Technology and The Human Condition

If you’re a regular reader, you know that increasingly my attention has been turning toward the work of Hannah Arendt. My interest in Arendt’s work, particularly as it speaks to technology, was sparked a few years ago when I began reading The Human Condition. Below are some comments, prepared for another context, discussing Arendt’s Prologue to that book. 


In the Prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt wrote, “What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears.” In her framing, these newest experiences and most recent fears were born out of technological developments that had come about within Arendt’s own lifetime, particularly those that had transpired in the two decades that preceded the writing of The Human Condition. Among the more notable of these developments were the successful harnessing of atomic power and the launching, just one year prior to the publication of Arendt’s book, of the first manmade object into earth’s orbit. These two developments powerfully signaled the end of one age of human history and the opening of another. Positioned in this liminal space, Arendt explained that her purpose was “to trace back modern world alienation, its twofold flight from the earth in the universe and from the world into the self, to its origins, in order to arrive at an understanding of the nature of society as it had developed and presented itself at the very moment when it was overcome by the advent of a new and yet unknown age.”

It is striking how similar Arendt’s concerns are to our own experiences and fears nearly sixty years later. Arendt, for instance, wrote about the advent of automation, which threatened to “empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring” just at the point when human beings had lost sight of the “higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.” In our own day, we are told “robots will—and must—take our jobs.” [Arendt, by the way, wasn't the only worried about automation.]

Similarly, Arendt spoke forebodingly of scientific aspirations that are today associated with advocates of Transhumanism. These aspirations include the prospect of radical human enhancement, the creation of artificial life, and the achievement of super-longevity. “This future man, whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years,” Arendt suggests, “seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.” We should not doubt the capability of scientists to make good on this claim, Arendt tells us, “just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.” Sixty years later, the Transhumanist vision moves from the fringes of public discussion to the mainstream, and we still retain the power to destroy all organic life on earth, although this is not much discussed any longer.

It was in the context of such fears and such experiences that Arendt wrote, “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.” The simplicity of the proposal, of course, masks the astounding complexity against which the task must unfold. Even in her own day, Arendt feared that we could not rise to the challenge. “[I]t could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do.” A similar concern had been registered by the poet W.H. Auden, who, in 1945, wrote of the modern mind,

“Though instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.”

For her part, Arendt continued, “it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.” With that Arendt spoke more than she knew; she anticipated the computer age. But Arendt did not look warmly upon the prospect of thinking and speaking supported by artificial machines. She reckoned the prospect a form of slavery, not to the machines but to our “know-how,” a form of knowledge which Arendt opposed to thought. (Arendt would go on to expand her thinking about thought in an unfinished and posthumously published work, The Life of the Mind.)

Moreover, Arendt contended that the question of technology is also a political question; it is, in other words, a question of how human beings live and act together. It is, consequently, a matter of meaningful speech. In Arendt’s view, and it is hard to imagine the case being otherwise, politics is premised on the ability of human beings to “talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves.” These considerations raise the further question of action. Even if we were able to think what we were doing with regard to technology, would it be possible to act meaningfully on the deliberations of such thought? What is the relationship, in other words, not only of technology to thought but of technology to the character of political communities? Finally, returning to the question of machine-assisted thinking, would such thought be politically consequential given that politics depends on meaningful speech?

Already, in 1958, Arendt perceived that the advances of scientific knowledge were secured in the rarefied language of advanced mathematics, a language that was not susceptible to translation into the more ordinary forms of human speech. Today, some forms of machine-assisted thinking, particularly those collected under the concept of Big Data, promise knowledge without understanding. Such knowledge may be useful, but it may also prove difficult to incorporate into the deliberative discourse of political communities.

In a few pages, then, Arendt managed to present a series of concerns and questions that remain vital today. Can we think what we are doing, particularly with the Promethean powers of modern technology? Can our technology help us with such thinking? Can we act in politically meaningful ways on the basis of such thought?

Thinking With the Past

In the last post, I cited a passage or two from Hannah Arendt in which she discusses “thinking without a bannister,” thinking that attempts to think “as though nobody had thought before.” I endorsed her challenge, but I hinted in passing at a certain unease with this formulation. This largely stemmed from my own sense that we must try to learn from the past. Arendt, however, does not mean to suggest that there is nothing at all that can be learned from the past. This is evident from the attentive care she gives to ancient sources in her efforts to illuminate the present state of things. Rather, she seems to believe that a coherent tradition of thought which we can trust to do our thinking for us, a tradition of thought that can set our intellectual defaults as it were–this kind of tradition is lost. The appearance of totalitarianism in the 20th century (and, I think, the scope and scale of modern technology) led Arendt to her conclusion that thinking must start over. But, again, not entirely without recourse to the tradition.

Here is Arendt expounding upon what she calls Walter Benjamin’s “gift of thinking poetically”:

“This thinking, fed by the present, works with the ‘thought fragments’ it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths of the past–but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of the extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what was once alive, some things suffer a ‘sea change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune from the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living–as ‘thought fragments,’ as something ‘rich and strange,’ and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene [archetypal or pure phenomenon].”

