Featuring twelve original essays by leading Beckett scholars and media theorists, this book provides the first sustained examination of the relationship between Beckett and media technologies. The chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett’s work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception, and the scholarly study of this work. Greatly enlarging the scope of earlier discussions, the book draws on a variety of innovative theoretical approaches, such as media archaeology, in order to discuss Beckett’s intermedial oeuvre. As such it engages with Beckett as a media artist and examine the way his engagement with media technologies continues to speak to our cultural situation.
Is it possible to attend a conference fifty years after it has ended? The attempt is made in this chapter which explores a mid- to late 20th-century debate around the leisure society and the end of work. The focus is on Hannah Arendt's intervention in a paper recapitulating many arguments developed in her major work The Human Condition (1998 ) but laying them out to an interested audience with their own positions. An exploration of the stakes of the early cybernation debates opens up questions about the end of work that find new salience today. Exploring Arendt's work in these contexts sheds fresh light on her analysis of ‘a labour society approaching its end’ (Lenz, 2005: 135). It is thus also to reassess how Arendt's thinking on technology travels.
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Cybernation at last forces us to answer the historic questions: ‘What is man's role when he is not dependent on his own activities for the material basis of life’?
(The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution [Agger et al.], 1964).
Man cannot be free if he does not know he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity.
(Arendt, 1998: 121).
On a hot two days in June 1964 1 an unlikely group, including computer scientists, engineers, philosophers, political scientists, a feminist, civil rights activists, theologians, government workers, and administrators, Labour leaders, entrepreneurs, and a Left hero once accused of spying, assembled at the Hotel Madison in New York City for the First Annual Conference on the Cybercultural Revolution – Cybernetics and Automation. Cost of attendance, paid in advance, $7.50. This gave entry to two events: the Cybercultural Revolution was held back to back with the Third Annual Conference of the Congress of Scientists on Survival. 2 The conference was convened by Alice Mary Hilton, a programmer and social activist, and engaged with the ideas of the Ad Hoc Committee on Triple Revolution, a coalition of the expert and the interested who saw in computerization, and particularly in cybernation – defined as the convergence of automation and computerization (Michael, 1962) – the possibility of fundamental and radical social change. The Triple Revolution's manifesto identified ‘three revolutions underway in the world … the cybernation revolution of increasing automation; the weaponry revolution of mutually assured destruction; and the human rights revolution’ (Boggs, 1963). Peace was the greatest prize, civil rights the most pressing as a political demand, but the means identified to bring about change was cybernation (Agger et al., 1964).
Speakers and panellists at the Cybercultural Revolution conference explored the displacement of human labour, managing the transition from human to machine labour, and the future prospects for the society of idleness or leisure to be inaugurated by computers. They set out to define and explore the technologies with which they were dealing, to consider the Evolving (present) and Future Society, and to explore global issues. They were speaking into a world changing very rapidly; key contexts were the Cold War, the bomb, President Johnson and the ‘Great Society’ programme, the first formal successes for the civil rights movements and the coming long, hot summers of the early to mid-1960s urban riots. 3 These were also the years when mass consumption provided many in the US with a well-equipped home (Cowan, 1985), and when the first stirrings of feminism's discontents with what recompense automated domesticity offered women were felt (Friedan, 1963). 4 Amongst these rapid shifts there was also the developing legacy of first-wave cybernetics, the early expansion of computer machines into business and their continually shrinking footprint (in 1964 IBM launched its first non-monolith computer), and the acceleration of automation through the coupling of mechanized processes with computational technologies or ‘computer machines’ that enabled cybernetic systemization of production processes.
Amongst contributors to the conference was the philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose typed conference paper ‘On The Human Condition’ is to be found in the Library of Congress along with a letter from Hilton chasing her for her copy. The paper also appears in Evolving Society, a conference proceedings publication edited by Hilton (Hilton, 1966) which included the conference papers, panel discussions, chairman's summations, and many contributions from the floor. Arendt's intervention was much anticipated by many attendees. Her presence was felt in other ways too; her thinking influenced Hilton's organization of themes as well as the latter's own work (Hilton, 1964, and my personal interview). It was a key framework through which the conference explored the potential risks and benefits (and/or the good and evil aspects) of the fully cybernated future that many confidently anticipated would rapidly come about.
This chapter explores Arendt's consideration of cyberculture as she explored it in dialogue with these other voices, during the time of the ‘cybernation scare’ (Ganz, 1966), and asks how it reframes themes found in The Human Condition, published in 1958. It draws on Arendt's paper, 5 on The Evolving Society and the Triple Revolution report. A key additional resource is an extended interview with Alice Mary Hilton which I conducted in New York in 2010, a few years before her death (Hilton, 2010). Hilton was active around groups interested in social justice and peace and was an inveterate debater, described by one admiring reviewer as a ‘Socratic Gadfly’ (Riepe, 1967), and in a newspaper profile named as the ‘Velvet Voice of Automation’ (Sheehy, 1964). She was avowedly half in love with Arendt, fascinated by the latter's intellectual glamour, and engaged passionately with her ideas (Hilton, 2010).
Arendt's brief paper to the Cybercultural conference, ‘On The Human Condition’, might be dismissed as simply an out-take delivered in response to Hilton's urgent solicitations. The context of the paper's delivery, however, as well as the specific form the arguments took, makes it more than that. Arguments around the changing relations between labour, work, action, and the political life set out in print in the rarefied grounds of The Human Condition play differently in a live discussion between the peculiarly (‘incurably’) informed conference goers, who not only spoke for a series of different interests but often embodied them. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's account of Arendt is of a ‘practical minded person’ who wanted ‘thoughts and words adequate to the new world … [who wanted to] dissolve clichés, reject thoughtlessly received ideas … hackneyed analysis, [to] expose lies and doubletalk’ (Young-Bruehl, 2006: 11). Arendt herself defined politics as the ‘organization or constitution of the power people have when they come together as talking and acting beings’ (Young-Bruehl, 2006: 84). The conference was a place where her thinking on what constituted the political came into contact with the messy ‘real world’ which did not necessarily respect divisions important in her work.
