A puzzle that has confounded mathematicians for almost a century is closer than ever to being solved, it has emerged. But there’s one slight problem.
The calculations which prove a part of what’s known as “Erdős discrepancy problem” have been worked out by a computer. And the sheer amount of data – more than the entire contents of Wikipedia – is so vast that it would be practically impossible to be checked by a human brain.
– Jonathan Owen, The Independent, 18th February 2014
The prologue to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) opens with the orbiting of the first artificial satellite – the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, launched in 1957 – as a symbol of the modern age’s unprecedented desire to escape from imprisonment on the earth: from the natural life which forms the quintessence of the human condition into an artificial environment of humankind’s own making. Such a situation reflects what Arendt describes as a ‘crisis’ within science, in which knowledge becomes divorced from human comprehension:
But it could be that we, who are earth-bound creatures and have begun to act as though we were dwellers of the universe, will forever be unable to understand, that is, to think and speak about the things which nevertheless we are able to do. In this case, it would be as though our brain, which constitutes the physical, material condition of our thoughts, were unable to follow what we do, so that from now on we would indeed need artificial machines to do our thinking and speaking.
Last week it was reported that researchers working on the “Erdős discrepancy problem” at the University of Liverpool have come a step closer to solving this mathematical problem (first proposed in 1932), but that – because of the sheer amount of information involved – their ‘computer-generated solution is beyond the reach of humans to fully understand’. The researchers themselves were sanguine about this predicament, insisting that ‘at the moment there is no known “better” human-comprehensible solution – but it does not mean that such a solution could not (or will not) be found in the future.’ As Arendt’s own description of such a “crisis” anticipates, the more likely outcome to such a predicament is not the discovery of a human-comprehensible solution but a verification of the computer-generated solution through further simulations on other “artifical machines”. In such a situation, the correctness of the solution would remain ‘statements that in no way can be translated back into speech’ and so remain incomprehensible to human thought.
For Arendt, this heralds a broader political crisis, to the extent that the capacity for speech constitutes one basis of political action – ‘the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter’ – in a shared public world:
Men in the plural, that is, men in so far as they live and move and act in this world, can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and to themselves
As Allan has pointed out in his post, it is increasingly ‘difficult to argue that action takes place directly between men and women without the intermediary of things or matter …because …speech, writing and media-tion, are now considered as material forms…’. Yet Arendt would presumably regard this scientific/political crisis situation as a symptom of the modern era itself: the dissolution of the public sphere of action founded on speech with the emergence of the modern sphere of the social, which conflates the distinctions between public and private, speech and violence, and with them the differences between what Arendt distinguishes (in The Human Condition) as labour, work and action which constitute the vita activa (and which Allan also points out are increasingly interwoven today).
This is, in large part, because of the emergence of modern nation-states on an increasingly globally connected earth. Hence, the need for speech to assume material mediation in the realm of the social – or for computers to do our thinking and knowing for us – is already indicative of a democratic deficit for Arendt, largely because she finds it impossible to conceive of genuine politics taking place on such a scale, over such a distance. To return to the starting point, what Sputnik 1 and the computer-generated solution to part of the “Erdős discrepancy problem” represent for Arendt, then, is not so much a flight from the earth (which constitutes, in the so-called “globalized” sense, the political problem for Arendt) as an escape from the human world (which could presumably never be coterminous with the earth). Arendt sees this as a crucial correction to Marx’s modern subjectivism, such that, ‘World alienation, and not self-alienation as Marx thought, has been the hallmark of the modern age.’
For Jean-François Lyotard (in The Postmodern Condition) the quantitative intensification of these conditions of knowledge in the postindustrial and multinational age produces a qualitative transformation into the postmodern. Lyotard asks us to suppose,
…that a firm such as IBM is authorized to occupy a belt in the earth’s orbital field and launch communications satellites or satellites housing data banks. Who will have access to them? Who will determine which channels or data are forbidden? The State? Or will the State simply be one user among others. New legal issues will be raised, and with them the question: “who will know?”
Although the first commercial use of satellites date back to the 1960s, not long after Ardent reflected on the escape from the earth, the corporatization of space really “took off” in the 1990s, presumably with the advent of satellite broadcasting corporations and mobile phone technology. The implications of this situation for knowledge – and by implication education – are unparalleled, Lyotard claims:
The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation …anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language …We may thus expect a thorough exteriorisation of knowledge with respect to the “knower,” at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so.
As I have already written about – in an earlier post on Lyotard on this blog – Lyotard’s claim here is connected to a distinction within the field of Knowledge [Savoir] between (1) Learning [connaissance] and (2) “know-how,” “knowing how to live,” “how to listen” [savoir-faire, savoir-vivre, savoir-ecouter].
Were Arendt to witness the constellations of satellites orbiting the earth today – powering our global media and smart phones – she would presumably consider this world-alienation one step closer to the situation she anticipates in The Human Condition, in which ‘knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good’, and as a consequence of which ‘we would indeed become the helpless slaves …of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible…’. It is this situation which is presaged in the ‘crisis in education’ which she analyzed in the USA in the 1950s, since this (postmodern?) condition of world-alienation – conditioned in part on the technological exteriorization of knowledge with the growth of the social – threatens to touch upon the human condition of natality to which both political action and education are intimately related in their connection to the world:
…action has the closest connection with the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought.
In a future discussion, I nonetheless hope to show how Arendt’s triumvirate of “crises” – scientific, political, and education – far from being the descriptive starting point for her argument, are the necessary fabrications which Arendt must construct in order to maintain the appearance of consistency in her argument.