The Challenge of Arendtian Action
|Venkatesh Rao||Jan 6, 2017|
Welcome back, long-time subscribers. And a hello to the ~200 people who subscribed while I was on hiatus over the last eight weeks (you may want to snack from the archives). We now have just over 4500 people in this fishmarket of a conversation. Two quick New Year's gifts for you before we dive in, both highly relevant to our topic du jour.
First, I did an hour-long mega-trends interview with Raoul Pal of RealVision on Breaking Smart themes that should interest all of you. Their stuff is normally paywalled for Wall Street fat cat types, but at my request, they've kindly put it outside the paywall for your freebie viewing pleasure. It serves as a good retrospective of Season 1 and a preview of Season 2. We talked about everything from hacker culture, emerging institutions, and CRISPR to Trump, Millennials, and globalization.
Second, for those of you looking up to level up your personal productivity game in 2017, I strongly recommend the new Building a Second Brain course developed by my friend Tiago Forte. Especially if you use Evernote to organize your life (or want to). He's offering an early-bird price right now before the public launch of the course. Tiago also writes on personal productivity on my blog, ribbonfarm. I think he is the next David Allen. You heard it here first.
Onto our topic, which, as it happens, involves action on the world stage of the sort I talk about in the interview, and of the sort that requires the leveled-up hyper-mindful approach to work that Tiago is turning into an authority on. What I call Arendtian action.
The theater of Arendtian action, drawing inspired by Hannah Arendt's 'Human Condition' and Keller Easterling's 'Extrastatecraft'.
1/ Over the break, as I was organizing my Season 2 research on the future of institutions, against the backdrop of the unfolding drama of the rise of Trump, a big theme popped for me.
2/ The theme is this: there is an enormous itch we all seem to share, to act in the world some way. To do things that are consequential on a stage that is larger than that of our private lives.
3/ To do what philosopher Hannah Arendt called appear in public. This does not mean narcissistically inserting *cough* Trump *cough* your life story into the narrative of the world via long trolls.
4/ Instead, it means seeking to live fully in a way voluntarily recognized as fully human by others. Whether they agree or disagree with you, they acknowledge how you have enriched the human condition for all.
5/ The side-effect of Arendtian action is entering history books, but that is not its intent. The intent is to live a fully human life, in the company of a plurality of other humans, who welcome your presence.
6/ A mode of being human that transcends a life lived in private, with family, or within the closed cognitive context of a particular tribe. A mode that history has traditionally reserved for royalty.
7/ A mode of being that requires the presence of other fully human individuals around us, who also act. and act differently from you, your family, and your various tribes, in ways you cannot control.
8/ Arendtian action is a way of creating a full life for yourself that goes beyond contemplation and integrates behaviors all the way from intimate and private contexts to the worldly public stage.
9/ Arendtian action is action that allows you to feel fully human. It is not the off-by-yourself fuck-you-money action of self-isolation. It demands cultivation and use of voice. Arendtian action subsumes both mute action and empty speech.
10/ A great many people in technology choose exit over voice not as the best path for a particular situation, but as a life default because they fail to develop their voice and cannot exercise it anywhere.
11/ Arendtian action in a sense, transcends the exit-voice dichotomy. It blends both to craft a whole life that belongs in the story of humanity and recognizes all others as human.
12/ Over the 50 issues of Season 1, I have made no secret of my political sympathies: anti-tribalist, cosmopolitan, globalist, and liberal.
13/ The world as a connected life-theater for all, not just the Davos set, the Trump set, SV techies, or the cosmopolitan urban middle class to which people like me -- lives shaped by immigration and globalization -- belong.
14/ These are hard times for Arendtian action. In 2017, it is easiest to retreat to your tribe or family, and abandon the public realm as territory lost to trolls and terrorists, at all levels from White House and NY Times headlines to Allepo and Twitter.
15/ Fortunately, not all are retreating. Over the break, I had ~12 video chats and ~20 email conversations with those of you who signed up for the Great Works sessions that I offered in November.
16/ The inspiring diversity of projects people wanted to talk about -- from 1-person creative projects to climate change efforts -- all had one thing in common: they were Arendtian. Actions seeking to speak.
17/ In The Human Condition (my deep-dive slides are here), Hannah Arendt offers a powerful philosophical analysis of action in terms of 3 levels of the active life: labor, making (or poiesis) and what she calls true action: praxis.
18/ Arendtian action is full-stack action: it is action that integrates all 3, and makes sense only in the context of the entire world, among all humans, as a stage, not your private or tribal life.
19/ Labor is the base level: the private but necessary part of life that only produces to consume, with perhaps a small surplus. The part of the stack that resembles basal metabolism.
20/ The currency of labor is emotion. The economy of labor is that of shared emotions: anger at oppression, relief from pain, the quiet bliss of being part of a life process with family and friends.
21/ But if your life is limited to laboring in private alone, as Arendt argues, you are not living a fully human life. You are entirely defined and contained by the conditions of life.
22/ Making, or poiesis, is that part of action that produces enduring things that become part of the world, reshape it in some form, and slowly wear out through use. Things that can potentially outlive you.
23/ Making, unlike labor, is not timeless, eternal cycling. It marshals resources and deploys means towards a specific enduring, stability-creating end. What in the tech economy we call shipping product.
24/ The currency of making is what we generally recognize as financial capital. To trade the products of your making with others is to be more fully human than the invisible laboring human.
25/ This is not because you can create and accumulate wealth. That's a shallow level. Making is more human because you aren't just shaped by the world, but you consciously shape it in turn, and appear in public at least as a buyer and seller, even if not a mover and shaker.
26/ But making too is ultimately limited. It can create enduring, but not living realities. Buildings age. Products get obsolete. Markets disappear. Making and trade only seeks to shape the medium, not the message.
