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?

Personal identity intuitions

Most philosophers start with the big theories: psychological continuity, embodied persistence, “no further fact” anticriterialism. Yet in a vaguely Parfitian way, I’ve been wondering whether our identity intuitions can or should be forced to line up under a particular theory. So let’s look at some of the intuition pumps and see if they ought, in fact, to line up.

The classic intuition pump is Locke’s discussion of sobriety and blackouts:

Suppose I wholly lose the memory of some parts of my life, beyond a possibility of retrieving them, so that perhaps I shall never be conscious of them again; yet am I not the same person that did those actions, had those thoughts that I once was conscious of, though I have now forgot them? To which I answer, that we must here take notice what the word I is applied to; which, in this case, is the man only. And the same man being presumed to be the same person, I is easily here supposed to stand also for the same person. But if it be possible for the same man to have distinct incommunicable consciousness at different times, it is past doubt the same man would at different times make different persons; which, we see, is the sense of mankind in the solemnest declaration of their opinions, human laws not punishing the mad man for the sober man’s actions, nor the sober man for what the mad man did,- thereby making them two persons: which is somewhat explained by our way of speaking in English when we say such an one is “not himself,” or is “beside himself”; in which phrases it is insinuated, as if those who now, or at least first used them, thought that self was changed; the selfsame person was no longer in that man.

Of course, we do now blame the sober man for the mad man’s actions, but only I think because we feel we must blame someone. That’s one reason that Locke’s description is actually a “forensic” identity: he was already punting on the metaphysical question in favor of determining who to send to jail. It’s attribution that we seek, not agency, and there’s no attempt at a metaphysical judgment about the mechanics of personal identity. Other intuition pumps include the classic discussion of the ship of Theseus whose parts are replaced one by one, or an axe which is so old that both the head and the handle have been replace: is it the same ship or the same axe? Generally we are tempted to say that it is a same ship, since it has a kind of continuity of features that we describe as “qualitative identity.” But this leads to all sorts of cloning and Star Trek-style transporter examples that purport to show that two things that do not share “numerical identity” might still share enough qualitative features to be called the same thing. After all, what would happen if Theseus’s ship’s old parts were salvaged to create another ship identical to the old one? Yet if we say that it is a different ship, this leads to all sorts of soroties paradoxes about what features must change enough for ship or the axe to become strictly a new thing: how many slivers of wood make it new? My favorite intuition pump is Parfit’s “Combined Spectrum:”

We can suppose that, when [Greta] Garbo was 30, a group of scientists recorded the states of all the cells in her brain and body. In the first in this spectrum, at the near end, nothing would be done. In the second case, a few of the cells in my brain and body would be replaced. The new cells would not be exact duplicates. As a result, there would be somewhat less psychological connectedness between me and the person who wakes up. This person would not have all of my memories, and his character would be in one way unlike mine. He would have some apparent memories of Greta Garbo’s life, and have one of Garbo’s characteristics. Unlike me, he would enjoy acting. His body would also be in one way less like mine, and more like Garbo’s. His eyes would be more like Garbo’s eyes. Further along the spectrum, a larger percentage of my cells would be replaced with dissimilar cells. The person who wakes up would have only a few of the cells in my original brain and body, and between her and me there would be only a few psychological connections. She would have a few apparent memories that fit my past, and a few of my habits and desires. But in every other way she would be, both physically and psychologically, just like Greta Garbo.

Parfit takes this speculation as evidence for what he calls the “Reductionist view,” the claim that there is no “further fact” about ourselves, like a soul, that allows identity to persist as the qualitative features of ourselves are changed. But by resisting any criteria for identity or its loss, Parfit thwarts some of the very intuitions that led to belief in a soul in the first place. Spooky thinking about metaphysical identity clearly tracks a category by which we understand the world, which is why it is that we still treasure Theseus’s ship or George Washington’s axe. In contrast, I have recently encountered a number of adherents of “narrative identity,” which is the claim that “being able to give an account” of one’s continuity with a prior self is what is required for saying that we are the same person. In this sense, the narrative becomes the “further fact” that unites the present ship with the one that began the voyage. Narrative identity is anticriterialist insofar as it resists any specific framing for the story: it allows the present story-teller wide latitude for formulating the specific mechanism through which she is identical to the past person. In that sense, the criteria is “plausibility,” or a kind of naive folk intuition. I’m not sure I’m happy with that.

