Common Worlds, Common Sense, and the Digital Realm
“I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied it is hospitality. A practice of hospitality— recovering threshold, table, patience, listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand — on the other hand radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.”
— Ivan Illich, interview (1996)
[Welcome back friends to the Convivial Society. This latest installment has been a while in coming, and it’s not short. The gist of it is this: thinking with Arendt about the material dimensions of a common world and a common sense with a view to better understanding our experience of digital culture. I hope you find it helpful.]
I’ve been thinking about tables of late, literally and figuratively. Chiefly, what I’ve had in mind is the table as an emblem of hospitality, and, relatedly, as an example of the material infrastructure of our social lives or the stuff of life that sustains and mediates human relationships. This owes something, of course, to the great importance Ivan Illich placed on hospitality, especially as it took shape around a table. But here I’m turning to the work of another theorist in order to think through some of the more vexing and at times disturbing features of public life.
Thinking about the table has drawn me back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, first published in 1958. This work is notable for Arendt’s discussion of the distinctions among what she calls the private, public, and social realms. The political arena of the ancient Greek polis was her model for the public. The private realm was the realm of the household. The social realm was a more recent development, it was the realm of mass society. It was not a private realm, but neither was it a realm in which the individual could meaningfully appear in the full integrity of her particularity. I won’t take the time to explain those distinctions at greater length here, except as they relate to Arendt’s use of the table as a recurring metaphor, a metaphor which will, I think, usefully illuminate aspects of our digitally mediated experience. I suspect, in fact, that ultimately it would be useful to develop a fourth category, the digital, to extend Arendt’s analysis of the private, public and social. You might take what follows as some initial thinking toward that end.
The Common World of Things
Arendt’s figurative use of the table had tucked itself away in my mind from the time I first read The Human Condition around 2010. It always struck me as an evocative image, but it was not until recently that I began to see more clearly its significance.
“To live together in the world,” Arendt wrote in the paragraph that first caught my attention, “means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.”
So there it is: our life together is built upon a world of things, which, like a table, gathers and distinguishes us. The point may at first seem somewhat trivial, but we’ll find that there’s some depth here as soon as we start unpacking Arendt’s argument.
These lines I just cited appear in the course of Arendt’s discussion of the public realm and its relation the world. Both of these terms, public and world, are technical terms in her work.
“The term ‘public’ signifies the world itself,” she explains, “in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.” She goes on to clarify that the world is not simply synonymous with the earth, which she thinks of as related to our “organic life.” The world, in her sense, is related “to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together.”
We might say that the world as she means it is more or less co-extensive with what the historian Thomas Hughes called the human-built world—it is our cultural habitat and also what I’m calling the material infrastructure that sustains it. In this light, then, the table is not simply a metaphor, it is a case in point, a microcosm of the larger social order, which itself takes shape around an array of material artifacts.
We’ve already seen that for Arendt the world of things that constitutes the public is like a table in that it alternatively gathers, relates, and separates individuals. In other words, by virtue of being around a table a set of individuals are simultaneously related together as a group while also distinguished from one another. It is a role played by all the elements that make up the material infrastructure of social life. The question we need to bear in mind, of course, is this: How exactly are we being gathered and how exactly are we being related to one another?
Permanence and Stability
“The existence of a public realm,” Arendt observed, “and the world's subsequent transformation into a community of things which gathers men together and relates them to each other depends entirely on permanence.”
Here we once again encounter the table, or, at least, what the table illustrates: a gathering and relating of individuals. This gathering and relating function is attributed to a community of things, which I’m reading as a network of materiality mediating human relationships. The curious additional insight is the indispensable quality of permanence, a feature that also speaks to a distinct mode of materiality.
“If the world is to contain a public space,” Arendt argues, “it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men.” Further on, she writes,
“The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die. It transcends our lifespan into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it. It is what we have in common not only with those who live with us, but also with those who were here before and with those who will come after us.
