I love thinking about what would happen if Hannah Arendt were still alive to write about the internet and social media. But since that isn't possible, I'm going to take the step of trying to interpret some of her work as if it were about the internet, with all the hazards therein.
I wish more people read Arendt, just as I wish more people read more philosophers. Part of the reason that they don't, probably, is because the prose is a little dense. Arendt's philosophical masterwork The Human Condition is written in a somewhat philological style of philosophy. This isn't popular today, because people pick it up and say, "what do all these ancient Greek and Roman concepts have to do with me?" What Arendt is getting at is this: even though we think we live in a pluralistic society where we've mostly abandoned the canons of thought, we still have preconceptions about the way society works, that we've inherited from the Enlightenment, which inherited from Christianity, which inherited from the Romans, which inherited from the Greeks. We've internalized this, and it is a part of "Western discourse," which is still a part of the way we talk, think, and act, whether we like it or not.
But maybe if I phrase this as a "creation myth" rather than as intellectual heritage, it will seem easier to accept and more relevant. Philosophy is just a myth after all--we don't have to worry about whether or not it is strictly true, or whether it is the only possible story about how our values came to be. The value of any philosophical story is to build up ideas from some smaller elements, to show how small ideas make bigger ideas. So, let me try and re-tell Arendt's creation myth about how we got the notions of public and private.
To begin with, Arendt is interested in three different notions of "activity." First, there is "labor," which is the stuff we do to stay alive, because we are biological bodies that will decay unless we take steps to counter that. Second, there is "work," which creates artificiality--in other words, work is everything that we make from nature, that because of that making, is no longer nature. And third, there is "action." This one is the most ethereal and spacey, because Arendt really likes this notion. When philosophers especially like a notion, they tend to make it obscure and nebulous. Action is, more or less, anything that we do that acknowledges how we are human. It is a combination of an activity and an acknowledgment of that activity as vital to our existence. Separate from securing our biological existence, and separate from simply making stuff, it is through action that we recognize that humans are all the same, at the same time as we are unique. This is basically what separates us from other forms of life--regardless of how different or not we may be from other forms of life, we continue to conduct actions that we believe make us different. As humans, we "do important human stuff," that that we think is important. It helps us understand who we are and what our lives are about, separately as individuals, who all together are humans. This important human stuff is action.
Arendt didn't just make all this up. These categories come from Greek and Roman philosophy, and were fundamental to how all those dead people thought about life. To the Greeks, doing labor was the lowest form of existence, because through it, you are the same as any other animal. Labor such as this, was relegated to the "private" realm of the home. Your means of survival was conducted behind closed doors. And, if you had means enough that someone was helping you out with your means of survival (i.e. women or slaves) they only existed behind closed doors as well.
What this enabled, was a contrary "public" realm--the agora. This was where, if you were a man that had your home life well in hand (it should be mentioned that in Greek "home" was called oikiri, and is the root of oikonomikos, the manager of an estate, and the predecessor to "economy") you could emerge from the drudgery of animal life to conduct activity as a human being, through democratic debate and speech. Speech, for the Greeks, was the highest form of human activity. Even better than fighting, which was still on the level of animals, and was conducted outside of the public realm of speech. With the same power and violence that you mastered your home and family, you preserved your life and your city. But the point of handling all this dirty labor was so you could argue important ideas as a citizen in the public realm of debate. Everyone had a private life, even if they were invisible like women and slaves. But only the rare few had a public life. No one had to defend the "public realm" as a concept, because it was created definitionally. It was the place where the labor and violence of the private realm was not.
Obviously, this is pretty fucked up, but it resonates closely with some of the ideas of we still have about democracy today. Home labor is often invisible. Democracy is treated as a good worth fighting for, even if that fighting is fairly anti-democratic, and even if democracy includes only portions of the entire populace. We've internalized a lot of these ideas, whether through simple cultural heritage, or because the people who wrote the structure of the way our current laws work were inspired by people inspired by people inspired by people who actually lived this way.
But that said, the Greek public realm is still different from our modern concept of the public arena. It is not about equity. It is about peerage. And I'll just quote Arendt here directly because she says it well:
"To be sure, this equality of the political realm has very little in common with our concept of equality: it meant to live among and to have to deal only with one's peers, and it presupposed the existence of "unequals" who, as a matter of fact, were always the majority of the population in a city-state."
The Greeks had no illusion that this was fair, exactly. They knew very well that there were slaves in their society. They looked upon their households not even as a "necessary evil," but simply the nature of life.
