For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The robot condition: Karel Čapek's R.U.R. and Hannah Arendt on labor, technology, and innovation"

by Dinan, Matthew (2017)


This article reads Karel Čapek's R.U.R. through the lens of Hannah Arendt's critique of technology in The Human Condition. Arendt and Čapek share a suspicion that modernity's attempts to overcome labor through the use of technology undermines the human condition of natality. Indeed, the revolt of Čapek's Robots dramatizes Arendt's warnings of the dangers of a “society of laborers without labor” and “world alienation.” Both thinkers suggest that the dilemmas posed by modern technology cannot be resolved through “practical” means but require loving attentiveness to the fragile conditions in which genuine natality can emerge.

Key Passage

For Arendt the desire to escape labor through technology has, in a kind of diabolical inversion, led to the creation of a society devoted exclusively to laboring. Where humans previously enjoyed a variety of forms of the active life, we now devote our striving to caring for our bodies. Modern technology in this way dislodges the traditional world-building role of techne in human life; this is perhaps why Arendt so rigorously distinguishes work from labor in The Human Condition, a distinction some critics of her work consider fraught. In her analysis of the tools used by homo faber, for instance, she notes that work produces tools that can “ease the effort of labor,” but the tools themselves are a product of work, not labor. This means that tools exist “in order to erect a world, not—at least not primarily—to help the human life process”. If a tool makes labor easier, this is secondary to its purpose in creating durable artifacts that resist the decay caused by the life cycle. As Tama Weisman puts it, “[a]t stake is in the distinction between labor and work is the difference between a life lived now and now and now—with a cyclic repetition of the same; and a life with the insertion of permanent structures that add linearity, that is to say structures that make historical continuity possible” . Insofar as modern technology puts work in the service of labor, the distinction between the activities has been almost completely lost. Instead of standing against nature, technique produces tools that perpetuate natural cycles of growth and decay. Our machines consequently fail to serve humanly defined purposes governed by “useless” categories like the beautiful or the noble. Increasingly, they are devoted to the single goal of preserving bodily human life. Technology thus channels the natural forces of the earth into our service in such a way as to threaten the “worldliness” of the human world. Although natural forces simply are—in endless repetition of the same—the human world is purposively willed into existence; the products of work have definite beginnings and clearly defined ends. When our machines do nothing more than keep us alive, they force open “the distinguishing boundaries which protected the world, the human artifice, from nature, the biological process which goes on in its very midst as well as the natural cyclical processes which surround it, delivering and abandoning to them the always threatened stability of a human world” . The “question” concerning technology is not “whether we are masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world of its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy the world of things”. For Arendt a “world” is the precondition of “objectivity.” It is the “intersubjective” sharing that makes things appear to us in common. It is thus the basis of community and action, because it provides a shared, objective sense of belonging. Arendt calls the loss of this objectivity “world alienation.” (p.109)


Čapek, Arendt, Technology, Natality, Robot, German Idealism


On Arendt, Robots

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