Arendt’ insistence on a measure of permanence and stability across time recalls Simone Weil’s discussion of a stable ground upon which a human life may be rooted. In The Need for Roots, Weil argued that rootedness was an essential human need and, she added, “a human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”
Like Arendt, Weil is here insisting upon a trans-generational common world, although she is less explicit about its material base. And, yes, of course, I’ll add that Ivan Illich made similar observations. In discussing society’s substitution of the better for the good, for example, Illich warns that “at this point the balance among stability, change, and tradition has been upset; society has lost both its roots in shared memories and its bearings for innovation.” Note especially the past/future orientation of that last clause, and, perhaps especially, the notion of having “bearings for innovation.” Another subject for another day.
But one last note on the matter of permanence: For Arendt the permanence of the world of things not only grounds our common experience of the world but also human identity. “The things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life,” Arendt wrote, “and their objectivity lies in the fact that … men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.”
But let’s turn now to the epistemic implications of Arendt’s notion of a common world.
A Common Sense
The world of things turns out to have important psychological and epistemological functions in Arendt’s analysis, and this is were I think her line of thinking gets really interesting. We might say that Arendt takes the world of common things to be an epistemic backstop that keeps us from sliding into pure subjectivism, nihilism, or egoism. As we’ll see in a moment a world of common things grounds a common sense.
So, for example, she writes,
“The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves, and while the intimacy of a fully developed private life, such as had never been known before the rise of the modern age and the concomitant decline of the public realm, will always greatly intensify and enrich the whole scale of subjective emotions and private feelings, this intensification will always come to pass at the expense of the assurance of the reality of the world and men.”
This is quite a remarkable claim. The inverse correlation she posits between an intensification of subjective emotion and private feeling, on the one hand, and an assurance of the reality of the world on the other seems particularly striking given present concerns about the degree to which Americans appear to have not only conflicting beliefs, but to live in alternate realities.
[N.B. I refer specifically to “Americans” not to suggest that something similar isn’t happening elsewhere, but only that I feel that I can speak to the case here in a way that I would not presume to speak about other societies, especially since so many of you are better positioned to do so! And, international readers, please do feel free to fill me in on the situation on the ground as you see it.]
But where does the world of things fit into this picture? Arendt speaks here of the presence of others, yes, but also of the decline of the public realm, which she has already equated with the human-built world that sustains it, or, to put it another way, that acts as the stage upon which the public appears. In other words, she has in view the presence of others within a particular materially objective context.
Arendt argues that to live an “entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life.” She expands on this by explaining that it means that one is “deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others, to be deprived of an ‘objective’ relationship with them that comes from being related to and separated from them through the intermediary of a common world of things.”
Here again is the notion of being gathered and separated by the common world of things with an emphasis on an “objective” relationship with others. Of course, it is not the nature of reality itself that is at issue here. Rather, Arendt has in view our experience of reality, or, to put it another way, the measure of certainty we attain from knowing that we inhabit a shared reality with others. We see and hear and are seen and heard in turn, and somehow the intermediation of the common world of things is essential to this dynamic. This certainly does not at all preclude vigorous and intense disagreement about what is good, right, and just; but it does suggest that it is possible for such debates to unfold meaningfully within shared horizons of the real. And this is what Arendt understands as “common sense,” which she calls “the sixth and highest sense.” Common sense is not just a set of mundane observations that are widely assumed to be true. Rather, it was common in the sense that it was the product of the senses working in tandem on a world held in common with others.
“Only the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives,” she wrote, “can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.”
However, in the modern world Arendt argued, common sense “became an inner faculty without any world relationship.” “This sense now was called common,” she added, “merely because it happened to be common to all. What men now have in common is not the world but the structure of their minds.” And that is a critical point aptly stated.
Moreover, she observes that “a noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.” Again, she does not mean alienation from the earth, but alienation from a common world of human things that constitutes a public space of appearance within which a common sense can take hold and bind individuals to a commonly shared reality.