Arendt's presence at the conference also directs attention to her consideration of the specifically technological, which is somewhat neglected in critical assessments of her writing which focus on her thinking on totalitarianism (albeit in its relationship to technocratic rationality); Arendt's work is surprisingly rarely explored for what it says about technology ‘itself’.
Finally, there is a way in which ‘On The Human Condition’, responding to prospects that seemed imminent during the short period of the cybernation scare, operates on a slightly different time scale than The Human Condition. We might say it responds to a subtly different conjuncture, to invoke Hall's term (Hall, 1990, Gilbert, 2019). The import of Arendt's paper is that cybernation may mark the surpassing of the victory of labour over work, and the transmogrification of the latter into a mode of job holding coupled with consumption, which is dealt with at length in The Human Condition. What was explored as an extreme imbalance in The Human Condition (Arendt, 1998, Lenz, 2005) becomes in the conference paper a terminal pathology.
Cybernation and the automation ‘scare’
There was, almost from the beginning, an awareness that computers, on the one hand, and cybernetics on the other, would have major social consequences. Cybernetics was – as a systems theory – a general theory, one claimed to have wide applicability for social processes as well as for mathematical and biological ones. The Macy conferences, one of the major early sites for exploring cybernetics, included alongside information theorists and mathematicians, social scientists, anthropologists, and others (Heims, 1991). Norbert Wiener, whose 1940s work on cybernetics helped found the field, understood not only the potential use of cybernetics to model human systems but also the difficulties and problems that might arise in the attempt (see Wiener, 1961, and Wiener cited in Hilton, 1966b). Amongst his fears was mass upheaval as a consequence of automation's effect on jobs. Wiener thought decisions around the organization of a cybernetic society were urgent. His comment ‘the hour is very late, and the choice of good and evil knocks at our door’ (Wiener, 1989) was much invoked at the conference; many felt the clock had ticked down and the time of decision was at hand (Hilton, 1966: 144, 385). They weren't alone; by the early 1960s the impacts of cybernetic automation were being felt in the US and the likely acceleration of these impacts was being actively explored. Of particular concern was an expected transformation of work of many kinds through the combination of computers and ‘the automated self-regulating machine’ (Winthrop, 1966a: 113).
The term cybernation was coined by the political scientist Donald N. Michael, in The Silent Conquest (1962), a report for the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions. It was a designation intended ‘to refer to both automation and computers’, being invented for ‘convenience’ and to avoid the awkwardness of repetition (Michael, 1962: 6). Michael believed cybernation would produce ‘a profound difference in kind’. There was, he said, ‘every reason to be concerned with the implications of thinking machines’, whose capabilities and potentialities were ‘unlimited’, and whose advent had ‘extra-ordinary implications for the emancipation and enslavement of mankind’ (Michael, 1962: 9). His report begins ‘with the advantages of cybernation’ (Michael, 1962: 10), concluding that it is needed for the survival of a democratic system, but goes on to consider problems likely to arise – most immediately mass unemployment, suffered unequally so that dominated groups would bear the brunt of the end of work. Michael postulates the creation of four classes, one comprising the entirely unemployed and one with no more leisure than before – which ‘in the case of professionals means very few hours of leisure indeed’ (Michael, 1962: 29). This is followed by a discussion of publics, of public opinion, and of the threat to the individual – who may be ‘completely swallowed up in statistics’. The Silent Conquest is fearful for the future partly because the trajectory embarked upon appears unstoppable; Michael argues that there can be no ‘moratorium on cybernation’. In a discussion of life ‘after the take-over’ he wonders gloomily how members of this new society will occupy themselves – ‘even with a college education, what will they do all their long lives, day after day, four day week after four day week, vacation after vacation, in a more and more crowded world … What will they believe in and aspire to as they work their shorter hours, and … pursue their self-fulfilling activities whatever they may be?’ (Michael, 1962: 45). The Silent Conquest is a peculiar document read from this distance, at once detailed and speculative, prescriptive and bewildered.
Others were considering similar questions. In England Sir Leon Bagrit gave the BBC Reith Lecture series for 1964 on The Age of Automation (Bagrit, 1965, Huhtamo, 1999: 1). In the US the Silent Conquest gained some media traction; the New York Times (29 January 1962), for instance, writing it up under the headline ‘Automation Report Sees Vast Job Loss’, reported on fears of ‘vast unemployment and social unrest’. Erkki Huhtamo suggests that by the mid-1960s these issues were ‘widely debated as markers of a technological transformation which was felt to be shaking the foundations of the industrialized world’ (Huhtamo, 1999). Huhtamo might be overstating the case somewhat; there is some evidence that those informed about these issues felt they were exceptions and that ignorance amongst the general public was the general condition. Writing in 1964, Hilton comments, ‘this cybercultural revolution … is affecting the lives of millions of human beings who have never even heard the new words to describe powerful new concepts’ (Hilton, 1964: 139, my italics). However, Winthrop notes that in more specialist arenas such as within social science and academic disciplines within the academy, around the labour movement, civil rights organizations, on the Left, within science and engineering, and in some policy/government arenas there was informed (and ill-informed) debate, perhaps even a ‘zeitgeist in which cybernation is seen as leading society toward a most important and critical juncture’ (Winthrop, 1996b: 117).
The Triple Revolution
One partisan report on cybernation that produced heat, if not, according to its critics, light, was the Ad Hoc Committee's Report on the Triple Revolution, already introduced. This was written by ‘thirty-two prominent social critics and economists’ (Block, 1983: 5), 6 a mix of professional, academic, industrial, and labour movement contributors including Alice Hilton (but not Donald Michael). Contemporary readers noted resonances with J.K. Galbraith's Affluent Society (Galbraith, 1999, Block, 1983), and Hilton opened her paper, ‘An Ethos for the Age of Cyberculture’ (1964), with a reference to Galbraith's work. The Report was influential in setting out a liberal and left agenda for a post-work world and became a sounding board in cybernation debates. It found support but also provoked some hostility from the Right (and libertarian right), from sections of the organized Left, and from elsewhere. Notably, a theological objection was raised by those feeling the loss of one of the essential components of the fallen human condition – ‘[the] in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou have earned thy bread labour and sustenance relation now being “cancelled”.’ (Schwartz, 1966).
