Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Welcome to students; Arendt on technology, thought and thoughtlessness

A young Hannah Arendt. She looks like she could make philosophy fun; about 20 years later, though, she would coin the phrase "the banality of evil." Image found here.

Last week was the first week of classes for me; in all the busyness of that time, I didn't have time to post a Welcome to students here on the off chance that they might possibly visit here. Consider this, then, a belated but no-less-heartfelt welcome. I am very much looking forward to the new semester, and I hope you are as well.

As has been my custom for a while now on first days, last week I asked students to introduce themselves by telling the class why they're in school, something "interesting" about themselves, and to ask me a question. Someone asked me what was the wildest, craziest thing I ever did in college; before I could answer, some wiseacre said, "He probably left a period off a sentence." Hardee-har-har. What I told them was that, good old Texas Lutheran College being only about 3 hours away from Laredo, there were occasional very spontaneous road trips down to the border for, as Gary P. Nunn once gracefully described it in song, "cultural exchange." (The days of a barely-closed border are now long gone, alas.)

Anyway. Someone else asked me what I do for fun. Well, sometimes I try to learn some things on my own for fun, which is where Arendt comes in. Long ago, I once mentioned a couple of passages from the prologue to her book The Human Condition; for a Comp II assignment I wanted to look up something from the prologue and, one thing leading to another last night, I've up and decided to try to read the rest of her book. Am I a fun guy, or what?

Arendt's book is an attempt to answer a deceptively-simple question in a world where labor (broadly defined), once culturally-esteemed, seems in the past half-century or so to be something to escape: "What are we doing?" Note how you can read that question as both genuine inquiry and in a rhetorically-despairing way. What follows is another excerpt from the Prologue that I'd forgotten, one that points in the direction of the rhetorically-despairing. Arendt's book's immediate occasion is the launching of Sputnik, but the following passage seems especially prescient, given that she wrote her book a year before the invention of the integrated circuit. For Arendt's "thought," by the way, substitute "contemplation":

[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. In this case, 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. If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is. (3)

Worth pondering, students, as you use SpellCheck while editing your work. (Hint, hint.)


R. Sherman said...

I've had similar musings of late in the context of dealing with all the new technology, which I'm told will make me more efficient. The problem is, the technology is designed to demand and instantaneous response, something Pavlovian, if you will. All of this is at the expense of contemplation of problems or issues which directly effect what I produce, the value of what I produce, both for myself and clients.

I'm not sure what the answer is, and I don't want to sound like a Luddite, but there are certain things, e.g. philosophy, which do not lend themselves to technological innovation.

Posted while sitting under an olive tree in a toga.


John B. said...

Hey there, Randall. Thanks for commenting.

You said: I'm not sure what the answer is, and I don't want to sound like a Luddite, but there are certain things, e.g. philosophy, which do not lend themselves to technological innovation.

How we came to this divide is precisely the subject of Arendt's book, in fact. She's not a Luddite, either; she begins, though, with the premise that modern technology seeks in various ways to aid us in escaping our earthbound-ness, which, she argues, is dangerous because it is precisely our interaction with the world--our contemplation of it and labor in it--that defines us as human. Hence her distinction between thought and thoughtlessness, and her later fear, in the Prologue, of our creating "a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them."

I don't know what to do about all this, either, except, in my own small way, to try to encourage people here and in my classes to be more, um, thoughtful about these things, to think about how technology makes our lives genuinely better.

Troy said...

R and J : From another Lutheran perspective (stated merely as a faith-identifier and not part of any creed), I gaze at the seductiveness that technology has upon people as Martin did the 'ole Beguiler with whom he battled daily while soaking stale bread in beer and whistling "Ein Feste Burg"... das ist ein Spiel!

John B. said...

Hey there, Boss. Thanks for stopping by.

It's interesting that you mention Luther, Troy. As part of her discussion of our shifting notions of public and private life and the rise of the social, and labor's relationship to all of that, Arendt mentions the influence of Christianity on all of that. In passing, she mentions a tension between Jesus and Paul as regards faith: she notes, "For Jesus, faith was closely related to action . . . ; for Paul, faith was primarily related to salvation" (8, n. 1). We know how Luther came down on that little issue, of course.

