Science fiction, Hannah Arendt tells us, has too long been undervalued by those who would seek to comprehend the human condition. It is in the human fantasies of our future that mankind reveals our desires, both possible and not yet possible. For Arendt, some of those deepest and longest-held desires included the desire to flee the earth, to play God and to make human beings, and to make labor unnecessary. Her book, The Human Condition, is in part an effort to think through the fact that many of these human desires were, for the first time in millennia, threatening to become possible.
We make a mistake to ignore science fiction, especially in an era where the unprecedented advance of technological ability makes it possible that today’s dreams will soon be realized. With that in mind, it is worth looking at Alex Mar’s profile of life, death, and cryogenic preservation of FM-2030, otherwise known as Fereidoun M. Esfandiary.
Writing in The Believer, Mar introduces FM-2030, one of the founders of the transhumanism movement. FM-2030 has a single defining dream for the future of man, that we overcome our given and earthly and biological limits. If man, as Arendt writes, is both someone who lives in a given and fated world and someone who can change and re-make that world, the transhumanists like FM-2030 imagine a time in the near future in which all biological, temporal, and physical limits will be overcome. Including death.
The ultimate goal for transhumanists has never been merely to improve mankind, but to defeat our greatest opponent: death. Of course, not all champions of Progress make the titanic leap to Immortality—the jump is so vast, so wildly immodest and presumptuous as to cross over into the realm of the kind of uncomfortably eccentric. But as FM would put it, “No one today can be too optimistic.” Transhumanists, in their crusade against time, have begun to buy themselves some of it, at the cost of a pricey life-insurance policy. With some cryoprotectants and a lot of liquid nitrogen, humanity—or at least the one-thousand-ish people affiliated with Alcor, currently the largest cryonics group in the country—has been gifted with the semi-scientific semi-possibility of radically extended life. Die a clinical “death,” go to sleep, wake up eons later, when existence is a whole new ball game. So when will immortality come?
If you want to understand the human condition, that means knowing well too our most human dreams. Today, technological optimism is at the center of those dreams. Fereidoun M. Esfandiary was for many the first great transhumanist of the late 20th century, the precursor to Ray Kurzweil, who also dreams of his own immortality. This story of his untimely death, and efforts to preserve him, reveal much about the movement he helped to found.
Read the article here.
Read related essays on the human dream of a non-human future here.
You can also purchase the inaugural issue of HA, the Hannah Arendt Center Journal, which features a selection of articles by Nicholson Baker, Babette Babich, Rob Riemen, Marianne Constable, and Roger Berkowitz from our 2010 conference, “Human Being in an Inhuman Age.”
“[Augustine] distinguishes between the questions of "Who am I?" and "What am I?" the first being directed by man at himself […] For in the "great mystery," the grande profundum, which man is (iv. 14), there is "something of man [aliquid hominis] which the spirit of man which is in him itself knoweth not. But Thou, Lord, who has made him [fecisti eum] knowest everything of him [eius omnia]" (x. 5).”
-Hannah Arendt, Human Condition
In the Human Condition Arendt raises major concerns about the place of man but she does not intend to respond to the loss of the earth as a unique human condition with a restoration of solid ground. To the question “What am I?” the only answer is: “You are a man—whatever that may be.” In lieu of an answer that would give man a new foundation, Arendt offers a description of man's ever changing territory.
Following Augustine, Arendt claims that only God could have the distance to answer the question of "who" man is with anything resembling a concrete statement of human nature. She respects the unknown “spirit of man,” even beyond the knowledge provided by religion.
When philosophy attempts to answer this question, it ends up creating its own image of a higher power, which remains linked through projection to man. Importantly though, philosophy should still ask the question.
Some context can help to open Arendt's question here for readers in English speaking countries where philosophical anthropology never gained the same traction as in Germany. Her challenge picks up on the heated debates of the 1920s and 30s over how to take the collapse of universal values seriously without falling back to simple subjectivism that culminated in the work of Husserl and Heidegger.
In the space of four pages of Being and Time (46-49), Martin Heidegger specifies his criticism with reference to Dilthey, Bergson, Scheler, and Husserl, as well as views from ancient Greek philosophy and Genesis. Heidegger says he has focused his analytic of Dasein on the question of Being and that it cannot therefore provide the fully ontological basis of Dasein needed for "'philosophical' anthropology'" but states that part of his goal is to "make such an anthropology possible." Later though, in section 10, Heidegger provides a further explanation of his criticism of anthropology: in "the attempt to determine the essence of 'man,' as an entity, the question of Being has been forgotten."
