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?

6 thoughts on “Building Worlds In Which We Matter

  1. This is an excellent post. Thanks, Michael.

    It is possible that meaningful action in the public sphere has eroded because not only has the public sphere eroded physically but our public selves have begun to erode with it. I do not think, though, that all is lost but that those skills need to be recovered by practice, very Aristotelian. Our public sphere, in the understanding of Arendt, has become the social sphere and much of the world outside our narrowing societies has become estranged from us and unknown. Here there be dragons was a phrase written at the edges of old maps.

    I think that political agency has to be recovered slowly and in the smallest arenas so as to ensure small successes. We can still say No so as to be able to say Yes. We must also prepare to accept the consequences of our negation.

    1. Thanks for the very Aristotelian comment! I tend to agree. We are never entirely without hope, and the way forward will likely be through, as you say, “the smallest arenas.” All well put.

  2. Interesting discussion. One thread of inquiry that might be worth teasing out here is whether the realm of moral and civic action that Arendt celebrates might be expanded by promoting the so-called principles of “adversarial design” that Carl DiSalvo promotes and that Morozov makes some mention of in his most recent book. In so far as Silicon Valley (and by extension Thiel) are complicit in promoting solutionism and trafficking in technologies that reduce the possibility of moral choice they may be more part of the problem then the fix. In our quest for usability perhaps we’re making our technologies too frictionless and thereby desiccating the political sphere. I ruminate on those issues in http://itintheuniversity.blogspot.com/2013/07/solutionism-adversarial-design-and.html.

    1. Luke,

      Many thanks for drawing this connection. I will definitely be giving this some thought. I enjoyed your post on Morozov’s book. I confess I’ve not read it yet, but I will be, and probably sooner rather than later.

  3. I’m glad I found your blog, Michael – lots of interesting thoughts here. I think the inverse of your question gives some explanation too: do we like participating in virtual worlds because our actions there actually don’t matter? Aside from being a form of escapism and giving a chance to work toward an overarching goal, games like World of Warcraft and Minecraft let people do whatever they want. If you take too big a risk and die or get angry at your teammate and swing at him with your ax, there are no real repercussions (except wasted gaming time – cf. Leeroy Jenkins).

    1. Sean, glad you found it.

      You’re quite right, that is an equally revealing question to ask. My sense is that both get at different aspects of a complex and multi-faceted set of practices.

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