The Computational Condition

Over the past few months I read Hannah “Banality of Evil” Arendt’s difficult and idiosyncratic (somewhat unnecessarily so) but highly rewarding 1958 classic The Human ConditionThis slide-deck is a deep-dive attempt to apply her philosophy to the post-software-eats-world human condition, which I call the computational condition. Maybe digital condition or post-technological condition would be better, but I like alliteration.

This deck should serve as a decent introduction to Arendt’s philosophy of action, which is already part of the zeitgeist to a much greater degree than you probably recognize. It is dense and wordy, 88 slides long and full of big (thematically bucketed and curated) block quotes along book-ended and interrupted by my own heavy-handed commentary and summary sections, but trust me, it’s a 100x easier to digest than the book itself. But that’s not my main purpose in creating it.

The main purpose is this: With some significant augmentations and modifications (a few of them drastic enough to alter her basic philosophical posture in an irreversible and unforgivable way, the irony of which she’d have appreciated as you’ll see), her ideas actually work really well as a foundation for constructing what I think Silicon Valley needs badly right now: a solid political philosophy built on the foundation of the folk philosophy that already defines tech culture: doerism. So here’s my stab at it. Post a comment if you are interested in a sort of video salon on the topic, in either seminar or discussion format (specify which interests you more). I haven’t yet decided whether to do one, or attempted to present this deck. I suspect it would take me 2-4 hours to present this depending on how prepared people are.

In my own modest way, what I’m trying to do here is get a stone soup going, to cook up a political philosophy for Silicon Valley that is not embarrassingly juvenile/sophomoric. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, this should be a good starting point for you. Even if you dislike doerism (in the sense of the lived political philosophy of Silicon Valley), dislike Arendt (there is much to dislike about her), and are suspicious of any attempt to combine the two, this is in a way the most obvious steel-manning of what is already the tacit political philosophy of Silicon Valley. So your alternatives to it should probably understand what it might possibly be right about.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I’m interested. More so in a discussion than in a seminar, but I’d attend a seminar.

  2. Great one. Thanks for going through all the slob for the rest of us. I would be really interested in the discussion. Would also like to attend the seminar if that is what you decide to do (if live would be great at some doable EU time)

  3. Jordan Peacock says:

    Pair with: Giorgio Agamben – The Use of Bodies

  4. Jordan Peacock says:

    Where to hook this up to Latour is with Graham Harman’s book on Latourian politics, Reassembling the Political, where he links Latour’s Copernican revolution (relying on Walter Lippmann’s very productive notion of publics in the plural sense):

    “Here is a Copernican Revolution of radical proportions: to finally make publics turn around topics that generate a public around them instead of trying to define politics in the absence of any issue.”

    Here’s the guts of a table showing Latour’s tiers of the political:

    Meanings of ‘political’/What is at stake in each meaning/Example of movements that detected it:

    Political-1/New associations and cosmograms/STS
    Political-2/Public and its problems/Dewey, pragmatism
    Political-3/Sovereignty/Schmitt
    Political-4/Deliberative assemblies/Habermas
    Political-5/Governmentality/Foucault, feminism

    The other major insight I drew from it was the concept of how our made environment stabilizes social relations. In contrast to baboons:

    ‘As human society grows more complicated, it is paradoxically simplified: “modern scientific observers replace a complexity of shifting, often fuzzy and continuous behaviors, relationships and meanings with a complicated array of simple, symbolic, clear-cut items. It is an enormous task of simplification.”‘

    […]

    “[Nonhumans] can stabilize social negotiations … They are at once pliable and durable; they can be shaped very fast, but, once shaped, they last much longer than the interaction that has fabricated them. Social interactions, on the other hand, are extremely labile and transitory.”

    […]

    Nonhuman entities serve as firewalls protecting us from the constant social anxiety that plagues our primate cousins. […] Rather than having to construct society out of a formless state of nature, humans are involved in a systematic process of desocialization, using nonhuman entities to mediate interactions with our fellows. In turn, this frees us from the false modern mystery of how society emerged from brute nature: “By finding already present ‘in nature’ such a high level of sociability, human sociology finds itself freed from the obligation to found the social, contrary to the hoary tradition in political philosophy and to theories of the social contract.”

    // and most important for the present discussion:

    “There is not one Leviathan but many”

    • Thanks Jordan, I think the connection to Latour here is going to be a very fertile one. Will incorporate this into next iteration of the deck.

      • Troy Conrad Therrien says:

        Latour’s more recent/current project, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME), could also be a useful source of study. If memory serves, he has wanted to pursue it since the 1970s but his social construction of scientific facts work (Laboratory Life, 1978) toward an “anthropology of the moderns” was too successful and he had to tend to its trajectory.

