[T]here are, indeed, few things that are more frightening than the steadily increasing prestige of scientifically minded brain trusters in the councils of government during the last decades. The trouble is not that they are cold blooded enough to "think the unthinkable," but that they do not think. Instead of indulging in such an old-fashioned, uncomputerizable activity, they reckon with the consequences of certain hypothetically assumed constellations without, however, being able to test their hypotheses against actual occurrences. The logical flaw in these hypothetical constructions of future events is always the same: what first appears as a hypothesis -- with or without its implied alternatives, according to the level of sophistication -- turns immediately, usually after a few paragraphs, into a 'fact,' which then gives birth to a whole string of non-facts, with the result that the purely speculative character of the whole enterprise is forgotten. Needless to say, this is not science but pseudo-science[.]
This last comment is crucial, since with this judgment it becomes clear that Arendt's earlier description of the futurologists as "scientifically-minded" was not an attack on science but on a kind of pseudo-science that sells itself as science. Needless to say, the "unthinkable" in this passage is mostly a matter of the actual contemplation of nuclear war (an inherently and absolutely unreasonable and unconscionable calculation), but we know from the "Prologue" to The Human Condition that it is not only the unprecedented self-destructive potential of nuclear weapons that confront humanity with its dissolution via the thoughtless unfolding of the instrumental logic arising from technique unrestrained by public deliberation, indeed technique amplified and misconstrued as an apt substitute for the freedom of public deliberation.
In Superlativity, in my sense of the term, the "unthinkable" has connected up to the theological "unthinkable," to the Mystery of Divinity evoked by the very incoherence of the omni-predicates through which "God" is presumably apprehended as unapprehendable. The promise of personal transcendence via the technodevelopmental aspirations to superintelligence, superlongevity, and superabundance preoccupy superlative futurology, but they are pseudo-scientific in Arendt's sense of the term, while mobilizing the anti-scientific energies of the Mystery as well. Taking up the superficial coloration of scientificity while failing to pass muster according to its legitimate forms, even more extraordinarily Superlativity evokes worldly experiences like intelligence, life, and emancipation, and then evacuates them of their worldly substance as biological, social, historical phenomena in a repudiation of the world and embrace of supernatural reward ("The Future") that is quintessentially faithful.
Arendt's critique of futurology continues on, a bit further down the page. You will discover that I am not forcing a false association on Arendt in describing her critique as anti-"futurological," even if I do extend its terms in a number of ways I can't know she would approve of.
Events, by definition, are occurrences that interrupt routine processes and routine procedures; only in a world in which nothing of importance ever happens could the futurologists' dream come true. Predictions of the future are never anything but projections of present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men [sic] do not act and if nothing unexpected happens; every action, for better or worse, and every accident necessarily destroys the whole pattern in whose frame the prediction moves and where it finds its evidence. Proudhon's passing remark, "The fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the statesman's prudence," is fortunately still true. It exceeds even more obviously the expert's calculations.) To call such unexpected, unpredicted, and unpredictable happenings "random events" or "the last gasps of the past," condemning them to irrelevance or the famous "dustbin of history," is the oldest trick in the trade; the trick, no doubt, helps in clearing up the theory, but at the price of removing it further and further from reality. The danger is that these theories are not only plausible, because they take their evidence from actually discernible present trends, but that, because of their inner consistency, they have a hypnotic effect; they put to sleep our common sense, which is nothing else but our mental organ for perceiving, understanding, and dealing with reality and factuality.
The force of this final point turns on Arendt's understanding of common sense, and as it happens that understanding of common sense is one that made her an early under-appreciated critic of the traditional program of artificial intelligence. I will turn briefly to that understanding in my next post. What I would emphasize for now, though, is that Arendt is not simply making the claim that futurology underestimates the complexity and dynamism and vicissitudes of the history it claims to predict and so should take greater care to qualify its overconfident assertions (although that is indeed a recommendation that most futurologists would do well to take on board). She is actually making the more forceful claim that futurology as a discourse is premised on the substitution of the mode of reason that is instrumental calculation for the mode of reason that is public deliberation, and since the latter for Arendt is incomparably more suited to address the substance of human history -- the narrative of a diversity of peers unpredictably acting in the world -- to which futurology seeks to address its own attention, this substitution of instrumentality for deliberation risks more than factual and predictive errors but more seriously still the inculcation of an insensitivity to that substance of history and its freedom that actually manages to undermine its reality. To lose sight of differences that make a difference, like the difference between political power and instrumental force or the correlated difference between public deliberation and instrumental calculation, results, as Arendt writes later in the same piece, "in a kind of blindness to the realities they correspond to" (p. 142), and since these are political realities that must be enacted and re-enacted to maintain their reality, blindness to their salience is too likely the prelude to their loss.
The other thing to say is that it is possible, as always, to read Arendt's lucid and graceful prose with a sense of real gratification but without quite grasping the full force of her arguments, since she deploys everyday terms like "routine," "act," "calculation" in a very specific rather than glib way, and that the force of her account ultimately derives from the ways in which these terms are embedded in the provocative constellation of distinctions she is endlessly introducing into conventional thinking while sometimes seeming simply to be thinking conventionally. This makes even long excerpting of her work a tricky business, since it is easier than usual to draw an incomplete or misleading insight from taking her writing out of its extended context. I hope I can recompense the risk of multiplying such misunderstandings through injudicious excerpting by seducing readers into reading the actual texts on their own terms through judicious excerpting.