if metaphysics and this whole value business hadn’t fallen down. We begin to question because of these events.

Jonas: I share with Hannah Arendt the position that we are not in possession of any ultimates, either by knowledge or by conviction or faith. And I also believe that we cannot have this as a command performance because “we need it so bitterly we therefore should have it.”

However, a part of wisdom is knowledge of ignorance. The Socratic attitude is to know that one does not know. And this realization of our ignorance can be of great practical importance in the exercise of the power of judgment, which is after all related to action in the political sphere, into future action, and far-reaching action.

Our enterprises have an eschatological tendency in them–a built in utopianism, namely, to move towards ultimate situation. Lacking the knowledge of ultimate values–or, of what is ultimately desirable–or, of what is man so that the world can be fitting for man, we should at least abstain from allowing eschatological situations to come about. This alone is a very important practical injunction that we can draw from the insight that only with some conception of ultimates are we entitled to embark on certain things. So that at least as a restraining force the point of view I brought in may be of some relevance.

Arendt: With is I would agree.

Why We’re Anxious About Technological Stagnation, And Why We Shouldn’t Be

William Robinson Leigh - '"Visionary City," 1908

William Robinson Leigh – ‘”Visionary City,” 1908

Virginia Postrel thinks that Peter Thiel is wrong about the future. I think she is about half right, roughly.

If I read her correctly, Postrel’s thesis runs something like this: our lack of optimism about the future is not the consequence of fewer “moonshot” technological innovations, rather it stems from a failure to tell positive stories about the incremental improvements that have made the present better than the past.

In what follows, I want to take a close look at Postrel’s argument and some of its underlying assumptions because I think the piece reflects some interesting tensions in our thinking about technology and innovation.

Let’s start where Postrel does, with her examples of what I’m going to start calling Tech Stagnation Angst (TSA–sure there’s another TSA out there, but maybe the overlap is instructive).

Her points of departure are the science-fiction author Neal Stephenson and, big surprise, our would-be Francis Bacon, the tech-entrepreneur cum philosopher of innovation, Peter Thiel.

I’ve written enough about Thiel (e.g., here and here) to let mention of him go without further comment. Bottom line: yes, he’s is poster-boy for TSA. Now here’s Postrel quoting Stephenson on the worries that spurred him to write a series of positive stories about the future:

“’I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,’ writes Stephenson in the preface to ‘Hieroglyph,’ a science-fiction anthology hoping ‘to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.’”

Here’s the first point I want to register: stories alone will not shape our outlook about the future, especially not if they’re consciously designed to do so.

I’ve also recently written about pleas for more hopeful science-fiction writing, pleas which seem to be a symptom of TSA. Needless to say, Stephenson is not the only one who thinks that dystopian science-fiction is poisoning our imagination for the future. Witness, for instance, Kevin Kelly’s recent offer of cash for the best happy 100-word story about the next 100 years.

About these, Postrel is mostly right–writing happy stories will not change the spirit of the age. Stories are powerful, and they can shape our imagination. But compelling fiction tends to tap into some existing aspect of the zeitgeist rather than consciously setting out to change it. The artificiality of the latter enterprise dooms it. It’s that whole thing about how you can’t tell someone how to sublimate.

Postrel adds the following public comments by Stephenson:

“’There’s an automatic perception … that everything’s dangerous,’ Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, ‘and that there’s some cosmic balance at work–that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.’”

Postrel comments: “He’s identified a real problem, but his remedy — ‘more interesting Apollo-like projects’ — won’t work.” Again, I think Postrel is right, but only to an extent.

She is, on the one hand, right to challenge the simplistic fix that Stephenson lays out. But there are at least two additional points that need to be made.

First, while I agree that “more moonshots”–which just now, in my own mental wunderkammer, echoed “more cowbell” is not the right prescription for our time, I think Postrel ignores the degree to which “moonshots” fueled the public imagination for a very long time.

These “moonshots” we keep hearing about longingly might just be shorthand for the phenomena that David Nye labeled the American Technological Sublime. You can click that link to read more about it, but here is the short version: Nye documented responses to new technologies throughout the 19th and early to mid-20th century that verged on religious awe. These experiences were elicited by technologies of tremendous and hitherto unseen scale or dynamism (railroads, the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, atomic weapons, the Saturn V, etc.), and they were channeled into what amounted to a civil religion, public celebrations of national character and unity.

I would argue that Tech Stagnation Angst is, in fact, a response, wrong-headed perhaps, to the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime, which, as Nye himself explained, by the late 20th century had morphed into what he called the consumer sublime, a tacky simulated (!) version of the genuine experience.