In its turn to experience and consciousness, philosophical anthropology forgets to ask the question of ontological definition of perceptual experience (cogitationes). Heidegger thus suggests that his investigation might provide the basis for an anthropology but does not claim to actually deliver this basis. He opens the question of the definition of man, but does so to orient man (recast as Dasein) toward his relation to Being. In a parallel manner, we can understand Arendt's reading of Augustine as opening the question of the relation between the "who" and “what” man is, but not closing it. Her work here is provocative because it can not be said to be in the service of a simple secularization that removes a higher power for human measure. Nor does she wish to save or restore divine guarantee. Perhaps Augustine allows her to pose similar questions of philosophical anthropology to those raised by Heidegger, but to win some distance from her teacher so that she can open a new space of freedom of action rather than freedom of thought.
"Heidegger is wrong: man is not “thrown” “in the world;” if we are thrown, then – no differently from animals – onto the earth. Man is precisely guided, not thrown, precisely for that reason his continuity arises and the way he belongs appears. Poor us, if we are thrown into the world!"
"Heidegger hat unrecht: “in die Welt” ist der Mensch nicht “geworfen;” wenn wir geworfen sind, so – nicht anders als die Tiere – auf die Erde. In die Welt gerade wird der Mensch geleitet, nicht geworfen, da gerade stellt sich seine Kontinuität her und offenbart seine Zugehörigkeit. Wehe uns, wenn wir in die Welt geworfen werden!"
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Notebook 21, Section 68, August, 1955
Hannah Arendt follows her teacher Martin Heidegger in casting the classical philosophical question of the relation of the one and the many as the relationship between the individual and the world. Like the early Heidegger, she emphasizes the future, but she more frequently combines conceptual and narrative explication. For Arendt, freedom is at stake, the freedom of plural humanity that can call on, but cannot be reduced to, guiding ideas of tradition or authority. Yet while she consistently defends freedom through action that cannot be tied to the logic of the past or an assumed goal in the future, her thinking has both a moment of freedom and concern with connection to the past.
In Being and Time, Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) offers a conceptual hinge between a limitation and expansion of freedom. On the one hand, the thrown “Dasein” cannot choose to come into the world, much less into a particular world. On the other hand, once situated in a field of relations, possibilities open that allow Dasein to fashion a sense of the future and self-knowledge.
Arendt can be seen to ask how exactly we are to recognize the original condition of being thrown in such a way that new possibilities open up. Her objection to Heidegger in the passage above takes a subtle linguistic path that shows how her method of reading inflects her philosophical ideas. Rather than holding exclusively to the conceptual development of “thrownness,” she offers a terminological challenge. She says that man is only thrown into the natural “earth,” not the humanly-made “world.” In inserting this distinction between the earth and the world, she reads “geworfen” not abstractly as “thrown,” but concretely, implying that she has in mind a second use of the German verb "werfen:" to refer to animals giving birth.
Arendt wants to leave the merely animal behind. The German verb “leiten” that I have translated here as “guided” could also mean to direct, to conduct, to lead, to govern. Thinking ahead to Arendt’s writing on education, I hear a connection to “begleiten,” which means to accompany. The guiding that one receives gives a sense of continuing and belonging to a greater world. Heidegger insists that Dasein does not choose to be thrown into a specific world, we are born without our choice or input. For Arendt, this is our earthliness and she emphasizes the difference between the human world and the given earth. With respect to the world, she highlights the connection to others from the start. Since others exist before the entrance of the newcomer, we also assume responsibility for their entry to the world. One must be educated into the world, which is not simply the earth, but the humanly constructed edifice that includes history and memory and the polis.
Dana Villa and Peg Birmingham suggest that Arendt replaces Heidegger’s “geworfen” with “geboren” (“thrown” with “born”). The passage from the Thought Diary above shows the complexity of this substitution and that it only works by changing the context to the world rather than earth. However, while the quote shows that Arendt relegates Heidegger’s thrownness to the realm of the earth and body, her own idea of “natality” brings the body back to her thinking of freedom. Being born is very important for Arendt, but not in Heidegger’s sense. If "werfen" can refer to animals giving birth, Arendt works out a specific way in which humans are born, one that emphasizes a liberating break from the earth. Humans, as Arendt will say in The Human Condition, are born with the ability to start something completely new.
