Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Human Condition

A while ago I was talking with a friend of mine about some science fiction I'd read. I don't remember the story's premise, but it was something different from the everyday reality we moderns are familiar with. My friend's reaction was to dismiss the story as absurd: “But that would change the human condition!”

People often use the term “human condition” as if it referred to something immutable and eternal. Although I suspect that some aspects of our existence are forced upon us by the fact that we are tool-using social animals, a lot of the assumption we and everyone we know make about our lives seem more likely to be specific to our time and place. So I've wondered from time to time: what does constitute a change to the human condition? (And is the human condition shared by all humans at all times? Could some nonhumans also experience the human condition?)

I'll take a shot at answering my question, even though other people have answered it often and with more thought. A human condition, I'll say, is a broad cultural outlook constrained by human institutions, and includes the possibilities people perceive for their own lives when they live under those institutions. A human condition is not specific to a particular culture, in the usual sense of the world “culture”, but belongs instead to a broad complex of cultures at roughly the same level of development. A change in the human condition is a change in the shape of the psychological space of the people who share that condition, or at any rate in the consensus of those people on what psychological spaces exist.

I think agriculture was probably a technology big enough to have changed the human condition. It turned the landscape from a natural place to a made place. It created property and wealth in the modern sense—you could own more than you could carry. Agriculture required longer-term planning and longer persistence at a single activity than hunting and gathering, and so created the beginnings of the modern sense of time.

Agriculture enabled cities, another human-condition disruption. Cities meant that, for the first time, most people you encountered on a daily basis were strangers. That meant rules for how to behave in public, and so there was now a distinction between public and private spaces.

Cities required larger and more anonymous systems of government than agricultural villages, and so begat the state. States, and the elaborate religions that accompanied them, created the possibility of loyalties to things and people other than your family and friends.

And perhaps my favorite of all, there's writing. Writing, for the literate, turns memory from a short-term feat shared with few to enduring knowledge shared with many—with the world and with the ages, if you're lucky and you write skillfully enough. Knowledge has always been a form of power, but writing let you acquire a whole heap of knowledge and literally lock it up.

For the five millennia from the invention of writing and the rise of the first city-states until the industrial revolution, I would say that the human condition remained largely unchanged in the most densely populated parts of the world. States came and went; religions came and went; languages and customs came and went; technologies came and went. But the shape of psychological possibilities in most urban and agricultural societies was similar: if you were a member of the elite, you had some measure of freedom and some scope for ambition, and often a reasonably broad education even by modern standards. And if you were not one of the elite, you usually had little or none of those. And it was obvious to everyone that there had to be an elite who had the freedom to obey their desires, and a much larger mass of people who had to obey the elite.

The harnessing of fossil fuels and the invention of mass production again changed the shape of society and of human ambitions. Even relatively poor people could afford more than the minimum needed to keep them alive. Societies could afford to educate everyone. Knowledge was still power, but there was a lot more power around, both in terms of the physical expenditure of energy and the degree of control people had over their lives. The assumption that an elite is inevitable became open to question. Democracy became widely viewed not as a dangerous experiment but as the default way to organize government.

The latest thing to change the human condition is the internet, or more precisely, inexhaustible storage and retrieval of information and ubiquitous connectivity to that information. Remember conversations before Google? Traveling before GPS? Those experiences are shrinking in the rear view mirror, off to join the telegraph and the steam locomotive. Now everyone knows everything, or at least everything for which they can come up with decent search terms. Although there are types of power other than knowledge, the power that is knowledge belongs to everyone in the world who can afford a phone or a computer.

I don't think I've fully internalized what it means to be human now that our condition has changed again. Have you? What do we do with ourselves now?


  1. I think 'the human condition' refers our most essential experiences, that is, we are born, we experience suffering and joy, and eventually we die; and we are charged with the question of how we should live, given this knowledge.

    In that sense the human condition has never changed. True immortality or the eradication of all suffering would change the human condition.

    It is tempting to say we are better off than the ancients, or medieval peoples because of our technological advances, but in a very real sense, nothing has changed: we still suffer and die, and we still struggle under the weight of the question about how we should live.

  2. That sounds a lot like a "living being" condition to me. What's unique to humans, or even social animals, about joy, suffering, and dying?