Even if their response is misguided, Stephenson, Thiel, and all of those suffering from TSA are reacting to a real absence. While attitudes toward new technologies were often mixed, as Postrel points out, the popular response to new technologies of a grand scale in America has been overwhelmingly positive (with the exception of the atomic bomb). In fact, the response has been tinged with reverential awe, which functioned to sustain a powerful narrative about American exceptionalism grounded in our technological achievement.

It is only reasonable to expect that the eclipse of such a powerful cultural phenomena would yield a profoundly felt absence and not a little bit of anxiety. Again, I’m not endorsing the idea that we need only fabricate some more sublime experiences with moonshot-style projects and everything will be fine. On that score, I think Postrel is right. But in insisting that past optimism was chiefly grounded in relatively mundane accounts of how the present was incrementally better than the past, I think she misses other powerful forces at work in the complex way Americans came to think about technology in relation to the future.

In sum, technological projects of impressive scale and power have fueled America’s optimism about technology, thus their absence may very well account for tech stagnation angst. 

Postrel seems to waver with respect to the power of stories to shape the future, and she does so in a way that reinforces my point about the collapse of the sublime. “Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake,” Postrel writes, “when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people — that, in short, leaves out consumers.” She then adds that, “storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, and as Nye suggested, it is precisely the triumph of consumerism that, in part at least, accounts for the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime. To be clear, this is not a judgment call about the relative merits of consumer technology vs. moonshot/sublime technologies. It is simply a recognition of a historical feedback loop.

Innovation in a democratic, free-market society is driven by public sentiment; public sentiment is informed by our imaginative estimation of the good technology can achieve. In the American context at least, that imaginative estimation was shaped by the experience of the technological sublime. Once public sentiment became more narrowly consumeristic in the post-war period, technological innovation followed suit and, as a result, experience of the sublime faded. Fewer experiences of the sublime assured the ongoing collapse of innovation into consumer technology, narrowly conceived.

My second quibble with Postrel arises from her bristling at any criticisms of tech. Toward the end of her essay she calls for stories that do not “confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive.” But she seemingly has very little patience with criticism of the sort that might temper naive optimism. In this respect, she is not unlike some of the tech-boosters she criticizes. It’s just that she would have us be happy with the technologies the industry has given us rather than pine for more grandiose varieties. Whatever we do, it seems we shouldn’t complain. Don’t complain about what you haven’t gotten, and don’t complain about what you have. Basically, just happily embrace whatever the tech industry feeds you.

She complains, for example, that it is “depressing to see just about any positive development — a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance — greeted with gloom.” Click on that story and you will find fairly even-keeled and reasonable reporting on the consequences of the decreased demand for blood, consequences having to do both with jobs and future preparedness. It’s hardly depressing or gloomy. Elsewhere, with respect to Stephenson’s complaints about the relative triviality of Internet-based technologies, she tells us there’s already plenty of negative press out there, no need for Stephenson to pile on.

Then she goes on to tell us, “The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel.” Rather, she explains, “People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.” In other words, stories did matter, but only certain kinds of stories–real-life stories about how life was getting better.

Unfortunately, these stories began to change. Postrel goes on to give a litany of reasons “good and bad” explaining the change in the character of stories. Read the grouping of reasons for yourself, but they seem to amount to a recognition of the costs that came along with the advent of certain technologies and innovations. And to give these reasonable concerns and legitimate observations the pallor of unhinged lunacy, she caps the litany off with reference to the unfortunate growing resistance to vaccinations. See what she did there?

Postrel is right to stress that how we feel about the future has something to do with how we understand the present in light of the past (even though that’s not the whole story), and she is right to ask for something other than fashionable pessimism and naive optimism. But on the whole she seems to miss this balance herself. As I read her, she is calling for a balanced presentation of the relative merits and costs of technology, so long as we keep quiet about those costs.

Clearly, I have some reservations about the manner in which Postrel has made her case. On the one hand, with respect to what shapes our view of the future, I think she’s missed some important elements. Of course, one can’t be expected to say everything in a short piece. More importantly, I find her bristling at the critics of technology disingenuous. How else are we to temper our utopian expectations and the misguided longing for “moonshot” technologies if we are to forego searching criticism?

I want to wrap up, though, by commending Postrel’s urging that we seek to move forward with a clear-eyed vision for the future that eschews both unbridled optimism and thoughtless pessimism, one that seeks to meet our real needs and enrich our lives in a responsible and ethical manner.

