Reviving Vita Activa in the Technosphere

In his earlier post, Bronislaw Szerszysnky draws on Hannah Arendt’s influential work The Human Condition. I want to pick up this thread in reflecting on the relevance of her tripartite conception of Vita Activa, labour, work and action for understanding the relationship between humans and the technosphere. This distinction is perhaps confusing for the contemporary reader because action seems to be a generic term that might include the activities of labour and work. Arendt does not mention Hegel but in passing, but it seems that her concept of action has much in common with Hegel’s notion of ‘Handlung’ as a fundamentally social phenomenon.

In modern parlance, ‘labour’ refers to the biological function of reproduction, ‘work’ to the making of artefacts, especially durable ones, and action to political activity in a community, most importantly, public speech. Obviously, work directly relates to the technosphere as product of human work. We can relate these distinctions to contemporary distinctions, such as the feminist duality of reproductive (‘labvour’) and productive work (‘work’). There is a long history of the distinction between non-productive and productive activities in economics, which has been given up in modern economics but in fact persists: Whereas in earlier times activities such as services were seen as unproductive, today those activities are productive that generate value on markets. This shifts the borderline to Arendt’s division, if we count as ‘non-productive’ care activities and homework, among others, that do not generate market value, and are Arendt’s examples of labour, indeed highly gendered.

Arendt’s view of the market is intriguing because she does not emphasize the role of economic gain so much, but the role of the marketplace as the public arena where workers offer their products, and judgements over comparative quality are made. In this sense, the market is a point of transition between work and action, since these judgements could be made in the form of public argument, hence action. There are other important aspects of transition, one is salient in Bron’s post. This is that the Latin ‘agere’, different from ‘gerere’ (both meaning ‘to act’), implies leadership and active intervention. If this is combined with the workmanship spirit (I use ‘man’ deliberately here), this suggests that political action can become ‘work’, in the sense of designing and crafting the social world, which Arendt deems a distinctly modern pathology. For her, the whole point about distinguishing action from work is that action cannot be controlled by the actor: The orator cannot determine how the public responds to the speech, and the final result of action emerges in a complex historical process which humans, individually or collectively, cannot control.

In an almost Marxian vein, Arendt suggests that the modern machines, that is, what I call the technosphere, have the fatal consequence to reduce Vita Activa to labour for most people, even if they earn wages with manipulating machines. This shows that work is conceived as craft in the widest sense, that is, including the modern engineer who makes the technosphere, but not the mere user of the created products. The labourer is the modern consumer, whose consumption, though less painful than labouring in old times, is simply reproductive in the sense of sustaining ‘survival’, now as bioculturally defined (vide the growing share of health care expenses in modern societies). In this sense, there are two ways how the human condition in the technosphere drastically impoverishes Vita Activa: First, via the exclusion of most people from work as craft, and second, via the exclusion of most people from the domain of the political. The latter may surprise the reader, but at a closer look, there are many ways of exclusion, as compared to Arendt’s idealized image of the Greek polis, most importantly, technocratic policy design and implementation, and the lack of direct participation of citizens in democratic politics. The latter plays together in the modern notion that government can ‘work’, that is, can produce policies such as measures directed against global warming.

These thoughts show that in order to reinstate Vita Activa in the technosphere, two fundamental changes in our societies are of crucial importance.

The first is to conceive of reproducing the technosphere as production, and hence treat activities such as repair as production. Indeed, an interesting aspect of gendered homework is that traditionally males do the repairing and mending, the latter also gendered, with women repairing clothes and men, say, roofs. The point is that there is another aspect of transition between labour and work, that is, caring for the technosphere. This is the immense domain of DIY activities. However, increasingly people are excluded from caring for the technology they use, such as repairing cars. So, designing technology to allow for the democratization of reproducing the technosphere would enable people to work beyond mere labouring. Sure, they don’t earn money income with that, so complementary institutional arrangement would be necessary, with Universal Basic Income the ultimate measure, but there are also intermediate forms, such as making expenses for DIY tax-deductible.

The second is to broaden grassroots level political participation in all kinds of technocratic decision making. This is on the agenda for long, and increasingly there is already fatigue emerging, given the experiences with outright contradictions in the field of environmental policies. Consider, for example, the conflict between renewable infrastructure construction such as wind farms and local concerns about biodiversity. But for Arendt, this is what makes us human: the continuous debating in the public domain, today mostly called ‘deliberation’. Apparently, this leads to irrational phenomena, if viewed from the perspective of the ‘worker’. But these debates also reign into the hybris of the worker who believes to be in charge but ends up as labouring in the technosphere that he has created.

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