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The Enabling

In a world full of Siris and Alexas, misunderstandings blossom and flourish, knows Wolf Lotter.

10. September 2019
Magazine > Voices > The Enabling

Does progress take place of its own accord? And where in the process do we come in?

It may be true that those who have visions are in need of a doctor – but also of a television or a cinema to make sure if there is a root cause at the back of them. These can be a good starting point for pinpointing what lies behind the widespread view of digitisation and artificial intelligence, namely that we human beings, being faulty, will very soon be put out to pasture by self-learning machines and robots.

The best illustration available could well be Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the crew of the spacecraft Discovery is travelling from the Earth to Jupiter. During the flight the whole crew is in a deep sleep, apart from the two astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole. Their sleep and every other detail of the enterprise is monitored by the artificially intelligent supercomputer HAL 9000. The acronym stands for “Heuristically programmed Algorithmic System”. The computer does not only make its decisions in accordance with rigid rules laid down by its code. It can also think its own way towards solutions, just as human beings can. Heuristics are rules of thumb which people apply in everyday life when they are never in possession of enough information to make the optimum decision and when they are always under a bit of pressure to find the best, the ideal solution. It is not through perfection that we make progress but by experimentation. By trial and error.

Tipping Point Talk #3 - Possibility

In 2019, Erste Bank and Sparkassen, as well as ERSTE Foundation celebrate 200 years of the savings bank idea, which, in times of industrialisation and urbanisation, was not only civic-minded and economically viable but also innovative and audacious. Are there still lessons to be learned from the savings bank concept in 2019?

The journalist and author Wolf Lotter contributes four essays to the topics of the 2019 event series Tipping Point Talks: identity, normativity, possibility and audacity. In this text he reflects on possibility.

Of course, some things can go wrong in the process. In the film HAL 9000 makes a mistake. But that shatters the mutual trust between the crew and the computer. Bowman and Poole decide to pull its plug out. But HAL then reacts aggressively. It kills Poole and fights a duel to the death with Dave Bowman. The “mission”, as HAL constantly stresses, stands supreme above all. If HAL were human, the computer would probably be termed a technocrat. He is only doing his duty. But Bowman begins to improvise, he thinks his way towards the solution to his dilemma. And that allows him to succeed in outwitting the computer and putting a stop to it. It was Immanuel Kant who stated the motto of this scene: sapere aude. Have the courage to make use of your own reason. That is the only thing that allows us to advance.

The moral of the story is clear. Firstly: machines, and that includes computers, are our tools. Secondly: in every new situation the winner is the one who engages in thinking towards the end, the one who seeks solutions and does not search for problems. When the film came out in 1968, that was clear. The beat-pop-youth culture had joined the game, full of self-confidence. The “soixante-huitards” of 1968 demanded self-determination. The future was all a matter of choice. It all depends on what you make of it. But in a world full of Siris and Alexas, misunderstandings blossom and flourish.

Digitisation is a broad field – but nonetheless no more than one sector of automation, which we humans have been building ever since we first conceived of tools and processes. But since the beginning of industrialisation, automation has really picked up speed. The deal sounds quite simple: machines take care of the heavy lifting and the monotonous routines. In contrast, we humans think, solve problems and are thus creative and original. But since this process does not proceed uniformly but at greatly varying speeds, there are many who are still living in the world of routine and are dependent on it – materially and culturally. There are losers in the modernisation process just as there are beneficiaries. How do we keep the number of losers as small as possible? How do we construct progress so as to make it accessible for all? And what vision do we need so that a word like progress does not instil fear in most people, as it does today, but gives confidence. How can we encourage ourselves to move forward?

The year 2013 saw the publication of the study The Future of Employment by Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne. Commissioned by the Oxford Martin School, the two researched into the effects of robotics and digitisation. The result they came up with was that up to 47 percent of all jobs in the USA could be replaced by the available technology. When these results were applied to the state of play in Germany, it turned out that no less than 59 percent of all jobs could be dispensed with in the course of digitisation and with the technological means that are already foreseeable today. In 2018, the authors of the application of the study to Germany remarked that “since publication a practically religious debate has been raging about the possible consequences of automation and digitisation for the labour market”.[1]

The study names the greatest enemy of progress and transformation: the biggest “job losses” threaten where repetitive tasks constitute the biggest proportion of an occupation, such as with “office work” or with “clerical staff” whose decisions are mostly predetermined by fixed rules of the organisation. In contrast, university graduates need have little fear of becoming redundant as a result of digitisation, the reason being simply that they have learned to learn and to decide – these being the necessary preconditions for autonomous actions. These are the key qualifications for the knowledge society, in which work less and less frequently takes the form of repetition but of accessing through learning, thinking a way forward.

So what is today still regarded more as a peripheral characteristic of the academically educated is now emerging as a key factor for their success in the knowledge society: the ability to work more self-reliantly and more independently than others. That does not necessarily presuppose having studied for a university degree. Of course, all those who work creatively and self-directed, artisans or artists for example are capable of it. The knowledge worker, to quote the gist of how Peter Drucker put it, knows more about his work than his boss. He is, so to speak, the antithesis of alienation, the black box which capitulates in the face of complexity. The knowledge worker has learned to find original solutions to problems. It is not to the digital native that the future belongs but to the creative native who lodges the perfectly self-evident claim that technology is there to serve him, his interests and those of the community that he co-founds and develops further.