Simply saying so, of course, will not make it happen. But if we’ve lost our taste for escapist fantasies of transcendence about the future, perhaps we might then be better prepared to pursue a more humane vision for our future technologies.

Wizard or God, Which Would You Rather Be?

Dumbledore_and_Elder_WandOccasionally, I ask myself whether or not I’m really on to anything when I publish the “thinking out loud” that constitutes most of the posts on this blog. And occasionally the world answers back, politely, “Yes, yes you are.”

A few months ago, in a post on automation and smart homes, I ventured an off-the-cuff observation: the smart home populated animated by the Internet of Things amounted to a re-enchantment of the world by technological means. I further elaborated that hypothesis in a subsequent post:

“So then, we have three discernible stages–mechanization, automation, animation–in the technological enchantment of the human-built world. The technological enchantment of the human-built world is the unforeseen consequence of the disenchantment of the natural world described by sociologists of modernity, Max Weber being the most notable. These sociologists claimed that modernity entailed the rationalization of the world and the purging of mystery, but they were only partly right. It might be better to say that the world was not so much disenchanted as it was differently enchanted. This displacement and redistribution of enchantment may be just as important a factor in shaping modernity as the putative disenchantment of nature.

In an offhand, stream-of-consciousness aside, I ventured that the allure of the smart-home, and similar technologies, arose from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. I’m doubling-down on that hypothesis. Here’s the working thesis: the ongoing technological enchantment of the human-built world is a corollary of the disenchantment of the natural world. The first movement yields the second, and the two are interwoven. To call this process of technological animation an enchantment of the human-built world is not merely a figurative post-hoc gloss on what has actually happened. Rather, the work of enchantment has been woven into the process all along.”

Granted, those were fairly strong claims that as of yet need to be more thoroughly substantiated, but here’s a small bit of evidence that suggests that my little thesis had some merit. It is a short video clip the NY Time’s Technology channel about the Internet of Things in which “David Rose, the author of ‘Enchanted Objects,’ sees a future where we can all live like wizards.” Emphasis mine, of course.

I had some difficulty embedding the video, so you’ll have to click over to watch it here: The Internet of Things. Really, you should. It’ll take less than three minutes of your time.

So, there was that. Because, apparently, the Internet today felt like reinforcing my quirky thoughts about technology, there was also this on the same site: Playing God Games.

That video segment clocks in at just under two minutes. If you click through to watch, you’ll note that it is a brief story about apps that allow you to play a deity in your own virtual world, with your very own virtual “followers.”

You can read that in light of my more recent musings about the appeal of games in which our “action,” and by extension we ourselves, seem to matter.

Perhaps, then, this is the more modest shape the religion of technology takes in the age of simulation and diminished expectations: you may play the wizard in your re-enchanted smart home or you may play a god in a virtual world on your smartphone. I suspect this is not what Stewart Brand had in mind when he wrote, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Simulated Futures

There’s a lot of innovation talk going on right now, or maybe it is just that I’ve been more attuned to it of late. Either way, I keep coming across pieces that tackle the topic of technological innovation from a variety of angles.

While not narrowly focused on technological innovation, this wonderfully discursive post by Alan Jacobs raises a number of relevant considerations. Jacobs ranges far and wide, so I won’t try to summarize his thoughts here. You should read the whole piece, but here is the point I want to highlight. Taking a 2012 essay by David Graeber as his point of departure, Jacobs asks us to consider the following:

“How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? — or, or for that matter, an end to world hunger, something that C. P. Snow, in his famous lecture on ‘the two cultures’ of the sciences and humanities, saw as clearly within our grasp more than half-a-century ago? To see ‘sophisticated simulations’ of the things we used to hope we’d really achieve as good enough?”

Here’s the relevant passage in Graeber’s essay. After watching one of the more recent Star Wars films, he wonders how impressed with the special effects audiences of the older, fifties-era sci-fi films would be. His answer upon reflection: not very. Why? Because “they thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.” Graeber goes on to add,

“That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called the ‘hyper-real,’ the ability to make imitations that are more realistic than originals. The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.”

Here again is the theme of technological stagnation, of the death of genuine innovation. You can read the rest of Graeber’s piece for his own theories about the causes of this stagnation. What interested me was the suggestion that we’ve swapped genuine innovation for simulations. Of course, this interested me chiefly because it seems to reinforce and expand a point I made in yesterday’s post, that our fascination with virtual worlds may stem from the failure of our non-virtual world to yield the kind of possibilities for meaningful action that human beings crave.

As our hopes for the future seem to recede, our simulations of that future become ever more compelling.

