“I am far from a ­cultural pessimist”

Text: ceo magazine editorial staff | Photos: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Homo digitalis – June 2018

#Don’t  #describe  #people  #with  #hashtags

Author Jonas Lüscher, recipient of the 2017 Swiss Book Prize, has concerns about the social consequences of digitalisation. But neither can he, nor does he want to abstain from using the devices and applications that aid him in his work.

Two of your works, “Frühling der Barbaren” (Barbarian Spring) and “Kraft”, have received prestigious awards. Which type of electronic device did you use to write the manuscripts?

My laptop. But I need to keep focused. So for my writing, I use a minimalist program, the iA Writer, which hides all possible distractions and formatting options. Also, I’ve installed a self-control app that denies me access to the Internet for a certain period of time – no password or reboot will help.

“I see in myself what comes from dealing with things digital even on a small scale. My ability to concentrate on a specific task wanes.”

Which other digital assistants do you use for private or professional purposes?

My novels are generally very time-consuming to research. I use all possible sources – but the Internet is absolutely indispensable as a research tool. One application I would hate to do without is Google Maps. It helps me to organise things and get my bearings during book tours when I stop in cities that are unfamiliar to me.

How do these digital gadgets influence our everyday life?

We haven’t got the faintest idea where all this will take us, now that everyone’s equipped with some sort of powerful minicomputer. It seems to me like one huge experiment on humanity. Naturally it irritates me when I sit in the Munich tube and see everyone staring at their devices. But at least they’re communicating, even though it’s not with the people around them. And in the past, passengers on the train anyway didn’t converse very often with each other. Just how much this proclivity changes our society and the individual in the longer run is anyone’s guess.

You have publicly distanced yourself from one social network – Facebook. What led to the divorce?

I was active on FB only for a short time – about three months – mainly to stay in touch with fellow writers in Egypt. But the auto-translation from Arabic into German was utterly useless. Then of course the endless willy-nilly flow of content in my timeline, this mixture of private posts, advertising, recommendations of sometimes even very interesting articles, cat videos and selfies – ultimately, I found it arbitrary and unedifying; it simply didn’t bring me anything. But the real deciding factor for my departure was when a terror attack took place in Munich. The social media spread rumours and false reports in real time, and in doing so fuelled terrible hysteria. The day after, I deleted my account. 

In “Kraft”, your latest novel which was published in 2017, you deal critically with the consequences digitalisation will have on humanity. How is it that, unlike the mainstream, you view the promises of technology with a jaundiced eye?

Personal experiences I had during a nine-month research stay at Stanford University in California certainly had an influence on me. Right in the heart of Silicon Valley, I had many discussions and came to realise the method in the madness of people who make their careers there in research and the high-tech industry: to succeed at all, they need to sell their ideas aggressively. But they often lack an eye for the truly relevant problems. I think we should first off be sceptical of all grandiloquent promises. And particularly so when a lot of money is involved.

Writer Jonas Lüscher (42) is a philosopher, essayist and dramaturge. Born in the Zurich suburb of Schlieren and raised in Bern, where he initially trained to become a primary school teacher, Lüscher moved to Munich 17 years ago, where he now lives with his family. He worked as a film dramaturge and later studied philosophy. His most recent novel “Kraft”, published by C.H.Beck Verlag, was awarded the 2017 Swiss Book Prize. It focuses on the pessimistic worldview of “old Europe” as opposed to Silicon Valley’s upbeat take on technology and the future. The idea for the book came to him during a research sabbatical at Stanford University, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Jonas Lüscher gained notoriety with his debut novel “Barbarian Spring”, which deals with the aftereffects of the 2007/2008 financial crisis. He is a member of the German PEN Center.

Is digitalisation changing our social structures and coexistence? And if so, how does this become evident?

We’re witnessing just the dawn of a new evolutionary epoch. I see in myself what comes from dealing with things digital even on a small scale. My attention span decreases. My ability to concentrate on a specific task wanes. I used to spend hours totally immersed in a novel. Today, when my smartphone is within reach, it’s easier to get distracted and I’m always looking for references and sources. But I don’t think this portends the downfall of the Western world. Change per se is neither good nor bad.