This alienation marked by a decrease in common sense is not inconsequential. Not only might it be paired with superstition and gullibility, but with darker and even destructive proclivities. Consider the following analysis from the Origins of Totalitarianism, in which Arendt takes up the question of what we would label escapist literature. She attributes the desire to escape reality, which, in her view, characterizes the masses, to “their essential homelessness,” which I read as more or less synonymous with what she later calls world alienation in The Human Condition and with what Weil termed rootlessness. But Arendt believes that the human need to make sense of things is also a factor. Deprived of its share in a common world that persists across time, a person can no longer bear reality’s “accidental, incomprehensible aspects.” Thus, she argues,
“The masses’ escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist, since coincidence has become its supreme master and human beings need the constant transformation of chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency.”
I’ve come back again and again, to the relationship Arendt drew between loneliness and totalitarianism. (See the essay by Samantha Rose Hill linked below.) Arendt made a point of distinguishing between solitude and loneliness, noting that one may be alone without being lonely and that loneliness often occurs in the midst of others.
Interestingly, for our purposes, Arendt connects loneliness to the loss of a common world. “Loneliness arises when thought is divorced from reality,” she observed, “when the common world has been replaced by the tyranny of coercive logical demands.” Quoting Martin Luther she adds, “‘A lonely man always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.’” Without a common world there is no break on the slide into slavish and despairing ideological consistency.
In other words, without a common and stable world of things to ground our experience with others, without the table around which we might gather, the mind is cut off from a common sense and set loose upon itself in ways that become self-destructive.
Thus, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she also makes the following argument:
Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity. Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices — and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect.
Now, along with “totalitarian propaganda” let us also include “conspiracy theories” and the relevance of this analysis will be all the more apparent. The loss of a common world and the common (or communal) sense it sustains engenders not only heightened subjectivity but also leaves individuals susceptible to propaganda, conspiracy theorizing, and loneliness.
The Tele-Present Age
I’ve belabored the exposition of Arendt’s argument, so let me draw things to a close by speaking more directly to our present media environment. What especially interests me is the degree to which our digital media environment differs from the older analog order of things, specifically with regard to its role in sustaining a common world and public life. I’m sometimes tempted to speak of this difference as a move from a material order to an immaterial order, but I realize that this is not quite right. After all, digital media is a thoroughly material reality built on tubes, cables, satellites, servers, and rare-earth metals mined at great human cost, none of which are any less material in nature simply because they are ordinarily hidden from public view.
Nevertheless, it is important to account for how digital media reconfigures the material infrastructure of social life such that the dynamics of human experience are also transformed. And a good deal of this transformation involves the scrambling of the relationship between bodily presence and action. What happens, for example, when important segments of our life together no longer emerge within a world of common things we simultaneously occupy? In other words, what are the consequences of a social life increasingly dependent on varieties of tele-presence?
Tele-, as you remember from some long-ago middle school vocabulary lesson, is the Greek root that means “far” or “distant” and suggests “operating at a distance.” Consider three common words: telegraph, telephone, television—writing at a distance, voice at a distance, sight at a distance, respectively. Each of these is a mode of telepresence, and, as the example of the telegraph suggests, telepresence is not uniquely tied to digital media. Digital media, however, has permeated our experience with telepresent activity.
Early debates about the internet were sometimes framed by an opposition of digital activities to “real life.” This was never a very helpful framing, as sociologist Nathan Jurgenson spent a great deal of time explaining several years ago. It seems to me that we would have better spent our time had the question of telepresence framed our discussions. “Is this real?” now seems to me to have been a far less interesting question to ask than “Where am I?”
When we gather, as we so often do now, on a service like Zoom, where are we? Where exactly is the interaction happening? And, what difference does it make, say, that there is no here we can easily point to, and much less is there a table? What sort of world is this that now “hosts” so much of our social life, and how might we distinguish it from the world of common things that for Arendt was so important to public life, and, as we saw, even to our grasp of a shared reality.
It seems apparent that the digital realm lacks the permanence that Arendt thought was essential to a common world in which individuals could appear and be seen, and also that it has accelerated the liquefaction of modern life. Consequently, it fails to stabilize the self in the manner Arendt attributed to a common world of things. It also seems that Arendt’s fears about the epistemic consequences of the loss of a common world of things were well grounded. By abstracting our interactions into a placeless world of symbolic interchange and generating the conditions of what Jay Bolter has labeled digital plentitude, digital media appears to undermine rather than sustain our capacity to experience a common world, which in turn generates a common sense. Increasingly, then, we come to suspect that we are all occupying altogether different realities.