"Public life, obviously, was possible only after the much more urgent needs of life itself had been taken care of. The means to take care of them was labor, and the wealth of a person therefore was frequently counted in terms of the number of laborers, that is, slaves, he owned. To own property meant here to be master over one's own necessities of life and therefore potentially to be a free person, free to transcend his own life and enter the world all have in common."
The importance of "peerage" here is that the public realm did not necessarily denote a strict set of procedures for engaging in that public realm, for who could and could not take part. It was simply a state of mastery, at which point your private life could be said to be private, and then you were able to engage publicly. There was no application for citizenship. There was no ⅗ Clause, like in American racial slavery. They were not voting. There was no gerrymandering. The public realm was simply the natural place where speaking, arguing, and trying to convince each other of things could take place in a city. It was actually fairly aggressive: "the public realm itself, the polls, was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements that he was the best of all (aim aristeuein)." But cutthroat as it might have been, there were no cut throats there. The importance of Greek citizenship, for Arendt, was about the line between these two areas. That, despite our messy biology and our propensity for violence, we create spaces where inter-subjective action can take place.
Another difference between our notion of the public and the public realm of the Greeks, was that their public arena not equivalent to society. Societas is Latin, and as Arendt tells it, the term developed with the Romans to indicate "an alliance between people for a specific purpose, as when men organize in order to rule others or to commit a crime." The specific purpose we might most easily understand, as the Romans also understood, was "an organization of property-owners who, instead of claiming access to the public realm because of their wealth, demanded protection from it for the accumulation of more wealth." But not just for making more money. Societies were also created for purposes such as:
"a society of the faithful, as in the Middle Ages, or a society of property-owners, as in Locke, or a society relentlessly engaged in a process of acquisition, as in Hobbes, or a society of producers, as in Marx, or a society of jobholders, as in our own society, or a society of laborers, as in socialist and communist countries."
Political force was used to institute these societies, and to keep them internally "free" of outside interference. Whether they were enforced by their members or by outside authorities, the demarcation lines of the society was not accomplished by the difference between public and private, between labor and action, but by whatever arbitrary rules the society chose to enable their purpose. Therefore, creation of societies led to an erosion upon the Greek concept of the public realm. Societies were not de facto realms created by mastery over one's affairs, but procedural jurisdictions. The violence that was once contained within the walls of the household, or outside the walls of the city, were allowed to intrude upon the public realm as societies began to cut across it. Violence, as an aspect of private life, was escaping its limits, and its coercive power was applied to a wider body of members than just those of the household. Religious practice came out of the household, and was controlled by the leadership of the priest. The acquisition of wealth is under the control of a lord or guild. The process of making things is now under the authority of a boss. The process of enforcing rules in now in the hands of the chief of police. And so on.
With all of these aspects of formerly private life now instituted via societies into the daily life of the rich and powerful, they had no more public existence, in the Greek sense. The ethics of these societies replace democratic speech as action in the agora. The people actually doing the labor and the work are still invisible, and there is still a "head of household" in charge, though they carry a variety of different hats and badges. But rather than stopping at the walls of the house, these violent regimes extended outward, they overlap, and the political force that was meant to mark the boundaries of a public realm where human action (in the form of speech and argument) could exist, began to proliferate and complicate rapidly into a morass of social forms.
Eventually, the despotic influence of the head of household, after first becoming the priest, the lord, and the boss, finally dissolved completely. Whereas there had been no equality in Greek citizenship, the enforced "equality" of family members under the tyrannical rule of the father in the household, was duplicated in the supposed "equality" of members of society in that "household,". Previously, the head of the household had enforced common interest and unanimous opinion in private, while the public realm was a place of debate. Now, common interest and unanimous opinion were dictated in society by the tyrannical force of majoritarianism. Not just for opinion either, but for economics, for political system, for morality, for religion. The father, becomes all of us. Which, incidentally, for me has always been the true meaning of #NoDads. Society is ruled by no one, and yet rules nevertheless. The one dad you cannot flip off is the dad inside.
"But this nobody, the assumed one interest of society as a whole in economics as well as the assumed one opinion of polite society in the salon, does not cease to rule for having lost its personality. As we know from the most social form of government, that is, from bureaucracy (the last stage of government in the nation-state just as one-man rule in benevolent despotism and absolutism was its first), the rule by nobody is not necessarily no-rule; it may indeed, under certain circumstances, even turn out to be one of its crudest and most tyrannical versions."