Elsewhere, Lee Billings reports on his experience at the 2007 Singularity Summit:

“Over vegetarian hors d’oeuvres and red wine at a Bay Area villa, I had chatted with the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who planned to adopt an ‘aggressive’ strategy for investing in a ‘positive’ Singularity, which would be ‘the biggest boom ever,’ if it doesn’t first ‘blow up the whole world.’ I had talked with the autodidactic artificial-intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky about his fears that artificial minds might, once created, rapidly destroy the planet. At one point, the inventor-turned-proselytizer
 Ray Kurzweil teleconferenced in to discuss,
among other things, his plans for becoming transhuman, transcending his own biology to 
achieve some sort of
 eternal life. Kurzweil
 believes this is possible, 
even probable, provided he can just live to see
 The Singularity’s dawn, 
which he has pegged at 
sometime in the middle of the 21st century. To this end, he reportedly consumes some 150 vitamin supplements a day.”

Billings also noted that many of his conversations at the conference “carried a cynical sheen of eschatological hucksterism: Climb aboard, don’t delay, invest right now, and you, too, may be among the chosen who rise to power from the ashes of the former world!”

Eschatological hucksterism … well put, indeed. That’s a phrase I’ll be tucking away for future use.

And that leads me to the concluding chapter of David Noble’s The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. After surveying the religiously infused motives and rhetoric animating technological projects as diverse as the pursuit of AI, space exploration, and genetic engineering, Noble wrote

“As we have seen, those given to such imaginings are in the vanguard of technological development, amply endowed and in every way encouraged to realize their escapist fantasies. Often displaying a pathological dissatisfaction with, and deprecation of, the human condition, they are taking flight from the world, pointing us away from the earth, the flesh, the familiar–‘offering salvation by technical fix,’ in Mary Midgley’s apt description–all the while making the world over to conform to their vision of perfection.”

A little further on he concluded,

“Can we any longer afford to abide this system of blind belief? Ironically, the technological enterprise upon which we now ever more depend for the preservation and enlargement of our lives betrays a disdainful disregard for, indeed an impatience with, life itself. If dreams of technological escape from the burdens of mortality once translated into some relief of the human estate, the pursuit of technological transcendence has now perhaps outdistanced such earthly ends. If the religion of technology once fostered visions of social renovation, it also fueled fantasies of escaping society altogether. Today these bolder imaginings have gained sway, according to which as on philosopher of technology recently observed, ‘everything which exists at present … is deemed disposable.’ The religion of technology, in the end, ‘rests on extravagant hopes which are only meaningful in the context of transcendent belief in a religious God, hopes for a total salvation which technology cannot fulfill …. By striving for the impossible, [we] run the risk of destroying the good life that is possible.’ Put simply, the technological pursuit of salvation has become a threat to our survival.”

I’ll leave you with that.

Building Worlds In Which We Matter

Sometimes, when you start writing, you end up somewhere very different from where you thought you were going at the outset. That’s what happened with my last post which ended up framing Peter Thiel as a would-be, latter-day Francis Bacon. What I set out to write about, however, was the closing line of this paragraph:

“Indefinite longevity—as opposed to the literal immortality promised by the Singularity—might be considered to be in the spirit of the great founder Machiavelli. At the end of ‘You Are Not a Lottery Ticket,’ however, Thiel calls for a ‘cultural revolution’ that allows us to plan to make our futures as definite as possible. That means no more taking orders from John Rawls or Malcolm Gladwell; they are too accepting of the place of luck (or fortuna, to use Machiavelli’s word) in human affairs. It also means ‘rejecting the unjust tyranny of Chance’ by seeing that ‘You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world.’”

That’s from Peter Lawler’s discussion Thiel’s understanding of the role of luck in a start-up’s success, or lack thereof. In short, Thiel thinks we are in danger of making too much of luck. In fact, he hopes to mitigate the role of chance as much as possible. He would have us maximize our control and mastery over the chaotic flow of time. This was in part what elicited the comparison to Francis Bacon.

What first caught my attention, however, was that line from Thiel quoted at the end of the paragraph: “You can have agency not just over your own life, but over a small and important part of the world.”

More specifically, it was the last clause that piqued my interest. I read this desire to have agency “over a small and important part of the world” in light of Hannah Arendt’s theory of action. Action, in her view, is the most important shape our “doing” takes in this world. In her three-fold account of our doing, there is labor, which seeks to meet our basic bodily needs; there is also work, through which we build up an enduring life-world of artifice and culture; and then there is action.