27/ If your only mode of acting in the world is buying and selling, "voting" with your dollars and commercial acumen, you are leaving headroom for growing into more a fully human state unutilized.
28/ The top layer of the stack, which Arendt calls simply action, is consciously causing consequential events that irreversibly unleash processes of change into the world, and do not naturally terminate.
29/ Arendtian action is far harder today than in ancient Greece, where as a nobleman with property, slaves labored for you, and craftsmen did the making, leaving you with the leisure to go politicking.
30/ Today, Arendtian action not possible without an element of making, and making is not possible without an element of laboring. No praxis without poiesis. No poiesis without labor.
31/ The currency of Arendtian action is values and meaning, pluralistically traded through disruption in all its politically consequential glory: events that destabilize the stable human world via an expanding, generative, living impact process.
32/ To cook or farm is to labor with food. To design and sell farming equipment is to make. But to develop a technique for gene modification and then participate in the GMO conversation is to truly act.
33/ In engineering terms, laboring has to do with flows: things that can't be accumulated, only circulated. Laboring cannot become part of history, only serve as the invisible backstage of it.
34/ Irreversible, eternal change from labor can only be unconscious at best, like a river carving out a landscape through its changing course over geological time, beyond human control.
35/ Making has to do with stocks: things that can be accumulated in some sense through the conscious reshaping of the world. Like building a dam on a river. Part of the visible backdrop, the stage.
36/ Irreversible, eternal change from making too is unconscious at best. Once the dam is built, the process unleashed is the message of the medium, above the conscious control of the dam-builder.
37/ Action, however, transcends both the timeless flows of laboring and the slowly depreciating, eventually forgotten, stocks of making. It is about becoming a part of the story of history itself. Participating consequentially in the conversation created by the building of the dam.
38/ The context of laboring is your private life. When laboring appears in the foreground of history, it only does so through the massed forces of solidarity, where individual humanity is lost in the the collective.
39/ The context of making is the tribal life. The things you accumulate or win matter only to the extent your tribe cares to count and recognize them. At best, making acts on the world through the mute forces of economics: trade between tribes.
40/ But the context of Arendtian action is individual participation in public life, even if only on Twitter. The unpredictable theater of a plurality of different full-voiced humans freely engaging with each other without trying to control each other.
41/ That last part is the tough part. It is extraordinarily hard to act, especially in big, powerful ways, without trying to control how others respond to your Arendtian action. Acknowledging their equal right to truly act in turn.
42/ The private context constrains all members of it. Everybody is equally subject to the flows of life: eating, sleeping, chores. It is a naturally authoritarian zone, as Arendt notes.
43/ In history, this context was limited to the private household, but today large parts of entire nations look like households as Arendt argues. All are enslaved by the flows of the Big Machine.
44/ The context of making is not very much better. As Arendt notes, history has gradually replaced craft with manufacturing, and most making looks like laboring now: grist for the industrial mill.
45/ Only two activities look like true making in the philosophical sense anymore: creating disruptive technologies that dare to grow big, or trading on the markets at the very highest levels. But without the addition of voice, neither rises to the level of Arendtian action.
46/ Making is constrained by the laws of nature, the limits of our own knowledge and most importantly, by our own fears of going beyond the medium to the message.
47/ Making often appears in public hiding fearfully behind slogans like "actions speak louder than words" because it dares not speak for itself. Where you pretend words don't matter because you don't know how to shape their impact.
48/ Many technologists are biased towards exit over voice as a mode of Arendtian action. Not because they lack a voice, but because they haven't faced up to the demons that must be exorcised on the way to exercising it.
49/ Many manage the mental gymnastics of convincing themselves that to participate in the conversations they enable is to somehow threaten freedom within them. It is not a sign of their power that that those who craft big disruptions are often publicly mute about them.
50/ Modern technology does not comprise the passive forms of buildings. They are what Keller Easterling, in Extrastatecraft, calls active forms. Forms that can be programmed, to create live, mutable contexts for action.
51/ If makers are not politically active in conversations they help create, the things they create become threats to freedom for all, because the void of programmability is filled by trolls stepping in for the makers.
52/ When trolls hijack the full Arendtian action role abdicated by makers, they invariably act to further their private interests at the expense of the living potentiality of the active public forms.
53/ Only makers themselves can play the most generative, freedom creating role required by the active forms into which they breath life. Others can only destroy, not grow, what they've given life.
54/ I don't mean to pick on Facebook and Twitter in particular, but from being beacons of increasing freedom in a world of special-interest controlled media, they are turning into shrinking public spaces under siege by tribalists of every sort.
55/ Makers haven't yet stepped up to the challenge of growing more alive and human with the more powerful forms they can create today. Software is eating the world, but leaving programmers untouched in their hidebound old-Maker sensibilities.
56/ Makers today can effectively create artificial life, but still bring to their work the limiting sensibilities of makers of the past: those who could only create non-living, slowly decaying buildings or dumb machines.
57/ Equally, those who historically undertook Aredntian actions -- political leaders -- cannot cope anymore. They have become pathetic creatures laboring within party machines, or beholden to mobs. Trump the winner is as incapable of Arendtian action as Hillary the loser.
58/ That is the challenge of Arendtian action: to synthesize laboring, making and politically alive voice to make history, by participating in the economy of meaning making through creative destruction.
59/ Because the great truth of modernity is this: if you like our world, the only way to preserve it is to change it disruptively, over and over again. To seek to "preserve" or worse, "make it great again" is to slavishly become complicit in its death.
60/ That then is the setup for Season 2 of Breaking Smart: enabling Arendtian action that helps a new institutional order emerge from the debris of the one being torn apart today.
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