Rethinking the Human Condition in a Hyperconnected Era: Why Freedom is Not About Sovereignty But About Beginnings
The Digital Transition as a Reality-Check for Plato's Utopia Failure
Mary Midgley sees philosophy as plumbing, something that nobody notices until it goes wrong: 'Then suddenly we become aware of some bad smells, and we have to take up the floorboards and look at the concepts of even the most ordinary piece of thinking. The great philosophers … noticed how badly things were going wrong, and made suggestions about how they could be dealt with.' (Midgley 2001).
The bad smells, as I perceive them, concern the proliferation of truisms (including about progress, change and innovation), wrong alternatives (“either/or” framing when the “both/and” would be much more efficient), and fears and delusion when it comes to thinking and speaking about politics and the public space. It would be wrong to say that we are in totalitarian times: fascism and communism have been defeated and democracy is alive, at least in the EU and other parts of the world. However, I feel that we are unconsciously undermining essential elements of the human condition, as set out by Hannah Arendt in her seminal book The human condition (Arendt 1959): the antidotes against the risk of totalitarianism are thereby weakened to a dangerous extent so that it would not take much more than a spark for the public space to collapse, and this even under the cover of the best governance intentions.
The digital transition is an opportunity to “fix the pipes”, as put by Mary Midgley: it brings about a reality by which some key assumptions underlying our worldview, since Plato, lose ground insofar as they simply stop being efficient. The digital transition projects us into a world where nature is pervasively intertwined with sensors, information devices and machines; we thus increasingly experience a reactive and talkative nature, an animated nature, where it becomes more and more difficult
to distinguish between what is “given” and what is fabricated. Furthermore, the digital transition creates the worldly conditions for the actual dissolution of the objectivity standpoint: indeed, we “touch” the fact that the abundance of information does not give access to an omniscient/omnipotent posture, but rather that accumulation of knowledge pushes ever further and redefines the remit of what is to be known. Like the sea recovering from the wave behind a boat, reality is thick and dense and recomposes itself, undermining any possibility to acquire or sustain a posture of omniscience and omnipotence.
It is paradoxical to realise that it is exactly when, and probably because, we can envisage what a total and ubiquitous knowledge would mean, that the omniscience/ omnipotence utopia can appear as a useless and deceptive fiction. By bringing us to the point where the omniscience/omnipotence utopia can indeed be seen as a chimera, the digital transition, in a paradoxical gesture, calls for re-endorsing the fact that human action is precisely characterized by its irreversibility and its unpredictability, and this is not necessarily for the worse. Arendt writes in the late fifties: “Exasperation with the threefold frustration of action—the unpredictability of its outcome, the irreversibility of the process, and the anonymity of its authorsis almost as old as recorded history. It has always been a great temptation, for men of action no less than for men of thought, to find a substitute for action in the hope that the realm of human affairs may escape the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents. The remarkable monotony of the proposed solutions throughout our recorded history testifies to the elemental simplicity of the matter. Generally speaking, they always amount to seeking shelter from action's calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end [….] Plato's solution of the philosopher-king, whose 'wisdom' solves the perplexities of action as though they were problems of cognition, is only one –and by no means the less tyrannicalvariety of one-man rule” (Arendt 1959, pp. 197–199).
Today, the regular call on the need for leadership and political will attest that not less than before, policy-making is pervaded by the quest of “seeking shelter from action's calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end…” (Arendt 1959, p. 197) The perception that ideal freedom is best actualised in sovereignty, either at collective or individual levels, is the expression of the omnipotence component of the omniscience-omnipotence utopia, while the omniscience side of it is expressed by “the Platonic wish to substitute making for acting in order to bestow upon the realm of human affairs the solidity inherent in work and fabrication” (Arendt 1959, p. 202).
In my view, as I hope to make clear later in this contribution, policy-making continues to rely too much on the omniscience/omnipotence utopia. Do we not regularly frame problems in terms of “lack of knowledge”, as if perfect knowledge would allow perfect action? This argument, at the core of the rationale for funding research, reaches out beyond that specific purpose and pervades imaginaries. On the other hand, isn't the precautionary principle based on the idea that it is somehow possible to foresee and avoid harmful consequences, as if making decisions was about making a choice between different courses of action, as we make a choice in a menu when ordering a meal in a restaurant?
Knowing, thinking, doing and acting can only be done from within (“building the raft while swimming”) and not from an external manipulative perspective. Immanence is becoming commonsensical and is to be endorsed in political terms, without this meaning nihilism or despair. This calls for taking some distance from dramatisation, as a trick, and for recovering a meaningful approach to the present, based on a responsible and modest approach to the challenges of our times. Policymaking should reclaim the present and take responsibility for the choices we make in view of generating “islands of predictability” (Arendt 1959, p. 220) and ensure that “meaning has a place in this world” (Arendt 1959, p. 212), while holding in contempt the fact that “real stories, in distinction from those we invent, have no author” (Arendt 1959, p. 165).
Arendt, with her notions of natality and plurality, offers a sound basis for balancing the omniscience/omnipotence utopia and for making use of what I will call an Arendtian axiomatic reset in policy framing. Reclaiming natality and plurality allows aligning freedom with plurality, instead of seeing plurality as a constraint to freedom.
After having addressed the influence of the omniscience/omnipotence prejudice over policy-making, and after having presented how the notions of plurality and natality allow overcoming such prejudice, with the Arendtian axiomatic reset, I shall propose an actualisation of the distinction between the private and public and between agents, nature and artefacts. Building on these new distinctions, I shall propose to consider policy-making, not only in terms of seeking control over the future, but also in being responsive to new meanings and providing the tools to allow agents to orient themselves in the world as it evolves and live a decent life.
-  In passing, one may challenge this common way to denote what is not fabricated! What is not fabricated is deemed to be ….given. The question arising immediately is then: why necessarily given by someone? Why this compulsion that is unveiled by this vocabulary to see a “Big Other”, behind everything that is?
-  The word “action” is to be understood as defined by Arendt in the Human Condition. Arendt proposes to describe the vita activa by distinguishing three activities: labor, work and action. “Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is ife itself […].Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not embedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species' ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an “artificial” world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings […].The human condition of work is worldliness. Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition, not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam—of all political life.” HC, pp. 9–10 (apart from the italics in the last sentence, which are from Arendt, the highlights earlier in the quote have been made by the author of this article in view of highlighting the distinctions between labor, work and action). HC, p. 9. More on this tripartition later.
-  More details about the shifts in the digital transition in the Onlife Background Note, Chap. 11
-  This is my take from this sentence brought about by Luciano Floridi and which became the motto of the Onlife initiative. See the Onlife Manifesto, Chap. 2.
-  Natality is not to be understood as “birth rate”. It is a technical term in Arendt's thought expressing the fact that the human condition is characterized by the fact of birth at least as much as by the fact of death. For Arendt, the sustainability of the world is ensured by the fact men and women constantly come to the world by birth and freedom is intimately linked to the capacity to begin.
-  For the technical meaning of plurality, see later in this chapter, under 3.2.: Embracing Plurality.