Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7Jun/130

In the Age of Big Data, Should We Live in Awe of Machines?

ArendtWeekendReading

In 1949, The New York Times asked Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, to write an essay for the paper that expressed his ideas in simple form. For editorial and other reasons, Wiener’s essay never appeared and was lost. Recently, a draft of the never-published essay was found in the MIT archives. Written now 64 years ago, the essay remains deeply topical. The Times recently printed excerpts. Here is the first paragraph:

By this time the public is well aware that a new age of machines is upon us based on the computing machine, and not on the power machine. The tendency of these new machines is to replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one, rather than to replace human energy and power by machine energy and power. It is already clear that this new replacement will have a profound influence upon our lives, but it is not clear to the man of the street what this influence will be.

Wiener draws a core distinction between machines and computing machines, a distinction that is founded upon the ability of machines to mimic and replace not only human labor, but also human judgment. In the 1950s, when Wiener wrote, most Americans worried about automation replacing factory workers. What Wiener saw was a different danger: that intelligent machines could be created that would “replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one.”  

Today, of course, Wiener’s prophecy is finally coming true. The IBM supercomputer Watson is being trained to make diagnoses with such accuracy, speed, and efficiency that it will largely replace the need for doctors to be trained in diagnostics.

watson

Google is developing a self-driving car that will obviate the need for humans to judge how fast and near to others they will drive, just as GPS systems already render moot the human sense of direction. MOOCs are automating the process of education and grading so that fewer human decisions need to be made at every level. Facebook is automating the acquisition of friends, lawyers are employing computers to read and analyze documents, and on Wall Street computer trading is automating the buying and selling of stocks. Surveillance drones, of course, are being given increasing autonomy to sift through data and decide which persons to follow or investigate. Finally, in the scandal of the day, the National Security Agency is using computer algorithms to mine data about our phone calls looking for abnormalities and suspicious patterns that would suggest potential dangers. In all these cases, the turn to machines to supplement or even replace human judgment has a simple reason: Even if machines cannot think, they can be programmed to do traditionally human tasks in ways that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive than can be done by human beings. In ways big and small, human judgment is being replaced by computers and machines.

It is important to recognize that Wiener is not arguing that we will create artificial human beings. The claim is not that humans are simply fancy machines or that machines can become human. Rather, the point is that machines can be made to mimic human judgment with such precision and subtlety so that their judgments, while not human, are considered either equal to human judgment or even better. The result, Wiener writes, is that “Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.”

Wiener saw this new machine age as dangerous on at least two grounds. First, economically, the rise of machines carries the potential to upend basic structures of civilization. He writes:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

The dangers Wiener sees from our increased reliance on computing machines are not limited to economic dislocation. The real threat that computing machines pose is that as we cede more and more power to machines in our daily lives, we will, he writes, gradually forfeit our freedom and independence:

[I]f we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

For Wiener, our eventual servitude to machines is both an acceptable result and a fait accompli, one we must learn to accept. If we insist on arrogantly maintaining our independence and freedom, we will die. I gather the point is not that machines will rise up and kill their creators, but rather that we ourselves will program our machines to eliminate, imprison, immobilize, or re-program those humans who refuse to comply with paternalistic and well-meaning directives of the machines systems we create in order to provide ourselves with security and plenty.

Wiener counsels that instead of self-important resistance, we must learn to be in awe of our machines. Our machines will improve our lives. They will ensure better medical care, safer streets, more efficient production, better education, more reliable childcare and more human warfare. Machines offer the promise of a cybernetic civilization in which an entire human and natural world is regulated and driven towards a common good with super-human intelligence and calculative power. In the face of such utopian possibility, we must accept our new status as the lucky beneficiaries of the regulatory systems we have created and humble ourselves as beings meant to live well rather than to live free.

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Recent revelations about the U.S. government’s using powerful computers to mine and analyze enormous amounts of data collected via subpoenas from U.S. telecom companies is simply one example of the kind of tradeoff Wiener suggests we will and we should make. If I understand the conclusions of Glenn Greenwald’s typically excellent investigative reporting, the NSA uses computer algorithms to scan the totality of phone calls and internet traffic in and out of the United States. The NSA needs all of this data—all of our private data—in order to understand the normal patterns of telephony and web traffic and thus to notice, as well, those exceptional patterns of calling, chatting, and surfing. The civil libertarian challenges of such a program are clear: the construction of a database of normal behavior allows the government to attend to those whose activities are outside the norm. Those outliers can be terrorists or pedophiles; they may be Branch Davidians or members of Occupy Wall Street; they may be Heideggerians or Arendtians. Whomever they are, once those who exist and act in patterns outside the norm are identified, it is up to the government whether to act on that information and what to do with it. We are put in the position of having to trust our government to use that information wisely, with pitifully little oversight. Yet the temptation will always be there for the government to make use of private information once they have it.