        AIME began with a book and continues with a web platform and other outlets. I understand it as the active wing of his work, namely, his interest in re-designing the institutions of modernity, rather than the more air conditioned scholarly work of calling bullshit on knowledge production. This focus on institutional re-design is what came to mind in the recent Breaking Smart newsletter on Arendtian Action.

        He has a website for the project (modesofexistence.org) and recently curated an exhibition at the ZKM.

  5. Some additional thoughts on absolute public versus relative publics.

    The problem of how far, and by whom, speech/action is seen/heard in Arendt’s sense, I think destroys Arendt’s absolutist notion of the public (definite article) and makes a relativistic notion necessary.

    That way mutness/appearance becomes a function of the kind of other people who “saw” you act. Subjects of a king and slaves seeing you act makes it non-action. But even a single other free person seeing you act suffices, constituting a public of 2. A consequence of her single-threaded whig/eurocentric historicism is that if there isn’t something resembling the Greek polis, you’ve got nothing. The alternative is to move to a polycentric view of history, there is no _the_ public, there are only publics, plural (cf Corey Robin model). Whig historians accommodate this in a limited way (they might trace “the” public via a continuous single thread that awkwardly passes through the courts of the caliphs during the European dark ages and, less awkwardly, moves to the Americas after 1800, but that’s as far as they can get.

    The problem with going full polycentric is that you can no longer define publics extrinsically at all (“if a tree falls in Chinese public-action history and Europeans didn’t hear it, did it make a sound?” problem). So you’re down to a purely intrinsic definition of _a_ public as any locus where “man can act among men” to use her terms… ie cause events to which others will react unpredictably. I think this is in fact the logical inference. There can be no light or dark ages, or clean public/private distinctions in a polycentric history. There is only a distribution of “publics” of various sizes and consequence, that form a network of action through historical time and space. This network gets increasingly interconnected over time, and in fact a major kind of consequential action is connecting multiple publics. So Alexander is of consequence because he connected various publics through the ancient world (quite literally in the sense of the multiple cities named after him, and the multiple local histories in which he makes an appearance).

    I think if you add technology to this model, you basically get Latour’s Actor-Network Theory model. Jordan’s comment about elaborates on precisely how the connection can be made.

    • Reminds me of “tree” vs. “rhizome”…

    • I also see a problem with how the classification/caste view ignores largely the effects of how environment, access to tools/capital, and the shape/position within the network end all shapes people’s tendencies of where they fall. The prescriptivist nature of that classification/world view is useful in the short-term, but it seems to neglect and ignore the shifts in means and network position over time.

      I also see the large decline of literal public spaces as they get relegated into economic zones because of a Randian based misunderstanding of how the tragedy of the commons actually ends up playing out among Animals Laborans.

      But in terms of being a steel-manning of SV doer-ism, I think it’s spot on. The layered view excellently captures the tier’d prestige model of consumer -> employee -> entrepenuer -> VC mindset that the culture seems to enforce.

  6. Perhaps I’m squinting too hard at the already squinting summary you are giving, but I am reminded of the barely-disguised Romanticism of Ayn Rand.

    The machinery of the theory is different, but the end result seems similar: the heroic ideal of the Great Actor who Changes the World for the Better, in a way that is comprehensible to the Right People (i.e. Public). The wrong people, who can’t understand or participate in the Great Work, merely labour, or make, or philosophize.

    A form of Aristocratic Idealism, with technology ecosystem innovators, for example, as the Actor heroes?

    Is that what you mean by it being the tacit philosophy of Silicon Valley?

  7. Thanks for the thought-provoking slides.

    I’m interested in the idea of important, meaningful action in a non-durable world. You introduce this late in the deck as “open for occupation”. Since greatness/arete is only in the performance of the act and not its motivation or results, how does one avoid the “LARPing ancient Greeks”/Rand trap? Also, what new understanding do we that enables us to negate the world that the classic existentialists didn’t have? How does the “Computational Condition” change things?

    • CrookedTree says:

      I’m also puzzled about how existentialism doesn’t fall into the intersection of “World Negation” and “Life Affirmation.” However, the existentialists’ existence preceding essence does not negate the world so much as places the “essence” bestowed by the world as following existence of the vessel, requiring some kind of human action to create (or facticity).

  8. Slide deck is broken from slide 72, preview shows but screen is dark on page. Please advise.

  9. Víctor Marín says:

    I think the world would be a better place with a video seminar/discussion about this

  10. Troy Conrad Therrien says:

    My architect brain can’t help but see an isomorphism between durable world and the essence of architecture, particularly when Ancient Greece is invoked. If the potential white space for a SV political philosophy lies in the non-durable world, then I likewise can’t help but see the same corollary that jumped out at me in Breaking Smart season 1: architects are the first victims of SV eating the world. In other words, count me in for the seminar or discussion or whatever.

  11. Hi, where can I download the HMOS updates?

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