What is especially interesting in Arendt's work is that she shows that this has little to do with the accumulation of property, and in fact, points out that Marx was wrong for thinking that appropriating all private property would wither away oppressive societal relations, as well as the state itself. Society, as oikonomikos, allowed the nation-state to create a "national household," that was already present within the very structure of the state. Whether the economic system is made from private property or common property, as long as the means of biological subsistence are distributed by economy--in essence, a national head of household--the laborers of the national household will be shoved behind closed doors… or worse. And Arendt should know, having studied the matter in detail in her excellent work The Origins of Totalitarianism. And even today, government is, as she describes, "transformed into a nation-wide "housekeeping," until in our own day it has begun to disappear altogether into the even more restricted, impersonal sphere of administration." In contemporary societal administration, property management and biological management become one and the same thing. Indeed, the modern surveillance state is really just a massive administration of various forms of digital and biological property--a penal household, with prison cells for those bodies who have tripped the accounting algorithm, all held in place by unanimous, faceless, tyrannical opinion.
But more directly related to our myth, what has happened is that now we have nearly no sense of public life, because the Greek sense of private life has become the general aspiration of society. The clearest indication of this, Arendt writes, is that modern communities are societies of laborers and jobholders. The only way we have to identify ourselves to each other is by our means of subsistence. Wealth, religious practices, reproductive status, and profession are other major ways by which society sorts us and decides what sort of equity we deserve, given the rules of our system. All of these would have been part of private life in Greek society, and we would have been called upon to distinguish ourselves publicly in other ways. But because our current, non-Greek public face is now understood through these markers, it all becomes a performance, with defined roles to be played.
It's important to understand that there is nothing really wrong with this on its face. Labor and work are necessary. Certainly, as an alternative to current society, life within an Ancient Greek household would not be preferable. The privileged oneupmanship of Greek public life doesn't really sound great either. But what Arendt is arguing is that we have lost the idea of striving for something more. Living one's life as a white, masculine, Jewish writer (speaking for myself here) is not a bad existence. But what if I could be more than that? What if I, along with other human beings, could become more than these trapping of societal categories and engage as mutual, diverse human beings? Not to ignore our labor and make it invisible, but to seek additionally personal fulfillment beyond the satisfaction of biological and social needs. I'm reminded of Donna Haraway's definition of feminism, as about "critical vision consequent upon a critical positioning in unhomogeneous gendered social space." Not a rejection or a shrouding of the private realm, but a critical positioning of the private in conjunction with critical vision towards an unhomogeneous public. It is these two separate things--the unhomogeneous gendered space, and the critical vision--are considered as separate, but critically linked. I think Arendt is looking for something similar between the public and private. The violence that the Ancient Greeks used to keep private and the public realms separate, now should be part of a critical positioning. This is what should be appropriated from the heads of households, more than any particular piece of property.
Without such a critical positioning, our current performance in the codified language of societal categories leads us only towards the abstracted "general good" of humankind, as our potential public life is flattened onto the private. We are told to "make a living," "make a family," "make a lifestyle," "make a difference," "make something beautiful." But these are all labor and work, inflated into homogeneous life goals. None of these goals involve a critical positioning between our biological needs and our human aspirations. Where is the human action? The actions that we should be seeking, like love, passion, deep thought, sensorial wonder, are not things that can be easily performed and ratified by society. They are things that are harder to describe, harder to recognize, and therefore, not factored into society's logic.
Therefore, Arendt argues, we end up appreciating "small things," rather than pursuing a higher instinct of our shared humanity:
"Since the decay of their once great and glorious public realm, the French have become masters in the art of being happy among "small things," within the space of their own four walls, between chest and bed, table and chair, dog and cat and flowerpot, extending to these things a care and tenderness which, in a world where rapid industrialization constantly kills off the things of yesterday to produce today's objects, may even appear to be the world's last, purely humane corner."
It's not that these things are material or superficial, it is that they are codified as symbols of intimacy by a "head of household" other than ourselves, because we have never been taught to codify our own intimate desires. When one tries to ratify their own experience of intimacy publicly, they must translate it into acceptable forms to be recognized as aspiration, which must therefore comply with societal rules.
Public admiration, as another example, can "fulfill one need as food fulfills another." But public admiration is quickly overtaken by monetary reward, because the monetary reward can appreciate, and therefore society views this as more adequate of a response.
"The point then is not that there is a lack of public admiration for poetry and philosophy in the modern world, but that such admiration does not constitute a space in which things are saved from destruction by time. The futility of public admiration, which daily is consumed in ever greater quantities, on the contrary, is such that monetary reward, one of the most futile things there is, can become more "objective" and more real."
