Thresholds of Artificiality

The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 13


Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture, broadly speaking. This post began as part of a recent feature I’ve titled “Is this anything?”: one idea for your consideration in less than 500 words. It spilled over 500 words, however, so just consider it a relatively brief dispatch. My writing is an exercise in thinking out loud, so I’m never quite sure where it will lead. Of course, I do hope my thinking out loud is helpful to more than just myself. Finally, the newsletter is public by design, but the support of those who are able to give it is encouraged and appreciated.

In ordinary conversation, I’d say that the word artificial tends to be used pejoratively. To call something artificial is usually to suggest its inferiority to some ostensibly natural alternative. For example, the boast “No artificial sweeteners!” come to mind. And when applied to people, the word suggests a lack of authenticity or sincerity. But if we recall the word’s semantic relation to artifice or art, then we might come to see artificiality in a different light. In one sense, artificiality is just another way of speaking about what historian Thomas Hughes simply called the “human-built world.”

So, for example, in Orality and Literacy Walter Ong wrote, “To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it.” A bit further on he added, “Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it.”

I’d phrase that last line a bit differently. It would be better to say, “Certain technologies, properly interiorized, do not degrade human life but on the contrary enhance it.” In other words, technology is not one thing, and we should take care to discriminate. There are various forms of artificiality, and they are not all equal. Listening to a trained human voice, a musical instrument, a recording of a musical instrument, a recording of AI-generated sounds—these are all distinct activities. Alternatively, human artifice can work with humble regard for the non-human world or it can operate with what Albert Borgmann has called “regardless power,” that is power that takes no thought of how it disrupts the non-human or, for that matter, the human world. Historically, there have been (and will be) a variety of techno-social configurations.

I often cite writers such Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, who are often (poorly) read as reactionary romantics pining for some lost pre-technological idyll. Ellul, it is true, was rather explicit about the eclipse of nature in modern technological societies. But neither of them are opposed to human artifice or technology per se. Indeed, Illich, especially, sought to encourage the development of what he called convivial tools. Illich also supplied us with the eminently useful concept of thresholds or limits beyond which practices, technologies, or institutions become counterproductive and even destructive. This seems like a useful concept to apply to the question of artificiality. 

So I find myself wondering if there is a threshold of artificiality beyond which human artifice becomes counterproductive and destructive. I’m not thinking principally of particular technologies, which might be turned toward destructive ends. I’m thinking, rather, of an aggregate degree of artificiality distancing us from the non-human world to such an extent that — paradox again (!) — our capacity to flourish as human beings is diminished. What are the consequences of so structuring our necessarily artificial environment that we find ourselves largely indifferent to the rhythms, patterns, and textures of the non-human world? What are the physical consequences? What are the emotional or psychological consequences? At what cost to the earth is our artificial world purchased?

I found myself also reflecting on the Prologue to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. “The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition,” Arendt observed in the mid-20th century,

“and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice. The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms.”

“For some time now,” Arendt went on to say, “a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also ‘artificial,’ toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature.” 

She was not sanguine about the prospects. “This future man” she observed, “[…] seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”

Arendt’s reflections were spurred by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. She noted that scientists on both sides of the Cold War had already speculated about humanity’s destiny being extra-terrestrial (anticipating more recent pronouncements by notable tech moguls). She also speculated about the impact of automation for human labor and the consequences of biological engineering. In other words, her concerns have aged well. 

I think, for example, of the recent announcement about the first human-monkey chimeras, a rather striking example of what Bruno Latour described as the modern constitution. Latour argued that modernity consisted of a double movement of purification and hybridization. On the surface, the modern world is constructed through a series of differentiations, which Latour calls purifications. Science is purified of faith, politics of religion. We might also add the separations of body and mind, nature and the human. Of course, Latour’s point was that we have never been modern in this sense. All the while, under the cover of this project of purification, all manner of hybridizations were underway. Human beings must first be distinguished from nature in order to then have their way with nature.

Now, while these hybridizations continue apace and the artificiality Arendt feared is alive and well, digital culture presents us with novel forms of artificiality that pose a different set of challenges. Consider, for example, Marc Andreessen’s recent response to a question about the possibly detrimental consequences of “constant, instantaneous contact” enabled by digital technology. 

“Your question is a great example of what I call Reality Privilege,” Andreessen claimed. He went on to elaborate as follows: 

This is a paraphrase of a concept articulated by Beau Cronin: "Consider the possibility that a visceral defense of the physical, and an accompanying dismissal of the virtual as inferior or escapist, is a result of superuser privileges." A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. These are also *all* of the people who get to ask probing questions like yours. Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.

The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don't think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build -- and we are building -- online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.

There’s obviously a great deal worth contesting in these two paragraphs, but, setting most of that aside, consider it in light of Arendt’s observations. Much of this seems to be quite different than the concerns that animated Arendt’s thinking nearly 70 years ago, but, in fact, I’d say the pattern is similar, except that Andreessen is defending a degree of digital artificiality that Arendt would almost certainly find questionable. In both framings, human artifice risks attenuating the relationship between the earth and the human condition. What is striking in both cases, however, may be how they reveal a structurally similar double movement as the one Latour described: one story veils another.

The story of a human retreat from this world, either to the stars above or the virtual realm within, can mask a disregard for or resignation about what is done with the world we do have, both in terms of the structures of human societies and the non-human world within which they are rooted. Put another way, we might say that imagining the digital sphere as a realm hermetically sealed off from the so-called “real world” gave cover to momentous analog-digital hybridizations that were already well underway throughout human society. The digital world is not the analog world; neither is it separate from it.

That seems like a good way to frame the broader question of artificiality. The trick is not to collapse the apparent paradox or tension. The human-built world is not equivalent to the non-human world, but neither is it separate from it. It is critical that we recognize both the distinctive features of each realm while also reckoning with their myriad points of interrelationship and interdependence.

I would argue that there are, in fact, thresholds of artificiality beyond which human artifice becomes counterproductive, but also that we ought to think about this in more than merely human terms. It often seems that a critique of artificiality generates a desire for the “natural.” Most of the time in these discussions, “nature” remains in the realm of standing reserve, raw material for the sake of human use. More to the point, it is commodified. When human artifice, in the modern techno-capitalist mode, has enclosed the non-human world, nature is always returned to us at a price, one that increasingly few are able to afford.