Earth alienation: Hannah Arendt on outer space

This space expansionist ideology marked the beginning of what Arendt called "earth alienation."

An astronaut floats in outer space
Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash

On Wednesday 30th May, billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX company launched its first human passengers into orbit from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, opening a door to the commercialization of space.

With the National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, and the SpaceX-manufactured manned orbital rocket, this was the first time that a private firm had carried humans into space orbit. For Musk, it was "a dream come true", as he took a small step towards his ultimate goal: the colonization of Mars. But he is not alone, soon the billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson will follow suit with their respective commercial space exploration companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Orbit.

When the erstwhile USSR launched Sputnik into space in 1957, it was the first time that "an earth-born object made by man was launched into the universe." Those were the times of the Cold War and the 'space race', with both the Soviet Union and the United States seeking to gain a technological edge over each other. This space expansionist ideology initiated by the two great powers of the era marked the beginning of what Hannah Arendt called "earth alienation".

In 1963, soon after the first human expeditions to space and amid NASA's plans to launch the Apollo 11 lunar mission, Hannah Arendt participated in the contest "Symposium on Space", organized by The Great Ideas Today. She was asked whether "Man's conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?" "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man" was the essay that she published as a consequence of that contest. It was later included in the second edition of her book Between Past and Future (1961). The essay stemmed from and resonated with the prologue and the latter part of her book The Human Condition (1958). In both of these works, she writes of how science had transformed what it meant to be a human in the modern world. Arendt believed that technology was moving us away from communal participation in society; that it was uprooting the masses as it advanced individualism and execrated interdependence, pushing more and more people into the dungeon of loneliness. Ultimately, in her eyes, science was creating a type of human being who finds satisfaction merely in labour and consumption.

The essay thus begins with the question of whether man's conquest of space had increased or diminished his stature. The seemingly obvious answer would be that it had increased his stature, but Arendt did not subscribe to this popular notion. To her, if we went to space and began to control the heavens in the sky and the humans on the Earth, then we would simply become another entity; from "subjects" of the Earth we would become "objects" of the Earth, and cease to be the great, dignified human beings we are now. If we began to understand ourselves not as human beings on Earth but cosmically, we would get smaller.

Arendt believed that science is antithetical to anthropocentrism and humanism, and that it has taken us away from earthly, sensible reason. As she writes in her essay: "It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such humanistic concerns." What we learn from science is a truth that is not apparent in the world of sensory experience and "only by renouncing the explanation of life in the ordinary science" do we get to learn the scientific truth. It teaches us to deeply question our ability to have a common-sense view of the world, in which we can trust our senses.

Arendt was deeply frustrated by the idea of human departure from Earth into space. In The Human Condition (1958), she writes: "At the same time, we have begun to populate the space surrounding the earth with man-made stars, creating as it were, in the form of satellites, new heavenly bodies, and we hope that in a not very distant future we shall be able to perform what times before us regarded as the greatest, the deepest, and holiest secret of nature, to create or re-create the miracle of life. I use the word 'create' deliberately, to indicate that we are actually doing what all ages before ours thought to be the exclusive prerogative of divine action." Here, she sought to convey that the science used by men to change or manipulate our understanding and improve our world had now reached a breaking point in which universal sciences were remaking our world as artificial on the principles of not only physics but also political and anthropological sciences, which were designed to create a man-made world instead of one created by God.

The human condition

Arendt called the Sputnik launch the most important event of the modern era, because it represented the ability of mankind to leave and flee the Earth. This desire to flee the Earth has been central to the human condition for millennia: "The most radical change in the human condition we can imagine would be an emigration of men from the earth to some other planet. Such an event, no longer totally impossible, would imply that man would have to live under man-made conditions, radically different from those the earth offers him."

At the core of her argument, Arendt suggests that "the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition". If we, humans, were to be uprooted from Earth, it would create an alienation from that same Earth, having its roots in the development of science and technology. The advancement of science into outer space exploration would transform life itself, which was not artificial and yet, for some time now, we had been trying to make artificial. "Great many scientific endeavours have been directed toward making life also 'artificial' toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature."

Due to this, man "seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence" in wanting to remake everything that is not "good enough". Arendt writes that humanity has a "desire to become immortal", to live longer and faster in a way that would surpass biological processes; from a contemporary perspective, what we might understand as digitizing our bodies. The ultimate goal of this is to find another planet and settle there. But she continues that even if humans migrate from Earth to any other planet, it would still be an artificial one because it would be completely designed and created by humans. There would be no idea of "fate" because humans would be able to control everything. In that way, they would destroy natural processes, and be able to avert every natural thing they disliked. For Arendt, the artificial is not only something that is created by man, but something that is in man's control rather than God's. In living in such an artificial environment, humans would be treated as "objects", having less humanity and distinction; abandoning our earthliness. Arendt terms this the "loss of stature of man".

