A Lost World

Human beings have two ways, generally speaking, of going about the business of living with one another: through speech or violence. One of the comforting stories we tell each other about the modern world is that we have, for the most part, set violence aside. Indeed, one of modernity’s founding myths is that it arose as a rational alternative to the inevitable violence of a religious and unenlightened world. The truth of the matter is more complicated, of course. In any case, we would do well to recall that it was popularly believed at the turn of the twentieth century that western civilization had seen the end of large scale conflict among nations.

Setting to one side the historical validity of modernity’s myths, let us at least acknowledge that a social order grounded in the power of speech is a precarious one. Speech can be powerful, but it is also fragile. It requires hospitable structures and institutions that are able to sustain the possibility of intelligibility, meaning, and action–all of which are necessary in order for a political order premised on the debate and deliberation to exist and flourish. This is why emerging technologies of the word–writing, the printing press, the television, the Internet–always adumbrate profound political and cultural transformations.

A crisis of the word can all too easily become a political crisis. This insight, which we might associate with George Orwell, is, in fact, ancient.

Consider the following: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member,” so wrote, not Orwell but Thucydides in the first half of the fifth century BC. He goes on as follows:

… to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.”

I came across a portion of this paragraph on to separate occasions during the past week or two, first in a tweet and then again while reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics.

The passage, taken from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, speaks with arresting power to our present state of affairs. We should note, however, that what Thucydides is describing is not primarily a situation of pervasive deceitfulness, one in which people knowingly betray the ordinary and commonly accepted meaning of a word. Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.

It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”

It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.

Dark Times

“I borrow the term [“dark times”] from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns. When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Nothing of this is new.

(Hannah Arendt, Preface to Men in Dark Times)

The Miracle That Saves the World

are-233x300“Hannah Arendt is preeminently the theorist of beginnings,” according to Margaret Canovan in her Introduction to Arendt’s The Human Condition. “Reflections on the human capacity to start something new pervade her thinking,” she adds.

I’ve been thinking about this theme in Arendt’s work, particularly as the old year faded and the new one approached. Arendt spoke of birth and death, natality and morality, as the “most general condition of human existence.” Whereas most Western philosophy had taken its point of departure from the fact of our mortality, Arendt made a point of emphasizing natality, the possibility of new beginnings.

“The most heartening message of The Human Condition,” Canovan writes,

is its reminder of human natality and the miracle of beginning. In sharp contrast to Heidegger’s stress on our mortality, Arendt argues that faith and hope in human affairs come from the fact that new people are continually coming into the world, each of them unique, each capable of new initiatives that may interrupt or divert the chains of events set in motion by previous actions.”

This is, indeed, a heartening message. One that we need to take to heart in these our own darkening days. Below are a three key paragraphs in which Arendt develops her understanding of the importance of natality in human affairs.

First, on the centrality of natality to political activity:

[T]he new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought

Natality was a theme that predated the writing of The Human Condition. Here is the closing paragraph of arguably her best known work, after Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written a few years earlier.

“But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est–”that a beginning be made man was created” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In a well-known passage from The Human Condition, Arendt refers to the fact of natality as the “miracle that saves the world.” By the word world, Arendt does not mean the Earth, rather what we could call, borrowing a phrase from historian Thomas Hughes, the human-built world, what she glosses as “the realm of human affairs.” Here is the whole passage:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

Arendt well understood, however, that not all new beginnings would be good or just or desirable.

If without action and speech, without the articulation of natality, we would be doomed to swing forever in the ever-recurring cycle of becoming, then without the faculty to undo what we have done and to control at least partially the processes we have let loose, we would be the victims of an automatic necessity bearing all the marks of the inexorable laws which, according to the natural sciences before our time, were supposed to constitute the outstanding characteristic of natural processes.

In fact, Arendt attributes “the frailty of human institutions and laws and, generally, of all matters pertaining to men’s living together” to the “human condition of natality.” However, Arendt believed there were two capacities that channeled and constrained the power of action, the unpredictable force of natality: forgiveness and promise keeping. More on that, perhaps, in a later post.

