Who has control of whom: do we control technology or does it control us? On human self-determination in the age of digitilisation.
by Christoph Keese
My great-grandmother’s name was Leni, and I was fortunate enough to have still met her as a child. She was born the same year that Stefan Zweig was, in the 1880s; she was ancient in my perception at the time. Leni’s grandparents belonged to Goethe’s era. They came from Thuringia, and Leni told us stories about the inns and farms of her far-flung family, places where Goethe rested during his travels and left spontaneous poems in the guestbook or carved them into benches or tables.
I can picture Leni at work in her small combination kitchen-lounge in Germany’s Bergisches Land region. When she cooked, she stood in the smoke of her wood-burning stove, sent us children into the backyard to the metal dustbin with the glowing ashes and rested her fists on her hips with a look of satisfaction on her face when she had thoroughly stirred the many pots on the hot stove surface with her seven wooden spoons. At the end of this physically strenuous work there was a celebration at her creaking wooden table, whose beams bent under the weight of the bowls, saucepans, plates and baskets.
In today’s digital age, cooking is a more casual, secondary affair that takes less time than Leni needed to just stuff the wood into the stove. Our nutritional habits nowadays explode any notion of what used to be regarded as possible. Microwaves heat ready-to-eat meals in a few minutes. Convenience food makes marinated sauerbraten from a water bath feasible. Delivery Hero brings hot meals of any conceivable national cuisine to your table in less than 30 minutes. There is a refrigerator that analyses the remaining supplies inside it and reads out recipe suggestions on what can be prepared with the residual contents. “Alexa, bring milk and potatoes,” is just the latest thing right now: but it probably will end up obsolete in a year or two because by then Alexa won’t even have to be asked to do her duty, as she will have already ordered supplies independently – anticipating our wishes on the basis of the available data and using elaborate artificial intelligence algorithms before these wishes even take form in us. This paradise of endlessly flowing milk and honey with flying roast ducks has been a long time coming. Digitalisation is finally making it come true. That has consequences. The price for progress in convenience is the loss of sensory experience. It is said that we are the children of our times. But are we still the masters of our lives?
I recently met a friend, an off-piste deep-snow skier, who was very nearly killed in an avalanche he caused by triggering a snow slab slip during a ski run on a southern slope in the Swiss Alps. He described the feeling of what it was like as the ground gave way beneath him: “At first I couldn’t sense what was happening at all,” he reported. “I traversed the slope and was gliding as smoothly as ever through the snow. My gaze was fixed on the ground. Everything looked completely normal. Then I heard a rumbling and looked up. Suddenly I noticed that I was sliding downhill in relationship to the cliff over there, even though I was still headed directly towards it. Then I realized that my usual reference system – the snow that I was gliding through – was absolutely unchanged. But in the larger frame of reference I was losing altitude. The snow slab I was skiing on was sliding down the slope as one whole mass. I was scared to death.” Over the course of his description, his experience made me think of its similarity to our experience of change in the age of digitalisation.
The feeling of normality can be deceptive. We consider ourselves to be more or less in full possession of modern digital proficiency, but don’t notice the loss of other abilities. We believe that proficiencies stack up one on top of the other, layer by layer, and, without further reflection, are completely convinced that we possess far more proficiency than any other generation before us. We think we are the crowning achievement in the history of technology. We are deeply rooted in an image of humanity that views technical progress as an accumulation of abilities. We fancy ourselves to be in possession of all capabilities in history, topped off by the newest proficiencies of our own era. Yet in that we are mistaken.
It doesn’t even cross our minds that it could be different: that proficiencies actually displace each other instead of supplementing each other; that we lose an ability or allow one to atrophy for each one that we acquire. Being human doesn’t mean each generation rises above its predecessors, but that by and large the sum of the abilities remains the same, and only the abilities’ substances change. The abilities may be more efficient, perhaps more civilised or cultivated as well. However, that doesn’t mean they are anywhere close to being more numerous.
Children shoot and edit smartphone videos in next to no time and populate their YouTube channels with them. Yet they can’t ignite a fire in the narrow chamber of a stove with a single match and without puffing. Texts are created effortlessly on the computer, but who is still able to write letters in calligraphic script by hand, in writing that expresses love for the recipient merely by the beauty of the flourishes and strokes?
