“The last stage of the laboring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.
-Hannah Arendt, "The Human Condition"
About fifty years ago Hannah Arendt diagnosed the “last stage of the laboring society”. Human beings can only live as “job holders” without access to the realm of freedom in the sense of the classical ideal of political action. For Arendt this state of affairs is the result of the development process of modernity. As the life of the species, the ‘social’ became the central interest of the public sphere. There is no margin for self-realization unless this is within the limits of an adaptation to the needs of the collective life process. Even a passive freedom of “sensing pain and trouble of living” is no longer permitted. Human beings not only have to function automatically, they have to “bow with joy” to their condition. This ideological aspect of the contemporary conditio humana is perhaps the one that outrages Arendt the most. The anesthesia of the mind in modern society: Individuals have to “acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized’, functional type of behavior”.
Through her diagnosis Arendt addresses the development of the “machine-man” in the laboring society. Subliminal to the process of the modern liberation of individuality, which reaches a pinnacle in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the private sphere of the ancient household as a place of labor is extended to the whole of society. At the end of the day individuals have to conform to the needs of the life production process in a way that makes it impossible for them even to look after their rights. This is the age of the machine-man. “Functionality” becomes the grounding element of human behavior. Positivistic fate in progress represents its civil religion: When every aspect of society could be traced back to its proper functioning there were no limits to life perfection.
With this result, to speak with Max Weber, a specific idea achieved an overwhelming impact on societal transformation. Descartes’ separation of res cogitans and res extensa produced the idea of an animal-machine without a soul, which could be completely reduced to the functional needs of rationalistic world domination. Some hundred years later La Mettrie completed the reflection with the idea of the homme-machine. Without knowing its sources in cultural history, industrialization translated the idea radically into action: By being reduced to machine-men individuals had to fulfill the needs of a mechanized production system. In order to face the anthropological consequences of the industrial development of modernity, Marx and Engels provided the plot for the political redemption of the machine-men. The only way to escape alienation is to attain the complete automation of the factory, and thus the substitution of job holders by intelligent machines. In 1921 reversed this utopia in a dystopia. He coined the word “robot” for his theater piece “Rossum’s Universal Robots” using the Slavic word robota, which traditionally means the work period (corvée) a serf had to give for his lord. By reviving the theme of the Jewish legend about the Golem, Čapek put the religious prohibition of recreating human beings at the forefront of the debate. There could be no liberation of machine-man by constructing man-machines without provoking a rebellion of the latter against their creators: this has been the subject of all science fiction literature and film about man-machines ever since.
A sociologically based intercultural survey about the current development of robotics shows that both the scientific utopia of creating man-machines as well as the public’s fears about their potential danger are present in the reflections of European and American engineers. Japanese roboticists on the other hand think that the introduction of man-machines into social interaction does not provoke any dystopic consequences. In an age of an increasing crisis of labor as the central category of modernity, technology research tries to develop substitutes for the missing animal laborans. Its leading idea is that an aging society needs support and care for humans who live long after they have ceased to be job holders. Instead of thinking about a different organization of society, decision-makers and stakeholders aim at substituting the absent young job holders with machines that have all the characteristics of functionality pointed out in Arendt’s diagnosis of the last stage of laboring society’s members. The machine-man reproduces himself as a man-machine.
But furthermore, the empirical surveys show that utopia stalls with the implementation of the man-machine. Technically, it is very hard to realize robots that can effectively substitute working humans in a real-world environment. Societally, there is a very low level of acceptance for man-machines, not least because of deep ethical concerns about human–robot interaction. Legal issues offer an even greater problem: Neither the European, American nor Japanese legal system provides proper legal instruments to allow robots to enter real-world settings.
This background strongly influences the further development of technological research. So it is interesting to observe how developers worldwide slowly abandon the plan of realizing a substitute for the animal laborans as an autonomous entity. Following the design guidelines of “Ambient Assisted Living”, single parts of its body are disaggregated and put into the environment of the pensioned job holders. The man-machine only survives as an executer (Europe) or as a communication tool (Japan) for an overall ambient intelligence. Robots thereby become an interface for the “rule of nobody” of a superior control instance within the private life of the discharged job holders. No advent of autonomous robots seems therefore to be expected, if not as a result of undercover research into military robotics that plans for their introduction in the extra-legal domain of war.
Machine-men hesitate to realize the utopia of man-machines. They seem to abandon the idea of making man-machines full members of the public sphere, as they are to be seen e. g. in the film adaptation of Asimov’s I, Robot. This current stage of the laboring society poses the question of its critical assessment. It would be interesting to know what Hannah Arendt would have said about this.
University of Potsdam, Germany