(Sort of OT: Later on, she develops her claim about Jesus through a fascinating discussion of forgiveness--that Jesus was radical in part because he made the claim that humans had the power to forgive--a notion for which there was no known precedent--and that obtaining God's forgiveness was contingent upon our forgiving others ("And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," to name the most familiar example. All this is closely argued, by the way; I could very well have missed something important. Still, interesting to ponder.)

dejavaboom said...

This just sends me on a tailspin of thought, JB: "[we} will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do." I will have to check out her writing, for that one snippet is such a valuable filter for space travel, sure, but also for everything from the atomic bomb to the public zoo. Thanks for the inspiration.

Troy said...

I know, Mark...I was having the same thought as I read through it again...Holy Kindle-project, Batman! ...thus spoke the hypocritical stone-thrower!

John B. said...

Thanks, colleagues, for finding all this as interesting as I do. I just hope some of my students do . . .

I'm using another section from Arendt's prologue (the bit about technology's producing a society of laborers without labor) as part of a scenario for my Comp II classes regarding the intrusion of technology on activities previously regarded as "human" domains and the (possible) consequences of that. That particular scenario is pretty speculative in nature, for obvious reasons; it'll allow them to try to imagine on their own what such a world might look like, but I've also invited them to see how sci-fi has treated this issue, too.

We'll see how it goes.

Nick said...

I think were she writing today her premise would be different; our interaction with the world--our contemplation of it and labor in it--isn't what defines us as human so much as what we aspire to. There is no technical reason for why we aren't exploring the stars even now - what's holding us back is those 'human' traits that esteem labor and tradition their own sake.

The frigid, unknown of space scares us so much we keep repeating our old patterns.

Perhaps one day we'll understand that contiued discovery, exploration and assimilation is what makes us human, not paens to already fading ways of life...

R. Sherman said...


Speaking has one who has thrown off the Beguiler, i.e. who makes his secretary sort/sift through e-mail, let me say in the Baptist tradition:

I can give you a witness, Brother!


John B. said...

Well, Nick, I posted a response to your comment last night, but in rereading it I see I have botched it in too many places to try to clean it up here. So, I went ahead and deleted it.

Wikipedia has what seems to me to be a decent summary of Arendt's book, based on what I've read and understood of it so far.

What I will save from my comment, though, is what I said there regarding Arendt's concern and even fear that technological advancement will so outstrip our ability to fully understand it. The way I've been putting it to my students is, "How does this new gadget make your life better? Not "faster," not "more convenient," or "but no one else has it/all the cool kids have it/we haven't changed it in 6 months" but better? I think Arendt would say that if we cannot answer that question there's (potentially) a problem--not necessarily with the gadget, but the gap she identifies between "know how" and thought. We've got this gadget, we know what it does, but we don't fully understand the "why" of having it in the first place: That's a dilemma.

Troy said...

..."How does this new gadget make your life better? Not "faster," not "more convenient," or "but no one else has it/all the cool kids have it/we haven't changed it in 6 months" but better? I think Arendt would say that if we cannot answer that question there's (potentially) a problem--not necessarily with the gadget, but the gap she identifies between "know how" and thought. We've got this gadget, we know what it does, but we don't fully understand the "why" of having it in the first place...

Well said, John. It provokes me to consider the irony of the concept of "next/new generation" in techno-ese. Built upon what? an even yet unidentified and pretty much dismissed earlier one? a Version 7 which far outperforms 6? Students don't see the mobius-strip nature of this entrapment. As if to believe that the latest and greatest will, in some valued capacity, improve their lives and abilities with even faster response and ease. Ah, perhaps we all should re-read Rilke's "The Panther" as the glimmer of what our efforts should be concerned with expand away from us in the universe of the eye and we lose sight of even the bars.

Nick said...


Sorry I didn’t get a chance to see your original reply. And I guess I’ll apologize for a seemingly tangential response to your original post; I don’t always include what I consider a priori thought.

You’re right – the wiki site was, from what I recall, a fair summation of the book; HC was taught in one of my h.s. English lit courses back when…well, let’s just say disco wasn’t yet around. Much of our discussions then was indeed on the emphasis Arendt placed on the divergence between labor/work and the alienating effect work has(d) on society. And while the world was gearing up for the Space Race when she penned HC, Arendt’s queasiness with technology was always assumed to be more of a beard for our fear of The Bomb (as so much was then). Hence, my contention that were she to author the same theories today her premise on technology might well be vastly different.

