Arendt’s 1964 Lecture on Cybernetics

[This is an uncorrected transcription of some remarks Hannah Arendt gave to the first annual Conference on the Cybercultural Revolution. I’ve copied it from the Library of Congress, here. Notice that her concerns with the end of work are quite strong in these remarks. Her comments on the necessity of a social safety net in a world where people are rendered unemployed by technology counter many conventional readings of Arendt. Also, her comments on “vacant time” suggest that she believed that the only proper solution to technological unemployment is political organization to “fill the time” lost to machines with something meaningful.]

What I am going to say, or rather, the questions which I am going to raise, will be from a little different viewpoint than we have heard so far. I will speak from a nonscientific standpoint and that means that I’m not even a social scientist let along a natural scientist or technologist. What are the problems which we probably will face in the near future, and what is their seriousness from a general point of view, by which I mean, from the point of view of the average citizen, not from the point of view of any specific class in the population of the United States?

First of all, automation is a new revolution; automation brought about as distinguished from the Industrial Revolution of the last into the present century seems, from this point of view for me, to reside in two things: one, the Industrial Revolution replaced only only muscle power, but not brain power. The very fact that machines can take over a certain amount of activity which we always have identified with the human mind, calls, in my opinion, for a re-evaluation of the activity, of our intellectual activity as such.

To give you two examples: When I grew up, it was still very common and very fashionable to believe that people who knew how to play chess very well were very intelligent indeed. If today we know that some kinds of these machines — I’m not going to say and names — can play a reasonably good game of chess, then I think it is a question of human dignity to say that this kind of intelligence apparently has not the same status as other kinds of intelligence, as other kinds of thinking. In other words, it is still something technical and it resides still in such a thing which we may accurately call brain power. And brain power may change from man to man just as muscle power does — not everybody is equally strong in the one or the other. But it does not say anything about the level, or about the special particularities of this human being as such.

To give you another example which came up here when Mr. Perk talked. He talked about the fortunate fact that we can erase memory in the computers, and the rather unfortunate fact that this is not so easily done with beings which we call it brainwashing. I would argue somewhat against Mr. Perk, that when it comes to performance, to nothing but performance, when it comes to nothing but to go on living, that it is to those kind of processes the human memory also is very easily erased, as everybody know who ever lost somebody very close to him. The fact of the matter that he can adjust to the situation then, and that he does not feel the loss in such a way that it prevents him form as we say functioning, is acutlaly the same thing as this kind of erasing of memory.

Now if human memory were nothing but this, namely, something which either helps us to function like the stored-up memory in the computers, or prevents us from functioning like the erasable memory from the computers, it would be a very sad state of affairs. We know of course that remembrance, which I mean now calls [causes?] this other faculty in order to distinguish it from the simply technical faculty of memory, that remembrance will stay with us regardless of the functions which memory may perform, or may not perform. And remembrance, to lose remembrance, would indeed mean to deprive human existence of a whole dimension – namely the dimension of the past.

The second thing: there again, we have to re-evaluate. We have to say what is sought as distinguished from technical brain operations and, for instance, what is remembrance as distinguished from the technical memory? The second thing which automation has brought about, and which calls for a solution, is that even though the Industrial Revolution had already made life easier, and certain performances easier, it did not out, but on the contrary, curiously enough, stretched the working day. That is, many things […]

[…]work or labor boss easier at any given moment, it was still the same or even more time consumed in the life of  every given individual. I would say if I now may come back towards what is called the human condition, that by the very fact that in one way or another man’s life still was divided into equal or larger parts between labor and recovery from it, nothing much was changed in the human condition as such, even though it worked around us, that which we produced through our work and labor was changed very much indeed.

Or to put it differently: we changed in the Industrial Revolution the nature of our work, but we did not interrupt the life cycle. That is, a man came home from work, and he was exhausted. He was really tired. And this tiredness, while he recovered, what was then the energy was then fed back into his new day’s work. That is the act original [ab original?] life cycle of living and laboring, of getting exhausted and recovering, all of which has its own rewards.

You have only to read the Old Testament in order to see that even if we just go an work to our […] to take it back home to our families to recover there in order to be able to live; that is, if we just regard this cycle as something which is deprived as we today sometimes think of higher learning (and God knows the Greeks thought that it was deprived of higher meaning) — that to live in order to work, and to work in order to live was not enough. But if you read the Old Testament where labor is not felt to be a curse, then you will see the natural bliss which lies in such a natural way of arranging things.

And no matter what we think about the Greeks, and Gods knows I think highly of them — I have been influenced by them in my own thinking — the truth of the matter is, that the large majority of mankind always has lived in this kind of survival cycle which has its own rewards, and where there was a certain contentment and a certain bliss in seeing your children and then your grandchildren in just the simple things of living of which we all of a sudden will now deprive. Not the few who always had ambitions a little higher than that, but the many who were content, and who had a certain dignity in fulfilling these jobs. And don’t forget the word dignity.

Now if I may go on from there a few steps further, I think Mr. Seligman has talked about the reversed pyramid where the few now will work for the many, instead of, as it has been always, vice-versa; the many had to work for the few. There is connected to this another kind of hierarchy, or rather hidden behind it, another kind of reversal. This will concern what we usually call social status. Up to now, those at the top who work less than those at the bottom had higher social status that the other way around. If we are right in the midst of a very serious revolution in this respect too, if you loot at executives at the top jobs, you will see that these people today slave away as only the others [sp?] in the worst days of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. I made a little Gallup Poll of my own, asking every acquaintance of mine, “How many hours do you work?” and the result was sixteen. Fourteen to sixteen with not two and one half days off as we all have, but with one day off at the most, and even this is the worst condition.