The Report considered the possible combined impact on American culture and society of atomic technologies and the advent of unwinnable war, computers and ‘the cybernation revolution’, and the human rights revolution. Their ‘simultaneous occurrence and interaction’ meant ‘radical alterations in attitude and policy’ were necessary, but it was cybernation and the end to ‘job holding as the general mechanism through which economic resources are distributed’ that could reorganize existing programmes for justice (civil rights) and for peace (an end to the nuclear threat), which last was regarded as the ‘supreme issue’. The Triple Revolution document was globally ambitious in other ways too, linking questions of social justice and rights, and industrial automation and its social consequences arising in the US, to emerging social movements well beyond its borders, for instance. 7 It viewed cybernation as a mechanism that could transform the logics of the market and the priorities of national economies, which latter needed no longer to be ‘aimed far more at the welfare of the productive processes than the welfare of people’.
The report acknowledged that cybernation was risky. Its signatories feared violent social breakdown if change was not managed, and were concerned that cybernation without planning could allow ‘an efficient and dehumanized community to emerge by default’. But they were optimistic, arguing that ‘cybernation, properly understood and used, is the road out of want and toward a decent life’. Hilton thus prophesied ‘mutual destruction or a society of affluence and leisure’ (Hilton, 1964: 141). Alongside affluence there was also talk of freedom. As the Report put it, ‘cybernation at last forces us to answer the historic questions: “What is man's role when he is not dependent on his own activities for the material basis of life?”’ Echoes of that other Manifesto are clearly heard, and it becomes clear that the real prize, as it was in Marx's original, is self-determination. The Report declares that ‘[a] social order in which men make the decisions that shape their lives becomes more possible now than ever before; the unshackling of men from the bonds of unfulfilling labor frees them to become citizens, to make themselves and to make their own history’.
The Triple Revolution was published in Liberation, presented to President Johnson (March 1964), and read in government circles. Its ideas were discussed in mainstream and specialist media, notably in ‘avant garde periodicals of ideas’, including specifically the Correspondent, New University Thought, The Minority of One (Winthrop, 1966a: 117). It was often received with some warmth and awarded serious attention in labour circles and circulated amongst civil rights activists; it was on the curriculum at the Mississippi free school camps for instance. 8 Its propositions also percolated elsewhere; notably, it features in Harlan Ellison's 1967 iconic SF collection Dangerous Visions by way of William Jose Farmer's ‘The Riders of the Purple Wage’, a dystopian take on a future leisure society of staggering violence, banality, and inspiration. The report was unambiguously hated by some. Writing in the autumn of 1966, on Wiener's earlier prediction of imminent disaster, the libertarian Yale Brozen mocked ‘amateur social scientists such as Norbert Wiener’ for his 1949 predictions of ‘a decade or more of ruin and despair’ as automation replaced jobs, and sneered that although the catastrophe appeared to have been retimed this hadn't stopped the ‘doom criers’ of the Ad Hoc Committee from suggesting the time of employment would soon be over because ‘men cannot compete with these machines’ (Brozen, 1966: 19). 9
Cybercultural partisans? Key strands in the debate
The Conference on the Cybercultural Revolution was in large part a Triple Revolution show. Many Report contributors (including Hilton, James Boggs, the civil rights and labour activist, and auto worker, Ben B. Seligman), presented or contributed. Some who were involved in the Institute for Cybercultural Research, which formally hosted Hilton's event, were also signatories to the Triple Revolution initiative. These overlaps indicated what Winthrop defined as the ‘common convictions of the partisans of the coming age of cyberculture’ (Winthrop, 1966a: 115).
The conference took up three key propositions of the Triple Revolution: that cybernation would come about, that it would change the landscape of work and leisure, and that this would have deep social consequences for the present and future. Fierce debates arose around the extent and timing of disruption, how it might be managed, who the beneficiaries and losers might be, what a new society might look like, and how it might be ordered. A broader range of voices from the organized Left, labour organizations, academia, and industry were heard, and also present were people from the new computer industry, some Washington policy specialists, and at least one feminist – Betty Friedan was a discussant (Hilton, 1966). 10 Finally, there was the presence of Arendt, on the one hand, and of Donald Michael, on the other. Arendt's arguments are returned to in the final third of this chapter, but first the broad stakes of cybernation as they emerged at the conference are laid out.
The central issue was the revolutionary proposition that the means to live would soon be divided from the need to work. The implication of this shift, mass or majority unemployment in very short order, which was the Silent Conquest prediction, galvanized debate. The prospect of breaking this most basic connection, variously taken as a biblical injunction, as the previously natural order of things now to be overturned, or as a particular industrial and political arrangement, was returned to repeatedly. It was framed as a demand (by some Ad Hoc Committee members), and variously as an intractable or resolvable problem; schemes for Living Certificates, essentially forms of Universal Basic Income, were invoked, for instance.
Dissent came from some ideologically wedded to work, seen as the locus of the humanity and dignity of the individual ‘man’ (almost always the ‘man’), and as central, in the form of organized labour, to societies’ hopes for more just futures. Notably, Victor Perlo, CP-aligned leftist (and hero of the McCarthy hearings), was adamant that cybernation could produce new forms of work because wants and needs would increase with an acceleration in the capacity to produce. He predicted new areas of exploration, given peace, ‘under the earth and water, in space, in the biological health area …’ (Perlo, 1966: 225), 11 and looked forward to jobs not of the ‘grim old-fashioned kind’, 12 which might include computer programmers, astronauts, and development workers 13 (Perlo, quoted in Hilton, 1966b: 236). Some dismissed this as wishful thinking. Maxwell Goldberg declared: ‘[T]he history of the interplay between technology and human labor is the history of the progressive displacement of such labour by labor saving devices invented by humans … the rest is commentary (Goldberg, 1966: 154).