It is not to the “digital native” that the future belongs but to the “creative native”.

All that constitutes a massive rupture with the culture and the actual make-up of the industrial society which dominates our political and social system right up to the present day. The successes of yesteryear were founded precisely in uniformity, bureaucracy, routines and norms. They were based on standardisation, not on difference. But even the new industry, which has been designated “industry 4.0”, is nothing more than personalised production. It is no longer about mass and unity. It is all about the fulfilment of individual needs. In saturated markets the overriding issue is none other than: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. The key qualification for the knowledge society is a decision-making capacity – the result of independent thinking.

The required reading for all digitisers and for all those who are in fear of its consequences is readily available: Hannah Arendt’s Vita Activa or The Human Condition in which the great thinker makes it clear to us what work is and – as a demarcation to it – what it means to be a human being. Arendt defines “labour” as the lowest level of all activities, the confrontation with nature, the production of food and everything that goes to serve the preservation of daily existence. It is a world of the simple things which is increasingly being dictated by automation. This is followed by the world of “work”, that is the things that mankind is capable of creating independently of nature, things such as ideas, works of art, but also tools, robots, processes and algorithms. But with Arendt the highest form of activity is action, the world of social relationships and “the only activity of the vita activa which takes place directly between human beings without the mediation of matter, materials and things”, as Arendt writes.

Nothing in this construct is dispensable but the priorities – and this is becoming increasingly obvious – are not correctly listed. Sixty years ago Arendt already issued a warning of the foreseeable consequences. In the industrial society – and thus also in the present consumer society – it is predominantly all about people working and consuming. The dilemma is to be found in the fact that automation is as successful as it is and labour in the sense of routine actions is gradually dying out. But for those who derive their self-esteem almost exclusively from gainful employment, and that is typical of people in the old work cultures, then such people quite automatically belong to the losers of the modernisation process. As Arendt makes clear to us, it cannot happen in any other way: the more effective automation becomes, the louder the lamentations: “what we are now faced with is the prospect of a work-oriented society which has run out of work, that is to say the only activity on which it still bases its self-conception,” writes the thinker.

Today it is obvious what Arendt was warning of more than half a century go. What is at stake is the keeping of an old promise: granting each individual what is right for him or her. That is precisely the assignment of our time. To make use of technology and to demand clear, concrete use from digitisation, an often nebulous concept. It is not enough to go along with it. Each and everyone must recognise what the use of progress to him is. Because what we are left with, no matter what activity we have engaged in up to now, is individual activity. Thinking for oneself, deciding for oneself, living one’s own life. Many have not imagined paradise on earth to be like that, not even the emancipation that was the promise of the Enlightenment: both are hard work. We have to learn to live a self-determined life.

What is at stake is the keeping of an old promise: granting each individual what is right for him or her. That is precisely the assignment of our time. To make use of technology and to demand clear, concrete use from digitisation.

At this point the motto of all transformation comes into play: those who wish to break the rules must first know what they are. Making a positive vision out of the dystopia of digitisation requires a broad spectrum of education. Today that no longer consists of acquiring as many short-term technical skills as possible – such as programming – in other words concentrating on reproducible knowledge precisely in the manner of the industrial education system. It is about promoting independent thinking and enabling a self-determined life. The participants in a civil society must know how their joint enterprise works – and as do its tools, at least to a basic extent. So it is about understanding interconnections and being able to decide in a self-determined manner. And this first and most vital home assignment of the knowledge society also includes unseating technology from its high horse. Demystifying it means bringing progress into one’s own life, everyday life.

Arthur C. Clarke, the brilliant author also responsible for Space Odyssey, stated that every “advanced technology is no longer distinguishable from magic” – and that will very rapidly become hocus-pocus if we fail to ask: what is the sense and purpose of technology? Can I decide for myself in favour of – or against – this progress? These questions are not new, they have only gone unanswered for a long time – and we are now being asked them once again with increasing urgency, for example with the question how we can use digitisation for all. The heart of the question is the old alienation experienced by the industrial workers in the 19th century when they lost the connection between their labour and its result. The late industrial consumer society has become accustomed to this alienation but it has done society no good. We lock complexity out and lock it up. It is not only the digital that is tucked away in a black box whose content is a mystery for most people. This leads either to indifference or to feelings of impotence. Both kill freedom.

Self-determination means understanding the world – at least to the extent that one can move around in it freely and perceive its opportunities. It is not about creating simple explanations for complex situations but whenever possible about encouraging others to think for themselves. For this good sincere leadership is needed. This does not consist of exercising power and not educating others either, but a sustained effort in making possible and encouraging. That also demands the courage of the encouraged to move forward from the command to take part to actual participation. Self-determination is self-empowerment. And both require the self-awareness that a tool is no more than a tool. The formula is simple: before progress sets up on its own, we will take over.

[1] www.ing-diba.de, accessed February 2019

Original in German.
Translated into English by Nicolas Hartstone.

This text is published under the Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. The name of the author/rights holder should be mentioned as followed. Author: Wolf Lotter / erstestiftung.org. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Hal 9000, Film still “2001: A Space Odyssey”, USA/GBR 1968, Director: Stanley Kubrick, adapted from a novel by Arthur C. Clarke. Photo: © NG Collection / Interfoto / picturedesk.com