You can see what a decisive change that is; we are right in the midst of it, only nobody talks about it. The lower the job, the more free time — I don’t want to call it leisure time, because I don’t think it is leisure time. But let me now come, since I mentioned it already –nobody has taken up Miss Hilton about the distinction between idleness and leisure time. And let me call idleness by an ugly name only in order to make you a little afraid, in order to prevent us from running away with the high idealistic ideas of flowering of culture and God knows what. This free time is vacant time, and vacant time is really the worst thing almost anybody can be confronted with. Of course, immediately come up all those marvelous examples of Greek culture where the citizens had leisure time, as it is said.

Now the Greek word for leisure is scholia and it means “abstention from.” Our word for “school” is spelled the same. Scholia meant to abstain from certain activities in order to be free for others. These other activities — if I may just correct a widespread error –these other activities for which they were set free were by no means artistic activities. The artist, even Phidias in Greece, with the exception of the poet, because his work was highly regarded, the artist, the painter, and the sculptor — I say even Phidias — was not recognized as a full-fledged citizen precisely because he was too busy. So it was not a question of setting the citizens free for this marvelous high flowering of culture, but it was a question of setting the citizen free for political business. This political business, the political tasks and duties of an Athenian citizen and in the great times of the Roman Republic, even more of a Roman citizen, were so time consuming that you may be assured that they had neither vacant time nor what we today call leisure time. They had neither of them. This is what made the thing take as long as it did, and you know of course, that is was not very long ago.

On the other hand, if you look at vacant time, then the only analogy which comes to mind which could compare with out problems would be the decline in the centuries of the Roman Empire and the Roman Plebes. The Roman Plebes, indeed, had vacant time, an you know that this vacant time continued through the centuries and didn’t bring about any flowering of culture. This vacant time of the Roman Plebs was even mitigated at the time because of the unending ways [from context this looks like a mistranscription: unending campaigns?] of the Roman Empire. We, if my hunch is right — God knows I hope it is right — will not have this “consolation” because I think that war is an instrument of foreign policy probably on its way out.

At any rate, we would hate to think that this will be what we will be [do?] with [it?]. If we now once more think that after all this is true, there have always been certain classes, strata of people, who were free of labor, and they were always the highers. Therefore, there is something held out to us that all of us will be able to live on this high level. But let me remind you of the fact that these laborless strata in human history, or lets call them by their normal name, the aristocracies, again partly always engaged in war which helped a lot. These aristocracies always develop a code of discipline which mostly was very Spartan, extremely rigid, and it shows you, because they had to solve a problem. It shows you how afraid they were to go to pot, so to speak, because of this complete freedom.

This brings me back to the humand condition. It has been questioned here if a society can adjust voluntarily and speedily by [blank in text] to a completely new set of circumstances. To a certain extent, I am very much inclined to say yes. I am very much inclined to say that because human beings are conditioned beings by definition. That is something which Mr. Sutro put here on the blackboard. The simple fact that man is not just conditioned by his environment and the environment conditions him, that is, this particular kind of what now called feedback and which indeed is quite obvious in the whole history of the human race wherever he finds it, that is, we are always much more speedily adjusted to new conditions than we think we could if we looked ahead of them. Once they are there, once the environment has really changed, we are already conditioned, even though we don’t know it and even thoug we may know very little about what actually conditioned us. Take somebody who has lived through my life span. When I was a small child there were still horse-drawn cabbies, and then the automobile, and then the airplane. If I think how beautifully, for instance, I have adjusted in my own lifetime to all these very different conditions, to which I may add a few purely political ones, then I must say that I am quite astonished at my adaptability.

It is something else with this vacant time, which I mentioned before. It could very well be that this same species which is so adaptable as human beings will not be able to adapt itself very easily to vacant time for the simple reason because I think that vacant time is not a conditioner. Vacant time is what it says: it is nothingness, and no matter how much you put in in order to fill up this nothingness, this nothingness in itself is still there and present and may indeed prevent us from voluntarily and speedily adjusting ourselves to it.

Let me finish by just expressing my conviction that all economic problems connected with this new revolution will be rather easily adjusted even though the difficulties will be enormous. They will be more easily open to resolution and solution than this question of vacant time. It is indeed true that some very deep commandments of our morals, as long as we can think that, this is, as long as the Hebrew-Christian traditions are being challenged, and “He who does not work shall not eat” is indeed obsolete, but it is no less obsolete, and therefore no less open to challenge, than the other commandment, “Thou shalt multiply, be fertile” which also was a command admirably adjusted to an under-populated earth and terribly dangerous in population explosion. I think these things are rather easily, [a major shift in the transcription here: “also buying and selling with a new credit card, as far as I am concerned, can be abolished tomorrow”]. And I am quite sure we can adjust beautifully.

To come back to this question of vacant time — there is not a question of “he who does not work shall not eat” but the question is “he who does not spend energy will not be able to sleep.” And this is something altogether different; this is something really much more fundamental. How are we going, if we want to take the Greek model, then let us not talk about the flowering of culture, but let us talk about the political institutions of the Greek polis, and do we want to adopt them, or are we able to transpose this original model of political organization, a minor, very small seciton of the people, and don’t forget it did not even comprehend all Greeks. Every polis was a completely isolated organism, completely separated against the other. Are we capable to devise institutions of liberty in our political life which will fulfill the same function the polis fulfilled for the free citizens of Greece, namely, to spend their lives or a great deal of them in political activity, or in public business?

Second Opinions