Trying to work my way through the terminology offered by Hannah Arendt in “On Violence” (1968) because they seem quite useful: power, strength, force, and violence. I got sidetracked searching for an umbrella term to group these terms as, and the closest word I could arrive at was means. The O.E.D. had an interesting obsolete definition of mean, which disappeared just after Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” circa 1616.

A condition which permits or is conducive to something; an opportunity. In early use also plural: conditions or offered terms (of peace). Obsolete.

Arendt is speaking directly to the human condition in “On Violence.” Power is something that is defined as being a condition that emerges from human beings acting in concert. It is not a property of an individual, or a structure, or an apparatus– power is a motive term reserved for specific moments of human beings acting or having the potential to act in concert. This contrasts with strength, which is the ability/potential for individuals to provoke an action or response. Force is reserved as a term used for elemental forces, such as the wind, which cannot be possessed by humans only exploited.

What is interesting to me about the early definition of means is that it conflates with opportunity. Rather than offering the criminal justice proposal of means, motive and opportunity, for a short time, means was taken to imply opportunity. Thus, if people have the power they also have the opportunity– Sí se puede! Yes we can!  

Violence, in Arendt’s reasoning, is the opposite of power. Following Engels, Arendt asserts that violence  requires instruments. This is the intersection with technology, and technological theories. Specifically, weapons of violence are instruments that multiply speed, strength, and reach in order to inflict harm. They have an element of arbitrariness, and inflict harm usually with unpredictable consequences, save one– they destroy power.

To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where one rules the other is absent. Violence appears when power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. (155)

There is much to think about here. It is tempting to think that the arbitrariness of violence is brought about through the arbitrary nature of its instrumental means– technologies always have unintended consequences, but that would be a logical fallacy. Equivocating technology and violence is dangerous, I think. But it is hard not to wonder if all multiplications of speed, strength and reach (even in, for example, communication technology) aren’t violent in one way or another.

Arendt asserts categorically that violence cannot create or increase power because it promotes disunity. The arbitrary way that communications technologies, in the name of promoting unity, have increased polarization and disunity, promoting distrust and creating variations on a hallucinatory vision of reality makes me wonder if the idea that technology can lead to a better future dubious at best.

Can technology empower people?

I’m beginning to suspect not. People already have the power.