In the face of the rise of machines and the present NSA action, we have, Wiener writes, a choice. We can arrogantly thump our chests and insist that our privacy be protected from snooping machines and governmental bureaucracies, or we can sit back and stare in awe of the power of these machines to keep us safe from terrorists and criminals at such a slight cost to our happiness and quality of life. We already allow the healthcare bureaucracy to know the most intimate details of our lives and the banking system to penetrate into the most minute details of our finances and the advertising system to know the most embarrassing details of our surfing and purchasing histories; why, Wiener pushes us to ask, should we shy away from allowing the security apparatus from making use of our communication?

If there is a convincing answer to this hypothetical question and if we are to decide to resist the humbling loss of human freedom and human dignity that Wiener welcomes, we need to articulate the dangers Wiener recognizes and then rationalizes in a much more provocative and profound way. Towards that end, there are few books more worth reading than Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Wiener is not mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book; and yet, her concern and her theme, if not her response, are very much in line with the threat that cybernetic scientific and computational thinking pose for the future of human beings.

In her prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt writes that two threatening events define the modern age. The first was the launch of Sputnik. The threat of Sputnik had nothing to do with the cold war or the Russian lead in the race for space. Rather, Sputnik signifies for Arendt the fact that we humans are finally capable of realizing the age-old dream of altering the basic conditions of human life, above all that we are earth-bound creatures subject to fate. What Sputnik meant is that we were then in the 1950s, for the first time, in a position to humanly control and transform our human condition and that we are doing so, thoughtlessly, without politically and thoughtfully considering what that would mean. I have written much about this elsewhere and given a TEDx talk about it here.

The second “equally decisive” and “no less threatening event” is “the advent of automation.”  In the 1950s, automation of factories threatened to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” Laboring, Arendt writes, has for thousands of years been one essential part of what it means to be a human being. Along with work and action, labor comprises those activities engaged in by all humans. To be human has meant to labor and support oneself; to be human has for thousands of years meant that we produce things—houses, tables, stories, and artworks—that provide a common humanly built world in which we live together; and to be human has meant to have the ability to act and speak in such a way as to surprise others so that your action will be seen and talked about and reacted to with a force that will alter the course and direction of the human world. Together these activities comprise the dignity of man, our freedom to build, influence, and change our given world—within limits.

But all three of these activities of what Arendt calls the vita activa, are now threatened, if not with extinction, then at least with increasing rarity and public irrelevance. As automation replaces human laborers, the human condition of laboring for our necessary preservation is diminished, and we come to rely more and more on the altruism of a state enriched by the productivity of machine labor. Laboring, part of what it has meant to be human for thousands of years, threatens to become ever less necessary and to occupy an ever smaller demand on our existence. As the things we make, the houses we live in, and the art we produce become ever more consumable, fleeting, and temporary, the common world in which we live comes to seem ever more fluid; we move houses and abandon friends with the greater ease than previous ages would dispose of a pair of pants. Our collective focus turns toward our present material needs rather than towards the building of common spiritual and ethical worlds. Finally, as human action is seen as the statistically predictable and understandable outcome of human behavior rather than the surprising and free action of human beings, our human dignity is sacrificed to our rational control and steering of life to secure safety and plenty. The threat to labor, work, and action that Arendt engages emerges from the rise of science—what she calls earth and world alienation—and the insistence that all things, including human beings, are comprehensible and predictable by scientific laws.

Arendt’s response to these collective threats to the human condition is that we must “think what we are doing.” She writes at the end of her prologue:

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Years before Arendt traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed what she saw as the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, she saw the impending thoughtlessness of our age as the great danger of our time. Only by thinking what we are doing—and in thinking also resisting the behaviorism and materialism of our calculating time—can we humans hope to resist the impulse to be in awe of our machines and, instead, retain our reverence for human being that is foundation of our humanity. Thinking—that dark, irrational, and deeply human activity—is the one meaningful response Arendt finds to both the thoughtlessness of scientific behaviorism and the thoughtlessness of the bureaucratic administration of mass murder.

think

There will be great examples of chest thumping about the loss of privacy and the violation of constitutional liberties over the next few days. This is as it should be. There will also be sober warnings about the need to secure ourselves from terrorists and enemies. This is also necessary. What is needed beyond both these predictable postures, however, is serious thinking about the tradeoffs between our need for reliable and affordable security along with honest discussion of what we today mean by human freedom. To begin such a discussion, it is well worth revisiting Norbert Wiener’s essay. It is your weekend read.