Finding the Archimedean point

Archimedes once said that if he had a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, he would shift the Earth from its position. In The Human Condition, Arendt quotes Kafka: "[Man] found the Archimedean point, but he used it against himself; it seems that he was permitted to find it only under this condition." Science may well have found such a point for us – a point from which we could think ourselves off the Earth to such an extent that we could look at the Earth not as our home but as some mechanical object; such that we could look at it from above by separating ourselves from it and making ourselves not those who are fated to live on Earth, but those who can create a new Earth.

Arendt further explains this in her essay "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man" (1961): "The human brain which supposedly does our thinking is as terrestrial, earthbound, as any other part of the human body. It was precisely by abstracting from these terrestrial conditions, by appealing to a power of imagination and abstraction which would, as it were, lift the human mind out of the gravitational field of the earth and look down upon her from some point in the universe."

The human brain is indeed earthly, yet science has allowed us to think from the Archimedean point. A point at which we could, in a sense, think from so far outside the Earth that we could remake it and see the Earth simply as something to be understood, not as a home but an "objective reality". If we apply this Archimedean point to ourselves, then our activities appear as no more than overt behaviour and we begin to study ourselves "with the same methods we use to study the behavior of rats."

Earth alienation

Arendt mentions that man has two competing parts. On the one hand, he is earthly, i.e. he is born into the world, and deals with fate and fortune, and with those things that are beyond his control. On the other hand, he is an artificer, one who can remake the world as he wills. This ability is the core of human freedom. We are not entirely free to make the world as we will, since it is natural, but we can in some sense make our world. In The Human Condition, Arendt queries what happens when we increasingly acquire the scientific and technological ability to remake not only parts of the world but the entire world; when we can create new planets, when we can clone, grow and design human beings who are made with human intent. What happens to human freedom in such a world?

Arendt answers that we face something called 'Earth alienation' – flight from the Earth to the universe. Its roots were crystallized when Galileo recorded the first astronomical observations using a telescope. As the weekly publication of the Hannah Arendt Center, Amor Mundi, explains in its editorial essay Human Being in an Inhuman Age: "Earth alienation is experienced when mankind succeeds in making all things on the earth (including the earth and mankind himself) subject to human mastery and control. When all human beings and human events can be made and remade by human invention, we humans will have fulfilled our rebellion against our fateful birth on this planet. In this sense, earth alienation challenges the quintessential human condition of being earthbound."

The scientific revolution increased our knowledge by giving us information about things we didn't have before. It taught us to distrust our senses and, in doing so, we started to think that universal science was more real than the things we encounter solely with our senses in our immediate world. We realized that we have never encountered reality and "instead of objective qualities, in other words, we find instruments, and instead of nature or the universe – in the words of Heisenberg – man encounters only himself."

"Expansion is everything"

The second part of Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism starts off with an epigraph by Cecil Rhodes, an English imperialist who exploited South African slaves and monopolized the diamond business in Africa. Arendt writes: "He had discovered the moving principle of the new imperialist era [that] expansion is everything." Rhodes famously claimed that "I would annex the planets if I could." As Rosa Luxemburg and others have suggested, imperialism is central to capitalism, because capitalists always need a downtrodden class as their subordinates whom they can oppress and exploit to keep capitalism growing – as Rhodes did in South Africa.

In his essay "The Case Against Mars", Byron Williston, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, writes: "The simple idea is that expansion is the next step in evolution and that we ought to push it forward." Elon Musk and his fellow billionaires have their intellectual forefather in Cecil Rhodes. They are implementing a new wave of expansion where they do not have to conform to political or economic quandaries. Rhodes only talked about annexing the stars, but Elon Musk is actually realizing it. This new imperialism, which aims to colonize space and the planets, would monopolize its targets even before they are inhabited. Evidently, after having destroyed the Earth's resources to the point where they will make the Earth uninhabitable, the rich will merely move to another planet, leaving the rest of us at the mercy of their destruction.

If this happens, it will be because the wealthy elite have masqueraded their commercial interests as technological advancement, thereby luring us into dreaming the unimaginable. While such cosmic fantasies are easy to indulge, it is worth heeding Arendt's essay, so that we might avoid a situation of blind belief; where we "failed to think".

Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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