Attention and the Moral Life

I’ve continued to think about a question raised by Frank Furedi in an otherwise lackluster essay about distraction and digital devices. Furedi set out to debunk the claim that digital devices are undermining our attention and our memory. I don’t think he succeeded, but he left us with a question worth considering: “The question that is rarely posed by advocates of the distraction thesis is: what are people distracted from?”

In an earlier post, I suggested that this question can be usefully set alongside a mid-20th century observation by Hannah Arendt. Considering the advent of automation, Arendt feared “the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.” “Surely, nothing could be worse,” she added.

The connection might not have been as clear as I imagined it, so let me explain. Arendt believed that labor is the “only activity left” to the laborer because the glorification of labor in modern society had eclipsed the older ends and goods to which labor had been subordinated and for the sake of which we might have sought freedom from labor.

To put it as directly as I can, Arendt believed that if we indeed found ourselves liberated from the need to labor, we would not know what to do with ourselves. We would not know what to do with ourselves because, in the modern world, laboring had become the ordering principle of our lives.

Recalling Arendt’s fear, I wondered whether we were not in a similar situation with regards to attention. If we were able to successfully challenge the regime of digital distraction, to what would we give the attention that we would have fought so hard to achieve? Would we be like the laborers in Arendt’s analysis, finally free but without anything to do with our freedom? I wondered, as well, if it were not harder to combat distraction, if we were inclined to do so, precisely because we had no telos for the sake of which we might undertake the struggle.

Interestingly, then, while the link between Arendt’s comments about labor and the question about the purpose of attention was initially only suggestive, I soon realized the two were more closely connected. They were connected by the idea of leisure.

We tend to think of leisure merely as an occasional break from work. That is not, however, how leisure was understood in either classical or medieval culture. Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, was thinking about the cultural ascendency of labor or work and the eclipse of leisure around the same time that Arendt was articulating her fears of a society of laborers without labor. In many respects, their analysis overlaps. (I should note, though, that Arendt distinguishes between labor and work in way that Pieper does not. Work for Pieper is roughly analogous to labor in Arendt’s taxonomy.)

For her part, Arendt believed nothing could be worse than liberating laborers from labor at this stage in our cultural evolution, and this is why:

“The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.  The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew.”

To say that there is “no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature” is another way of saying that there is no leisured class in the older sense of the word. This older ideal of leisure did not entail freedom from labor for the sake of endless poolside lounging while sipping Coronas. It was freedom from labor for the sake of intellectual, political, moral, or spiritual aims, the achievement of which may very well require arduous discipline. We might say that it was freedom from the work of the body that made it possible for someone to take up the work of the soul or the mind. Thus Pieper can claim that leisure is “a condition of the soul.” But, we should also note, it was not necessarily a solitary endeavor, or, better, it was not an endeavor that had only the good of the individual in mind. It often involved service to the political or spiritual community.

Pieper further defines leisure as “a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear.” He makes clear, though, that the stillness he has in mind “is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real – a co-respondence, eternally established in nature – has not yet descended into words.” Thus, leisure “is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion – in the real.”

Pieper also claims that leisure “is only possible on the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself, whereas idleness is rooted in the denial of this harmony, but also that he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation.” The passing comment on idleness is especially useful to us.

In our view, leisure and idleness are nearly indistinguishable. But on the older view, idleness is not leisure; indeed, it is the enemy of leisure. Idleness, on the older view, may even take the shape of frenzied activity undertaken for the sake of, yes, distracting us from the absence of harmony or agreement with ourselves and the world.

We are now inevitably within the orbit of Blaise Pascal’s analysis of the restlessness of the human condition. Because we are not at peace with ourselves or our world, we crave distraction or what he called diversions. “What people want,” Pascal insists, “is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.” “Nothing could be more wretched,” Pascal added, “than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

The novelist Walker Percy, a younger contemporary of both Arendt and Pieper, described what we called the “diverted self” as follows: “In a free and affluent society, the self is free to divert itself endlessly from itself.  It works in order to enjoy the diversions that the fruit of one’s labor can purchase.”  For the diverted self, Percy concluded, “The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion.”

