Lessons from the Past

Credits: World Economic Forum – Wikicommons

Why Donald Trump is the logical consequence of our hyper objective world and what Václav Havel can teach the Silicon Valley about history.


Two Moments in Time, and a Bubble in between

11/9/1989 is a date we remember and commemorate. It was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of communism.
11/9/2016 is a date we will remember. Not sure if we will commemorate it. But perhaps it’s a date that marks the end of a different era.

Lucky you, if you were living in the so-called “western world” in those 27 years in between the two dates. It was a period of economic growth with a lot of opportunities and political stability. At the beginning of it stands an implosion: the end of the USSR. Political analysts and historians like Francis Fukuyama announced “the end of history” under the benevolent eye of an everlasting “Pax Americana”. Events like the first Gulf War, the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, the invasion of Irak, even the wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria seemed so far away. All this occurred outside our western bubble. Neither our lifestyle, nor our culture were substantially affected by this continuance of history. For us young North Americans and Western Europeans, the world was ours. We traveled it, we experienced it and we posted, shared and liked it on Facebook. But from time to time, history and its harsh consequences found their way through our protective bubble and knocked at the door. From 9/11 to the financial crisis and Wikileaks, from the refugee crisis to the terror attack in Nice – the face of instability and constant menace showed up occasionally and made us aware that out there, history went on.

The Rule of Objectivism and Power Politics

Safe in our bubble, we felt very comfortable. Circumstances were ripe for the development of a new ideal type of citizen: an apolitical and objectified one. Analyzed and measured by political scientists, by market analysts and survey research, our first duty was to consume and distract ourselves. Meanwhile, an apparatus of experts told us how the world is and why it has to remain the way it is. It was a system that represented itself as an objective, empiric and rationalist one: “The truth is out there, go and catch it! And if you cannot find it, just use a model and apply it to reality!”

But in fact, everything was relative. Reality and truth are relative and so are models and politics: Invasion of Irak? Bailout the banks? Waterboarding? Austerity? TTIP? All this was explained and sold as a scientific necessity and justified as the only way to deal with the situation at hand. Any alternatives? Impossible. The scientific and technocratic discourse became a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy: “the world as it is.”

Now, what does all this have to do with Silicon Valley and the start-up scene? A lot. Most of today’s young entrepreneurs are part of the generation born in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There were a lot of opportunities inside the bubble . Role-models like Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk and other “heroes” emerged from of the Valley at that time. They were in part inspired by the philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982) and her theories about objectivism. Rand, author of books such as „The Fountainhead“ and „Atlas Shrugged“ had a great impact on the self-image of the Californian IT-entrepreneurs. Her protagonists are individualistic heroes guided by „virtues“ such as ethical egoism and rational selfishness. Their aim is not to fulfill any divine providence, as was the case of other pioneers during capitalism’s long history. Their aim is instead self-fulfillment, and their existence is an end in itself. Empathy or altruism are not part of their psychosocial vocabulary.

“The lack of historical consciousness in the Valley is profound. Focused on updates, speed and instantaneity, time and space are reduced to zero. Disruption is sold as innovation, progress as a “moonshot.”

Back to the Future

„It was an era in which there was a cult of depersonalized objectivity, an era in which objective knowledge was amassed and technologically exploited, an era of belief in automatic progress brokered by the scientific method.” No, this is not a description of today’s digital society or about the power Google’s algorithms have. It’s an account of what the great European figure Václav Havel (1936-2011) experienced under the communist regime. He gave a speech in 1992 in Davos in front of the (western) world’s elite at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (read it here). It was a warning. Havel made a striking appeal for not falling again into the trap of an all encompassing technocratic and scientific system, which he had personally endured in the USSR. He called instead for humility and historical consciousness. But this warning went unheard. Twenty-four years later with the election of Donald Trump, people want to penalize that very elite Havel addressed in Davos. It is a wake-up call. The American voters are expressing their disappointment and their disillusion. By doing so, they unleashed what today’s entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley would call a “disruption.”

 Humanity is more than a Network

The lack of historical consciousness in the Valley is profound. Focused on updates, speed and instantaneity, time and space are reduced to zero. Disruption is sold as innovation, progress as a “moonshot.” Is it really progress when Facebook recommends – based on an algorithm – the topics we should discuss with our friends? Is Snapchat making our lives more fulfilled? Is Google informing me or am I feeding Google news about me, myself and I?
Humanity is more than a network. Challenges are big: from climate change to refugee crisis and socioeconomic inequality. It is high time that we discuss what is really needed to improve the state of the world. For this, people must have insight and must try to employ common sense for the good of this planet. Empathy and avoiding simple echo chambers are the first steps to breaking out of the bubble. Or as Václav Havel puts it: „We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that, sooner or later, it will spit out a universal solution.”

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