Or…maybe not. I keep forgetting that most of us become more ourselves as we age; radical change is rare. While I would agree with her that iPhones, iPads and pretty much iEverythings (the very definition of triviality) are useless on their face, I wonder how Arendt would react to the notions of embedded bio-electronics, deep space exploration and human engineering via stem cells?

Nick said...


p.s. - flat out gave up on Pale King; extremely low work/reward ratio.

emawkc said...

At the risk of wading in beyond my depth here, I would say that there are a few million people in the Arab Middle East whose lives are about to get much better thanks to communication facilitated by "social networks" and the technology that provides access to them.

Technology is a tool. Like any tool it can be used for constructive or destructive purposes, right?

John B. said...

Howdy, emawkc. Thanks for wading in . . . and I think we're all about neck-deep here.

Re social media in the Arab Middle East: I'll offer up a tentative "yes." The recent protests in Saudi Arabia in which women drove cars in defiance of social custom were also organized and documented via Facebook and Twitter, too. I suspect Arendt would applaud uses of technology that advance human freedom. The machine should empower humans--that's what I mean by my earlier questions regarding whether technology makes our lives better.

To say that one's life is made better by a machine is to be able to say that one has thought carefully not only about what the machine does but its effects on one, what trade-offs, if any, having the machine asks one to make and whether those trade-offs are balanced or outweighed by gains in betterment of one's life.

[This is straight Arendt, but it's also straight Thoreau, though he comes at these issues from a different angle.]

Just two examples of what I mean: Aside from being a pretty cool thing to be able to do, how does IBM's Watson make people's lives better? I've seen some tentative answers, such as using Watson-like machines in ERs to help with diagnoses, or using them to aid corporations in long-range planning. In the abstract, I can see some betterment of lives through those uses. But, aside from being a really cool thing to be able to do, how does the writing of computer software that can pass a Turing Test make people's lives better? I'm asking that not in a rhetorically-dismissive sense but in the sense of genuinely not knowing. Not that I've read a whole lot about such software, but nothing in what I've read addresses that question. I've seen mention of their use in call centers, the claim being that that would free up workers from that tedious, thankless work. Sure. But--Arendt would say--free up those workers to do what? Whose lives are improved by the displacement workers from call centers?

John B. said...


I owe you a response . . .

First of all, I'm mightily impressed that you actually read Arendt in high school--and, it necessarily follows, saddened by the impoverishment of course content in high schools now. My students seem excited by, or at least feign polite interest in, abstract ideas, but they don't have a heck of a lot of prior practice in engaging with them. I know that once upon a time, high schoolers were wrestling with Emerson and Thoreau as a matter of course; now . . .

Anyway. You ask some good questions at the end of your first comment. You're right that in the Prologue in particular, the Bomb is lurking about; she mentions in passing that we "now" possess the ability to end all human life on the planet and wonders if/when we'll see if we can do that, too. But, as I said before, I think it's clearly a mistake to read Arendt as being strictly anti-technology, so I think she'd approve of much advancement in medical technology. As I said in my class yesterday, though, what gives me pause are some of the things "we" can do in beginning-of-life and end-of-life care: everything from ex-utero surgery on 2-month-old fetuses and the early rumblings of genetically-engineered zygotes to keeping "bodies" "alive" indefinitely via machines. On the one hand, none of us has to look around for long to find someone who, say, 50 years ago, would either not be alive of would have a greatly-reduced quality of life if not for such advances; on the other hand, note the quotation marks around "bodies" and "alive": the ways in which we have traditionally thought about basic stuff like "life" and "death" can no longer square with what those technologies can do; and, of course, whatever you may think of Roe v. Wade, the medical rationale behind it frankly no longer applies nearly as strictly as it did in 1973. The folks in medicine are, collectively, on the ball, with biomedical ethics training and, in some hospitals, ethicists who help doctors and patients and families navigate these waters. But the larger point remains the same: Technological advancement, when it forces these issues, can't be seen as the simple tool of human bidding. It shapes how we think about ourselves as a species and as a society. That's sometimes to the good, sometimes not; whichever the case, Arendt would argue that we'd best spend time thinking about all that. Which I know you know, by the way.

John B. said...

Oh--and re The Pale King: I completely understand. As I said in my post, I'm glad we have it; there's some good stuff in there; I like where (I think) it was headed . . . but. It's not a place I'd urge everyone to run to, not even every DFW fan.

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