Withdrawing from societal rules en masse is a dead end, because society is simply replicated. Arendt mentions monasticism as an example of a dedicated attempt to share love socially, withdrawn from public life, that lead to "a kind of counterworld, a public realm within the orders themselves," that would "require additional rules and regulations, the most relevant one in our context being the prohibition of excellence and its subsequent pride." In the same way society attempts to resolve aspirations through the intimacy of labor and work that fulfill a "general human good," the monastery creates a microcosm of this system, encouraging work for the good of the order, under strict rules against individual aspiration. Looking at the ethics of contemporary artist, political, or tech collectives, it is easy to see the same thing. Withdrawing from societal rules only creates more societal rules. It is not about how big or small the society is, or what its guiding goals are. It is that we have forgotten how to cordon off our private problems away from our shared public aspirations, so that they both may flourish separately.
Society subsumes not only our public aspirations with its codified symbology, but the private realm of biological labor. We are encouraged to share particular aspects of our biology and hide others. Society is watching us all the time, making sure that our biological systems, as the unhomogeneous grounding of our hopes and dreams, are regulated and validated by societal ideas of general human good. Arendt wants us to keep the public and private seperate, not out of any sense of hierarchy, but so they can be understood as different, and each managed according to how they function. The Ancient Greeks are certainly no model here. But imagine a private household, where within its walls there are micro-public realms, of no less human aspirations to self-organization of biological needs. Not a duplication of society, like a monastery, or a duplication of the patriarchal household. But cells of humanity, oriented to their biology, but not reduced to it or removed from it.
Arendt still sees human action occurring, despite the quelling effect of society, when multiple people are able to gather and cognize the world by acknowledging "sameness in utter diversity." To do that, private space is necessary. This is where the individual can understand themselves as biological beings, and develop their own sense of fulfillment, without having society's own definition of crass intimacy forced upon them. The public and private must work in concert, so that no one is "deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others," but not under the terms of mass society, "where we see all people suddenly behave as though they were members of one family [… ] all imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times."
There is something that seems potentially reactionary about Arendt's ideas of the public and private--because it seems to be arguing for a notion of "authentic human experience," and she is certainly influenced by Heidegger in this language. However, I think unlike Heidegger, who seemed to be given to envisioning a particular, singular "society" for his own brand of authentic being, Arendt really leaves open quite a bit of possibility for strange, unhomogeneous communities with separately functional private and public spaces.
But most importantly, what is crucial here is the understanding that this public/private dichotomy is not to be societally imposed! There could be many overlapping public/private dichotomies. What is public with one person, could be private with another. I see Arendt's critique of society being turned around to form a critical position against the functionality of the Ancient Greeks--why is it that women are in the household? Who decided that is the case? What happens when women and/or slaves take up violence against the head of the household? Who will ally with them or against them? And where will the new public realm be formed once the old patriarchal agora has been smashed? What was hidden within the Ancient Greek household, and what we must assume was violent patriarchy, could for us become much more complex and nuanced. Or then again, it might not. This is the danger of our human biology. Our biology is fraught with evolutions and revolutions, and those most in tune with their biology will maintain the best control over it, and use it to generate the best adjacent public spaces.
This is the myth of the public and private. But how does Arendt's story relate to social media?
We can see that social media is inherently societal, using Arendt's language. Which is not surprising, of course, because the internet is part of society, and so naturally functions according to its varied rules. But what is interesting is that as an evolution of the internet, social media is the descendant of network forms that were, in fact, more separate from society, and at one time were more akin to the Ancient Greek public realm. But that separation has since eroded, and now social media has made the internet, once again, just like society, and a codified conflation of both the private and the public realms.
The internet, at one point, was a privileged space, for a relative few, who had their biological necessities secured via some sort of labor hidden in a different, private space. There, all kinds of great, aspirational things could happen, and people felt more human as they conducted these sorts of vital actions. But then, different societal networks were instituted. Networks for particular activities, for work, for defining us by our jobs, for making money, for gaining public admiration, for sharing oneself, and now even for managing your basic biological functions. The state has created national networks, or national control over otherwise free networks, drawing all of networked society into its cyber household. And all around the societal networks, is the violence--mandating certain behaviors, disallowing others, keeping particular work and labor marginal and invisible. The networks have become one more factor of the great administration of society. We look to networks to verify our experience of personal intimacy via codified symbols, just as we do to other non-networked aspects of society. And naturally, even the public admiration, those fleeting moments of human fulfillment we might be able to glean from these networks, are largely filtered out in the drive to monetize it.
All of which sounds like a rehash of the "Internet = new and bad!" arguments at first, until you look at it compared to Arendt's critical alternatives. What if, rather than duplicating societal structures through data, our digital media networks were used to create two different types of network--that of private media on the one hand, and public media on the other. Connected, but with a strong differentiation between the two, allowing them to fulfill separate functions for the humans who use them, but critically intersected.