As Richard Bernstein puts it in his essay, “Arendt on Thinking,” “what Arendt says in her eloquent essay on Walter Benjamin also might have been said about Arendt.” Bernstein goes on to explain that Arendt “links thinking together with remembrance and storytelling. Remembrance is one of the most important ‘modes of thought,’ and it requires story-telling in order to preserve those ‘small islands of freedom.'”

The tradition may have been broken, but it is not altogether lost to us. By the proper method, we may still pluck some pearls and repurpose them to help us make sense of the present.

That passage, in case your curious, comes from Arendt’s Introduction to a collection of Benjamin’s essays she edited titled Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Bernstein’s essay may be found in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt.”

Thinking Without a Bannister

In politics and religion, especially, moderates are in high demand, and understandably so. The demand for moderates reflects growing impatience with polarization, extremism, and vacuous partisan rancor. But perhaps these calls for moderation are misguided, or, at best, incomplete.

To be clear, I have no interest in defending extremism, political or otherwise. But having said that, we immediately hit on part of the problem as I see it. While there are some obvious cases of broad agreement about what constitutes extremism–beheadings, say–it seems pretty clear that, in the more prosaic realms of everyday life, one person’s extremism may very well be another’s principled stand. In such cases, genuine debate and deliberation should follow. But if the way of the moderate is valued as an end in itself, then debate and deliberation may very well be undermined.

I use the phrase “the way of the moderate” in order to avoid using the word moderation. The reason for this is that moderation, to my mind anyway, suggests something a bit different than what I have in view here in talking about the hankering for moderates. Moderation, for instance, may be associated with Aristotle’s approach to virtue, which I rather appreciate.

But moderation in that sense is not really what I have in mind here. I may agree with Aristotle, for instance, that courage is the mean between cowardice on the one hand and foolhardiness on the other. But I’m not sure that such a methodology, which may work rather well in helping us understand the virtues, can be usefully transferred into other realms of life. To be more specific, I do not think that you can approach, to put it quaintly, matters of truth in that fashion, at least not as a rule.

In other words, it does not follow that if two people are arguing about a complex political, social, or economic problem I can simply split the difference between the two and thereby arrive at the truth. It may be that both are desperately wrong and a compromise position between the two would be just as wrong. It may be that one of the two parties is, in fact, right and that a compromise between the two would, again, turn out to be wrong.

The way of the moderate, then, amounts to a kind of intellectual triangulation between two perceived extremes. One need not think about what might be right, true, or just; rather, one takes stock of the positions on the far right and the far left and aims for some sort of mean between the two, even if the position that results is incoherent or unworkable. This sort of intellectual triangulation is also a form of intellectual sloth.

Where the way of the moderate is reflexively favored, it would be enough to successfully frame an opponent as being either “far right” or “far left.” Further debate and deliberation would be superfluous and mere pretense. And, of course, that is exactly what we see in our political discourse.

Again, given our political culture, it is easy to see why the way of the moderate is appealing and tempting. But, sadly, the way of the moderate as I’ve described it does not escape the extremism and rancor that it bemoans. In fact, it is still controlled by it. If I seek to move forward by triangulating a position between two perceived extreme coordinates, I am allowing those extremes to determine my own path. We may very well need a third path, or even a fourth and fifth, but we should not assume that such a path can be found by passing through the middle of the extremes we seek to avoid. Such an assumption is the very opposite of the “independence” that is supposedly demonstrated by pursuing it.

Paradoxically, then, we might understand the way of the moderate as the flip side of the extremism and partisanship it seeks to counteract. What they both have in common is thoughtlessness. On the one hand you get the thoughtlessness of sheer conformity; the line is toed, platitudes are professed, and dissent is silenced. On the other, you sidestep the responsibility for independent thought by splitting the presumed difference between the two perceived extremes.

We do not need moderation of this sort; we need more thought.

In the conference transcripts I mentioned a few days ago, Hannah Arendt was asked about her political leanings and her position on capitalism. She responded this way: “So you ask me where I am. I am nowhere. I am really not in the mainstream of present or any other political thought. But not because I want to be so original–it so happens that I somehow don’t fit.”

A little further on she went on to discuss what she calls thinking without a bannister:

“You said ‘groundless thinking.’ I have a metaphor which is not quite that cruel, and which I have never published but kept for myself. I call it thinking without a bannister. In German, Denken ohne Geländer. That is, as you go up and down the stairs you can always hold onto the bannister so that you don’t fall down. But we have lost this bannister. That is the way I tell it to myself. And this is indeed what I try to do.”

And she added:

“This business that the tradition is broken and the Ariadne thread is lost. Well, that is not quite as new as I made it out to be. It was, after all, Tocqueville who said that ‘the past has ceased to throw its light onto the future, and the mind of man wanders in darkness.’ This is the situation since the middle of the last century, and, seen from the viewpoint of Tocqueville, entirely true. I always thought that one has got to start thinking as though nobody had thought before, and then start learning from everybody else.”

I’m not sure that I agree with Arendt in every respect, but I think we should take her call to start thinking as though nobody had thought before quite seriously.

I’ll leave you with one more encouragement in that general direction, this one from a recent piece by Alan Jacobs.

“I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an ‘artificial obvious’ that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.”

One step in this direction, I think, is to avoid the temptation presented to us by the way of the moderate as I’ve described it here. Very often what is needed is to, somehow, break altogether from the false dilemmas and binary oppositions presented to us.

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.

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?