CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, October 5th -- Roger B. Blumberg

The Vita Activa and the Modern Age

"A revolution took place in the mind of Europeans -- a slow revolution, since it took several centuries -- which led to the establishment of the modern world. To grasp it in its most general sense, we can describe it as the passage from a world whose structure and laws were preexisting and immutable givens for every member of society, to a world that could discover its own nature and define its norms itself." Tzvetan Todorov, Imperfect Garden: The Legacy of Humanism (Princeton University Press, 2002) [9]

"The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society. It is quite conceivable that the modern age -- which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity -- may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known." Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958) [322]

Introduction: Is There a Third Way Concerning Technology?

As we finish off a second text in this course, we can reflect on the ways Moravec and Arendt each represent a type of reaction to modern technology, and especially to digital technology. The first reaction is to embrace the new, allow it to rewrite the old in senses epistemological, political and ethical, and to think about and work toward a promising "futuristic" future. A second reaction is to bristle, to defend elements of the old against the encroachment of "modern trends", and to reassert the values of some variety of humanism. Is there a third reaction?

Arendt on "Action" and the Modern Age

We'll begin with Duffy's comments/questions about chapter 5, and move to a discussion of the final chapter, "The Vita Activa and the Modern Age".

Leaving aside the question of whether Arendt's analyses are correct, her discussion of the public, the private, the social, and the transformations of our self-image(s) in the Modern Age, make us remember the depth of the human condition in a way that ROBOT certainly did not. When we keep in mind how nearly all of our basic beliefs about ourselves and our societies are historically contingent (rather than timeless), we realize the difficulty in formulating adequate descriptions of ourselves, our societies, and our relationships with other people. I think Arendt's book provokes us to defend our beliefs in the face of this recognition of the power of history, but it also makes clear that any claims about what humans are (and what they are for) need to be evaluated in the context of a history of our own self-images.

Arendt's book nicely illustrates a modern approach to certain "big" questions before the rise of information theory and computing. As we critique her work we call into question how we should properly describe the essence of persons, societies, and the activities of everyday life. Arendt provides us with an unsettling bridge between the concerns and arguments of Moravec and Hayles when she concludes:

"If we compare the modern world with that of the past, the loss of human experience .. is extraordinarily striking. It is not only and not even primarily contemplation which has become an entirely meaningless experience. Thought itself, when it became 'reckoning with consequences,' became a function of the brain, with the result that electronic instruments are found to fulfil these functions much better than we ever could. ... The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualizations of certain obvious trends in modern society ." (321-322)

We've already alluded to a number of ideas and passages in Arendt's final chapter in earlier discussions, but here are some questions to consider concerning the final sections (38-45):

A Brief Introduction to Hayles' Theory of the Post-Human

At the start of "Toward Embodied Virtuality," Hayles says the "post-human" is a point of view characterized by the following:

As you read Hayles, come up with some examples drawn from your everyday life that illustrate this "post-human" view.

For Next Time: Read the Prologue and Chapter 1 of N. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Postmodern.

Back to the Syllabus

2004 Roger B. Blumberg and Brown University