Friday, June 03, 2005

Anti-Determinist* before it was cool to be anti-determinist

"The discussion of the whole problem of technology, that is, of the transformation of life and world through the introduction of the machine, has been strangely led astray through an all-too-exclusive concentration upon the service or disservice the machines render to men. The assumption here is that every tool and implement is primarily designed to make human life easier and human labor less painful. Their instrumentality is understood exclusively in this anthropocentric sense. But the instrumentality of tools and implements is much more closely related to the object it is designed to produce, and their sheer 'human value' is restricted to the use the animal laborans** makes of them. In other words, homo faber***, the toolmaker, invented tools and implements in order to erect a world, not—at least, not primarily—to help the human life process. The question therefore is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things." —Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 151.

I like Arendt's re-direction here. To evaluate technologies on the basis of their ability to make human life better obscures the question of "better for whom." Her focus on "world-making" (in addition to being close to Warner's definition of publics as "world-making") admits of a broader, better set of conversations. We could say, then, that Arendt's concept of technology is more public (in Habermas' sense of a public discussion which opens to debate the very bases of discussion, the presuppositions, the biases, etc.—in contrast, for instance, to PR (or a techno-determinist account of technology) which stages a semblance of debate while obscuring the assumptions upon which that debate rests). Although I think her distinction between animal laborans and homo faber now seems at best a bit arbitary and at worst completely misleading.

*Determinist, or, Techno-determinist: a techno-centric view of the world, as embodied, for instance, in the U.S.'s infamous Star Wars initiative, a missle defense system designed to keep America safe from nuclear attack. The techno-determinist aspect of this initiative is to think that all one has to do is build this massively expensive machine and as a simple result, all Americans will be safe. But, of course, there are a set of very political and very complex reasons why America might think it needs a missle defense system in the first place (which are completely unaddressed, even elided, by the idea of the saviour machine) as well as a set of very political and very complex consequenes of building such a machine, the least of which would be that Americans are safe.

**animal laborans: the animal who labors; this is Arendt's way of talking about the part of us which has to labor to serve our most basic needs (i.e. eating and reproduction). This is an important term for her because, in the history of discussions about publics, it has often been argued that in order to be properly public (political, communal, engaged, etc.) one has to have distance from one's baser needs and the labor required to serve them. But Arendt is, at best, ambivalent about the concept because she recognises, at the most fundamental level, that we cannot ignore the body, and that (therefore) one cannot simply remove the need to labor (Marx, for instance, famously argued that the Revolution would bring about the end of the need to labor).

***homo faber: Arendt's term of that part of humans which works (as opposed to labors) to build tools which create the world, i.e. the things, the cities, the culture that is the world.
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