Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Hannah Arendt on Technology and Nature

I just posted this to the blog for students in my design as politics/design as anti-politics seminar at SFAI. It contains mostly material transcribed from Hannah Arendt, but I do interrupt the quoted passages with comments here and there. Most of these comments refer directly to topics that we have been discussing in the course itself, but since these topics are also regular themes addressed at Amor Mundi, and since I often emphasize my indebtedness to Arendt but rarely provide really sustained discussions of that indebtedness, I thought this stuff might be of more general interest.

This supplemental material from Arendt's The Human Condition provides a useful critical vocabulary for our discussion Thursday on cradle-to-cradle design and the whole so-called "natural capitalist" green(/greenwashing?) ethos, but also provides context for much of our discussion over the last two weeks, not to mention the themes with which the course as a whole will remain preoccupied all term. The first significant passage (and you'll have to forgive a few interruptions) is to be found on pp. 149-151 of the University of Chicago Press, second edition:

[In the case of t]he first instruments of nuclear technology, the various types of atom bombs, which, if released in sufficient and not even very great quantities, could destroy all organic life on earth... it would no longer be a question of unchaining and letting loose elementary natural processes, but of handling on the earth and in everyday life energies and forces such as occur only outside the earth, in the universe; this is already done, but only in the research laboratories of nuclear physicists. If present technology consists of channeling natural forces into the world of the human artifice, future technology may yet consist of channeling the universal forces of the cosmos around us into the nature of the earth. It remains to be seen whether these future technologies will transform the household of nature as we have known it since the beginning of our world to the same extent or even more than the present technology has changed the very worldliness of the human artifice.

-- let me interrupt the quote here, to introduce another, from the "Prologue" much earlier in the book, pp. 2-3, which provides figures and frames with which the prior paragraph will be resonating with the proper reader of the whole:
The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice. The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside the artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms. For some time now, a great many scientific efforts have been directed toward making life also "artificial," toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature. It is the same desire to escape the imprisonment of the earth [Arendt's discussion here is spurred by the launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957 and the curious but representative reactions it occasioned in the many who declared the event the "first step toward escape from men's imprisonment from the earth," pg. 1] that is manifest in the test tube... "to produce superior human beings" and... I suspect, also underlies the hope to extend man's life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit. The future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems 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 made by himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.

-- In addition to deepening our understanding of the Arendtian distinctions of earth and world and cosmos, this last point also draws on the distinction between the instrumental and the political we discussed in the opening lecture, and to which we will return again and again (especially in the form of the discussion of the emancipatory as the amplification of force or given capacities as against the emancipatory as an interminable ever re-opening social struggle). Returning now, to the later passage we were already reading --

The channeling of natural forces into the human world has shattered the very purposefulness of the world, the fact that objects are the ends for which tools and implements are designed. It is characteristic of all natural processes that they come into being without the help of man, and those things are natural which are not "made" but grow by themselves into whatever they become. (This is also the authentic meaning of our word "nature," whether we derive it from its latin root nasci, to be born, or trace it back to its Greek origin, physis, which comes from phyein, to grow out of, to appear by itself.) Unlike the products of human hands, which must be realized step by step and for which the fabrication process is entirely distinct from the existence of the fabricated thing itself, the natural thing's existence is not separate but is somehow identical with the process through which it comes into being: the seed contains and, in a certain sense, already is the tree, and the tree stops being if the process of growth through which it came into existence stops. If we see these processes against the background of human purposes, which have a willed beginning and a definite end, they assume the character of automatism. We call automatic all courses of movement which are self-moving and therefore outside the range of willful and purposive interference. In the mode of production ushered by automation, the distinction between operation and product, as well as the product's precedence over the operation (which is only the means to produce the end), no longer make sense and have become obsolete.

-- I ask you to pause again for a moment and let this passage sink in. I'm not going to interrupt it right now to interject another, still longer passage, but I want you to remember this section because I am going to leap forward in the text a bit later in a way that will press and elaborate these points enormously. Do notice though, by the way, that our discussion of the conceptual archive out of which our sense of "nature" arises is rehearsed concisely in the prior passage, and also how Arendt's formulation comports with our discussion last week of the likely flawed logic or at any rate confused figuration of so-called "biomimetic design," which, to be actually biomimetic -- that is to say, morphology evolved in the ongoing dynamisms of ecosystems -- seems to be structurally at odds with being legibly still a matter of willful design at all. Skipping a bit forward from where we were before but remaining on page 151, and forewarned that the specific topic of "the automatic" is one to which I will have still more to draw your attention later, let us continue on --

The discussion of the whole problem of technology, that is, of the transformation of life and world through the introduction of the machine, has been strangely led astray through an all-too-exclusive concentration upon the service or disservice the machines render to men. The assumption here is that every tool and implement is primarily designed to make human life easier and human labor less painful. Their instrumentality is understood exclusively in this anthropocentric sense. But the instrumentality of tools and implements is much more closely related to the object it is designed to produce, and their sheer "human value" is restricted to the use the animal laborens makes of them. In other words, homo faber, the toolmaker, invented tools and implements in order to erect a world, not -- at least not primarily -- to help the human life process. The question therefore is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, to the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy the world and things.