The timescale for widespread cybernation was disputed. Various presenters invoked economic analysis, presented empirical evidence (often disputed), or offered speculation based on expert knowledge in relevant domains – notably the nascent technical industries. Some identified complacency around the likely rapidity of change, others argued that the velocity of cybernation was exaggerated; Paul Armer, of RAND, identifying himself as rather cautious, said the ‘cybernation of all production’ would happen, but added that men would still be working for ‘at least two decades’ (Armer, 1966: 249).
The conference explored cybernation and immediate disruption, and the transition to a fully cybernated society both together and apart. Some who felt full unemployment was unlikely to arise in the near future argued for a response framed within existing categories – around labour rights, or rights to work, and so forth. This included demands for large-scale investment in public work programmes. New schools, hospitals, and roads would create jobs, soaking up the newly unemployed and enabling society in general to reap the benefits of automation. Tensions are evident between those considering cybernation's effects on entire populations, and those considering it in relation to specific social groups and classes – the traditional working class and organized labour, Black people, and women. The various perspectives of course depended on the situated position of the speakers, and on their political commitments; Perlo's position, for instance, was founded on a belief that ‘capitalism and not the machine’ causes mass unemployment. His calls for a planned economy and a ‘guiding of public interest by the builders of that life rather than (by) the aristocracy of wealth’ (Perlo, 1966: 222) are consistent with that. Accepting that cybernation would produce massive disruption, he nonetheless argued that work neither ‘will’ nor ‘should’ become obsolete ‘this century’ 14 and was one amongst a group at the conference demanding acknowledgement of the urgency of the day over speculation about possible futures (Perlo, 1966: 237). The African American activist and auto-worker James Boggs, 15 an Ad Hoc signatory of the Triple Revolution report (Boggs, quoted in Hilton, 1966b: 20), was for full cybernation and an end to wage labour. He argued that rising unemployment would be felt first by those whose experience of labour was of recent and brutal exclusion, those who were already discriminated against in the workforce; African Americans being ‘last in’ to many of the jobs in organized labour, and then taking on ‘scavenger’ roles, would be first out (Boggs, 1966: 167). For Boggs, the dignity of labour, even labour itself, is less compelling when such labour does not offer benefits – or generate solidarity, without it having to be fought for. He thus argued that it was ‘wrong that so many people think that man must labor and be punished in order to be permitted to exist’, adding, pointedly, that it was no longer necessary for man to be a slave (Boggs, quoted in Hilton, 1966b: 243–244).
Boggs nonetheless feared the violence of transition. He wasn't alone. The philosopher and activist Grace Boggs also feared unrest, whilst James Houghton of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People invoked the ‘real and immanent possibility of black and white workers fighting each other for jobs that are rapidly disappearing’ (quoted in Hilton, 1966b: 237). The difficulties of transition, and the virtual inevitability of the uneven distribution of the pain it would bring about, were key concerns of Donald Michael, expressed in the Silent Conquest, and in his paper and discussant interventions at the conference. These concerns about transition led some – including James Boggs – to advocate very rapid change. Hilton too argued that it was important ‘to complete cybernation as quickly as is technically possible’ (Hilton, 1966b: 152), to reach ‘the age of cyberculture’ (Hilton, 1966b: 150). This, she said, would not solve, but might ‘resolve’, extant social issues. Her argument has striking parallels with contemporary accelerationist appeals to get out of trouble fast; it wasn't only Hilton's fear of the immediate threat of a war from which ‘the earth may never recover …’ (Hilton, 1966b: 149), but a desire to accelerate away from existing contradictions and social tensions that founded her position. The focus on possible futures was, however, regarded as escapist by some, Perlo deriding those ‘taking refuge in talking of solutions for the distant future’ and calling for concentration ‘on the tough questions now’ alongside discussion of the ‘longer range’ but still proximate programmes he had identified (Perlo, quoted in Hilton, 1966b).
The future society
Despite objections, a large part of the Cybercultural conference was devoted to exploring the possible future shape of an ‘Evolving Society’, and the burning question was how a ‘non-economic life’ might be lived. Leisure, politics, the arts, ways of living, and ways of being human, the latter including issues of memory, intelligence, happiness, and the good life – were all chewed over. Three striking features of this debate, to which Arendt responded, are now explored.
Cultural renaissance figured largely. Harry Perks, a Californian systems specialist, felt the 90 percent freed up from work would produce ‘the goods of civilization … art, science, literature’. His peroration was a declaration for change: ‘I do not fear the leisure society. I am impatient for its arrival … livingry as an alternative to “overkill”’ (Perks, 1966: 196, 198). Hilton claimed the leisure society would see the flowering of new forms of cultural activity. To which she added, with a nod to Arendt, a hope for the flowering also of new forms of politics. To bring these things about many felt that a key would be education, not only to educate the newly freed society ‘into culture’ but also to bring ‘the people’ into new forms of considered citizenship. Some wondered how the newly unemployed would use their time, and if they would find it productive in new ways. James Boggs argued that African Americans were well positioned for a cybernated society, already having experience of being thrust out of the working day. Betty Friedan invoked the experience of middle-class women and their lives of more or less involuntary ‘leisure’ in the (newly technologized) home, and called for women to be allowed to fully share the benefits of universal cybernation. Her characterization of the fate of women as the involuntarily cybernated (it turns out the problem does have a name) possibly reveals her ambivalence to a society beyond work (Friedan, quoted in Hilton, 1966b: 317–318). Friedan, arguing for women's perspectives to be taken into account, also noted that ‘most of you … are men … most of those who think about the cybercultural revolution are men’ (Friedan, quoted in Hilton, 1966b: 62).
A rather different debate centred on the post-human. In a euphoric contribution Ted Silvey of the AFL/CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) envisaged the computer as ‘a giant cerebellum’ on the ‘outside of the human head’ taking care of billions of details to release the ‘higher elements of the [human] brain’. This vision remained rather human in the end, since it was said that cybernation would in this way begin the realization of ‘man's highest glory’ (Silvey, 1966). Others were more fearful. If the prize was a new and more positive existence, the fear was that ‘sentient man’ would be replaced by the ‘compleat robot’ (Seligman, 1966: 166).