We don’t have to believe that we have a big advantage over the Romans simply because we pull out iPhones whereas the Romans threw slaves to the wild animals in the Colosseum. Supplying a city lacking in water like Rome with fresh water from the mountains via aqueducts doesn’t require less proficiency than designing smartphones. There were other proficiencies that dominated at the time, but not necessarily more or fewer of them. The number of proficiencies is more a result of the neurophysiological capacity of the human brain than of the cultural environment in which the brain is able to develop. Or expressed in other words, our degrees of freedom are smaller than we think. We are chained to the cultural context of our times. If we would like to stay on top of our times and are thinking of participating in their digitalisation, then we pay for this with the creeping, barely discernible yet irrefutable loss of other, earlier proficiencies. We are not increasing anything, we are only switching from one to another. We are far superior to the Romans in terms of communications technology, and Caesar would have turned green with envy at the sight of our information transmissions from Gaul and Germania to Rome. If he had had full possession of today’s proficiencies, he would have been spared a lot of trouble north and south of the Alps. On the other hand, Caesar would have cut us down with a Roman short sword (gladius) in close combat faster than we could whip out our mobile phones to call for help. Retributive justice prevails between the generations.
Proficiency and self-determination are closely correlated. I can only determine my own future if I also possess the ability that corresponds to that future. A future that I don’t have the capability to achieve remains a dream. We can merely step out of the realm of imagination to the realm of reality at those points where our proficiencies can build the bridges to do so. There is no self-determination without proficiency.
This is the point where digitalisation poses a serious problem. Contrary to earlier revolutions such as the mechanical or industrial ones, digitalisation doesn’t aim to increase our muscle power immeasurably by means of steam and gears. It increases the power of our mind exponentially, and does so in a steady stream ranging from simple, cognitive abilities to complex, partially subconscious and deeply buried processes. In its early days, the digital revolution directed its attention particularly to the interdependence of external stimuli and internal reactions. Now, though, it is pushing up against regional brain functions that chronologically precede the stimulus and belong more to the area of desires, dreams, imagination and plans rather than to the clearly defined areas of deeds, conscious actions and the measurable effects of concrete causes. The further the digital aids penetrate the blurred regions of our conscious and subconscious minds, the more they will relieve us of tiresome routines, the more they will smoothly accustom us to the state of being taken care of, and the more they will substitute new proficiencies for old ones.
We shouldn’t be indifferent to that. What does it actually mean? When algorithms influence the formation of our desires and fulfil them even before they have materialised, then the wish-forming proficiency will deteriorate like a poorly-trained and rarely-used upper arm flexing muscle. With the loss of the ability to conceive desires autonomously, our self-determination also declines – admittedly without our noticing it immediately, much like what happened to my friend, the skier, who at first perceived the sliding snow slab as a normal slope on a normal mountain. As with the deep-snow skier, it can therefore be advisable to lift your gaze in a timely manner and investigate the surrounding terrain, determine your geographic position and recognise the shift in key reference parameters.
Let’s take the car of the future as an example. Whereas most people think of electrification, the much more important revolution is taking place in the controls. Electric drives change the form of the energy carrier, but leave the car in the accustomed aggregate state. Only the introduction of autonomous cars triggers the genuine revolution in the relationship between machine and humankind. We will be able to remove our hands from the steering wheel – so far, so good. Yet as soon as an algorithm makes largely accident-free driving possible, it will want to make suggestions for destinations, very similar to the innumerable suggestions that we are already subjected to on the Internet today: “People who bought this book also bought that one,” we read at Amazon. Whoever likes spaghetti bolognese usually also likes saltimbocca. Whoever was happy on Ibiza also likes Sicily. Those who listen to U2 also listen to Coldplay. Whoever reserves accommodations at the Hyatt in Düsseldorf also responds to advertising for the Waldorf Astoria in Berlin. Similarly, the autonomous car will also talk to us in an understanding manner: “Quite right, the Rhine floodplains are a lovely day trip destination for this springtime Sunday,” says any self-respecting digitalized car. “But why don’t we give the theme park Phantasialand a try? Spur-of-the-moment visitors don’t pay any VAT there today.”
Artificial intelligence, cleverly integrated with the car of the future, will be in the position to eliminate irksome tasks from our lives and – like a sorcerer’s apprentice – listen in on us to discover our fundamental desires and fulfil them instantaneously. All the information that is required for such prescient planning is already available in the information systems that surround us today. They only have to be linked, evaluated and placed at our service. We will happily permit the assistants that can do that to take charge of our daily lives. We are glad to concede to assistants that make us happy the authority to act in alignment with our wishes, without them even having to ask us in advance. In future, we will switch to life’s autopilot just as naturally as the jumbo plane pilot activates the autopilot for the remainder of a flight after take-off. The car makes such a smooth case for itself as the apt arena for well-meaning digital custodianship because it can change our destination and our route. It functions as an aid to fulfilling subconscious desires, because it chauffeurs us to the place of longing even before we ourselves become aware of that longing.
