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By Jennifer M. Hudson
**This post was originally published on February 17, 2014.**
“This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”
— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
The future man of whom Arendt writes is one who has been released from earthly ties, from nature. He has been released from earth as a physical space but also as “the quintessence of the human condition.” He will have been able to “create life in a test tube” and “extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.” The idea that this man would wish to exchange his given existence for something artificial is part of a rather intricate intellectual historical argument about the development of modern science.
The more man has sought after perfect knowledge of nature, the more he has found himself in nature’s stead, and the more uncertain he has felt, and the more he has continued to seek, with dire consequences. This is the essential idea. The negative consequences are bundled together within Arendt’s term, “world alienation,” and signify, ultimately, the endangerment of possibilities for human freedom. Evocative of dystopian fiction from the first half of the twentieth century, this theme has enjoyed renewed popularity in our current world of never-ending war and ubiquitous surveillance facilitated by technical innovation.
Arendt’s narration gravitates around Galileo’s consummation of the Copernican revolution, which marks the birth of “the modern astrophysical world view.” The significance of Galileo, Arendt writes, is that with him we managed to find “the Archimedean point” or the universal point of view. This is an imagined point outside the earth from which it should be possible to make objective observations and formulate universal natural laws. Our reaching of the Archimedean point, without leaving the earth, was responsible for natural science’s greatest triumphs and the extreme pace of discovery and technical innovation.
This was also a profoundly destabilizing achievement, and Arendt’s chronicle of its cultural effects takes on an almost psychological resonance. While we had known since Plato that the senses were unreliable for the discovery of truth, she says, Galileo’s telescope told us that we could not trust our capacity for reason, either. Instead, a manmade instrument had shown us the truth, undermining both reason and faith in reason.
In grappling with the resulting radical uncertainty, we arrived at Descartes’ solution of universal doubt. Arendt describes this as a turn towards introspection, which provides a solution insofar as it takes place within the confines of one’s mind. External forces cannot intrude here, at least upon the certainty that mental processes are true in the sense that they are real. Man’s turn within himself afforded him some control. This is because it corresponded with “the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the new physical science: though one cannot know truth as something given and disclosed, man can at least know what he makes himself.” According to Arendt, this is the fundamental reasoning that has driven science and discovery at an ever-quickening pace. It is at the source of man’s desire to exchange his given existence “for something he has made himself.”
The discovery of the Archimedean point with Galileo led us to confront our basic condition of uncertainty, and the Cartesian solution was to move the Archimedean point inside man. The human mind became the ultimate point of reference, supported by a mathematical framework that it produces itself. Mathematics, as a formal structure produced by the mind, became the highest expression of knowledge. As a consequence, “common sense” was internalized and lost its worldly, relational aspect. If common sense only means that all of us will arrive at the same answer to a mathematical question, then it refers to a faculty that is internally held by individuals rather than one that fits us each into the common world of all, with each other, which is Arendt’s ideal. She points to the loss of common sense as a crucial aspect of “world alienation.”
This loss is closely related to Arendt’s concerns about threats to human political communication. She worries that we have reached the point at which the discoveries of science are no longer comprehensible. They cannot be translated from the language of mathematics into speech, which is at the core of Arendt’s notion of political action and freedom.
The threat to freedom is compounded when we apply our vision from the Archimedean point to ourselves. Arendt cautions, “If we look down from this point upon what is going on on earth and upon the various activities of men, … then these activities will indeed appear to ourselves as no more than ‘overt behavior,’ which we can study with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats.” (“The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” in Between Past and Future)
She argues against the behaviorist perspective on human affairs as a false one, but more frightening for her is the fact it could become reality. We may be seeking this transformation through our desire to control and know and thus live in a world that we have ourselves created. When we look at human affairs from the Archimedean, objective scientific point of view, our behavior appears to be analyzable, predictable, and uniform like the activity of subatomic particles or the movement of celestial bodies. We are choosing to look at things with such far remove that, like these other activities and movements, they are beyond the grasp of experience. “World alienation” refers to this taking of distance, which collapses human action into behavior. The purpose would be to remedy the unbearable condition of contingency, but in erasing contingency, by definition, we erase the unexpected events that are the worldly manifestations of human freedom.