The third feature of this debate was the marked lack of critical considerations of consumption; for instance, around the constitution of artificial as well as real need in the future. The leisure society was often envisaged as a society of plenty, in which all would be rich, and abundant goods would be freely available. For some this vision was almost pastoral: one bucolic vision of the cybernated life was of rush baskets of goods picked up by happy humans from the end of robot production lines. Old forms of life would continue but some roles within them would be undertaken by machines; the ease with which the roles to be replaced are named in raced terms (mechanical ‘slaves’ would replace human labour) is striking.
Many were hopeful. If the end of work could be achieved without bloodshed and breakdown, an engaged society in which culture flourished, in which populations thrived, in which life could be good for all, and the future glimpsed on the far horizon even better, could emerge. This leisure society utopianism was tempered for some: Edith Goodman, a discussant, wondered if post-cybernation life might be as empty as the crowds happily queuing for heaven at the World Fair (Hilton, 1966b: 240).
Arendt and leisure
Arendt's conference paper ‘On The Human Condition’, accepts cybernation as a fact, sets aside all matters of transition, and is marked by a vision of the world beyond work that is very bleak indeed. ‘On The Human Condition’ does not dwell on the probable injustice of transition into a cybernated society for already discriminated-against groups, raised in other papers. Arendt indeed adamantly refuses to deal in special pleading or to take up sectional or intersectional issues. She will not be sidetracked. There is no response offered to James Boggs’ concerns over the plight of those African Americans ‘last in’ to organized labour and likely to be first out. Arendt instead sets out to ‘pose the problems from the point of view of the average citizen of the United States of America, not members of any specific class of the population’ (Arendt, 1966: 214, my italics).
The paper constitutes an utter rejection of romantic idealizations of a post-work society in which new forms of cultural life, and new forms of exalted humanity, may arise. Visions of art and poetry are scythed through. Arendt refused to offer her audience any hope for a utopian society beyond the transitional period so many worried about. Instead she argued that the presumed felicity of a life of cultured leisure freely consumed in a society beyond work was a chimera. Life for humans under conditions of full cybernation could well be an empty, and endless, void. There is nothing automatically uplifting about the end of work; ‘we must not think that … culture can just happen – when there is “free” time’ (Arendt, 1966: 217).
The argument begins with a consideration of ‘intellectual activity, as such’, with rising machine capacity, and with the possibility that machines could take over activities ‘identified as activities of the human mind’ (Arendt, 1966: 214). Noting developments in computing, Arendt invoked chess computers as an example of the growing brain power of computers. Conceding that chess acuity might be a measure of human intellectual acuity, she argues that it cannot be a measure of somebody's qualifications ‘as a human being’. If machines can do something that has hitherto appeared to mark specifically human intelligence, then, says Arendt, the marker must be changed for the sake of the ‘dignity’ of humans (which is not at all the same as the dignity of labour); or, as I read this, in order that the human condition might continue to be recognized in its uniqueness in conditions of machine encroachment on formerly uniquely human capacities.
Arendt also briefly discusses the limits of computer memory, commenting that humans also have a capacity to forget and to adjust, even to the loss of another, but that these two forms of forgetfulness are not the same. Whilst computers have storage capacity, humans have a capacity for remembrance which does not come from a pre-existing substrate but is made (my italics) through action in the world, or in the public realm (see also Arendt, 1998: 208). This has nothing to do with media storage, or ‘technical memory’ (Arendt, 1966: 215), indeed there is nothing of the machine about it. What come to be memorialized by humans are memorable actions, or worldly interventions. Arendt's argument is that the human capacity to engage or act in the world – and the distinctively human capacity for remembrance is only one part of this – is threatened by full cybernation and the world it may bring about.
She reads cybernation as a new development in transformations in the active life of humans over time. Here it is useful to turn to distinctions drawn between labour, work, and action, as components of the active life (viva activa) in the Human Condition and to the definition of action in its properly political moment. A fully active life is distinguished from labour (the sweat of the brow) and making (work undertaken on an object). The Industrial Revolution has already replaced the craftsman or homo faber (who works) with the socialized labourer distanced from tightly coupled circuits of labour and reproduction, and without the ‘animal’ compensations this could offer. Humans are already, and more than ever before, distanced from the world – in refusing the valorization of labour Arendt parts company with Marx.
In the conference paper Arendt argues that cybernation might produce a further shift, and one more radical still. Entirely releasing humans from their alienated labour would intensify their alienation – the term here implying an estrangement from any form of earthed or engaged life, an estrangement from that which conditions. This is explored first through adaptability. Arendt invokes her own experience of technologically driven change – from ‘horse drawn carriages’ to ‘credit cards’ in one lifetime, to consider adaptability and what it needs. Humans, she declares, are adaptable because of how they are ‘conditioned by the world around them, the world in which, and with which they engage’. 16 This ‘feed-back’ cycle is quite obvious, she says: ‘once the environment has really changed we are conditioned, even though we may know very little about the conditions that have moulded us’ (Arendt, 1966: 218).
Arendt's fear is that human adaptability will fail in a fully cybernated society.
The reason is the nature of leisure society at the end of work, which Arendt, drawing on Hilton's term, 17 explores in terms of ‘idleness’, something which ‘is ugly … [it] frightens us a little’ (Arendt, 1966: 217). Lenz (2005) and Postel (2002) note Arendt's sense that leisure is for stopping and thinking. A clear space is needed for the task of engaging in a ‘cooperative attempt to shape the world’ (see Hilton, 1966b: 136). Against the Romans, who dealt with the idle life through bread and circuses, Arendt sets the Greek ideal of the citizen ‘whose political tasks were so time-consuming he had neither vacant time, or idle time’ (Arendt, 1966: 217). The busy cultural activities envisaged as central to a post-work society will no more deliver this space for leisure than what Hilton, exposing her class privilege, disparaged as activities designed to fill idle days – beer and television – for those living almost completely private lives (Hilton, 1966b: 149). For Arendt, hopes that a new society would remain ‘active’, that ‘many creative activities and interests commonly thought of as non-economic would absorb the time and the commitment of many of those no longer needed to produce goods and services’ (the aspirations of the Triple Revolution), were thus beside the point, or were working with an entirely different sense of what might constitute the active life.