Man versus machine: who wins?

Cultural pessimism is not my thing. But technology does have the fundamental potential to spawn a dystopian future. It’s important to keep an eye on that potential as well as on the bigger issues. Will constantly evolving technology reduce or increase inequality? Does it serve only the wealthy, or everyone? Technological achievements may seem harmless in democracies, but what effect do they have in authoritarian regimes and dictatorships? For instance, I’m concerned about the trend in China, where the transparent citizen has almost become a reality.

Where are we still superior to robots, and how long will it stay that way?

I think a distinction has to be made here. Artificial intelligence as we know it today is confined to individual skills such as autonomous driving, playing Go or doing everyday tasks. We’re still a long way from the kind of multipurpose artificial intelligence that finds creative solutions for a wide array of tasks, like we humans can. I’m also not sure whether multipurpose AI would be interesting at all from an economic point of view, or whether machines that perform exactly one task – and do it extremely well – make more economic sense.

And what does the development of AI mean for interpersonal communication?

Already today, there are applications we can’t trust anymore: bots that run automated scripts in the background, photo manipulations, and video interviews that never took place – just to name a few examples of digital hocus pocus. At some point, we probably won’t even care whether a real person is speaking to us or instead if it’s a robot equipped with oodles of self-confidence, a cool voice and Einsteinian intelligence.

Which communication paths do you prefer personally?

I still prefer face-to-face conversations where I can look the other person in the eye. I use emails intensively, but I’m also aware of the downsides. It’s far too easy, and the result is a flooded inbox. I don’t particularly like telephoning, but Skype is wonderful. I use it to keep in touch with my brother, who lives far away.

Many of us are always online and constantly available. How important are offline oases for you?

They’re a must – especially since the lures of the digital world harbour a certain potential for addiction. I already mentioned that I use my own app as a preventative measure. The mere fact that we yearn for such oases gives me the feeling that a counterreaction is in the making. Constant availability is no longer a do-or-die thing. I often take my good old time before replying to mails.

“We are still far away from the general type of artificial intelligence that can find creative solutions to a wide variety of tasks the way we humans can.”

Does digitalisation make our life better or worse?

Both. It depends on the application. “Digitalisation” doesn’t in fact exist; there are only an incredible number of new platforms, applications, technologies, algorithms and “stuff”. So actually, we need to evaluate each of them individually. With any technological gimmick that’s new: does it make sense; is it potentially dangerous; how can we use it best; how can we minimise the risks? These are not questions we can answer when addressing “digitalisation” as a whole.

What do you think carries more weight: the risks or the opportunities associated with digital progress?

That’s perhaps not even the most pressing issue here. Technological progress will continue one way or the other. So the really big question is how we go about dealing with it.

What development will shape our lives most in the future?

I don’t like to make forecasts – you end up being wrong too often. Look at all the stuff that was promised to us in days gone by: the smartwatch and 3-D cinema are two good examples of unfulfilled expectations. I’d like it if we not only spent our time dreaming up new digital gadgets, but also by addressing the major challenges that ultimately affect “old industries” – matters like urban development, housing, our energy supply and transportation. Digitalisation can help us in this regard.

You’re an author, writer, essayist, dramaturge, ethicist and scientist: which comes first?

The author.

In what type of environment do you feel most comfortable?

At home in the evening, spending time with friends.

Value of the awards?

For me, prizes aren’t just a recognition of my work – for us writers, they’re also a source
of income!

Next projects?

I have several essays in the works and am preparing my next novel. However, I’m not far enough along with all of this to want to talk about it.

Jonas Lüscher
Short questions – short answers

If you had to describe yourself with 3 hashtags, what would they be?
#People should #not be portrayed by #hashtags.

What’s your favourite app? Which one is indispensable in your daily professional and personal life?
Google Maps.

Which background image do you have on your mobile phone or laptop?
A photo of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, taken two weeks before their voyage to the moon.

What was your dream job when you were a kid? Why did you ultimately choose your current profession?
Deepsea diver. But then I started to read a lot of books, at which point the desire to become a writer took hold.

Can you remember the first mobile phone you ever had? What model was it?
It was a grey clamshell phone. I don’t recall the brand.