There are, of course, many more questions to be asked about how digital tools transform human experience, but reckoning with the seeming worldlessness, in Arendt’s sense, of the digital realm and its abstraction of experience from bodily presence may help us better understand some of the challenges we face as we seek to wisely navigate this digital world together.
Of course, in Arendt’s view, mass society and the realm of the social it generated, already tended in some of these directions.
In a memorable paragraph, Arendt describes the experience of the table under conditions of mass society:
The public realm, as the common world, gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak. What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic seance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible.
At first glance, this is not a bad way of conceiving the digital realm: the materiality of the table suddenly vanishes and in our telepresent interactions we begin to fall over ourselves as it were, chaotically clashing with each other even as we are ensconced within our respective epistemic bubbles. But unlike the members of mass society, we are at a further (or at least different) remove from one another confronting not embodied presences, but something more akin to subjectivities variously represented by images and avatars.
Finally (yes, really), I’ll note that we cannot replicate the agora, the public space of the ancient Greeks, which so deeply informed Arendt’s view of the public realm. To the degree that we are connected politically with each other at a much different geographic scale than the ancient Greek city-state, to that same degree we cannot replicate the ancient public sphere. In that ancient model, however, the public and the private, sustained one another if they were rightly ordered. Mass society, in Arendt’s view, scrambled the private and the public realms, robbing each of their particular virtues. It did so by gradually eroding the local and material context of the public realm.
I wonder if we might not reimagine a new pairing. Not the private and the public, but the digital and the local. I’m not exactly sanguine about this possibility, mind you. It seems to me that the tendency of the digital realm as it is presently configured tends toward the erosion of the local, which, I tend to think is the natural habitat of the human being and thus the proper site of human flourishing. However, it may be possible for digital tools, perhaps if they were designed with a view to conviviality, to also sustain a vibrant local realm, which may nourish the human experience and ground our necessary ventures in the digital public. Perhaps I’m glossing over irreconcilable tensions, but I’ll be coming back to these themes and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.
News and Resources
Frank Pasquale on affective computing:
“In all too many of its present implementations, affective computing requires us to accept certain functionalist ideas about emotions as true, which leads to depoliticized behaviorism and demotes our conscious processes of emotional experience or reflection. Just as precision manipulation of emotions through drugs would not guarantee “happiness” but only introduce a radically new psychic economy of appetites and aversions, desires and discontents, affective computing’s corporate deployments are less about service to than shaping of persons. Preserving the privacy and autonomy of our emotional lives should take priority over a misguided and manipulative quest for emotion machines.”
Samantha Rose Hill on Arendt, loneliness, and totalitarianism:
“We think from experience, and when we no longer have new experiences in the world to think from, we lose the standards of thought that guide us in thinking about the world. And when one submits to the self-compulsion of ideological thinking, one surrenders one’s inner freedom to think. It is this submission to the force of logical deduction that ‘prepares each individual in his lonely isolation against all others’ for tyranny. Free movement in thinking is replaced by the propulsive, singular current of ideological thought.
“What Forest Floor Playgrounds Teach Us About Kids and Germs”:
“At the end of four weeks, the kids’ arms were swabbed and their blood was drawn again, and Sinkkonen’s team began analyzing the results. In a study published Wednesday in Science Advances, they found that the children who had been playing in the newly forested spaces had more diverse communities of friendly bacteria living on their skin. Specifically, alphaproteobacteria species seemed to flourish. Not surprising: Previous studies have shown this subgenre to be associated more often with children who grow up on farms than city kids.”
Double shot of Frank Pasquale this time around. This one is an excerpt from Frank’s new book, New Laws of Robotics: Defending Human Expertise in the Age of AI (which I’m eager to pick up soon), tackling autonomous weapons systems:
“[I]t is hard to avoid the conclusion that the idea of ethical robotic killing machines is unrealistic, and all too likely to support dangerous fantasies of pushbutton wars and guiltless slaughters”
Back in 2015, I wrote briefly and in an Arendtian vein on lethal autonomous weapons: Lethal Autonomous Weapons and Thoughtlessness.