Why could leisure not be used in precisely the pursuit of the political activity of which she talks? In her paper Arendt considers the ‘laborless strata of human society’ (Arendt, 1966: 217). She remarks on the difficulty traditionally privileged groups have found in handling leisure, ‘afraid of deteriorating in their complete freedom’ (Arendt, 1966: 218). Given this difficulty, the aspiration (aired at the conference) that freed from labour all shall ‘be able live on so high a level’ seems to her unrealistic. She appears to believe that there is nothing to be learned from the experience of groups systematically excluded from work. To Friedan's intervention, ‘Half the population is now living in the cybercultural era … Will you let women in?’, and to James Boggs and others fearing an immediate future of increased race discrimination and violence, but also arguing that African Americans have experience of precarity, she has little to say. 18 Certainly, she does not align with those who see the leisure society as a form of restitution for past injustice or pain.
Arendt's argument is that leisure is required for properly political action but is neither easeful nor easy to handle. A world beyond labour and work, in which the vast majority are condemned to idleness, will condemn that majority to an existence filled with ‘vacant time’ (Arendt, 1966: 217). Worse, in a cybernated world this may be a permanent condition, since in this vacancy, or vacuum, this place neither offering labour nor leisure, there are no conditioners, no traction, no gears to engage or call forth action, or enable adaptation, not even the residual forms of engagement found in earlier forms of industrial labour. Public life is stripped away. The world, which conditions, which produces adaptability, and which provides grounds across which action is called forth, disappears; ‘For vacant time is not a conditioner. Vacant time is nothingness’ (Arendt, 1966: 218, my italics). In The Human Condition work is done to ‘deconstruct the aura of necessity that surrounds all thinking about labour’, argues Lenz (2005: 139); the conference paper makes clear that, despite that, labour is necessary – in that it is what remains of the viva activa. Without it there is nothing (again a vacuum). This is why, for Arendt, this life without work may be a move into a sort of death, an inhuman condition. In these circumstances it is hard to envisage how something new may emerge or be born. It is possible that the human species, adaptable though it has always been, may not be able to adapt to vacant time.
There is a strong commitment in Arendt's work to the idea that ‘action is open to all people’, being ‘rooted in the condition of being born’ (Arendt, 1998: 86), and being therefore a universal possibility (Young-Bruehl, 2006). Politics is defined as action, as ‘a practical project, a shared concern of citizens, and Firer Hinze notes Arendt's ‘passionate commitment to the concrete’ (Firer Hinze, 2009: 29). Many at the Cybercultural conference had a different sense of practical politics. The response to Arendt's line of thinking suggests that they were at once beguiled and repulsed by her views. The perceived elitism of Arendt's discussion of who could ‘handle’ leisure certainly disturbed. Even Alice Hilton noted, rather dryly, that leisure was apparently always one of those things that somebody else couldn't handle. Arendt's refusal to take on board the sectional claims and appeals of particular groups also nonplussed some, although it is consonant with Arendt's divisions between the properly political realm and the social sphere.
Parallels might be drawn with Arendt's controversial intervention around desegregation battles in Little Rock, 19 where she criticized parents of the school children attending White schools for mistaking the proper grounds of action. Making this intervention, she presumed her own underlying sympathies and affiliations were clear, when for many her comments placed her on the wrong side of the fight (see Firer Hinze, 2009). Anne Norton comments that ‘in relation to Little Rock, the uneasy fit between her writings on race and her disavowal of complicity in an unjust racial order shows the danger of taking one's sympathies for granted’. (Norton, cited in Gines, 2009: 73). Perhaps at the Cybercultural conference Arendt also took her general political orientation as read and, as in ‘Little Rock’, this wasn't necessarily as clear as she believed. But the parallel to be made is also that in both cases what is at issue (for Arendt) is the relationship between the sphere of politics and the sphere of society, the latter defined as ‘that curious, some-what hybrid realm, between the political and the private in which, since the beginning of the modern age, most men have spent the greater part of their lives’ (e.g. Arendt, 2003: 205, cited in Firer Hinze, 2009: 46).
Arendt's fear of the leisure society is that this hybrid realm is all that there is. For her there is nothing in the life of leisure arriving in the wake of cybernation, a transformation dealt with not in economic terms but essentially as a coming ontological condition that is going to make it easier to act, or to act politically, or become or remain, fully active citizens. Instead, ease is part of the problem. Arendt writes in The Human Condition that:
The easier that life has become in a consumers’ or laborers’ society, the more difficult it will be to remain aware of the urges of necessity by which it is driven, even when the pain and effort, the outward manifestations of necessity, are hardly noticeable at all. The danger is that such a society, dazzled by the abundance of its growing fertility and caught in the smooth functioning of a never-ending process, would no longer be able to recognize its own futility – the futility of a life which ‘does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject which endures after [its] labor is past.’
(Arendt, 1998: 135)
This is where memory (human, collective memory) and the viva activa coincide. We might see this lack of capacity to make history as a form of presentism.
Exergue: the human condition and technological condition of the world
Arendt is widely read as a political theorist and a critic of modernity (see e.g. Canovan, 1998: vii–viii). Consonant with this the classification of the activity of life through the categories of labour, work, and action, and the examination of changing hierarchies between them as they emerge in the mid-20th century constitutes the central material of The Human Condition. But what is the place of the technological in The Human Condition? In the work's critical reception certain registers through which technology is taken up have been rather neglected. In Young-Bruehl's account The Human Condition is subsumed into Arendt's larger body of work on political totalitarianism. Others also note that technology and totalitarianism are tightly (‘organically’) linked in many of Arendt's works (Canovan, 1998: xi). Attention is thus drawn to Arendt's thinking on technocratic rationality as that which might tend towards destroying politics, and this might be a definition of totalitarianism as a form of government (and see Young-Bruehl, 2006: 39). Less attended to is Arendt's more specific consideration of questions concerning technology and technological innovation. Symptomatically, there is no entry for technology in the index to Benhabib's authoritative edited collection on Arendt, Politics in Dark Times (Benhabib, 2010: 4).