If you are interested in pursuing Arendt’s own response to crisis of humanism, you can find a series of essays and public lectures on that theme here.

-RB

3Jan/132

Ned Curthoys’ Recovery of Arendt’s Intellectual Dialogue with Ernst Cassirer

Ernst Cassirer is an oft-neglected thinker in contemporary continental philosophy. He is typically eclipsed by Martin Heidegger, whom he faced in the now famous disputation at Davos, Switzerland in the spring of 1929, which had such a dramatic effect on continental philosophy that the young Emmanuel Levinas, who attended the debate, felt as if he were "present at the creation and end of the world". In spite of Cassirer's attempt to make his three-volume Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (1923-1929) more accessible to an English speaking audience through a concise redaction in An Essay on Man (1944), he remains a marginal figure in contemporary philosophy.

However, Ned Curthoys, a researcher at the Australian National University's School of Cultural Inquiry, has recently recovered a latent conversation between Cassirer and Hannah Arendt that casts new light on the impact and significance of his work.

Arendt's vigorous annotations in her copy of Cassirer's An Essay on Man indicate that she was a diligent and consistent reader of Cassirer. Her personal library housed in the Arendt Collection at Bard College contains over a dozen titles by Cassirer. Most Cassirer’s works in Arendt's personal library contain heavy annotations and marginalia, which suggest a critical and substantive engagement with Cassirer's work. Although Arendt's references to Cassirer in her major works are sparse—once in her essay "The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern" in Between Past and Future, and four times in The Human Condition—it is clear that Cassirer had an influence on Arendt's postwar writings. The question is: What was the extent of this influence?

From Arendt's library at Bard College.

Curthoys has recently taken up this question and offers a persuasive argument that Arendt's philosophy of history and her philosophical anthropology were shaped significantly by her reading of Cassirer. Curthoys' early essays on Arendt explored the political significance of narrative in her work and her use of "thought-figures," like Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Isak Dinesen, all of whom attempted to subvert the authoritative discourses of their times by means of counter-narratives. Curthoys discerns the marks of a German émigré consciousness in Arendt's postwar writings that suggests an intellectual dialogue with other German émigrés like Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer. He foregrounds Arendt's status as a conscious pariah and engages in a postcolonial reading of her work that highlights her development of a counter-narrative to the Eurocentric metanarratives of her age.

More recently, Curthoys has begun excavating a latent conversation between Arendt and Cassirer. In his essay, "The Pathos and Promise of Counter-History: Hannah Arendt and Ernst Cassirer's German-Jewish Historical Consciousness" (in Power, Judgment, and Political Evil,), Curthoys  explores Arendt's philosophy of history, and argues that she found a "counter-history" in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Cassirer that allowed her to challenge the Eurocentric discourse on history that had rendered her an outsider, a pariah. It is precisely this location outside the dominant identities and political narratives of Europe, Curthoys avers, that served as Arendt's Ansatzpunkt, or starting point,  and allowed her to engage in a recursive investigation of history.

What is most significant in this essay is Curthoys' claim that Arendt's engagement with Cassirer's "philosophy of symbolic forms" was instrumental in the development of her philosophy of history, and his suggestion that it led to her reconsider Cassirer's defense of neo-Kantianism in the Davos debate, a reconsideration that Curthoys sees as the impetus for Arendt's return to Kant in her final years. This engagement was not a wholesale adoption of Cassirer's approach to history, Curthoys argues, but a critical and creative renewal of his thought.

Curthoys has extended this exploration of the connection between Arendt and Cassirer in a subsequent article titled, "Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and the Twentieth-Century Revival of Philosophical Anthropology." Curthoys argues that Arendt's focus on philosophical anthropology in The Human Condition, Men in Dark Times, The Life of the Mind, and her final lectures on Kant is the result of her ongoing critical engagement with Cassirer's work. At the heart of this article is Curthoys’ assertion that Cassirer's theory of symbolic forms is refracted in Arendt's notion of a common world. Cassirer had argued in his Philosophie der symbolischen Formen that human beings are symbolic animals that express themselves in systems of signs, which mediate reality in networks of meaning. These systems of signs take form in language, myth, religion, art, science, and history. Readers of Patchen Markell's "Arendt's Work: On the Architecture of The Human Condition" will recall his claim that "work" plays a mediating role, which resonates with Cassirer's notion of symbolic forms.