If leisure is a condition of the soul as Pieper would have it, then might we also say the same of distraction? Discreet instances of being distracted, of failing to meaningfully direct our attention, would then be symptoms of a deeper disorder. Our digital devices, in this framing of distraction, are both a material cause and an effect. The absence of digital devices would not cure us of the underlying distractedness or aimlessness, but their presence preys upon, exacerbates, and amplifies this inner distractedness.

It is hard, at this point, for me not to feel that I have been speaking in another language or at least another dialect, one whose cadences and lexical peculiarities are foreign to our own idiom and, consequently, to our way of making sense of our experience. Leisure, idleness, contemplative beholding, spiritual and political aristocracies–all of this recalls to mind Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that we use such words in much the same way that a post-apocalyptic society, picking up the scattered pieces of the modern scientific enterprise would use “neutrino,” “mass,” and “specific gravity”: not entirely without meaning, perhaps, but certainly not as scientists. The language I’ve employed, likewise, is the language of an older moral vision, a moral vision that we have lost.

I’m not suggesting that we ought to seek to recover the fullness of the language or the world that gave it meaning. That would not be possible, of course. But what if we, nonetheless, desired to bring a measure of order to the condition of distraction that we might experience as an affliction? What if we sought some telos to direct and sustain our attention, to at least buffer us from the forces of distraction?

If such is the case, I commend to you Simone Weil’s reflections on attention and will. Believing that the skill of paying attention cultivated in one domain was transferable to another, Weil went so far as to claim that the cultivation of attention was the real goal of education: “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.”

It was Weil who wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” A beautiful sentiment grounded in a deeply moral understanding of attention. Attention, for Weil, was not merely an intellectual asset, what we require for the sake of reading long, dense novels. Rather, for Weil, attention appears to be something foundational to the moral life:

“There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves.”

Ultimately, Weil understood attention to be a critical component of the religious life as well. “Attention, taken to its highest degree,” Weil wrote, “is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” “If we turn our mind toward the good,” she added, “it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” And this is because, in her view, “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.”

So here we have, if we wanted it, something to animate our desire to discipline the distracted self, something at which to direct our attention. Weil’s counsel was echoed closer to our own time by David Foster Wallace, who also located the goal of education in the cultivation of attention.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” Wallace explained in his now famous commencement address at Kenyon College. “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace added, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.” Each day the truth of this claim impresses itself more and more deeply upon my mind and heart.

Finally, and briefly, we should be wary of imagining the work of cultivating attention as merely a matter of learning how to consciously choose what we will attend to at any given moment. That is part of it to be sure, but Weil and Pieper both knew that attention also involved an openness to what is, a capacity to experience the world as gift. Cultivating our attention in this sense is not a matter of focusing upon an object of attention for our own reasons, however noble those may be. It is also a matter of setting to one side our projects and aspirations that we might be surprised by what is there. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them,” Weil wrote, “but by waiting for them.” In this way, we prepare for “some dim dazzling trick of grace,” to borrow a felicitous phrase from Walker Percy, that may illumine our minds and enliven our hearts.

It is these considerations, then, that I would offer in response to Furedi’s question, What are we distracted from?

Resisting the Habits of the Algorithmic Mind

Algorithms, we are told, “rule our world.” They are ubiquitous. They lurk in the shadows, shaping our lives without our consent. They may revoke your driver’s license, determine whether you get your next job, or cause the stock market to crash. More worrisome still, they can also be the arbiters of lethal violence. No wonder one scholar has dubbed 2015 “the year we get creeped out by algorithms.” While some worry about the power of algorithms, other think we are in danger of overstating their significance or misunderstanding their nature. Some have even complained that we are treating algorithms like gods whose fickle, inscrutable wills control our destinies.