To restate the argument in rather familiar terms: Our quest for control, to put an end to the unbearable human condition of uncertainty and contingency, leads to a loss of both control and freedom. This sentiment should be recognizable as a hallmark of the immediate post-war period, represented in works of fiction like Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Beckett’s Endgame, and Orwell’s 1984. We can also find it even earlier in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Huxley’s Brave New World. There has been a recent recovery and reemergence of the dystopian genre, at least in one notable case, and with it renewed interest in Arendt’s themes as they are explored here.
Dave Eggers’ The Circle, released in 2013, revolves around an imagined Bay Area cultish tech company that is a combination of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and PayPal. In its apparent quest for progress, convenience, and utility, it creates an all-encompassing universe in which all of existence is interpreted in terms of data points and everything is recorded. The protagonist, an employee of the Circle, is eventually convinced to “go transparent,” meaning that her every moment is live streamed and recorded, with very few exceptions. Reviews of the book have emphasized our culture of over-sharing and the risks to privacy that this entails. They have also drawn parallels between this allegorical warning and the Snowden revelations. Few, though, if any, have discussed the book in terms of the human quest for absolute knowledge in order to eliminate uncertainty and contingency, with privacy as collateral damage.
In The Circle, the firm promotes transparency and surveillance as solutions to crime and corruption. Executives claim that through acquired knowledge and technology, anything is possible, including social harmony and world peace. The goal is to organize human affairs in a harmonious way using technical innovation and objective knowledge. This new world is to be man made so that it can be manipulated for progressive ends. In one key conversation, Mae, the main character, confronts one of the three firm leaders, saying, “… you can’t be saying that everyone should know everything,” to which he replies, “… I’m saying that everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know anything. There’s not enough time to know everything, though I certainly wish there was.”
In this world, there are several senses in which man has chosen to replace existence as given with something he has made himself. First and most obviously, new gadgets dazzle him at every turn, and he is dependent on them. Second, he reduces all information “to the measure of the human mind.” The technical innovations and continuing scientific discoveries are made with the help of manmade instruments, such that: “Instead of objective qualities … we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe—in the words of Heisenberg—man encounters only himself.” (The Human Condition, p. 261) Everything is reduced to a mathematical calculation. An employee’s (somewhat forced) contributions to the social network are tabulated and converted into “retail raw,” the dollar measure of consumption they have inspired (through product placement, etc.). All circlers are ranked, in a competitive manner, according to their presence on social media. The effects in terms of Arendt’s notion of common sense are obvious. Communication takes place in flat, dead prose. Some reviewers have criticized Eggers for the writing style, but what appears to be bad writing actually matches the form to the content in this case.
Finally, it is not enough to experience reality here; all experience must be recorded, stored, and made searchable by the Circle. Experience is thus replaced with a man made replica. Again, the logic is that we can only know what we produce ourselves. As all knowledge is organized according to human artifice, the human mind, observing from a sufficient distance, can find the patterns within it. These forms, pleasing to the mind, are justifiable because they work.
They produce practical successes. Here, harmony is discovered because it is created. Arendt writes:
“If it should be true that a whole universe, or rather any number of utterly different universes will spring into existence and ‘prove’ whatever over-all pattern the human mind has constructed, then man may indeed, for a moment, rejoice in a reassertion of the ‘pre-established harmony between pure mathematics and physics,’ between mind and matter, between man and the universe. But it will be difficult to ward off the suspicion that this mathematically preconceived world may be a dream world where every dreamed vision man himself produces has the character of reality only as long as the dream lasts.”
If harmony is artificially created, then it can only last so long as it is enforced. Indeed, in the end of the novel, when the “dream” is revealed as nightmare, Mae is faced with the choice of prolonging it. We can find a similar final moment of hope in The Human Condition. As she often does, Arendt has set up a crushing course of events, a seeming onslaught of catastrophe, but she leaves us with at least one ambiguous ray of light: “The idea that only what I am going to make will be real—perfectly true and legitimate in the realm of fabrication—is forever defeated by the actual course of events, where nothing happens more frequently than the totally unexpected.”