“Man is an analogue being” – Interview with Moritz Leuenberger on digitalisation, stupidity and democracy (2)

Part 2 of the interview with former Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger is about the advantage of natural stupidity over artificial intelligence, the need to regulate infrastructure and the “essentialisation” of democracy thanks to digital tools. Part 1dealt with the consequences of the digital transformation for political consensus-building and social solidarity, as well as the question of whether faster legislative processes are needed. Sustainable political decisions on digitalisation issues require that the decision-makers have sufficient digitalisation knowledge. Moritz Leuenberger: This is precisely where TA Swiss would like to help ensure that scientific findings can be transferred to the world of political responsibility. But that is not always easy. Example: When I was a Federal Councillor, I was also responsible for the genetic modification of plants. I myself saw this as a great opportunity. However, some guard rails were necessary to prevent disadvantages. But I had to fish my way from one moratorium to another, because some NGOs stirred up such a fundamental fear of any genetic modification that a majority in a vote would have been impossible to achieve. This fear still sets the tone today. And the moratorium is still being extended. I regret that very much. One should also be able to talk about the advantages of a technology in an enlightened way. Do you see potential in new technologies improving knowledge transfer? I’m not so sure about that. Technologies don’t do that. Simply having access to the internet does not mean that you understand the content of what you can read there – if you read it at all. It is important that our TA-Swiss studies are written in a way that everyone can understand. Science produces important and well-founded findings, but the question is: How are these findings received and understood by those with political responsibility? How can TA-Swiss communicate even better? One could speculate that artificial intelligent translation agents will be able to process knowledge in the future.. I can’t imagine that at all. On the contrary, what is needed is not artificial intelligence, but natural stupidity. I say this as someone who is also a little slow on the uptake. In order to understand something, I don’t need an even more efficient system that teaches me something, but I myself have to ask and ask. I had trouble at school and often had to ask questions until I understood things. That’s why I was very good at giving private lessons later on, because I understood everyone who had the same difficulties. The courage to be obtuse, the discovery of slowness can do much more than AI. In university teaching, we often fail to impart a disciplinary mindset to students. Students need the courage to admit that they have not understood something. But this courage is lacking because it feels as if one is outing oneself as stupid. The worst thing is when teachers laugh at the questioners. Later in my career, I often experienced similar situations. When experts in the offices explained something to me, I often didn’t understand what they meant. Often I had to ask. Then they simply repeated the same thing with the same words, but spoke louder. That is not the solution. You have to respond to the limited thinking of the questioner. In management theory, there is the principle of repeated why-questions to really understand things. That is my basic conviction. Social media allows the powerful to communicate with the people through direct communication channels. Many heads of government have since increasingly acted as tribunes of the people, like in ancient Rome. The comparison shows that it is not only a technological question, but also a question of content, which must also be seen in the larger context. The real accusation is not against digitalisation as the infrastructure, but against those who use it to satisfy their personal interests. Now, it would also be too naïve to view an infrastructure only neutrally; it is, after all, also a contributory cause. And it is the task of the law to regulate this contributory cause. A comparison: a motorway is the infrastructure and if someone causes an accident at 200 km/h, it is his fault alone. But the motorway infrastructure and the car made it possible for him to drive so fast. So you would have to install a speed barrier in the car and guard rails on the motorway so that the speeding driver doesn’t get into the oncoming lane as well. It is the same with Facebook. Social media are a contributing cause to the spread of fake news and their operators are partly to blame if they do not install crash barriers. These are needed, even if the main culprits are the tribunes of the people. It is irritating that information is increasingly being shared on social media that no one can say what it really means. Just as new religious communities are often very popular, this phenomenon could also mean a kind of flight from a rational society. Psychoanalysts are needed to look into the subject more closely. On the subject of Corona deniers, too, I wonder where the tendency to try to escape all logic with diligence comes from. Some convictions border on paranoia. This tendency to refuse to accept rationally proven knowledge, even basic physical laws, is astonishing. But the psychological background is not my speciality. Do social media facilitate political participation? Yes. One example is Operation Libero. Actually, their interference in an ongoing vote was nothing other than classic participation in democracy, but just with new means. For me, this also meant an essentialisation of democracy, classical content with new means. In this respect, the political parties have done surprisingly little compared to other countries. The most important opinion-forming medium in our country is still the Federal Council’s voting booklet. You would hardly believe it. Here we are rather traditional, but that will change. Is the digital transformation of democracy on the whole an opportunity or a risk? Both. First and foremost, I have hope, because digitalisation enables enlightenment. We have already discussed the risks before: The sum of facts can also be overwhelming. Many people flee into mere opinions. That is easier, even for political leaders. Then binary thinking gains the upper hand: “If you are not for me, you are against me.” This polarisation scares me. How will it change democracy in the long run? I always have to answer such questions through the lens of my own hope and conviction. That is, I can say what I hope will happen, but less what will actually happen. After all, I am not an uninvolved person looking at developments from above through a microscope. I am involved and believe in democracy, which is why I also believe in the opportunities offered by new technologies. They make it possible to think independently and to act in solidarity. That is why all political work must go towards strengthening this trend. Thank you very much for the interview. It has brought me further. Thank you for the opportunity.

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 in 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.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Reinhard Riedl heads the BFH Centre Digital Society and edits the online magazine SocietyByte. He was president of the Swiss Informatics Society and the International Society for New Music Bern IGNM.

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