Clearly, it’s important that we grapple with the power of algorithms, real and imagined, but where do we start? It might help to disambiguate a few related concepts that tend to get lumped together when the word algorithm (or the phrase “Bid Data”) functions more as a master metaphor than a concrete noun. I would suggest that we distinguish at least three realities: data, algorithms, and devices. Through the use of our devices we generate massive amounts of data, which would be useless were it not for analytical tools, algorithms prominent among them. It may be useful to consider each of these separately; at least we should be mindful of the distinctions.

We should also pay some attention to the language we use to identify and understand algorithms. As Ian Bogost has forcefully argued, we should certainly avoid implicitly deifying algorithms by how we talk about them. But even some of our more mundane metaphors are not without their own difficulties. In a series of posts at The Infernal Machine, Kevin Hamilton considers the implications of the popular “black box” metaphor and how it encourages us to think about and respond to algorithms.

The black box metaphor tries to get at the opacity of algorithmic processes. Inputs are transformed into outputs, but most of us have no idea how the transformation was effected. More concretely, you may have been denied a loan or job based on the determinations of a program running an algorithm, but how exactly that determination was made remains a mystery.

In his discussion of the black box metaphor, Hamilton invites us to consider the following scenario:

“Let’s imagine a Facebook user who is not yet aware of the algorithm at work in her social media platform. The process by which her content appears in others’ feeds, or by which others’ material appears in her own, is opaque to her. Approaching that process as a black box, might well situate our naive user as akin to the Taylorist laborer of the pre-computer, pre-war era. Prior to awareness, she blindly accepts input and provides output in the manufacture of Facebook’s product. Upon learning of the algorithm, she experiences the platform’s process as newly mediated. Like the post-war user, she now imagines herself outside the system, or strives to be so. She tweaks settings, probes to see what she has missed, alters activity to test effectiveness. She grasps at a newly-found potential to stand outside this system, to command it. We have a tendency to declare this a discovery of agency—a revelation even.”

But how effective is this new way of approaching her engagement with Facebook, now informed by the black box metaphor? Hamilton thinks “this grasp toward agency is also the beginning of a new system.” “Tweaking to account for black-boxed algorithmic processes,” Hamilton suggests, “could become a new form of labor, one that might then inevitably find description by some as its own black box, and one to escape.” Ultimately, Hamilton concludes, “most of us are stuck in an ‘opt-in or opt-out’ scenario that never goes anywhere.”

If I read him correctly, Hamilton is describing an escalating, never-ending battle to achieve a variety of desired outcomes in relation to the algorithmic system, all of which involve securing some kind of independence from the system, which we now understand as something standing apart and against us. One of those outcomes may be understood as the state Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog have called obscurity, “the idea that when information is hard to obtain or understand, it is, to some degree, safe.” “Obscurity,” in their view, “is a protective state that can further a number of goals, such as autonomy, self-fulfillment, socialization, and relative freedom from the abuse of power.”

Another desired outcome that fuels resistance to black box algorithms involves what we might sum up as the quest for authenticity. Whatever relative success algorithms achieve in predicting our likes and dislikes, our actions, our desires–such successes are often experienced as an affront to our individuality and autonomy. Ironically, the resulting battle against the algorithm often secures the their relative victory by fostering what Frank Pasquale has called the algorithmic self, constantly modulating itself in response/reaction to the algorithms it encounters.

More recently, Quinn Norton expressed similar concerns from a slightly different angle: “Your internet experience isn’t the main result of algorithms built on surveillance data; you are. Humans are beautifully plastic, endlessly adaptable, and over time advertisers can use that fact to make you into whatever they were hired to make you be.”

Algorithms and the Banality of Evil

These concerns about privacy or obscurity on the one hand and agency or authenticity on the other are far from insignificant. Moving forward, though, I will propose another approach to the challenges posed by algorithmic culture, and I’ll do so with a little help from Joseph Conrad and Hannah Arendt.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as the narrator, Marlow, makes his way down the western coast of Africa toward the mouth of the Congo River in the service of a Belgian trading company, he spots a warship anchored not far from shore: “There wasn’t even a shed there,” he remembers, “and she was shelling the bush.”