Here is how Arendt describes action in an oft-cited passage from The Human Condition:

“Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality … this plurality is specifically the condition — not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam — of all political life ”

Action is a political category, it is possible only in the context of plurality when men and women are present to each other. Plurality is one condition of action; the other is freedom. This is not freedom understood merely as a lack of constraint, but rather as the ability to initiate, to begin something, to create (the power Arendt called natality). It is through this action that men and women disclose their true selves and ground their identity. Action discloses not only “what” we are, but “who” we are.

There’s much more that could be said, the category of action is central to Arendt’s political theory, but that should be enough to ground what follows. Arendt worried about the loss of public spaces in which human beings might engage in action. She distinguished between the private, the social, and the public. Roughly put, the private is the sphere of the family and the household. The public is the sphere in which we may act in a self-disclosing manner as described above, where we might express the fullness of our humanity. The social is the realm of bureaucracy and the faceless crowd; rather than self-disclosure, it is the realm of anonymity that forecloses the possibility of action.

I find Arendt’s conception of action and identity compelling. If Aristotle is right and we are political animals, then to some degree we seek to appear in a meaningful fashion among our peers, to act and to be acknowledged. And this is how I read the unspoken subtext of Thiel’s desire to exert agency over a small and important part of the world.

But what if, as Arendt worried in the mid-twentieth century, the world we have built is not amenable to action and self-disclosure? What if we have gradually eliminated the public spaces in which action was possible. Remember, public here does not simply refer to any physical space that someone might freely enter like a park. Rather it is a space constituted by the gathering of people and in which individuals can act in a meaningful and consequential manner.

If our world is one in which we find it increasingly difficult to appear before others in a meaningful fashion, then we have perhaps two options left to us. One might be to force our appearance upon the world by actions of such dramatic scale that they are able to register in the social world, even if just fleetingly. This sort of action, which is not truly action in Arendt’s sense, tends to be rare and frequently destructive.

The other option, of course, is to find or create a world in which action matters. I immediately thought of the immensely popular online game Minecraft. To be clear, I have never played Minecraft; these are the observations of an outsider. I’ve only seen it played and read about it. In fact, Robin Sloan’s recent piece about the game explains why it is kicking around in my mind just now.

Minecraft_city_hallAccording to Sloan, the secret of Minecraft is that “it does not merely allow [...] co-creation but requires it.” In other words, in Minecraft is a virtual world in which you work in the midst of others and create with them. Behold: freedom and plurality (of sorts), and thus action. And, of course, it is not only Minecraft. Consider as well the tremendous popularity of multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. In these cases, players inhabit virtual worlds in which they may appear before others and act with consequence to win a victory or secure a goal.

I understand, of course, that, at best, I am using the words appear, act, and consequence in a manner that is merely analogical to what Arendt meant by these same words. But the analogical relationship may tell us something about the appeal of these virtual worlds. Conversely, their popularity may also tell us something about our (non-virtual) world.

This brings me, finally, to the point I first set out to make–really, it is a question I’d like to pose (at the expense of egregious digital dualism): Are we building and participating in virtual worlds where our actions matter because in the real world, they don’t?

Let me expand on that question with a hypothetical scenario. I read recently about one man’s vision for ameliorating dire living conditions in a potential future when urban housing is reduced to 100 square-foot windowless apartments. The solution: “‘Mixed Reality Living Spaces,’ where technology is used to create immersive environments that give the inhabitant an illusion of living in a much larger, well-lit space.” I came across that article on Twitter via Christopher Mims. Frank Pasquale likened the scenario to a variation of the living arrangements in Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” I kicked in a comparison to the multimedia walls that Ray Bradbury imagined in Fahrenheit 451, the well-to-do could afford four screen-walls for total immersion.

Imagine, if you will, a future in which people have retreated into immersive media environments, private worlds masquerading as faux-public spheres, where they find it possible to engage in something that approximates meaningful action in the (virtual) presence of others.

In imagining such a scenario it would be far too easy to complain about the hapless masses that so easily retreat into their own personal holodecks, abandoning the world in favor of their escapist fantasies. It would be far too easy because it would avoid the more important consideration. How did we arrive at a society in which virtual worlds afforded the only possibility for meaningful, self-disclosing action that most people would ever encounter?

That scenario, of course, extrapolates in exaggerated fashion from a few present realities. Nonetheless, it gets at questions worth considering. If Arendt is right about the role and significance of what she calls action, then it is right and appropriate that individuals seek for it. Where might individuals find these public spaces today? How can we ensure the possibility for meaningful action in the world? How can we avoid a world in which people are drawn into virtual worlds because it is only there that they feel they matter?