I think Arendt would say that we are always guided in a certain way. This leads us to ask if today we are making a choice as a society to abdicate explicit reflection and responsibility regarding the terms of guidance, either by “outsourcing” these decisions to experts or assuming that individuals can still make rational choices in the face of corporations and institutions that carefully take advantage of cognitive limitations. In other words: In what ways are people guided into the world that we do not think about, and how could reflection help us here?
On the other hand, the note ends with an existential lament that reminds us of the Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin’s “weh mir” (“poor me”). After noting how she thinks Heidegger is wrong to see us thrown into the world, Arendt returns us to his despair; but the despair she imagines arises insofar as we are thrown into the world—which would mean that we lose the world as a humanly built home.
What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”
But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?
Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered: ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.
Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.
Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]
For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.
Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.
The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'
It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.
No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.
Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”
Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.
Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.
The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.
What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.
When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.
“An albatross dips towards the sea, then lifts again, beating its wings as if repelled by the opposing magnetism of the water.” Beginning her book, On Extinction, with this scene of natural collision, Melanie Challenger’s image soon unfolds as her gaze turns down to the expansive water. "The sea is deathly calm, spread out like a cerecloth. Then a rocketing breath hurls a rainbow into the air." With this Challenger paints the experience of watching a rising blue whale.
Ms. Challenger sent us a copy of her book here at the Arendt Center, suggesting a connection with Arendtian themes. She is right. What albatross and whale mean, how we see them, and the ways in which we increasingly don't are the themes of Challenger's book. What is most visible in our world, she writes, is the loss of wonder at the natural world, the old Platonic thaumazein, “the wonder at what is” that is the birth of philosophy.
Modern life, however, seems to not simply repudiate the experience of thaumazein, but also the notion that anything occurring in nature is inherently meaningful, or, to put it in the economic terms which so pervade our thought processes, that anything has value “as it is.” Modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, replaces the wonder at the world with doubt regarding the world's existence or our ability to know it. But doubt does not have to lead to disregard. And even disregard for nature is not an adequate description for what Challenger has in mind. Human beings have and will continue to recognize the economic possibilities of nature, which is less disregard than use; it is precisely this use and exploitation of nature for economic purposes that bestows meaning on nature for modern man. Wonder and doubt have both been replaced by an attitude of unremitting mastery.
Of course, everyone does not seek to exploit nature, or accept the ultimately wishful assertion that man is superior to nature and that any natural activity is either superfluous to human life, profitable to man, or a problem man must figure out how to overcome. Pressed on whether one supports or rejects the vast damage man has committed to the earth, be it in the form of global warming, obliteration of environments, or human-induced extinctions many times the rate of estimated natural extinction (see the Guardian’s Human Activity is Driving Earth’s ‘sixth great extinction event), most would say they do not support it, that we must live in a more sustainable way.
Watching “Planet Earth,” however, and then donating some money to Greenpeace is not going to radically change things. It is necessary to recognize that this language of sustainability, of “green” products and efforts, including efforts made by some businesses, to condone the most destructive practices of global industry are largely technical or superficial solutions which mask the need for a more fundamental discussion that addresses not simply the symptoms of modern exploitation of nature, but seeks to understand what we are doing and why. We must think about and discuss both the relationship between nature and man and the basic activities that gives form to and conditions our lives. In other words, to address the destruction of our environment, and why we are acting in this manner, we must adopt Arendt’s proposal “to think what we are doing.”
Indeed, “to think what we are doing” is the underlying impetus of Melanie Challenger’s On Extinction. Confronted with her own “fragmented connection with nature,” Ms. Challenger writes “I became aware that I was living through another mass extinction of animals and plants without even knowing it, this one due to human behavior. I wanted to explore the idea of extinction in the light of this new, sobering reality.” Her “chief interest…in gathering a history of how we had become so destructive to the natural world and its diversity” springs from a determination “to understand why…marvels of nature were imperiled and why that should matter.”
Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition provides a wonderful banister upon which we may begin to think, with Ms. Challenger, about our proclivity toward exploitation and destruction of nature. Broadly speaking, the rise of human induced extinctions (which began to increase dramatically in the 18th century) and the massive exploitation of natural resources accompanying industrialization may be traced to the rise in prominence of homo faber within the vita activa, followed shortly by the succession of the animal laborans. “The modern age,” Arendt writes, “has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.” This reduction of the active life, comprised of labor, work, and action, into a life of mere laboring follows the modern commitment to infinite economic growth, and therefore limitless consumption, alongside an obsession with the life process itself.
