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 About Big Data

I want to pass on to you three pieces on what has come to be known as Big Data, a diverse set of practices enabled by the power of modern computing to accumulate and process massive amounts of data. The first piece, “View from Nowhere,” is by Nathan Jurgenson. Jurgenson argues that the aspirations attached to Big Data, particularly in the realm of human affairs, amounts to a revival of Positivism:

“The rationalist fantasy that enough data can be collected with the ‘right’ methodology to provide an objective and disinterested picture of reality is an old and familiar one: positivism. This is the understanding that the social world can be known and explained from a value-neutral, transcendent view from nowhere in particular.”

Jurgenson goes on to challenge these positivist assumptions through a critical reading of OkCupid CEO Christian Rudder’s new book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).

The second piece is an op-ed in the NY Times by Frank Pasquale, “The Dark Market for Personal Data.” Pasquale considers the risks to privacy associated with gathering and selling of personal information by companies equipped to mine and package such data. Pasquale concludes,

“We need regulation to help consumers recognize the perils of the new information landscape without being overwhelmed with data. The right to be notified about the use of one’s data and the right to challenge and correct errors is fundamental. Without these protections, we’ll continue to be judged by a big-data Star Chamber of unaccountable decision makers using questionable sources.”

Finally, here is a journal article, “Obscurity and Privacy,” by Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog. Selinger and Hartzog offer obscurity as an explanatory concept to help clarify our thinking about the sorts of issues that usually get lumped together as matters of privacy. Privacy, however, may not be a sufficiently robust concept to meet the challenges posed by Big Data.

“Obscurity identifies some of the fundamental ways information can be obtained or kept out of reach, correctly interpreted or misunderstood. Appeals to obscurity can generate explanatory power, clarifying how advances in the sciences of data collection and analysis, innovation in domains related to information and communication technology, and changes to social norms can alter the privacy landscape and give rise to three core problems: 1) new breaches of etiquette, 2) new privacy interests, and 3) new privacy harms.”

In each of these areas, obscurity names the relative confidence individuals can have that the data trail they leave behind as a matter of course will not be readily accessible:

“When information is hard to understand, the only people who will grasp it are those with sufficient motivation to push past the layer of opacity protecting it. Sense-making processes of interpretation are required to understand what is communicated and, if applicable, whom the communications concerns. If the hermeneutic challenge is too steep, the person attempting to decipher the content can come to faulty conclusions, or grow frustrated and give up the detective work. In the latter case, effort becomes a deterrent, just like in instances where information is not readily available.”

Big Data practices have made it increasingly difficult to achieve this relative obscurity thus posing a novel set social and personal challenges. For example, the risks Pasquale identifies in his op-ed may be understood as risks that follow from a loss of obscurity. Read the whole piece for a better understanding of these challenges. In fact, be sure to read all three pieces. Jurgenson, Selinger, and Pasquale are among our most thoughtful guides in these matters.

Allow me to wrap this post up with a couple of additional observations. Returning to Jurgenson’s thesis about Big Data–that Big Data is a neo-Positivist ideology–I’m reminded that positivist sociology, or social physics, was premised on the assumption that the social realm operated in predictable law-like fashion, much as the natural world operated according to the Newtonian world picture. In other words, human action was, at root, rational and thus predictable. The early twentieth century profoundly challenged this confidence in human rationality. Think, for instance, of the carnage of the Great War and Freudianism. Suddenly, humanity seemed less rational and, consequently, the prospect of uncovering law-like principles of human society must have seemed far more implausible. Interestingly, this irrationality preserved our humanity, insofar as our humanity was understood to consist of an irreducible spontaneity, freedom, and unpredictability. In other words, so long as the Other against which our humanity was defined was the Machine.

If Big Data is neo-Positivist, and I think Jurgenson is certainly on to something with that characterization, it aims to transcend the earlier failure of Comteian Positivism. It acknowledges the irrationality of human behavior, but it construes it, paradoxically, as Predictable Irrationality. In other words, it suggests that we can know what we cannot understand. And this recalls Evgeny Morozov’s critical remarks in “Every Little Byte Counts,”

“The predictive models Tucker celebrates are good at telling us what could happen, but they cannot tell us why. As Tucker himself acknowledges, we can learn that some people are more prone to having flat tires and, by analyzing heaps of data, we can even identify who they are — which might be enough to prevent an accident — but the exact reasons defy us.

Such aversion to understanding causality has a political cost. To apply such logic to more consequential problems — health, education, crime — could bias us into thinking that our problems stem from our own poor choices. This is not very surprising, given that the self-tracking gadget in our hands can only nudge us to change our behavior, not reform society at large. But surely many of the problems that plague our health and educational systems stem from the failures of institutions, not just individuals.”

It also suggests that some of the anxieties associated with Big Data may not be unlike those occasioned by the earlier positivism–they are anxieties about our humanity. If we buy into the story Big Data tells about itself, then it threatens, finally, to make our actions scrutable and predictable, suggesting that we are not as free, independent, spontaneous, or unique as we might imagine ourselves to be.

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.”

The Trouble With Centrism

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.

You can subscribe to my newsletter on technology and society here: The Convivial Society.

Arendt on Trial

arendtThe recent publication of an English translation of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer has yielded a handful of reviews and essays, like this one, framing the book as a devastating critique of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

The critics seem to assume that Arendt’s thesis amounted to a denial or diminishment of Eichmann’s wickedness. Arendt’s famous formulation, “the banality of evil,” is taken to mean that Eichmann was simply a thoughtless bureaucrat thoughtlessly following orders. Based on Stangneth’s exhaustive work, they conclude that Eichmann was anything but thoughtless in his orchestration of the death of millions of Jews. Ergo, Arendt was wrong about Eichmann.

But this casual dismissal of Arendt’s argument is built on a misunderstanding of her claims. Arendt certainly believed that Eichmann’s deeds were intentional and genuinely evil. She believed he deserved to die for his crimes. She was not taken in by his performance on the witness stand in Jerusalem. She did consider him thoughtless, but thoughtlessness as she intended the word was a more complex concept than what the critics have assumed.

At least two rejoinders have been published in an attempt to clarify and defend Arendt’s position. Both agree that Stangneth herself was not nearly as dismissive of Arendt as the second-hand critics, and both argue that Stangneth’s work does not undermine Arendt’s thesis, properly understood.

The first of these pieces, “Did Eichmann Think?” by Roger Berkowitz, appeared at The American Interest, and the second, “Who’s On Trial, Eichmann or Arendt?” by Seyla Benhabib, appeared at the NY Times’ philosophy blog, The Stone. Berkowitz’s piece is especially instructive. Here is the conclusion:

“In other words, evil originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world.”

Do read the rest.