In her introduction to 1998 edition of The Human Condition Margaret Canovan noted the dialectical relation it entertains between two ‘strangely unconnected’ events: the flight into Space and the advent of automation (Canovan, 1998: x). It begins with Sputnik's rise and ends with the invention of the telescope, a rather beautiful inversion of archaeologically feasible causality in itself. Considering these technologies and connections that are drawn between them prompts a reading of The Human Condition as an account of technological change, which is not quite the same as reading Arendt as a philosopher of technology (see Melis Bas, 2013), but is rather at odds with accounts that subsume questions concerning technology into questions concerning technocratic rationality only.
To start, then, not with rationality but with action: Arendt argued that the viva activa rises with the modern age in relation to the event of technology, that is, the invention of the telescope, an event that does not stand squarely inside the modern age but is at its opening. This event came quietly, as compared with the ‘spectacular’ discovery of ‘unheard of continents and un-dreamed of oceans’ (Arendt, 1998: 249), and was less initially disturbing than other events (the Reformation). However, the ‘tentative steps’ it enabled towards the discovery of the universe increased in momentousness and ‘speed’, eclipsing the enlargement of the Earth and its subsequent shrinkage through mapping processes (Sputnik and the view from Space comes back in). The telescope offered ‘demonstrable fact’ where before there had been inspired speculations, those of Bruno, notably (Arendt, 1998: 260). Paradoxically, this produced not exaltation but doubt – Cartesian doubt, addressed by a new reliance only on what the self can know. But ‘it was not reason but a man-made instrument, the telescope, which actually changed the physical worldview, it was not contemplation, observation and speculation which led to the new knowledge, but the active stepping out of homo faber, of making and fabricating’ (Arendt, 1998: 257–263). Thus, if there is a growing reliance on self-made entities of the mind, mathematics, and knowledge that may be tested through more doing (the experiment), the real reversal, says Arendt, is between thinking and doing, and where thinking (philosophy) continues to demand self-inspection, the latter always demands more. The alternatives offered are ‘redoubled activity’ or ‘despair’ (Arendt, 1998: 293).
This furnishes a consideration of the rise, within the viva activa, of the Homo faber, or making man, and then the defeat of the Homo faber, or the general ascendency of labouring – giving homo laborans. Homo faber involves an engagement with the world through objects, but there may be a moment of contemplation within the process of making. As Arendt puts it, the arms fall and the ‘beholding of the model’ takes place (1998: 303). This, the craftsman's differently ‘contemplative glance’, she says, came to be known by many even whilst the other form of contemplation, that of philosophy, was known only by the few. But even this form of contemplation is said to be at risk.
The trajectory here follows two lines. First there is an exchange in priorities so that the concept of process rises over the concept of being (Arendt, 1998: 296). Eventually fabrication is understood entirely in terms of the former, and in this move, from ‘product’ to the ‘process’ (Arendt, 1998: 304), contemplation loses its position in the viva activa and in ‘ordinary human experience’ (Arendt, 1998: 304). Second, in this new world the principle of labouring expands out of the realm of the reproduction of life to become far more widely operational. Labour brings with it the same unworldliness, or privatized existence that it had when confined to the more strictly or literally private life of reproduction. For Arendt this is unworldly because it presumes that what humans share is not the world, but shared or same nature. Moreover, when labouring, intrinsically unworldly, rises in this world, it brings with it a Benthamite ratiocination of measured happiness that is some distance from the forms of making that have their eye on the object made (and in this way may also contain a moment of contemplation), and is even further from action – which would not be measured or gauged in such a way at all.
This is accelerated (as part of processes of automation, effectively) when the maker becomes the maker of tools-to-make-tools ‘who only incidentally produces things’. By now, judgement is made neither in the realm of the political nor even in relation to things and their usefulness, but concerns only process, or the ‘amount of pain or pleasure experienced in the production or consumption of things’ (Arendt, 1998: 309). As Arendt puts it, the modern age thus operates under the assumption that ‘life and not the world, is the highest good’ (Arendt, 1998: 318); or, as Lenz argues, Arendt's critique of the labour society is ‘based on a criticism of the absolute domination of labour at the expense of other form of activities’ (Lenz, 2005: 145).
Beyond the last stage? The deadliest passivity
The ways in which this transformation occurs, and the glancing invocation of Bentham, might suggest how the history here, of the transformation of work into labour and of the excision of action so that – to repeat – life not world is the highest good, connects to the framing trope of the telescope, and in particular to its operation as something that may reposition humans. Arendt heads the final chapter of The Human Condition with an epigraph from Kafka: ‘he found the Archimedean point, but he used it against himself; it seems he was permitted to find it only under this condition’ (cited in Arendt, 1998: 248). The point is clear. This new telescopic perspective, at once universal rather than worldly, and individualized, or operating with principles of personalization, rather than dealing with men and women, is at once newly intimate, swallowed and held within, and radically external. It is tempting to read this as a peculiarly far-sighted Arendtian comment on contemporary big data and personalization processes today, but the germane point here is that this condition is technologically given or made.
Arendt also provides a brief commentary, a matter of a couple of pages (Arendt, 1998: 322–323), on what might lie beyond the shift into generalized labour. Essentially, widespread automation is here under discussion, although there is none of the matter-of-fact certainty that full automation/cybernation will come that is so startling in the conference paper. Assessing the contemporary moment, Arendt says one element of the active life, labour, has become ‘victorious’ but is itself in its final stages. Labour has become too ‘lofty’ a term to describe the circuitry of consumption/job holding characterizing the contemporary world: ‘we have proved ingenious enough to find ways to ease the toil and trouble of living to the point where an elimination of laboring from the range of human activities can no longer be regarded as utopian’. Her fear is that soon all that will be left is consumption. But she adds that already ‘the society of job holders’ demands of its members ‘a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the overall life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go … acquiesce in a dazed, “tranquilized” functional type of behavior’ (Arendt, 1998: 322). 20
Functional behaviour here is a response that is, in Arendt's terms, highly unpolitical, not only because unreflexive but also because no longer individual but only individuated. She thus argues that ‘the trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true …’ (1998: 322). This clarifies the discussion of conditioning and adaptation in the ‘On The Human Condition’ paper, where individual adaptation to changing (technological/techno-social) environments in which humans find themselves is replaced by the automatic modulation of humans, from the outside. There, we will recall, Arendt argued that it was ‘quite conceivable that the modern age … may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known’ (1998: 322).