The modern obsession with the life process is characterized by a continuous process of consumption. The laboring process is cyclical – we have needs, labor produces consumables to meet those needs, consumption occurs and the process begins anew. Arendt writes: “laboring always moves in the same circle which is prescribed by the biological process of the living organism and the end of its ‘toil and trouble’ comes only with the death of this organism.” It is not the biologically necessary process of labor and consumption, however, which has led to our massive exploitation of the earth’s resources, but rather the over-consumption symptomatic of the emergence of what Arendt calls a waste economy, “in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end.”
Exploitation and abuse of nature, however, does not derive strictly from our capacity to labor and the emergence of a modern society captivated by necessities of life and addicted to the endless laboring process. We are not simply laboring animals, but also fabricators, and it is from this perspective of homo faber that nature divorced from man is almost meaningless. Nature, Arendt writes, “seen through the eyes of homo faber, the builder of the world, ‘furnishes only the almost worthless materials as in themselves,’ whose whole value lies in the work performed upon them.
Reading Challenger's On Extinction with Arendt in the background calls up a picture of a society dominated by the never-ending process of labor and consumption coupled with humanity's ability to deny intrinsic value to nature; with such a picture, one cannot help but consider, in Challenger's words, that “the lunacy of pursuing profit despite all warnings to the contrary” may be characterized not as a reckless and irresponsible gamble pursued by some but rather the unavoidable consequence of living within and being a member of modern society. While we may question how anyone “back then” could have supported the almost total depletion of the whale population for oil, for example, there seems to be a similar ambivalence in our own time, as many bemoan the warming of the planet and nations pledge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while the world’s leading economies and major oil companies are concurrently jockeying for drilling rights in the arctic to fuel the vehicles and supply power for those same people reflecting upon the destruction of nature and wishing it wasn’t so.
The consumerist society knows no boundary lines, and in the places most vulnerable to global warming, economic actors do not see tragic, avoidable destruction, but rather increased opportunities to profit from the exploitation of nature. While in Nunavut, Ms. Challenger spoke met an Inuit asking why she was there. Telling him that she was researching the changing relationship between the Inuit and their landscape, the man replied, “Nunavut’s future won’t be in the land…It’ll be funded by minerals.” Explaining that the Meta Incognita peninsula was recently surveyed and found to have significant deposits of iron, lead, gold, and diamonds, the man concluded by saying “The more the ice melts…the more they’ll get.”
Asking, and trying to answer a question such as why we have become so destructive to the natural world is by no means a worthless endeavor, even though it doesn’t always lead to directly positive results, or even anything tangible, unless one counts the confusion caused by the immensity of the subject. The simple fact that we do ask these questions though, people all over the world, every day, demonstrates that we are still ultimately world-seeking people conditioned by a world which includes the human artifice and earth’s nature. So despite the dominance of animal laborans and our fixation on limitless economic growth, despite the assertion of homo faber that man gives meaning to nature, man, seemingly in spite of himself, will still sometimes experience the state of thaumazein. If there is hope for better relations with the natural world in the future, hope in man recognizing the futility of limitless economic activity and exploitation of nature for objects of increasingly little permanence, then this hope rests in part with our capacity to still “wonder at everything that is as it is.” Ms. Challenger’s work provides a timely reminder to the importance of this wonder.
Ms. Challenger’s US edition of On Extinction may be pre-ordered and previewed here.
Jaron Lanier has another excellent essay probing the dangers that technophilia poses to human thinking. His theme is technology in the classroom and he asks: Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?
What makes Lanier perhaps the most thoughtful essayist on the question of human thinking is his insistence on asking the question: What happens when we use technology to solve problems that we humans cannot understand? In this case he questions: what are the possibile advantages and dangers of using technology to teach our children to think?
Clearly educational technology has its advantages. My five-year-old daughter plays brainquest on my iPhone and has learned addition and division earlier than most. Her new Kindergarten classroom is outfitted with Smartboards that bring children into the educational process. My colleague at Bard has students post drafts of their papers on Moodle (an online teaching resource) and has the students to edit each others' papers before re-writing them). And technological evaluation of teachers and students allows us to identify what works and what doesn't work in the classroom.
I have no doubt that computers can make teachers better and may, in certain tasks, be better than a human teacher. A robot may be better than a teacher at drilling a young student on vocabulary and math. A computer may also be a better grader than a teacher, especially given the rampant grade inflation of recent years. If every teacher were presented with a computer generated grade of a student test or paper based on objective criteria, that might go a long way to counteracting the emotionally laden tendency to soften our grades and simply pass on weak students without challenging them to do better.
