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?