-- That last point relies on highly idiosyncratic Arendtian terminology and mappings, especially the distinction of the animal laborens from the homo faber, and from the classical definition of man as at once the rational and political animal. You have to read an enormous amount of Arendt (not even reading the whole book The Human Condition is quite equal to the depth of the categories it itself introduces and deploys) to tap into the full richness of her vocabulary, but there is an extraordinary passage on pp. 236-237 that provides an unusually clear and concise survey of Arendt's account. This passage is also especially interesting given the aversion to (even the horror of) "the automatic" that is thematized in the passages you have already read. My last comment is that you should think about the distinction between exchange (as in Arendt's warnings above about the desire to exchange the earth for the world) and the notion of a redemption that saves and that provides the thread that connects all the crucially distinct but equally crucially indispensable facets of the human condition throughout the whole passage --

We have seen that the animal laborens could be redeemed from its predicament of imprisonment in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process, of being subject to the necessity of labor and consumption, only through the mobilization of another human capacity, the capacity for making, fabricating, and producing of homo faber, who as a toolmaker not only eases the pain and trouble of laboring but also erects a world of durability. The redemption of life, which is sustained by labor, is worldliness, which is sustained by fabrication. We saw furthermore that homo faber could be redeemed from his predicament of meaninglessness, the "devaluation of all values," and the impossibility of finding valid standards in a world determined by the category of means and ends, only through the interrelated faculties of action and speech, which produce meaningful stories as naturally as fabrication produces use objects. If it were not outside the scope of these considerations, one could add the predicament of thought to these instances; for thought, too, is unable to "think itself" out of predicaments which the very activity of thinking engenders. What in each of these instances saves man -- man qua animal laborens, qua homo faber, qua thinker -- is something altogether different; it comes from the outside -- not, to be sure, outside of man, but outside each of the respective activities. From the viewpoint of the animal laborens, it is like a miracle that it is also a being which knows of and inhabots a world; from the viewpoint of homo faber it is like a miracle, like the revelation of divinity, that meaning should have a place in that world.

The case of action and action's predicament is altogether different. Here, the remedy against the irreversibility and unpredictability of the process started by acting does not arise out of another and possibly higher faculty, but is one of the potentialities of action itself. The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility -- of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing -- is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose "sins" hang like Damocles' sword over every new generation; and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between men.

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man's lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocations -- a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfills, can dispel. Both faculties therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound to a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one's self.

-- As I said, this is an incredibly rich passage, and only some of its riches directly connect with the concerns of our course (although we will return to some of what we put in the background for now when we shift our attention in a couple of weeks from "green" design for sustainability to "p2p" design for network participation). For those who do go on to explore Arendt's philosophy more deeply for its own sake, I will say that this passage remains a useful touchstone. What is sometimes described as a "turn" from Arendt's early to her late thinking, a shift from the radicality to the banality of evil under totalitarianism is clearly anticipated in this comparatively early passage. In "Thinking and Moral Considerations" Arendt will go on to say that under conditions of totalitarian tyranny thinking itself can take on the character of acting, extending to thinking-otherwise itself the sort of redemptive force she assigns to other facets of the human condition in respect to their limits -- usually figured as a horror of interminable automatism -- in their own terms, so that thought-as-action might rescue humanity from the madness and isolation of totalitarian anti-politics quite as much as political action more generally is said by Arendt to rescue thought isolated and enthralled by interminable free-associational rationalism.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

A strong case can be made that technology is an evolutionary vector that enables its continued evolution. And by giving carriers a competitive advantage over non adopters (the history of gunpowder weaponry is a good example, lots of socieities didn't want it to exsist ultimately they had no choice) technologies can be forced on populations whether they want them or not.

The scary thing about that is that this process doesn't have our interests at heart. However the human race does have a limited history of uninventing things. There was a moment in time when the Japanese were making the best gunpowder weapons in the world. They decided to get rid of them (not necessarily for altruistic reasons mind you!) and were sucessful in doing so.

P.S. There is a very safe indirect form of nuclear power, geothermal. A very elegant solution in my mind, extract the waste heat not the toxic material that creates it.