Here are some more tests for intution:

  • Bernard Williams proposes an embodied theory of identity using the example of Star Trek’s teletransportation: a digitial copy of you is made, and the information is used to create an exact likeness on the distant planet. Meanwhile, “you” are dematerialized and thus destroyed. Shouldn’t we fear death in that instance? What if the machine forgot to dematerialize the person in the machine, and there were two of you?
  • The television show Dollhouse featured characters who had their memories and personalities “wiped” and then were periodically programed with other personalities. The show tried to assert a brand of embodied identity tied to one character’s blood. (Midi-chlorians, anybody?) I’m tempted to say that Whedon got identity wrong, the same way that many movies about time travel erupt into paradox in the name of writing entertaining fictions.
  • What if your memories and personality could be uploaded into a computer, with the goal of supplying immortality? Would that be “you”? Would you have achieved immortality? If so, can I achieve immortality by leaving a lot of voice mails?
  • What about cloning? It seems to me that embodied theories of identity in our “folk metaphysics” largely influence the anti-cloning hysteria we’ve seen, in the same way it does with the fear of doppelgangers and the uncanniness of twins.

Of course, these are all science-fictional examples, and thus they may harm more than they help, especially if they’re metaphysical intuition pumps that are rooted in botched physics or biology.

  • What should we say about alcoholics who black out? Locke’s claims about the law’s judgments have been reversed in the twentieth century, but that needn’t guide our metaphysics.
  • What should we say about those who undergo major conversion experiences, such that they change almost all of their character traits?
  • What should we say about those who experience major traumatic events, like survivors of genocide or those who are victims of sex trafficking? Are they “the same person” that they were before? Does it matter that they often deny personal identity with their prior selves? Must we respect their metaphysical presumptions?

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about C. S. Peirce’s theory, which is rooted in his semiotic theory. Here’s Peirce:

What distinguishes a man from a word? There is a distinction doubtless. The material qualities, the forces which constitute the pure denotative application, and the meaning of the human sign, are all exceedingly complicated in comparison with those of the word. But these differences are only relative. What other is there? It may be said that man is conscious, while a word is not. But consciousness is a very vague term. It may mean that emotion which accompanies the reflection that we have animal life. This is a consciousness which is dimmed when animal life is at its ebb in old age, or sleep, but which is not dimmed when the spiritual life is at its ebb; which is the more lively the better animal a man is, but which is not so, the better man he is. We do not attribute this sensation to words, because we have reason to believe that it is dependent upon the possession of an animal body. But this consciousness, being a mere sensation, is only a part of the material quality of the man-sign. Again, consciousness is sometimes used to signify the I think, or unity in thought; but the unity is nothing but consistency, or the recognition of it. Consistency belongs to every sign, so far as it is a sign; and therefore every sign, since it signifies primarily that it is a sign, signifies its own consistency. The man-sign acquires information, and comes to mean more than he did before. But so do words. Does not electricity mean more now than it did in the days of Franklin? Man makes the word, and the word means nothing which the man has not made it mean, and that only to some man. But since man can think only by means of words or other external symbols, these might turn round and say: “You mean nothing which we have not taught you, and then only so far as you address some word as the interpretant of your thought.” In fact, therefore, men and words reciprocally educate each other; each increase of a man’s information involves and is involved by, a corresponding increase of a word’s information.

Is this semiotic identity a psychological theory or an anticriterialist theory?

Some good sentences on science fiction

I’ve been looking at G. K. Chesterton’s theology lately, but today I came across this:

The modern man no longer presents the memoirs of his great grandfather; but is engaged in writing a detailed and authoritative biography of his great-grandson. […]there is something spirited, if eccentric, in the sight of so many people fighting over again the fights that have not yet happened; of people still glowing with the memory of tomorrow morning. A man in advance of the age is a familiar phrase enough. An age in advance of the age is really rather odd.

Cranky curmudgeon is cranky, I guess. Chesterton’s own futurism was marvelously boring:

Very few words are needed to explain why London, a hundred years hence, will be very like it is now, or rather, since I must slip into a prophetic past, why London, when my story opens, was very like it was in those enviable days when I was still alive. The reason can be stated in one sentence. The people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions. […] That vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition. There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before.

What’s marvelous about this is how it recapitulates the Arendtian claim that the human condition demands novel and unforeseeable speech and deeds to renew our shared world and, simultaneously, so that individuals can distinguish themselves. Chesterton treats this need for novelty and distinction as if it were somehow an adolescent failing beyond which all adult societies must grow. John Holbo adds:

Then: everything erupts in glorious medievalism! Logically, it should be allowable for any imaginative treatment of the future of science, or the possibilities of science (up to and including fairly flagrant impossibilities) to count as [science-fiction.] But that means, potentially: things stay the same.