How will we feel in such cars? Do we perceive the digital assistant as the subjugator of our self-determination or do we welcome it gratefully, because it makes our lives easier? It’s most likely that we won’t even ask ourselves these questions when the cars actually do become available. Loss of proficiency goes hand in hand with a diminishing ability to reflect. Lost proficiencies are not perceived as a loss. We are generally not aware of most things that we cannot do. We don’t suffer in our daily lives from not being able to toss a basketball into the basket confidently from a distance of 15 metres. Only when we are challenged to perform such a throw in front of skilled basketball players do we consider our lack of ability embarrassing and are ashamed. However, if there is no one who can perform such a throw, then we are again indifferent to our own lack of ability. We don’t suffer from the fact that we cannot light a cast iron stove with a single match – for one thing because those types of stoves just no longer exist in our kitchens, and we no longer need open campfires in our houses to sustain our lifestyles. We don’t particularly miss the lack of an ability provided we are surrounded by people who also don’t have it. In precisely that sense, once hyper-precise forecasting algorithms arrive on the scene, we won’t perceive the loss of the good feeling derived from drawing up a plan or harbouring a desire as an amputation. Assuming that digital assistants transport us to a state of comforting contentment or even happiness without us having to take a detour to make plans or formulate desires, we will remain satisfied.
Many will say: what a terrible concept. Yet we should not place all too much importance on this horror as we see it today. It will seem far less horrible to us later than it does now. “Life is lived in a forward direction and understood retrospectively,” the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski wrote. The loss of self-determination seems terrible to us when looking forward, and seems meaningless in hindsight.
I’m slowly beginning to understand why my great-grandmother didn’t want to have anything to do with gas or electric stoves. Leni put the thought out of her mind, I now firmly believe, because she liked the smell of fire. She liked to hear the sound of the crackling wood and loved to feel the smoke wafting around her nostrils. She liked feeling the power over nature when setting a whole stack of wood aflame by striking a match across the striking surface. She felt the pyromaniacal attraction that befalls anyone who starts playing the dangerous game with fire in enclosed spaces. She didn’t want the coffee to boil quickly – she wanted to see it come to a boil gradually. She considered coffee to be a greater reward for her life’s toils when she had to make an effort to wrest it from the adverse elements. It was not meant to be easy for her – that would have robbed her of the reward earned for the hard, spare life she led. In short, cooking at an archaic fire looked like an anachronism only in our eyes. For my great-grandmother it was a feast for the senses and a celebration of life. Her self-determination ensured that that pleasure would not be taken from her by anything or anyone. Not even by us, the technology-loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Today we can only guess what Leni thought. Just as little as our great-grandchildren will be able to understand why we have subjected ourselves to decision-making in so many trivial situations when so many better things could be done with the time wasted that way. Are these great-grandchildren, who won’t understand us anymore in this monumental way, dumber than we are? No, they aren’t. They merely have other proficiencies at their disposal, and we must accept that.
Christoph Keese, born in 1964, is a successful book author (“Silicon Valley – Was aus dem mächtigsten Tal der Welt auf uns zukommt”) and was recently named CEO at Axel Springer hy GmbH. Previously, he was a manager at the Axel Springer media company where as Executive Vice President he was the driving force behind its conversion to an Internet company.
Kenta Cobayashi was born in in 1992 in Kanagawa, Japan, he regards photography as a means to question what it is to capture truth and draws an outline of this question using a wide variety of approaches. His works have been included in group exhibitions such as “trans-tokyo / trans-photo”, Jimei × Arles International Photo Festival (Xiamen, China, 2015), “New Material”, Casemore Kirkeby (San Francisco, 2016), “Close to the Edge: New Photography from Japan,” Miyako Yoshinaga (New York, 2016), “Give me yesterday”, Fondazione Prada (Milan, 2016) and “Ahead still lies our future” (Photography biennale FORMAT, 2017, UK). His works are in public collections at major institutions including the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. His first book of photographs “Everything_1” was published by Newfave (2016).