Curthoys' investigation and recovery of the intellectual conversation between Arendt and Cassirer is compelling, but more needs to be done to make this influence explicit. Curthoys' new book The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer's and Hannah Arendt's Hidden Conversation (Forthcoming in September 2013, Berghahn Books) promises to offer more evidence for Arendt's creative development of Cassirer's thought. Curthoys' research opens up a new line of inquiry into the wider connections between Arendt and the German-Jewish intellectual tradition and offers further confirmation of her fidelity to Jewish thought in general.

-John Douglas Macready (University of Dallas)

19Oct/122

Campaign Finance Laws and the First Amendment

The Arendt Center recently hosted Professor Zephyr Teachout to speak about Citizens United v. FEC and campaign finance reform. The talk was in honor of Constitution Day, which Professor Teachout joyfully informed us may very well be unconstitutional. We carried on.

Teachout began her talk by announcing that the "First Amendment is a terrible thing." Less provocatively, she argues that the First Amendment plays a "dangerous role" in our constitutional culture. Above all, she presented her argument that the Supreme Court's increasing reliance on the First Amendment to invalidate campaign finance laws is, ironically, used to shut down meaningful public debate around the proper role of lobbying in our politics.

She began by telling a story of the Supreme Court case Trist v. Child from 1874. The case involves Mr. Trist who had a claim against the U.S. Government for about $15,000 (about $100,000 in current dollars). Trist hired Child, a lawyer, to represent him and convince Congress to honor its debt. Among other things, Child encouraged Trist to have his friends write to Congressman threatening not to vote for them if they didn't honor this debt to Trist. Child also personally lobbied Congressman.  He eventually succeeded in getting Congress to appropriate Trist's money.

Trist, however, refused to pay Child the fee agreed to in their contract. Child sued Trist to get his agreed upon money.

In the Supreme Court decision refusing to enforce the contract, the Court holds that Trist need not pay Child; a number of reasons are given, a few very technical. But the majority of the opinion by Justice Swayne rejects the legality of lobbying with a broad brush.  Trist need not honor his contract with Child, Swayne writes, because there was no valid contract. In short, the original contract hiring Child as a lobbyist was immoral and illegal, and thus unenforceable. Justice Swayne argues that the very immorality of the practice of lobbying nullifies the contract between Trist and Child.

Teachout helpfully describes the issue this way. Child says something like: Our contract was just like a contract for me to sell you a car and now you don't want to pay me for the car now that you have it. Trist responds that, in Teachout's colorful analogy,

No, this is like we made a contract for prostitution, and you can't go to the cops after we made a contract for prostitution and get them to enforce that contract. Because lobbying is like prostitution. It is so corrupt that there is no way courts are going to enforce it.

Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Swayne puts it this way:

The agreement in the present case was for the sale of the influence and exertions of the lobby agent to bring about the passage of a law for the payment of a private claim, without reference to its merits, by means which, if not corrupt, were illegitimate, and considered in connection with the pecuniary interest of the agent at stake, contrary to the plainest principles of public policy. No one has a right in such circumstances to put himself in a position of temptation to do what is regarded as so pernicious in its character. The law forbids the inchoate step, and puts the seal of its reprobation upon the undertaking.

If any of the great corporations of the country were to hire adventurers who make market of themselves in this way, to procure the passage of a general law with a view to the promotion of their private interests, the moral sense of every right-minded man would instinctively denounce the employer and employed as steeped in corruption and the employment as infamous.

There are two remarkable things about Justice Swayne's argument. First, as Teachout notes in her talk, there was nothing remarkable about it in 1874. Many states and governments throughout the U.S. made lobbying illegal. It was seen as an act of corruption. And few if any courts in the U.S. would find this unusual, at least before the turn of the 20th century.

The second remarkable thing to note is how utterly remarkable Justice Swayne's argument is today. To speak of the millions of lobbyists in the US as "adventurers who make market of themselves" as offending the "moral sense of every right-minded man" is a painful reminder of how far our political system has fallen. Not only is the moral prohibition against lobbying something of the past, but also the idea that the Supreme Court would invalidate contracts based on lobbying is nearly unimaginable.