The perceived threats here overlap. On the one hand, the fear is of the rise of a society of labourers with nothing to labour on. On the other, there is the automated functioning of the human on automatic pilot. Finally, there are those technologies of vision and perspective through which this, the human body, the body now unpolitic, might be viewed, and manipulated. Arendt's final – and startling – warning in The Human Condition is thus that some possibility for action remains, but is often the prerogative of the scientist.
The rest of us, or the world in general, have a new perspective but can only watch ourselves, as if we were processes, so that the modern motorization, for instance, ‘would appear like a process of biological mutation in which human bodies gradually begin to be covered by shells of steel’. Moreover, from the perspective of ‘the watcher from the universe’ – and this would now be the perspective of unearthed man – ‘this mutation would be no more or less mysterious than the mutation that now goes on before our eyes in those small organisms … which have mysteriously developed new strains to resist us’ (1998: 323).
Alice Hilton told the Cybercultural conference that ‘The cybercultural society is a cybernetic system. A cybercultural society is as great as the universe’ (1966: 340). What we understand at the end of The Human Condition and at the end also of the Cybercultural discussions 21 is that Arendt is hostile to the universal viewpoint, at least in so far as it obliterates men, humans, replacing them with Man, who is himself at once singular, and also singularly ill-defined, no longer worldly but part of the pattern of the Earth as seen from the inhuman view of Space.
There is suddenly here something from Heidegger in Arendt, as she too points to how man is caught and remade in the technologies that seem to give him mastery. The Archimedean point, the point from which it is possible to move the Earth, has been achieved, but its positioning, at once in Space, and, as in Kafka's example, in the body, tends to produce conditions in which humans are no longer able, despite their own role in the making of this technology, to act.
Arendt was conscious of forms of technological evolution and development. What the ‘On The Human Condition’ paper makes clear, elaborating and focusing on some of the arguments begun in these final pages of The Human Condition, is that she is specifically informed, and engaging in debate on the matter of cybernation, the end of work, due to the influences of computerization and cybernetics. We might say that she had a take on this. And it was hostile: Arendt was anti-computing.
Arendt's explicit engagement with cybernation was brief. By 1970, in On Violence, she would comment that if one motivation for student protest was ‘the simple fact that technological progress is leading in so many instances straight into disaster’ (cited in Young-Bruehl, 2006: 149), she also added that the real issue was not unemployment. Rather, ‘the seemingly irresistible proliferation of techniques and machines, far from threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the existence of whole nations and conceivably of all mankind’ (Arendt, 1970). The issue remained politics and peace, but now the focus was not on technology's role in labour and its ending.
After the event
There was no cybernation revolution. What was briefly taken seriously by government, industry, sections of the Left, and civil rights movement, nascent feminist organizations, and Arendt herself, became afterwards a ‘scare’, as Ganz, who was there at the conference with the other partisans of cyberculture, put it (Ganz, 1966). 22 This wasn't only about practical barriers to real implementation but also a matter of desire and support; the cybernation imaginary faltered. What happened? In ‘The Selling of the Productivity Crisis’ (1983) James E. Block asked why public discourse ‘led away from the consideration of a society less centred around the workplace’. He blamed ‘entrenched interests, who wish market inequalities to persist, and do so by shifting the blame onto workers’, and the ‘deep collective failure’ (of the Left) to confront uncertainties (partly because of its historical association with the working poor), and said that as a result ‘discussions on automation, non-work society, and alternative forms of distribution held in the late fifties have been deferred for a generation’ (Block, 1983: 13).
Cyberculture to precarity?
After cybernation, analysis of the consequences of rising levels of computerization within society, and of shifts in computing itself (from brute automation to refined control, from ungainly giants to office machines, from rarity to proliferation), took other turns. Daniel Bell's later work on the post-industrial society as a knowledge society, is key here. Essentially, as an intervention at odds with the cybernation thesis (see e.g. Bell, 1965, Michael, 1965) it won out (Bassett and Roberts, 2020).
A different perspective on the post-cybernation debate is given by tracing out the notion of the cybercultural itself. If her conference paper usefully interrogates Arendt's own thinking on leisure and work, at a very particular moment in time, her contribution to the debate on ‘cyberculture’ contributed to how the term was understood critically, back then, on this, one of its very first outings. Cyberculture at the conference was bound up with questions of radical change in the political economy of the US, with the questions of war and peace, as well as with the civil rights movement. Cybernation did not occur, and the term itself was dropped. By contrast, whilst the term cyberculture was also eclipsed in the aftermath of the scare, it did come back. But when it returned in the mid- to late 1980s in response to developments including the internet and its associated imaginaries, it did so in a peculiarly etiolated guise – being generally taken to refer not to questions of labour, work and action, but to the formation of contemporary social subjectivities: cyber-lives for cyber-selves, and cyber-society.
Mainstream 1990s cyberculture was perhaps still interested in questions of labour and leisure, but now in the fusion of the two; it celebrated or excoriated a new playground. Its apogee, largely imaginary in that the technologies that were supporting it were nascent, was virtual reality, seen both as the other of cyberspace and as its fully realized form. In the latter it was roundly abused by commentators, including notably Kevin Robins, who, in terms Arendt might have approved of, accused it of turning its back on the world we live in (1996). The term largely slipped out of use in the late 1990s and is now remembered as painfully ‘of its time’, as William Gibson noted. 23
Huhtamo discerns a trail leading from cybernation to interactivity, to being ‘in’ the media, perhaps. I would lay a different trail; this would move from cybernation to precarity 24 as it is emerging in relation to new developments in automation. Arendt's thinking lets us see that this condition needs to be explored not only in terms of political economy but also in relation to what might be termed a political ontology. Critiques of her thinking, not least those made by the Cybercultural conference audience she seduced and abandoned, would suggest doing so not only in relation to the human condition but also by questioning the homogeneity, the boundedness, the unacknowledged situationality of position, of ‘the human’ in that term.
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