As technology infiltrates the classroom and shines light on what teachers do well and what they do badly, it also reorients teaching in a way that denies the magic of thinking and teaching well. As Lanier insightfully notes, there is a magic to teaching that our reliance on technology seems destined to overlook. I am a teacher and I can tell you that the most valuable and extraordinary moments of teaching and learning happen in those surprising moments when teacher and student are transfixed on the precipice of a question that lingers for minutes, days, or weeks. To be able to breakthrough a student's commonsense assumptions and confidence about how they see the world and open up new paths and ways of inquiry and thought--that is what makes teaching wonderful.
Can a computer do such a thing? I admit it is possibile. But I also say that there is no model for doing so, and the point is that we do not know how it is done. It is something a teacher--a good teacher--learns to do and we cannot yet possibly program a computer to do such a thing--although it may be possible that computers learn to do it themselves. We cannot, as Lanier suggests, bottle the magic of teaching in a computer, because we do not yet understand the magical aspects of human thinking. To ignore our ignorance and subject more and more of our educational efforts to technological controls and measures is to forget that even today, as Lanier writes, "Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown."
If I have one quibble with Lanier's overwhelmingly intelligent approach to these questions, it is his focus on technology as the question. In his essays and his book You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier presents our challenge as how to deal with technology. In this most recent essay, he offers a version of the alternative that he has now presented in many different forms. Either we use computers and robots and systems to "measure and represent the students and teachers," or you employ technology to help teach the students how to "build a virtual spaceship." The former approach subjects thinking and teaching to computerized models. The latter frees students to use technology in their own thoughtful pursuits. Lanier is right that we should encourage the building of spaceships and be wary of teaching software that forgets that thinking is a magical process beyond our comprehension.
What such an opposition overlooks, however, is that the human decisions about whether and how to use technology are themselves subject to a deeper desire: The desire to relieve ourselves of the burdens of thinking.
Hannah Arendt diagnosed this same desire to overcome our thinking, our acting, and thus our humanity in her book The Human Condition, published in 1958. Discussing Sputnik, what she calls the most important event of the modern age, Arendt cites The New York Times, that Sputnik was the first "step toward escape from men's imprisonment on earth." She sets this sentiment alongside a 1911 quote from the Russian scientist Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky-Kaluga: "Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever." Together, these statements manifest a profound desire to leave behind the earth--a desire that Arendt believes long precedes our technological ability to do so.
The desire to leave the earth is, for Arendt, the desire to abandon our humanity. As she writes:
"The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition."
When she speaks of the "earth," Arendt means that aspect of our lives which mankind does not create--that which is beyond human control and human artifice. The earth names that quintessential essence of man that as it has been given, free, as she writes, from human intervention. Our earthliness is "a free gift from nowhere." This free gift of human existence can, of course, be understood religiously as man's divine creation by God. But it can also be understood, as Arendt means it, in a secular sense, as the fact that mortal beings are subject to fate and chance beyond their control and comprehension. It is this earthly subjection to chance that Arendt says is the "quintessence of the human condition."
Is Arendt right that the subjection to chance and fate is at the essence of being human?
If she is, then she is right to worry that our dreams of abandoning the earth, along with our dreams of creating life in the test tube, our dreams of producing superior human beings as well as our dreams of breeding intelligent servants, our dreams of living forever, and, of course, our dreams of creating robots intelligent enough to teach and think for us--all of these dreams manifest an urgent desire on behalf of humanity to cut the last tie to our humanity. What we humans want, Arendt argues, is to commit suicidal genocide. It is not technology that is the danger, but technology is only an expression of our darker and deeper urges to overcome ourselves.
Lanier is a prescient guide to the right questions about our engagement with technology, but when he expresses the hope that we will decide to use technology wisely, he proceeds on the assumption that it is the technology that is the danger and we thoughtful humans need to understand and resist that danger. What Arendt places before us is the troubling insight that technology's dangers are only symptoms of an all-too-human wish to extinguish the very thoughtful, soulful, and creative impulses that distinguish us.
What needs to be asked is not whether new possibilities will emerge for using technology well--of course they will, although these possibilities will likely be ever more rare. The bigger question is what is driving our communal desire to exchange our earthly humanity for ever-more-rational and ever-more-expertly-conceived ways of life? Arendt offers us an answer. We want to exchange the free gift of life for a planned life. We want to exchange freedom for behavior. And we want to exchange thoughtful creativity for the security of reason. It is these fundamental desires--themselves human--that we must grapple with in an increasingly inhuman age.