Of course, this is the sensible entailment of the claim that science-fiction isn’t about the future but rather rehashes the problems of the present. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In contrast, the future is where and how we live right now.

Google evaluates our reading level

Check out the results here. How to take the news? Should I be pleased that I blog in an accessible style or worried that the blog is only 18% advanced? I think this is a good “first principles” question for philosophers to ask themselves, especially since Google seems to be using sentence length and jargon-laden statistically improbable phrases as a a proxy for “advanced”-ness. Should we cultivate or cull the difficulty in our writing? Here’s Hegel:

This unaccustomed restraint imposed upon thought is for the most part the cause of the complaints concerning the unintelligibility of philosophical writings, when otherwise the individual has in him the requisite mental cultivation for understanding them. In what has been said we see the reason for the specific charge often made against them, that a good deal has to be read repeatedly before it can be understood – an accusation which is meant to convey something improper in the extreme, and one which if granted to be sound admits of no further reply. It is obvious from the above what is the state of the case here. The philosophical proposition, being a proposition, calls up the accepted view of the usual relation of subject and predicate, and suggests the idea of the customary procedure which takes place in knowledge. Its philosophical content destroys this way of proceeding and the ordinary view taken of this process. The common view discovers that the statement is intended in another sense than it is thinking of, and this correction of its opinion compels knowledge to recur to the proposition and take it now in some other sense.

Hegel makes a good point: philosophical propositions tend to be difficult because they’re expressing a sentiment at odds with common sense. But I’m not convinced we should celebrate that difficulty so much as look for ways to ease the burden on our readers.

Wikileaks as Distributed Governance

Hannah Arendt begins The Human Condition with an account of a world in which “speech has lost its power,” where scientific omnipotence is achieved through the manipulation of mathematical equations whose sense escapes even the mathematicians’ capacity to intuit, and the decision to unleash destructive nuclear powers has been foisted upon non-scientists who are even more ignorant than the scientists of the dark sorceries they control, struck mute by the unprecedented scale of the esoteric annihilation of atomic physics. The crucial connection between communication and comprehension has been severed, and the proper order in speech and silence has been tragically reversed. In the pages that follow, Arendt supplies and elaborates a hierarchical account of human activities, where the uncommunicative aspects of Arendt’s picture of the dystopian modern world are supplanted with a romantic sense of self-assertion and the achievements and honors of public life. Speech is impotent, but it cannot be restored to power through more talking. Rather, this dumb incomprehension can only be corrected by mending the world so that “men in the plural” can again “experience meaningfulness… and make sense to each other and themselves.”

I mention this because of a comment from John D, who summarizes the utopianism of the Irish futurist Johnny Ryan:

his suggestion is that increasing transparency is going to be an inevitable consequence of the internet. And that the Wikileaks programme is really only the first step in the transition to a new form of distributed governance. In other words, a step towards a kind of large-scale participative democracy which would have been impractical in previous eras due to geographical and communicative impediments. The internet has removed those impediments and so the traditional (representative) system of governance-by-elites can now be supplanted/attacked. He thinks that this, in effect, is what is now happening and that we will be witnessing the death throes of governance-by-elites over the coming years.

(And who knows? this distributed system of governance might lead to better decision-making for reasons advanced by, say, epistemic democrats, i.e. Jury theorems etc – although obviously such theorems are built on questionable assumptions.)

This may all be a little pie-in-the-sky. It certainly raises plenty of important questions: Are the distributed systems of governance going to operate within traditional nation-state borders? What about the truly authoritarian regimes? Can they be dragged, kicking and screaming into this new reality? What about the poor who lack access to the same ICT-infrastructure?

But perhaps it also explains the attractions of transparency to some and can lead to new arguments in favour of (and against) organisations such as Wikileaks.

Here’s Ryan:

where I think we are going in the longer term, beyond transparency and more representative candidates, is toward a system of network governance that gives the public much more responsibility in decision making. For the first time in history we have an infrastructure for consensus decision making among large numbers of people (think Wikipedia) that may allow us to radically reform how we govern ourselves.

This may well be where we’re headed, but I’m skeptical that this will be better than what we had. Evidence suggests that the governance dynamic for anonymous public editing doesn’t scale well or democratically. In any case, it’s a governance problem distinct from the problems facing states and non-encyclopedic institutions.

Steve Maloney and I have written about the problem of existential threats in fair epistemic proceduralism here. Other issues include Lawrence Lessig’s arguments in “Against Transparency” and Cass Sunstein’s arguments about Group Polarization in Republic.com 2.0 (more here).