One of the newsletters I enjoying receiving is The Tourist written by Phil Christman. It’s been especially good of late.
Cleverly titled essay about chairs designed specifically for gaming from Lewis Gordon in Real Life—“Throne of Games”:
“There’s an element of surrender in the way users give up their bodies to games, which is literalized in the design of chairs that cocoon and immobilize them — chairs that aim, as much as possible, to minimize any reminder of the player’s embodiment.”
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx briefly made contact with the asteroid Bennu (a mere 200 million miles from earth) for five to six seconds, collected a sample, and took off again. It is now on its way back to earth. (Although …) This is, of course, a remarkable achievement of human ingenuity. NASA noted that the probe touched down “within three feet (one meter) of the targeted location.”
This latter note naturally recalled one of the several subtitles Walker Percy facetiously offers for Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book … “How it is possible for the man who designed Voyager 19, which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three seconds of schedule and a hundred yards off course after a flight of six years, to be one of the most screwed-up creatures in California—or the Cosmos.”
One also happens to appear in this painting of Frankfurt (1858) by Gustave Courbet:
As I was writing about how a table gathers and separates us, I stumbled upon this image of the seating arrangement for a dinner at Buckingham Palace on May 19, 1910, for the world leaders who were attending the funeral of the late King Edward VII. More, including a photograph of nine of the gathered kings, on this thread.
And look, frankly I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to pass along to you the opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August:
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens - four dowager and three regnant - and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
— Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, touches on the social consequences of digital media:
42. Oddly enough, while closed and intolerant attitudes towards others are on the rise, distances are otherwise shrinking or disappearing to the point that the right to privacy scarcely exists. Everything has become a kind of spectacle to be examined and inspected, and people’s lives are now under constant surveillance. Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously. Respect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives.
43. Digital campaigns of hatred and destruction, for their part, are not – as some would have us believe – a positive form of mutual support, but simply an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy. “Digital media can also expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships”. They lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.
— Neils Bohr to Werner Heisenberg (from Heisenberg’s Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations):
Isn’t it strange how this castle [pictured below] changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a quite different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness in the human soul, we hear Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be.’ Yet all we really know about Hamlet is that his name appears in a thirteenth-century chronicle. No one can prove that he really lived, let alone that he lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depth he was made to reveal, and so he, too, had to be found a place on earth, here in Kronberg. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes quite a different castle for us.
— During my conversation with Gov. Jerry Brown about his friendship with Ivan Illich, Gov. Brown briefly recounted how Illich expressed his preference for the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas over that of Martin Buber. A listener passed along an essay by Illich unearthing a history of ocular perception, which concluded with a discussion of Levinas on the human face:
Levinas set out to save "the face." The face of the other stands at the center of his life's work. The face of which he speaks is not my own, which appears reversed in the mirror. Nor is it the face that a psychologist would describe. For Levinas, face is that which my eye touches, what my eye caresses. Perception of the other's face is never merely optical, nor is it silent; it always speaks to me. Central in what I touch and find in the face of the other is my subjectivity: "I" cannot be except as a gift in and from the face of the other
I’ve used this space in the past to let you know about recent publications. There’s not been too much of that lately, but I will remind more recent subscribers of my last essay in The New Atlantis, “The Analog City and the Digital City,” if for no other reason than to direct you to their recently and beautifully redesigned website. And those of you relatively new to the newsletter may also want to check out a recent collection of my writing here.
Allow me to also pass along a link to my conversation with Henry Zhu, which you can find on his podcast in two parts: “Natural Limits” and, appropriately enough, “The Convivial Society.” You’ll note that Henry does these things right. The page for each of these conversations includes a time-stamped transcript with relevant quotes and links included.
Finally, I’m sure you’ve noted that I’m barely keeping up with the main installments of the newsletters and Dispatches have been few and far between over the last two months. On second thought, maybe you haven’t noticed at all. Either way, I’ll keep plugging along here as best I can. As always, thanks for reading.