“In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water,” he goes on, “there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent …. and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.” “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding,” he concluded. This curious and disturbing sight is the first of three such cases encountered by Marlow in quick succession.

Not long after he arrived at the Company’s station, Marlow heard a loud horn and then saw natives scurry away just before witnessing an explosion on the mountainside: “No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way of anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work that was going on.”

These two instances of seemingly absurd, arbitrary action are followed by a third. Walking along the station’s grounds, Marlow “avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine.” As they say: two is a coincidence; three’s a pattern.

Nestled among these cases of mindless, meaningless action, we encounter as well another kind of related thoughtlessness. The seemingly aimless shelling he witnessed at sea, Marlow is assured, targeted an unseen camp of natives. Registering the incongruity, Marlow exclaims, “he called them enemies!” Later, Marlow recalls the shelling off the coastline when he observed the natives scampering clear of each blast on the mountainside: “but these men could by no stretch of the imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea.”

Taken together these incidents convey a principle: thoughtlessness couples with ideology to abet violent oppression. We’ll come back to that principle in a moment, but, before doing so, consider two more passages from the novel. Just before that third case of mindless action, Marlow reflected on the peculiar nature of the evil he was encountering:

“I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men–men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly.”

Finally, although more illustrations could be adduced, after an exchange with an insipid, chatty company functionary, who is also an acolyte of Mr. Kurtz, Marlow had this to say: “I let him run on, the papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

That sentence, to my mind, most readily explains why T.S. Eliot chose as an epigraph for his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men,” a line from Heart of Darkness: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” This is likely an idiosyncratic reading, so take it with the requisite grain of salt, but I take Conrad’s papier-mâché Mephistopheles to be of a piece with Eliot’s hollow men, who having died are remembered “Not as lost

Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.”

For his part, Conrad understood that these hollow men, these flabby devils were still capable of immense mischief. Within the world as it is administered by the Company, there is a great deal of doing but very little thinking or understanding. Under these circumstances, men are characterized by a thoroughgoing superficiality that renders them willing, if not altogether motivated participants in the Company’s depredations. Conrad, in fact, seems to have intuited the peculiar dangers posed by bureaucratic anomie and anticipated something like what Hannah Arendt later sought to capture in her (in)famous formulation, “the banality of evil.”

If you are familiar with the concept of the banality of evil, you know that Arendt conceived of it as a way of characterizing the kind of evil embodied by Adolph Eichmann, a leading architect of the Holocaust, and you may now be wondering if I’m preparing to argue that algorithms will somehow facilitate another mass extermination of human beings.

Not exactly. I am circumspectly suggesting that the habits of the algorithmic mind are not altogether unlike the habits of the bureaucratic mind. (Adam Elkus makes a similar correlation here, but I think I’m aiming at a slightly different target.) Both are characterized by an unthinking automaticity, a narrowness of focus, and a refusal of responsibility that yields the superficiality or hollowness Conrad, Eliot, and Arendt all seem to be describing, each in their own way. And this superficiality or hollowness is too easily filled with mischief and cruelty.

While Eichmann in Jerusalem is mostly remembered for that one phrase (and also for the controversy the book engendered), “the banality of evil” appears, by my count, only once in the book. Arendt later regretted using the phrase, and it has been widely misunderstood. Nonetheless, I think there is some value to it, or at least to the condition that it sought to elucidate. Happily, Arendt returned to the theme in a later, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind.

Eichmann’s trial continued to haunt Arendt. In the Introduction, Arendt explained that the impetus for the lectures that would become The Life of the Mind stemmed from the Eichmann trial. She admits that in referring to the banality of evil she “held no thesis or doctrine,” but she now returns to the nature of evil embodied by Eichmann in a renewed attempt to understand it: “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.” She might have added: “… if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

There was only one “notable characteristic” that stood out to Arendt: “it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.” Arendt’s close friend, Mary McCarthy, felt that this word choice was unfortunate. “Inability to think” rather than thoughtlessness, McCarthy believed, was closer to the sense of the German word Gedankenlosigkeit.