The reason for this change in the legal and even moral status of lobbying is, Teachout argues, the rise of free-speech jurisprudence in the 20th century. Specifically, the Court's acceptance of the basic claim freedom of speech is the fundamental foundation of our democratic system has made lobbying not only legal, but morally defensible. If democracy depends on a marketplace of ideas, then having corporations and individuals hire lawyers and public relations firms to buy and sell influence in politics is at the very foundation of democratic governance. What Teachout forces us to consider is that our elevation of the First Amendment to foundational status in our constitutional firmament is predicated on a political theory that founds democracy on the unfettered marketplace of ideas. If we are to take back our government from corporate adventurers and their lobbyists, we will need to rethink our commitment to free speech, at least as the Court currently understands it.

Teachout's provocative talk attacks less freedom of speech itself than the Court's elevation of free speech to the first amongst all constitutional provisions—the foundational right in our constitutional and democratic system. She traces the rise of free speech jurisprudence to the point where, today, free speech is the paradigmatic right in our democracy. Free speech has become equated with democracy, so that "free speech is democracy."

It is important to see that Teachout is really pointing out a shift between two alternate political theories. First, she argues that for the founders and for the United States up until the mid-20th century, the foundational value that legitimates our democracy is the confidence that our political system is free from corruption. Laws that restrict lobbying or penalize bribery are uncontroversial and constitutional, because they recognize core—if not the core—constitutional values.

Second, Teachout sees that increasingly free speech has replaced anti-corruption as the foundational constitutional value in the United States. Beginning in the 20th century and culminating in the Court's decision in Citizens United, the Court gradually accepted the argument that the only way to guarantee a legitimate democracy is to give unlimited protection to the marketplace of idea. Put simply, truth is nothing else but the product of free debate and any limits on debate, especially political debate, will delegitimize our politics.

This view that free speech is the fundamental bastion of democracy is the basis of Justice Kennedy's decision in Citizens United. In Kennedy's opinion, laws regulating campaign finance regulate speech, and not just force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech." If we believe that fair elections require a free airing of all opinions, than restrictions on campaign finance are the most dangerous forms of censorship. Which is why Kennedy can worry that "The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach."

What he means is that all those corporations regulated by the campaign finance reform law invalidated by Citizens United—including large multinationals and also small mom and pop stores and even unions and non-profit corporations—are prohibited from expressing their views about political candidates during an election. In Kennedy's telling, corporations are part of the country and, what is more, an important part of the country. The Government has “muffle[d] the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy."

It is helpful to recall Justice Felix Frankfurter's concurring opinion in U.S. v. Congress of Industrial Organizations. The Smith Act had forbidden unions to use funds to pay for politicking, very much like the limitations on corporate funding in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.  In U.S. v. CIO, the Court refused to rule on the Constitutional question of whether the Congress can forbid unions from political speech. Frankfurter, however, does consider it. He argues that we must take seriously the evil of corporate and union speech in politics. The corruption of elections and federal officials by the expenditure of large masses of aggregated wealth But that evil, he counters, "is not one unmixed with good." For Frankfurter,

To say that labor unions as such have nothing of value to contribute to that process and no vital or legitimate interest in it is to ignore the obvious facts of political and economic life and of their increasing interrelationship in modern society.

Replace "Labor unions" with "corporations." That is what Justice Kennedy did in Citizens United. What he said is that corporations have a voice in our political landscape, just as do unions and non-profits. When such corporate entities engage in speech, there is a danger of corruption. But we cannot deny their speech is politically important. Instead of then balancing those interests in a practical way, Justice Kennedy simply said that the First Amendment insists that political speech never be abridged. Our Constitutional system, he argued, demands that the marketplace of ideas be allowed to work unimpeded.

The overriding desire to protect political speech proceeds under the assumption, with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” What Zephyr Teachout helps to make clear is that this elevation of free-speech to the first amongst constitutional provisions is fundamentally at odds with the desire to regulate political speech to keep politics free from corruption.  If we want to get serious about fighting corruption in politics, we need to take seriously the need to question the now unquestionable faith that democracy is founded upon freedom of speech.

To fight against Citizens United and uphold the legal rejection of campaign finance limitations requires that we break the bi-partisan stranglehold that an extreme view of the First Amendment currently has on our constitutional jurisprudence.  Only once we do so can we return to a meaningful public debate about when lobbying is and when it is not corrupting. And only once we free campaign finance laws from the First Amendment can we, as we must, have a serious discussion about how much money distorts and corrupts our political process.

These are difficult issues, and weakening the scope and impact of the First Amendment is risky. As Teachout argues, it is a risk we must take to save our democratic system.

To see why, I encourage you to watch Zephyr Teachout's talk here. You can also read the essay on which the talk is based here. Together, they are your weekend reads.

—RB