Imagine, instead of social media, a public media. It is not designed for societal mandates, but for nothing less vital than, in Arendt's words, "the human condition of plurality [...] where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear." Public media can only exist in partnership with a separate, private media, where we resolve the biological necessities of human life, labor, and work, all of which necessary to allow public media to exist as a separate, independent realm. Violence, the minute it approaches either of these two realms, is immediately opposed, because neither the private nor the public can now exist under duress. One would pull the plug, cram tools between the gears, burn down the walls of our own household, before allowing violence to leak from the private recesses of humanity and begin intruding upon the human practices of private and public media.
There is something of a ritualized context here, which I think is important to explain a bit. Deciding what to keep public and what to keep private seems arbitrary, and therefore, reminiscent of society's morals. The difference is that morals are currently arbitrary, but were once created based upon a culture's understanding of biological necessity. Clean/unclean dichotomies, sacred/profane dichotomies--these religious proscriptions were based upon a logic that is all but gone, and the rule is all that is left, maintained as a societal control. But what if each body was allowed to decide its own logic of sacred/profane? To decide when it was to be kept private, and when it was to be shared? This would not be so much a ritual, as a politics, that would be a grounding for the human life inhabiting that body.
Then the question becomes how other would act, upon apprehending these boundaries. We have become so expressive as a species, so ready to fulfill (or flaunt) society's moral expectations, that we have stopped asking why we do or do not share, and furthermore, we have stopped understanding the ritual privacy of silence as a response to a question.
We know we want to share: to feel human, to understand passion and desire, to experience intimacy in any form, even if trite or cliche. We know all those things in a general way, but we don't recall how they are linked to our biology, either our own or others. And so we just guess. We make assumptions. We are uncertain who to share with, and what the feedback will be, so we operate by what we think are the general rules of society, although they may fail to be relevant. I think a lot times we happen upon the right thing by accident, by experimentation. At the end of the day, we close our laptop after a day of sharing and feel better about ourselves as human beings. Other days, we really want other people to understand something, and even though we thought we were using all the correct societal signals, no one heard us, and no one saw. And sometimes, we try to share ourselves, and all we get in return is violence, forcing us away from any possibility of admiration for our human diversity.
But if I'm just saying, "share with some people some of the time and more people other times," you would say, "great, I got that without all this bullshit about Ancient Greeks." I think there could be a lot more theory along these lines, that really started to figure out how to do this Arendtian dance between our humanity and our biology. I know a number of people who use two twitter accounts--one locked, and one unlocked. Who teaches us how to do this? Who is thinking about this, as a unique form of human expression? All we hear is about sharing on "the social"--about the intimacy that is available if you use this particular tool, about accumulating quantitative admiration, or monetary reward, about the various societal meme-conduits for that sort of sharing. We hear about social do's and don'ts. But very little about how to be a human being in public and in private, both with and without communications technology.
What would a network look like that was designed to be an Arendtian public/private space? What would differentiate such a network from more societal administration of our activities and bodies? What sort of controls must it have to avoid the societal and nation-state epidemics of media violence? What sort of functionality would create perfect control of labor and work, unthreatened by coercive violence, that would then allow a person to determine sources of their own personal fulfillment?
Our networks are not designed to do these things, because they are designed as societies, in Arendt's terminology. And so, we aren't used to thinking like this. We think of public and private as categories of property and socially-inscribed content, rather than as two different shades of our own individuality.
Nevertheless, we do have moments when we realize that such an orientation is possible. The "safe space" is a great example. Those who have never had the means to enter a public space before forcibly create one, shutting out those who would cause that space to collapse. But what happens inside a public space, when it is constituted by those who have never had one before? It is hard to say, but it is theirs to discover. We are slowly but surely making our way towards personal private spaces, where we are in control of our bodies and can maintain ourselves without coercing others to manage it for us. But there is some distance to go yet, and the distribution of the means of producing this private space falls much further short. What is the relationship between public safe spaces and private safe spaces? Do we even know the difference? We are beginning to distrust neoliberal "democracy" as a societal farce, and the nation-state as just another patriarchal household. We are beginning to seek our own democratic structures, learning how they function ourselves, rather than trusting societal values. But still, we do too much replication of society as a microcosm, and far too little exploring of our own bodies and minds in private.
Technology is a tool, of course. It could either help or hurt our human activities, or both. But what is unique with so-called "social" media is that it is creating a new revaluation of our notions of both public and private--though the misdirection and the harmful notions of what these categories are, are currently running riot throughout society. I think Arendt is helpful in getting us to think deeper about the western legacy of these notions, even if we don't want to completely adopt her philosophy.