“Man is an analogue being” – Moritz Leuenberger on digitalisation, stupidity and democracy (1)

Former Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger talks about the opportunities of digital transparency, the strengths of slow legislation, the advantage of natural stupidity, the need to regulate infrastructure and the “essentialisation” of democracy thanks to digital tools. This first part is aboutconsensus, transparency and direct democracy. Let’s start with a key question: Does the binary logic of digitalisation make it more difficult to reach consensus in social and political interaction? Moritz Leuenberger: For me, digitalisation often has the effect that I communicate with machines instead of people. With people, I could ask questions, but machines don’t understand the differentiations at all. This conditions me to a binary behaviour that I did not have to reduce to before in analogue, interpersonal relationships. This development worries me. Will we mutate into binary beings who only say A or B? I also see such binary tendencies in democracy. It is often reduced to a vote between majority and minority. But democracy is more. Voting is a part of democracy, but not even the most important part. It is equally important that minorities are also taken into account, that intermediate solutions are found. Everyone should be able to find themselves in a decision, including minorities. Do you see ways of achieving a multi-perspective approach, even though we are more and more guided by a technology that only knows zeros and ones? Difficult. It would be a plea for analogue thinking. And analogue thinking means having the power of imagination and association. With a digital clock, the hand jumps from one to two. So it is either one or it is two. With the analogue clock, the hand moves from one digit to another. This allows for associative thinking, for example, “Soon it will be two.” This also corresponds to the difference between art and digital thinking. Man is an analogue being. Digitalisation makes many things more transparent and predictable, especially also who wins or loses how much in political agreements. What does it mean for consensus building in politics? It actually makes political work easier. If I start from my classical ideal of rational debate, which seeks compromises when the conflicts of interest are clearly on the table, then digitalisation supports me in my political work. After all, consensus or compromise does not result from uncertainty. On the contrary, when uncertainty prevails, people focus on their own opinions and go at each other without coming to a common result. That’s why I see the process of identifying advantages and disadvantages as a gain for the political process. Nevertheless, the growing transparency challenges social solidarity, for example when the different risks of individuals become visible in the insurance system. Yes, but we have to accept this challenged solidarity. There is always solidarity in the essence of insurance. It makes security possible. Insurance means that even if you don’t claim it at all, you are still safe: safe that if damage occurs, you will be compensated. This security is a service. It can be provided thanks to the solidary sharing of risk. For example, in health insurance. There is cross-subsidisation from the young to the old. We know this principle even without digitalisation. The clashes of interests are clearly accessible to every insured person. It is only a question of whether we want to know this. Even if the extent of cross-financing can be calculated more easily thanks to digitalisation, the idea of solidarity must remain the basis of insurance in the future. It is then a matter of political discussion about solidarity and egoism. In this context, it would be wrong to welcome ignorance about cross-financing because this supposedly makes it easier for solidarity to take effect. It is much more emancipating if everyone knows about this cross-financing and stands by it because they want to be involved in a society based on solidarity. If the idea of solidarity is in danger, it is not because of digitalisation, but because of selfish thinking. In other words, a conscious solidarity is more reliable than an unconscious one. Right. This is a solidarity based on content, so it is also a sustainable solidarity. If it is based on ignorance, it is fragile. Solidarity based on content permeates our entire democracy, from electoral and tax proportional representation to financial equalisation between cantons and municipalities and subsidies. Solidarity is difficult without a shared view of the world. The digital personalisation of services means that we all experience the world differently. Yes. But if I think logically, I can hardly attribute it to digitalisation, but to a self-centred individualism, which of course bothers me incredibly. I have trouble attributing it to technology, because technology can also be used altruistically. Nevertheless, I don’t want to play down the danger. But we have a political problem, not a technological one. The digital transformation of the economy and society is happening very fast. Is the political system capable of keeping up with it? Here I have to elaborate a little. I perceive the speed of a change process as a component of the concern itself. The speed of a change is a central substantive element of any policy. That is why I believe that the speed of political processes does not have to match the speed of digitalisation in any way. Politics must set its own pace. Let’s talk about the example of liberalisation: I myself have always been a supporter of the idea that federal enterprises should also be liberalised. Now there is a difference between doing this in one fell swoop and suddenly smashing everything that already exists and gradually setting out on a path that people can slowly follow. If their political consciousness changes gradually and they are not run over, then they can find their way to a sustainable rethinking. The sudden variant – the subito variant – makes this process impossible. Is Switzerland’s semi-direct democracy well suited to managing the digital transformation? I was born into this system of direct democracy. If I came from Mars and had to invent a political system, it would probably be different. But born and raised here in Switzerland, I have internalised that every law must ultimately be able to survive a referendum. That’s how I think and feel. That’s why I see the process of change through the slow mills as a given necessity. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the impact of digitalisation on our democracy. That is the reason why TA-Swiss has commissioned three studies on the subject. They will be published this summer.

About the person

Moritz Leuenberger was a member of the Federal Council from 1995 to 2010 and headed the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications. He served as President of the Swiss Confederation in 2001 and 2006. He has been Chairman of the Steering Committee of the TA-SwissFoundation since 2015.

About the commitment of TA-Swiss

TA-SWISS, the Foundation for Technology Assessment, investigates the future viability and the potential opportunities and risks of new technologies. Its legal mandate as an independent foundation is to develop factual bases for decision-making for politics and society. TA-SWISS is currently working on the project “Citizens and institutions in the face of the digitalisation of democracy in Switzerland”. Three project groups are looking at the opportunities and risks of the digitalisation of our democracy from different perspectives. To this end, they are developing corresponding foundations and situation analyses and conducting workshops, focus group discussions and surveys, among other things. They are also systematically examining the development of our democracy. The results of the three studies will be presented in an interactive exhibition at the Polit-Forum Käfigturm in Bern from the end of April 2021; the studies themselves are expected to be published in August. The exhibition will also promote dialogue with the population. More information can be found here.

Part 2 will be published on 2 February. It deals with the role of TA Swiss (Technology Assessment Switzerland), the limits of technology-based knowledge transfer, the ambivalence of social media and long-term future perspectives.

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AUTHOR: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of eJustice.ch, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and All-acad.com, among others.

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