Later in the Introduction, Arendt insisted “absence of thought is not stupidity; it can be found in highly intelligent people, and a wicked heart is not its cause; it is probably the other way round, that wickedness may be caused by absence of thought.”

Arendt explained that it was this “absence of thinking–which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think–that awakened my interest.” And it posed a series of related questions that Arendt sought to address:

“Is evil-doing (the sins of omission, as well as the sins of commission) possible in default of not just ‘base motives’ (as the law calls them) but of any motives whatever, of any particular prompting of interest or volition?”

“Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?”

All told, Arendt arrived at this final formulation of the question that drove her inquiry: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”

It is with these questions in mind–questions, mind you, not answers–that I want to return to the subject with which we began, algorithms.

Outsourcing the Life of the Mind

Momentarily considered apart from data collection and the devices that enable it, algorithms are principally problem solving tools. They solve problems that ordinarily require cognitive labor–thought, decision making, judgement. It is these very activities–thinking, willing, and judging–that structure Arendt’s work in The Life of the Mind. So, to borrow the language that Evan Selinger has deployed so effectively in his critique of contemporary technology, we might say that algorithms outsource the life of the mind. And, if Arendt is right, this outsourcing of the life of the mind is morally consequential.

The outsourcing problem is at the root of much of our unease with contemporary technology. Machines have always done things for us, and they are increasingly doing things for us and without us. Increasingly, the human element is displaced in favor of faster, more efficient, more durable, cheaper technology. And, increasingly, the displaced human element is the thinking, willing, judging mind. Of course, the party of the concerned is most likely the minority party. Advocates and enthusiasts rejoice at the marginalization or eradication of human labor in its physical, mental, emotional, and moral manifestations. They believe that the elimination of all of this labor will yield freedom, prosperity, and a golden age of leisure. Critics meanwhile, and I count myself among them, struggle to articulate a compelling and reasonable critique of this scramble to outsource various dimensions of the human experience.

But perhaps we have ignored another dimension of the problem, one that the outsourcing critique itself might, possibly, encourage. Consider this:  to say that algorithms are displacing the life of the mind is to unwittingly endorse a terribly impoverished account of the life of the mind. For instance, if I were to argue that the ability to “Google” whatever bit of information we happen to need when we need it leads to an unfortunate “outsourcing” of our memory, it may be that I am already giving up the game because I am implicitly granting that a real equivalence exists between all that is entailed by human memory and the ability to digitally store and access information. A moments reflection, of course, will reveal that human remembering involves considerably more than the mere retrieval of discreet bits of data. The outsourcing critique, then, valuable as it is, must also challenge the assumption that the outsourcing occurs without remainder.

Viewed in this light, the problem with outsourcing the life of the mind is that it encourages an impoverished conception of what constitutes the life of the mind in the first place. Outsourcing, then, threatens our ability to think not only because some of our “thinking” will be done for us; it will do so because, if we are not careful, we will be habituated into conceiving of the life of the mind on the model of the problem-solving algorithm. We would thereby surrender the kind of thinking that Arendt sought to describe and defend, thinking that might “condition” us against the varieties of evil that transpire in environments of pervasive thoughtlessness.

In our responses to the concerns raised by algorithmic culture, we tend to ask, What can we do? Perhaps, this is already to miss the point by conceiving of the matter as a problem to be solved by something like a technical solution. Perhaps the most important and powerful response is not an action we take but rather an increased devotion to the life of the mind. The phrase sounds quaint, or, worse, elitist. As Arendt meant it, it was neither. Indeed, Arendt was convinced that if thinking was somehow essential to moral action, it must be accessible to all: “If […] the ability to tell right from wrong should turn out to have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to ‘demand’ its exercise from every sane person, no matter how erudite or ignorant, intelligent or stupid, he may happen to be.”

And how might we pursue the life of the mind? Perhaps the first, modest step in that direction is simply the cultivation of times and spaces for thinking, and perhaps also resisting the urge to check if there is an app for that.